Netflix's Death Note Is A Perfect Example of How Not to Adapt an Anime
Live action adaptations of anime, manga and videogames have had a rough go at things over the years. The bad examples far outweigh the decent ones we’ve received since the Mario Brothers catastrophe. However, Ghost In The Shell (released in 2017 with mixed reviews) seemed to be a sign that studios were at least listening to some fan criticism and making an effort to not completely destroy these classic stories. When Netflix announced they would be working with director Adam Winged (of You’re Next and Blair Witch) to reimagine the classic Death Note series, fans reacted in a fairly predictable manner. Cautious optimism has become the standard level of excitement for these adaptations and White Washing is the all too familiar battle cry you see in reviews and forums. I had never seen the series before I watched this movie so I will be approaching my review of the Netflix flick as a stand alone entity. I have since watched the anime to get the full experience but I’ll get into that later. Just a heads up there might be some minor spoilers.
Death note is a movie about a young man named Light (played by Nat Wolff) who is gifted the Death Note. A journal made by the Death Gods known as Shinigami that grants its owner the ability to kill anyone whose name is written inside. The book comes with a number of rules inscribed inside. The main rule is "This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.” Ryuk (pronounced Ree-ook and voiced by the amazing Willem Dafoe) Is a Shinigami who has grown bored of his time in his realm and decides to have some fun with the frailties of Light and his adolescent altruism. The movie doesn’t waste any time pairing these two up nor does Light show much hesitance in using his newfound Death Note to cleanse the world of wrong-doers. Light seems like your typical, angsty high schooler. He has problems with bullies, a broken home life, can’t get a girl, and he gets busted for doing other people's homework as a little side business. The Death Note seems to give him confidence and Ryuk easily convinces him to test it out on a bully who he sees harassing Mia (Margaret Qualley) outside the school. He saves this damsel by decapitating the thug right in front of her in what felt like a sequence fit for a Final Destination movie.
Light seems to think that this event makes a good ice breaker and tells Mia (who he just met) about the Death Note. She’s not weirded out at all that one of her fellow students has a murder journal and she immediately becomes his co-executioner girlfriend. The two of them begin obsessing over the news and trolling the internet for names criminals to eliminate as their new bonding activity. They decide their new, angel of death campaign needs a cool name so they begin calling themselves Kira. This sudden increase of deaths among the criminal population draws the attention of the authorities and they begin investigating. The lead investigator is Light's dad who summons the help of L (Lakeith Stanfield) who is some world renowned, albeit completely mysterious problem solver. This introduction of our hyper-intelligent antagonist seems like it should give us that cat and mouse, Catch Me If You Can type of feeling but it fails miserably. The writers seemed to be more interested in developing the relationship between Mia and Light than showing us just how creative L can be as he uncovers Kira’s true identity. Instead we get a rushed, glossed over montage, the end result of which is L magically knowing Light is responsible for some reason. We never get a chance to experience or buy in to the hyper intelligence and wit of either of these main characters. The rest of the movie is a tragic, coming-of-age tale/love-story plagued by lazy writing, boring chase scenes and a bad 80’s synth inspired soundtrack. The best part of Netflix’s Death Note was Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Ryuk. Though he isn’t in the movie too much and he mostly just stands in a corner when he is on screen, his voice is chilling and the character design was fantastic. Was this movie bad? Yes. However, If you liked Divergent or most other YA movies you might enjoy it.
So how does it compare to the anime? It fails on all counts. In the series, Light is a charismatic, intelligent and well liked individual. Throughout the series they continuously demonstrate the thoughtfulness and care in which he uses the Death Note and evades the investigators. He sets traps, thinks up helpful strategies, and lives every moment as if he’s playing a chess game with the universe. In the movie he is a boring emotional teenager with no memorable qualities. Yes he has a similar motive of using the Death Note to rid the world of crime, his approach however is different and off putting. We also never get to see him and L square off in any tennis matches! In the series, Ryuk is playful, curious, and doesn’t just stand in corners. He follows Light and pays attention to his methods and processes of using the Death Note, almost like a scientist studying mice in a maze. He constantly makes observations of Light's behavior and even comments on how Light constantly discovers new and creative loopholes in the rules that no other human has ever thought of. He still has his love of apples but his rigidity and lack of screen time in the movie doesn't allow for the bond the two share in the show to develop. L in the series is quiet and precise. He hides behind his L persona and various aliases and never shows his face. He shows a fondness for his unknown adversary and respects Kira's ability to outfox and evade L's tricks. The movie does a fairly good job at capturing this character physically. He likes sweets and constantly sits on his feet or in a crouched position. In the show, however, all of his actions and decisions are calculated and purposeful. He sets traps and experiments on ways to narrow down the true identity of Kira. There are several moments in the movie where they try to mirror this and they completely miss the point. They also never touch on the fact that L and Light partner up to hunt Kira together... even though L suspects Light of being Kira... which he is. This dynamic creates some great tension in the show that never surfaces in the film.
Mia is hard to compare because they didn’t develop much of her character in the movie. She was mostly there as a love interest and a plot device and only really affects things during the climax of the movie. However MISA, as she is known in the show is a sexy, blonde, lolita-goth model who already has her own Death God named Rem as well as her own pair of Shinigami eyes! She also doesn't appear in the show for quite some time but shows up almost immediately in the movie. The way she meets Light also changes. Instead of just being a coed who he saves from bullies, Misa poses as a second Kira and uses her Death Note to commit her own murders to try to derail the investigation and trick Light into meeting her in person. This is mostly because she is completely obsessed with Light and will do anything to be his girlfriend. There is a reason this show is a classic and an essential anime in most people's collections. It is an amazing story about the true meaning of good versus evil and the illusion of justice. It is a crime thriller that rivals the creativity and the tension between Detectives Somerset and Mills and the mysterious John Doe in David Fincher’s Seven. This Netflix adaptation (As with most adaptations) completely ignores crucial character traits, plot points, and most things that make the show what it is. While I understand it is impossible to fit all the content of a 37 episode series into a 1.5-2 hour movie, you should at least make sure your translation of the characters is accurate and that you show some basic understanding of the original story. I don’t see this as another example of white washing as some have pointed out but it is an excellent example of bad casting and writing. It’s not often that Netflix misses the mark this hard and hopefully they learn from their mistakes.