Death, Noted

The upcoming Netflix-created Death Note film has been whitewashed so thoroughly, Tom Sawyer must have told Netflix how to do it.

I thought about posting another author rant about this one, (another meaning, pursuant to the Ghost in the Shell fiasco) but then figured…this might be better. Who knows, maybe someone can actually answer all these questions – because that’s what this is, a list of questions. I asked four of Netflix on twitter…but then I realized I actually had bunches more.  Then I realized bunches was too many, so I settled on seven.

These aren’t questions I think Netflix’s new Death Note movie will be able to answer  by being watched, these are questions I ask about why the movie was made the way it has been made, and why Netflix, with a relatively good reputation for diversity, would…well, screw up badly.

So, without further ado, the original four, and plenty more:

1. Death Note, reset in Oregon? So um… Shinigami, being Japanese death gods, won’t be in it, right? The cultural context and explicitly Japanese nature of the shinigami means that while the story of Death Note allows them to travel anywhere in the human world, their origin is still Japanese.

2. Why can’t Light Yagami be Light YAGAMI…and be an American? I know plenty of Japanese Americans; changing his (highly symbolic) name is irrelevant to his ability to be American, and Seattle, Oregon, the new ‘setting’ of this film, has a large Japanese American community.

3.  How can Netflix claim to be concerned for the moral relevance of Death Note’s story, while simultaneously disregarding the moral relevance, especially in today’s struggling society, of racism? The choice to make the lead a white actor instead of a Japanese actor implies that a Japanese American…isn’t an American.

4. Please explain why the only main character in the new film played by a Japanese actor…is Watari, the “butler” or “servant” character? There is no reason Watari could not be played by a Japanese actor, because his Western ancestry is vague in the source material, (and unimportant, compared to, say, the symbolism of Yagami, or the origin of shinigami) but in context…let’s be frank, this just looks bad. 

5. As a follow-up, why is Quillsh Wammy worthy of being played by a Japanese actor, and of keeping his Japanese code-name of Watari, while the lead’s last name must change from Yagami to Turner? 

5. I notice in the trailer that “Kira” is still spray-painted on a wall, prominently. However, in Death Note, “Kira” is the name the Japanese public ascribes to the unknown heart-attack murderer, “Kira” being a Japanization of the English word “Killer”.  As with question 1, please explain how this makes sense if the story has been moved to Oregon? 

6.  The position of Misa Amane’s character as a Japanese model and “Idol” is important to the plot in significant ways. American celebrities are observed by society in a very different way, and would not be useful in the same manner. Why has the most important female character in the series been reduced by removing her Japanese identity?

7.  A major plot point in Death Note comes from the poor relationship between Japan…and America, in the form of conflict between the Japanese Task Force and the FBI. Having reset the film in Oregon, how can this dynamic possibly be preserved? The difference between state/federal law enforcement, for instance, does not approach anywhere near the level of international interference. 

Bonus Question: Did no one in Netflix or Hollywood learn the lesson of Dragonball: Evolution, whereby it was shown that adapting anime by using white actors and tiny portions of Japanese mythology produces…a horrible flaming pile of donkey crap?

 

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Icarus

It’s #1lineWed again! Meet Icarus, one of the main characters in The Wrong Things, a book series I shouldn’t be writing! He starts out homeless and alone, an Ara (submissive vampire) with a fear of Ada (dominant vampires) and a desperate need for one all the same. The one he ends up with is Raven – black, beautiful, and old as the desert… But Raven is for later.

For now, wave as he passes: sharp-tongued, snarky, still soft as a sigh, the redhead with bedhead, Icarus!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Icarus swallowed thickly, touched his tongue to his teeth, sucking on one fang, then chewed his lip. This Ada – he would never say it, but this Ada was tempting him, too. And more than just with his taboo offer of the richest blood in the world.

“Do you really mean it? I’m so -” He closed his eyes, felt the heat rising in his cheeks and couldn’t deny it. “I’m just so hungry.” And then he snapped them open again, shook his head and inched a little farther back. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t even -”

“I made the offer. I mean it. Come here.” And, more softly than he’d spoken yet, Raven said, “I have no idea why you are so terrified, but I will not hurt you.”

It was unbelievable. Icarus believed him anyway. Why not? This was already insane. An Ada in the room with him, ignoring his heat, sitting on his own hands – another hysterical flip of laughter popped out of him, and he crawled up the bed, put his hands on smooth, dark shoulders and sucked his lip between his teeth before he could moan just from the heat of Raven’s skin.  “Why? Why are you doing this? Why are you being so good to me?”

“That frightens you?”

