With the release of Netflix's Death Note still a month away, the movie has already received its share of backlash and accusations of whitewashing. Some of those criticisms have also been surprisingly aimed at Japanese-born actor Masi Oka.
Oka, best known for his role as Hiro Nakamura on NBC's Heroes, is a producer and star of #DeathNote. The actor came under heavy fire for a comment he made when addressing those whitewashing claims in an interview with Entertainment Weekly back in April:
"Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn’t find the right person, the actors we did go to didn’t speak the perfect English… and the characters had been rewritten."
In a recent BuzzFeed News interview, Oka felt his comments from the EW interview had been taken out of context and wanted to clarify what he meant:
"I meant specifically Asians, actors from Asia who don’t speak English as their first language. I made the assumption that people would understand I was going outside of the United States to make it more of a global franchise."
Death Note joins a list of other movies that have been at the center of a whitewashing controversy, from Scarlett Johansson's Ghost in the Shell to Matt Damon's Great Wall, ahead of their releases.
Oka's intention of wanting to make Death Note a global franchise isn't dissimilar to Ghost in the Shell's producer Steven Paul's comment about the Scarlett Johansson-led film. Paul had this to say in defense of Ghost in the Shell in a past interview with BuzzFeed:
"I don’t think it was just a Japanese story. Ghost in the Shell was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world. That’s why I say the international approach is, I think, the right approach to it."
Oka signed on as a producer of Death Note during the time director Adam Wingard and his team were still in the process of casting the roles. Oka insists casting managers did audition Asian-American actors to find their Light Yagami and L. Oka was specifically assigned to hold auditions for actors who came from Japan:
"I made it a mission myself to go to Japan and audition a lot of Asian actors — specifically Japanese actors and some Korean and Chinese actors. And I’m not saying Asians can’t play Asian-Americans, or Asian-Americans can’t play Asians. It’s not about that. It’s just that I specifically wanted to open it up to make it a global property."
However, after auditioning plenty of actors from Japan for parts in the movie, the people behind Netflix's adaptation of the manga, written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Ohbata, ultimately decided it was best to cast actors fluent in English. While Oka acknowledges that there needs to be more lead roles for Asian-American actors, he also argued that shouldn't be the only reason to get a part in a movie either:
"Just because you’re Asian-American doesn’t mean you should get the role. You have to be good, you have to be talented, and you have to fit the vision of the director."
Not everyone will agree that everything has been done to cast good and talented Asian actors for the lead parts in Death Note. A common argument that manga and anime adapted properties for western audiences seem to have is: As long as the essence or core themes of the original material is there, does it really matter if the cast is Asian or not? This was echoed in what Paul had to say about Ghost in the Shell:
"I think we’ve done the manga comic great honor. As I said, the fans will be very happy, because there's a great respect that's been paid to the manga. We've been very, very careful. Obviously, there's some new imagination, as well. I mean, like anything, when you’re making a movie, you've gotta bring your own."
However, doing a great honor to the manga certainly didn't translate well with audiences when Ghost in the Shell flopped during its box office debut back in March, earning only $19 million at the time.
It's difficult to know yet if Death Note will be the exception to failed manga and anime adaptations so far. Oka believes fans will find something to like about the the upcoming Netflix film, especially when he has worked with the manga's original creators, Ohba and Ohbata, to make sure they were happy with the final result of Wingard's film:
"I wanted to make sure the senseis were happy. They know what’s core to the property. They know what the core fans like and gravitate towards. This is still a genre film with a very passionate fanbase — and I’m one of them. I am a geek. I am an otaku. I grew up on this, so I got into producing so I could protect that."
Death Note will be available on Netflix August 25, 2017.
Do you agree with the casting decisions made for the new Death Note movie?