As an adaptation of one of Japan’s most thrilling anime series, Netflix’s DEATH NOTE had a high bar. Turning a masterpiece of animation into a Western hit was a challenge director Adam Wingard (BLAIR WITCH, THE GUEST) should have been able to at least swing at, but it seems this particular attempt will be rightfully joining other anime adaptions in the trash.
DEATH NOTE, for those unfamiliar, is an adaption of a popular manga and anime series of the same name. Light Turner (Nat Wolff), formerly Light Yagami, happens upon a strange black book that falls from the sky. Reading the strange book, he finds that it is a death note, a book that has the power to kill anyone whose name is written within. Light quickly encounters the original owner of the book, a death god named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), and begins using it to kill criminals and wrongdoers. He is pursued by a masterful detective who goes by “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) in a kill or be killed chase between the two masterminds. Light takes on a godlike persona, the villain-killing “Kira”, while L works with law enforcement to deduce Kira’s identity and apprehend him.
An Unfortunate Failure
On its own, Netflix’s DEATH NOTE is something that might find its way to some bored teenagers screen at 2 am. It combines the noticeably quintessential elements of low-effort horror films with a sickeningly indie soundtrack. Needless gore and blood join the fray to check off more and more tropes of American thriller. Problem is, it is distinctly American. Perhaps DEATH NOTE’s biggest problem is its fixation on pushing graphic, shock value scenes to the forefront of the film, usually for no reason. Like its protagonist, Netflix should’ve written the name of this abomination in a death god’s book and let it die.
Netflix’s take on the movie was admirable. With their recent breach into the foray of anime, it’s rather unsurprising that they would want an exclusive anime adaption. But in shortening, compressing, and winnowing the complex storyline of the original, Netflix ended with a whitewashed, tasteless counterpart that will sadden anyone who has seen even seconds of the DEATH NOTE anime.
Netflix’s DEATH NOTE has a storyline completely removed from Japan. This version takes place in Seattle, gives nearly every character more American names, and turns Light’s school into the classic high school experience. This may not seem to be much of a problem in and of itself, but it begs the question: Why was this necessary?
Clearly the motivation is to create an environment that will feel familiar to an American audience, but why would that make the film any better? Most anyone who watches this movie will be somewhat familiar with the anime or at least aware of it.There’s value in creating a story set outside of America. The addition of elements that are new to American viewers gives to opportunity to film something that’s simultaneously familiar and new. Japanese actors could have easily played these roles, and production, soundtrack, and shooting style could have stayed American. In fact, the original DEATH NOTE has characters from the FBI, so American roles are still there. Almost seemingly in jest, one of the main people deployed to defend whitewashing allegations is the film’s only black character, L.
Most Americans will recognize Lakeith Stanfield as Andrew Logan King from Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’, the (spoiler alert) black man who has his body taken over by a decrepit white man using a horrific surgery. Stanfield plays L, the mastermind detective, and is noticeably different from the original character. L in the anime is incredibly thin and pale which complements his strange persona
He hardly sleeps, doesn’t travel outside much, and subsists off of sweets and candy. Stanfield, in an interview with The Verge, said, “As far as the issue of whitewashing, I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding. Especially when applied to this film in particular, because this film takes place in Seattle, in America. So it would make sense that the cast reflects American demographics”. So, the reason the film has a whitewashed cast is… because it was whitewashed. With this type of roundabout explanation, I’m starting to think Stanfield is still in the sunken place. A reflection of America is not a purely white picture. Also, Asians are the second largest ethnic group in Seattle, so this excuse really doesn’t fly.
This is a problem that really feeds into every other one. The original Light Yagami is an excellent student, dressed well, was extremely athletic, and very attractive. He has about everything a high school guy could desire in life. That’s part of what makes his utilitarian ideology so interesting. A guy with a seemingly perfect life becomes a mass murderer, and has to maintain the guise of that perfect life while he does it. He has a strong sense of justice, and kills in order to make the world a utopia free from crime, not out of personal or emotional motivations. This was a big part of the appeal of DEATH NOTE; there’s a constant moral quandary that keeps viewers second guessing who the bad guy is supposed to be, and who truly ‘deserves’ to die in this world.