Shaking his head, Icarus slid one of his hands up into the Ada’s thin, tight braids, and then other down his arm, over the swell of one huge bicep to the bend of his elbow. “You scare me. Ada scare me. Or maybe you don’t scare me, but you’re still an Ada and you should.”

Raven was frowning at him now, but he still tilted his head to the side, the curve of his scalp against the curve of Icarus’ fingers. “I will ask questions later. For now, if you are going to drink, then do so. It is not easy for me to have you in my lap like this.”

“Where…” The word was hushed.

“Were you not going for my throat?” There was so much amusement in Raven’s voice Icarus huffed, then realized he really wasn’t afraid, and was almost scared by that. Was it this Ada’s attitude, his gentleness? His self-control? His humor? Was it Icarus’ heat, the drive he could sense even now, encouraging him to –

Icarus.”

He sucked in a breath, then leaned up on his knees and sank his teeth into the Ada’s throat.

The Major Issue: Ghost In The Shell Is Now Whiter Than Ever

“I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins.”

Major Motoko Kusanagi

 

Let’s be clear: there is nothing good about the upcoming live-action adaptation of Ghost In the Shell. As a film, its artistic merits (whatever they may happen to be) will always fall far behind its impact on the community of young women, especially young Asian women, who have waited for years for someone to make something out of one of the most influential manga and anime sagas in the last several decades.

For those who don’t know, Ghost In The Shell’s main character is Motoko Kusanagi, code-named The Major. She’s a scrap of human brain tissue in a completely cyborg body – a body that can be exchanged for any “shell”, that could conceivably look like anything or anyone.  It is, I’m sure, this convenient means that Hollywood has decided to use to explain why they’ve cast a white actress in a role that demands  a Japanese woman. The reason I say demands is simple: the Major’s shell is immaterial, when the titular “ghost in the shell”, her consciousness and personal identity, is that of a Japanese woman.

In every media depiction, anime move, series, or manga, Motoko Kusanagi expresses her discomfort and dislike for other bodies than the one in which she is depicted. She is a Japanese woman, and because of the fact that her cyborg-self can be so easily manipulated and changed, that identity provides a rock-solid core from which she acts and perceives the world. I want to say it once, all by itself, clearly.

Motoko Kusanagi identifies as a Japanese woman. She is a Japanese woman, and stripping her of that identity makes her someone else.

The heart of the Major’s character is this identity, which is based, not on her body, not on flesh, which she doesn’t possess, but on a sense of her self. This idea, the concept of consciousness and self-awareness as mobile phenomena independent of flesh, is at the heart of the entire Ghost In The Shell universe. To cast a white actress in this role is not only disrespectful of the character, but completely destroys the foundations on which the Major is built.

Earlier, I read an article discussing the recent revelation that Motoko has not only lost her Japanese body in this film, but also her name. Motoko Kusanagi is now Meera. The article stated that:

It’s possible that prior to gaining her cybernetic body and possibly losing her memory, “Meera” was actually Motoko, a Japanese woman. Her ghost was removed and placed in the body of a white woman, creating a subconscious internal struggle for her. As Johannson says, “the heart of this story is her search for an identity.”

Convenient, isn’t it? Hollywood has been feeding us the same lie for decades now: “Audiences won’t watch a movie without a white actor as the lead!” Theories like the one above are excuses predicated on that lie. With hundreds of hours of source material, in which Motoko is always presented as a Japanese woman, why is it necessary that Hollywood’s version use a plot device that “forces” them to cast a white actress?

If source material in which the characters are depicted with non-white ethnicity or non-Western cultural origins aren’t safe – if a character that began as Japanese or Egyptian or Indian won’t stay that way in a film adaptation, then what hope is there for new non-White characters to just…appear? Obviously it hasn’t happened so far.  While I am aware that some excuse the decision to cast Johansson based on the “star-power” effect, let me ask you this: If only white actors and actresses are cast in star roles, then how will a non-white actor ever have that “star-power”?

There are numerous Japanese actresses already within Hollywood, not even counting those who would like to be actresses. There is no reason to cast a white woman in the role of a Japanese woman. In the end, it comes down to what it always comes down to: institutionalized racism.  Not only has this racism destroyed this movie – the whitewashing of Motoko Kusanagi highlights more clearly than ever that there is a problem in our cinema. There is a problem with the way stories are being told, even when there isn’t a problem with the stories themselves.

The time has come to vote the only way we can as consumers – with our dollars. If you want to support Ghost In The Shell, buy the anime. The HD releases are excellent. Watch some of the new OVAs, share the manga with a friend, stay up until two in the morning discussing how we know who we are. Just make sure you experience the story as it was meant to be experienced – with a Japanese woman as its heart.