The Death Note debacle, and why Hollywood continues to get Japan (and Japanese pop culture) wrong
In 2013, Anthony Bourdain (top chef and food writer, host of acclaimed and super fun shows such as No Reservations and Parts Unknown, and the man whose enviable job it is to travel the world to eat and drink) co-wrote an incredible graphic novel called Get Jiro! It was about a genius sushi chef called Jiro, who decapitates customers who order a California Roll or mix wasabi in their soy sauce (this is all happening in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles where master chefs are akin to crime lords and people literally kill to get a seat at the best restaurants in town).
The graphic novel is insanely funny, a stylish culinary take on contemporary culture and society, and a fitting ode to Bourdain’s great love for all things Japanese. In his interviews, Bourdain’s description of the Japanese aesthetic is spot on — minimalism, “the attention to detail, the perfectionism, the concentration on what are the most fundamental elements of beauty, pleasure, relaxation” — and it’s what often draws most of us to Japan. Well, that, and anime! Always the anime.
That perfection and attention to detail are why, when anyone screws up something quintessentially Japanese, it’s particularly appalling.
It’s sort of like when an otherwise-nearly-always-perfect-and-sublime Roger Federer has a bad day on the tennis court — it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch, even for a huge fan of his. That’s also why when a beloved Japanese manga and anime like Death Note (in all its dark, foreboding, and morally grey glory) is adapted into a live-action film and completely “Hollywood-ised” to make it a cartoonish tale about teenage romance, it feels like sacrilege.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not, in any way, condoning the death threats that the movie’s director Adam Wingard received, which forced him to close his Twitter account. It is, after all, a movie; creative expression will always vary in different people, and being okay with it is a huge part of not being an a**hole. But as you look at the disaster that was the Hollywood live-action remake of Death Note, you realise that this isn’t even the first time this has happened — where Hollywood has taken something Japanese and completely changed it, bastardised it, taking away the thing that people love about it in the first place. And that’s besides the whitewashing that Hollywood seems to love so much!
In 1985, in an effort to increase the consumption of anime in the US (remember, this was in the pre-Akira days), Harmony Gold USA (which is a Los Angeles-based motion picture distributor, production company, and — let the alarm bells start ringing already — a real estate developer!) produced an 85-episode science fiction franchise called Robotech, which was essentially adapted from three original, completely unrelated, and iconic Japanese anime television series. Visually, the three series — Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada — had some similarities, but the adaptation tried so hard to forge a connection between the three (in the process, completely Americanising the source content by changing the names of all the main characters — Hikaru Ichijyo became Rick Hunter) that the end result, despite being a fun TV series for children, was all over the place, be it in terms of the dialogue, continuity, narration, and aesthetic.
Cut to 2003: Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning brainchild, the movie that catapulted Scarlett Johansson to superstardom, and reiterated Bill Murray as the greatest deadpan-deliverer ever) released, and Hollywood’s love affair with Japan continued. By now, “anime” and “manga” had become mainstream terms in the US (earlier, Japanese animation was called “Japanimation”). Through the ’90s, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Pokemon, Cardcaptors, Dragon Ball, and other anime had successfully been dubbed into English and released to western audiences. And while dubbing Japanese anime was something that Americans succeeded at (very often keeping the Japanese aesthetic and whimsy intact, as Cowboy Bebop’s excellent dubbed release, which I must say is marginally better than the subbed version, shows), there was somehow a disconnect between what Hollywood thought Japan was supposed to be, and what Japan and the Japanese were actually like.
Take for example the scene from Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray’s character is invited on a Japanese TV show that’s supposed to be sort of like a “Japanese Johnny Carson”. Everything is so loud and garish, the host so ridiculously caricaturish, it’s meant to be comical. It’s a scene that’s clearly supposed to make western audiences find the typical “modern” Japanese insanely over-the-top. That show is an actual TV show called Matthew’s Best Hit TV, hosted by someone called Matthew Minami (who’s just a character played by actor/singer Takashi Fujii). I’ve watched YouTube videos of the original show, and while it’s really colourful and playful, it was nowhere near as out there or ridiculous as the movie made it out to be; the host, who’s gay, does overplay the gay stereotype, but other than that, I realised I was completely unoffended by what I felt was just normal urban Japanese being themselves. I told myself that maybe the garishness of the scene from the movie had something to do with Bill Murray — his world-weary expression can make even the afternoon news seem over the top!
But this is just one instance where Lost in Translation utterly failed to capture the true essence of Japan. And while the movie portrays traditional Japan in the most beautiful manner, modern, urban Japan is shown to us in a far less flattering light. In a review for The Guardian, Japanese-American artist Kiku Day had correctly criticised the movie, saying, “there’s no scene where the Japanese are afforded a shred of dignity. The viewer is sledgehammered into laughing at these small, yellow people and their funny ways…while shoehorning every possible caricature of modern Japan into her movie, Coppola is respectful of ancient Japan. It is depicted approvingly, though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary Japanese. The good Japan, according to this director, is Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays the contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture.”
And remember that this movie and the portrayal of Japan came from Sofia Coppola, who wrote Lost in Translation because she fell in love with Japan (and Tokyo with its neon lights etc., in particular) while living there in her 20s; imagine how a director who feels ambivalent about Japan, would fare in a similar situation!
Attack on Titan, Naruto, Bleach, Cowboy Bebop, Sword Art Online — these are just a few anime series that are getting live-action remakes soon. Fullmetal Alchemist releases in December 2017, and already this year, we’ve seen live-action remakes of Ghost in the Shell, Tokyo Ghoul, and now Death Note. Some of these, like Tokyo Ghoul, have a predominantly Japanese cast and crew (Kentarō Hagiwara directed Tokyo Ghoul and the role of Kaneki is played by Japanese actor Masataka Kubota — incidentally, he also played Light in the live-action TV series Death Note). Others, like Ghost in the Shell, strayed enough from the original series to make it almost unfair to compare the two. And well, then there’s the Death Note remake, smh.
At this point, I’m sure that Hollywood isn’t going to stop remaking these Japanese classics anytime soon. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that classic anime represents, to Hollywood, some sort of minimal effort gold mine that it can dig, claw, and tear into without any remorse. There’s a part of me that also wonders if we, as outsiders, make more of all this than even some Japanese do — just watch this video of normal Japanese folks on the streets courteously not bad-mouthing the horrendous Death Note trailer, even while they all agree that an “American” live-action remake isn’t something they’re thrilled about because they love the manga and the Japanese live-action so much that they don’t want to tarnish those with a clearly-not-too-good western remake).
With Japan, we’re talking about a country where the culture is built around discipline, art, technology, perfectionism and other values that are incredibly deep-rooted. No other country has such an exhaustive list of manners and etiquettes for visitors. No other country that I have visited had such impeccably polite and helpful people — people who ask your permission before reclining their seat in front of you on a shinkansen! I’m trying to think about how I’d feel if Hollywood suddenly decided to make a live-action version of a Studio Ghibli movie, say, Whisper of the Heart or From Up on Poppy Hill — and I shudder at the thought!
I’m tempted to say that maybe Hollywood needs to rethink its whole live-action remake obsession, and then I’m reminded of the rate at which remakes and reboots are being churned out, in film and television, often without too much attention to the quality of it and instead solely banking on the nostalgia factor. Can we please leave anime out of it? Can we please just leave certain things as they are?