Adam Wingard’s Light Turner is comparatively shallow and dull. He isn’t all that popular and gets rocked by a bully within the first few scenes. He’s rather jumpy, and lacks the philosophical depth that Light Yagami had. Light Turner reveals his secret to Mia without reservation and for no real reason. He has a strange, constipated expression in nearly ever scene. At times, he seems more like a plain old serial killer than an advocate of justice, and generally caps off murderous rampages with teenage angst. He simply wants to do something meaningful, not make the world a utopia. The beginnings of a solid character were there in the beginning, but one of the first people Light uses the book to kill is the man who murdered his mother.
This is problematic on a few levels. For one, we never really meet his mother, so I found myself not caring about her in the slightest. Maybe if she had died on screen, I could understand this choice a bit more. Secondly, it characterizes the use of the book entirely too much around revenge. Beyond that, there isn’t much time spent with the consequences of each murder. We see a bloody death scene, but then the film rushes forward.
Part of the reason Light killed international criminals in the anime is that he wanted to rid the world of criminals, not just his life. In the movie, he kills a boy who bullied him and a man he hates. Not because it would really help anyone, but because he wanted to. He rationalizes this as justice in the film, but Wingard makes him too emotionally attached to the victims to make Light seem like anything but a simple sadist. When he kills a trafficking ring, he kills the trafficked girls, too. The explanations for his actions never fit the simple sadism behind them. The lack of motivation makes him almost annoying.
This problem of motivation and intent is one that seems to leak onto every other character. Ryuk, the death god who originally owned the death note Light uses, feels rather inconsistent with his original. In the anime, Japanese Shinigami are figures that use death notes to steal the lifespan of those that they kill. They only venture into the human world when they’re bored, and don’t usually care about them personally. Ryuk feels far too much like a Christian demon. His first scenes feel like a Mephistopheles-inspired entry as he tempts Light into using the note. In this way, he’s more like the devil trying to damn humans than a morally ambiguous God. Beyond that, we hardly see him and he appears almost entirely for shock value and overdone horror elements.
L has a similar problem. He is extremely smart, has strange origins, and (for some reason) is still from Japan. But, we don’t see his process. He figures out who Kira is almost immediately, and stays absolutely certain of that fact. In the anime, L wavered on his suspicions, and spent a lot of time tricking Kira into revealing his identity. There was a process to finding him. L isn’t someone who hides his face and shouts. He is always ten steps ahead and calm.This western light reveals himself carelessly. The movie strips away all of that and makes him too reactionary. Toward the end, his entire character shifts to a bloodthirsty madman. Like with Light, I found this stark change hard to digest.
On top of that, it seems like no investigators, beside L, do anything. The Seattle Police Department nor the assisting FBI agents think to do something as basic as monitoring Light’s phone calls. They can’t even track down one kid at a homecoming dance. They’re largely inactive until the very end when there isn’t much left to do. Their value was…questionable at best. Plus, let’s be honest. If L, a black man in 2017 America, was sprinting through the street waving a gun, police would have shot him in seconds.
Mia (Margaret Qualley) is maybe the most unforgivable part of this entire movie. I won’t bother comparing her to the original Misa Amane, because they are light-years apart in terms of character development. Mia is Light’s girlfriend and co-conspirator, mostly there to talk with him and act as a romantic foil. Between mass murders, her and Light can go have angsty-murderer sex and everything is OK again. Or not.
She never gets a clear backstory beyond being a cheerleader. There is no real reason she’s okay with dating a guy who spends his days killing criminals. She merely sounds like an angry teenager, and acts the part. She has almost no remorse, and is way more sadistic than Light. It goes from beyond confusing to just being annoying; she’s crazy in ways that don’t thematically make sense. Her justifications boil down to just “doing something that matters” and are flimsier than Light’s.
Despite the duo being so intimate, they have no romantic chemistry. They even argue when it comes to who they want to kill. This bland element of the film was distracting above all else, because she eventually becomes even more active than Light is, changing from a passing character to the main arbiter of death. Again, there’s no on-screen reason for the shift. Every person in this movie seems to have some drastic change in character about 70% of the way through for no reason but plot.
I went into DEATH NOTE with an open mind and hoping that I would finally see a decent adaptation. But what I watched was 104 minutes of excess American cinematic nonsense and forced acting. If there were a checklist of typical western indie thriller, this would check every box. I rate it two stars out of five, only because I appreciate the way the ending was shot and think that it might be passable for someone with no knowledge of the original. There was strong potential for this adaptation to be a cinematic masterpiece. But what could’ve been a multi-part intellectual thriller is just a rushed slap in the face of one of Japan’s best anime and manga series.
Featured Image: James Dittiger / Netflix