The US can’t adapt anime. With a few exceptions, like the Power Rangers series from the 1990s, we can’t figure out how to translate Japanese weirdness into watchable live action films. Western animation does better with homaging Japanese elements, and Pacific Rim is the closest we have gotten to an anime homage.
With this out of the way, let me espouse my concerns for the newest franchise being adapted: Death Note. This psychological thriller manages to reel you in with anti heroes, anti villains, and straight up heroes that suffer greatly. It explores questions about justice and how murder changes people.
Netflix will release an American version of Death Note in August 2017. Light resembles an evil Tobey Maguire from a Spiderman movie. Misa is now Mia, a smoker. L is now a black man that hides in the shadows. Ryuk, the shinigami, still likes apples. I am concerned that the adaptation may be too faithful, which I don’t often say.
Death Note is a Japanese franchise, about a teen genius that receives the power to kill others. He decides to use this new power, the Death Note, to rid the world of criminals, and become a god. Light starts with those already convicted and imprisoned. The more he kills, however, the more he becomes willing to lower his ethics. When the FBI and an American detective L decide to take on this so-called God “Kira” and enact justice, Light takes offense. He decides that he will find out L’s name and face, so that he can murder him and avoid jail time like a common criminal.
The story has been a manga, an anime, a musical, several live action films and a TV drama in Japan. Light’s morality changes in each adaptation, but he remains a semi-sympathetic protagonist. L also has his reasons for keeping up the chase.
An Imperfect Justice System
There is one problem with adapting Death Note word for word and changing the setting to the United States: the US and Japan have very different approaches to justice systems. In Japan, while conviction rates are higher, miscarriages of justice are less likely. According to J. Mark Ramseyer and Eric B. Rasmusen’s essay “Why is the Japanese Conviction Rate So High,” they explain it as incentive-based:
“That Japanese prosecutors might do very well at keeping innocent defendants out of the court system follows straightforwardly from budget constraints. Chronically understaffed, Japanese prosecutors lack the time to prosecute any but a small fraction of the suspects forwarded by the police. Rather than waste their time with dubious cases (other than the occasional politically driven corruption case), perhaps rational prosecutors prosecute only the most obviously and gruesomely guilty. “
For this reason, Light in Japan resents that the justice system doesn’t go far enough. He wants people to stop committing crimes, and to stop doing terrible things. In the case of Misa Amane, her parents’ killer would have evaded justice due to red tape. Light cuts through bureaucracy by just writing a name. In the Japanese films, Light says that he wants to fix this system.
The United States, in contrast, has broken justice and prison systems. Many comedians, from Adam Destroys Everything to John Oliver, have pointed out that the system strongly favors those who are affluent and white, with corporations that keep people in jail, expensive bails, corrupt cops, and overworked public defendants. We also have a prison population larger than any other country in the first world because we don’t have sustainable programs for rehabilitating those on parole, or assisting the mentally ill. There would thus be a lot of problems of Light killing those convicted and serving time, especially since justice is disproportionately served.
The Problems of Whitewashing Light
I am concerned that they have made Light into a white American teenager, ostensibly affluent, with blond hair. It’s been shown that, thanks to cultural and media biases, that Caucasians are more likely to stereotype nonwhite Americans and foreigners as criminals. And there are already dozens of authority figures in Light’s position, who determine who lives and who dies. The Guardian has published multiple articles on them.
Turning Light into a Caucasian also shuts out the role to many potential Asian actors. More than one critic has pointed this out. Keeping Light Japanese in the dramas in Japan kept him an everyman. He could have worshipers within the show, and even sympathizers. Light for all his smarts could be anyone in Japan corrupted by that power, and happened to be the genius teen of a police chief. It also implies that Light cannot be a compelling protagonist unless he is white. We saw this problem with the Ghost in the Shell film, which has lost to Boss Baby in terms of box office hits.
Murder Culture in America
I can’t speak for Japan, but the United States has a disturbing worship of killing others, mainly non white people. In the early days of settlement, the government encouraged settlers to wipe out Native Americans and steal their land. This led to mandated genocide that continues with the Standing Rock injustice to this day. Slavery also thrived, and the brutal practices killed many in the system.
Then you enter the post-Civil War area. The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups would leave burning crosses on lawns and lynch black people, sometimes even children, for the crime of trying to improve their lives or even smile at a white lady. I still dread the textbook photos that show white families happily smiling in front of a hanged black man. The woman who killed young Emmet Till by accusing him of whistling at her has since recanted but refuses to apologize for her complicit racism.
In this day and age, the worship of murder remains strong. O.J. Simpson has capitalized on his fame, as one example. Trayvon Martin’s death has become an icon sold on memorabilia, and George Zimmerman has become a minor celebrity for stalking and shooting a teenager. Mass shootings are nearly happening daily, according to statistics, with little to no hope of sane regulation thanks to the NRA.
With this cultural context, a random American receiving a Death Note would be a really bad idea. What if you gave that power to Confederate groups in the south, or the “alt-right” that have admitted they want to do ethnic cleansing? You would have another genocide on your hands. Netflix Light would fit those young adults that said “Heil Trump” in 2016. Such an image carries horrifying implications. The screenwriter and director will have to tread carefully in August to avoid this.
Making L Black
Despite these points, Netflix seems to have gotten L right. L being American and the FBI participating do not change the story. Our detective wants the thrill of solving a difficult crime. He knows his suspect is in Japan, and focuses on catching Kira, rather than on the idea of justice. Light would most likely go to jail if caught, and be tried in Japan.
I favor turning L into a black guy. In American media, most black people are typecast into minor roles. Our antagonist refuses to lie in a menial role. L is amoral, and sometimes stoops to Kira’s level. He is also a cool, worthy opponent for Light.
L as a black guy also becomes aware of the inherent American bias towards non white people. He wouldn’t fear Kira because the police would try and kill L every day, on a regular basis. L would have to know about the judicial and media biases that would ensue when trying to enact justice. Thus his ethnicity some of the unfortunate implications cited above.
L may save the movie. Light and “Mia” could kill it. Ryuk will probably be the most accurate character. Based on the trailer, we will see a lot of creative deaths.
In any case, the odds are highly against one actor’s ability to save a movie. I hope that the writers take into account the implications of translating such a concept. They have a lot of work on their hands. If not, however, we always have the original anime and manga to read, as well as the live action films. Let’s witness a fantasy that questions justice systems, good and evil, in its original form.