Did Netflix Make A Decent Death Note Film?

by Deb Aoki,

San Diego Comic-Con: The epicenter of western pop culture entertainment. As fans lined up for hours to get a peek at the latest Thor and Justice League movies, a few blocks away from Hall H, a smaller, but enthusiastic crowd vied to get a seat at the premiere of a new Netflix production: Death Note.

Based on the best-selling supernatural suspense Shonen Jump manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note is centered around Light, a bright but bored teen who inherits a notebook from a death god. The book gives Light the power to kill almost anyone just by writing their name in its pages. Light uses his newfound powers to kill criminals around the world, which makes him a vigilante hero to some, but a murderer to others. As Light's list of victims grows, his killing spree is noticed by L, an eccentric but brilliant detective. This sets in motion a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, much to the delight of Ryuk, the death god.

The basic premise of the movie is the same as the manga, but when Tokyo is changed to Seattle, Light Yagami is Light Turner, and L has been transformed from a scruffy Japanese guy in a white sweater to an African-American man in a black hoodie, any fan of the original series is left to wonder, how much else has changed? Will this western version of this popular Japanese series succeed… or will it suck?

A NIGHT AT THE (MANGA) MOVIES

In the world of western superhero comics, news of the latest movie or TV adaptation of a popular comics series sparks giddy anticipation amongst fans. In the world of N. American manga fandom, seeing a Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese manga in the coming attractions line-up is cause for skepticism, dismissal and disdain.

Little wonder, when fans have endured many manga-to-movie adaptations that are at best, mediocre and at worst, unwatchable. (cough! >Dragon Ball: Evolution< cough!). Even the Japanese live-action adaptations have been a mixed bag, with many weighed down by weak acting and low-budget special effects.  Add in accusations of “white-washed” casting, ala Ghost in the Shell, and it's a wonder any manga movies are in development in Hollywood at all. It's in this atmosphere that Netflix is releasing its live-action adaptation of Death Note, due to hit small screens on this movie-streaming service worldwide on August 25, 2017.

I was there on premiere night, barely making it through the standby-for-the-standby line in front of the Horton Grand Theater to get a seat for the screening. For my troubles, I got a bag with movie snacks, a red apple, a t-shirt, an autographed poster, and a Death Note notebook. Not a bad haul at all.

I heard producer Masi Oka (Heroes, Hawaii Five-O) tell the audience about screening the film for Ohba and Obata in Tokyo, and getting rave reviews from them. Director Adam Wingard (Blair Witch), along with stars Nat Wolff (Light ), Keith Stanfield (L) and Margaret Qualley (Mia Sutton) shared stories and cracked jokes about shooting this made-for-Netflix movie that was filmed in late 2016, after almost 10 years in development. I saw a “life-sized” statue of Ryuk in the lobby – a stand-in for the absent Willem Dafoe, the voice of Ryuk, the death god.

FROM TOKYO TO SEATTLE, FROM J-IDOL TO CHEERLEADER

This new version of Death Note starts much like the manga, the anime, and the Japanese live-action movies. Light is a high school student who is smart, but kind of bored with the mundaneness of his life. So when a notebook falls from the sky and lands at his feet, Light can't help but pick it up to check it out. He's puzzled by the Death Note and the arcane rules written inside, so he keeps it out of curiosity.

Light later meets Ryuk, the death god, who looks pretty much like he does in the Japanese version (albeit somewhat shorter in stature). After his initial shock and fear wears off, Light is introduced to the rules of using the Death Note by Ryuk. Armed with this supernatural death diary, Light becomes a vigilante, killing off criminals around the world, while his detective father, James Turner (Shea Wigham) is none the wiser. Meanwhile, his classmate Mia finds out, and goes from being a nihilist school cheerleader to cheering on Light as the Death Note's body count grows.

Within these first few scenes, Wolff and Qualley's Light and Mia show us that while these characters were germinated from the seeds of their Japanese counterparts, they're American hybrids that will blossom and grow into something familiar, yet different.

For one thing, compared to Goth Lolita model / pop idol Misa Amane in the Japanese version of Death Note, Mia is much less glamorous, less of a Light fangirl and more manipulative and dark, with her own agenda. The differences in personality and personal agency between cutesy, submissive Misa and suburban anti-heroine Mia send this movie's plot on a different trajectory. While many elements of the manga are here, it's clear that Ohba and Obata's story was used as a launching point, not as a shot-by-shot guide for the entire film.

Casting LaKeith Stanfield as L was another bold move, signaling to the world that this production would take this Japanese story into new territory. Stanfield's L favors black hoodies over baggy white sweaters, but is still an eccentric, yet brilliant sleuth who coolly unravels Light's and Mia's web of deception. But just as Light and Mia are American distillations of their Japanese counterparts, this American L is more of a cool, serious sleuth than loveable eccentric (schmarfing down handfuls of Skittles isn't that eccentric). When the movie hits its third act, as L and Light's battle of wits ramps up, L also careens toward a different fate than his manga counterpart.

This is probably not going to be a popular opinion, but I preferred Stanfield's L to the manga L, because he brought a degree of passion and emotional complexity to the character that made him one of the more interesting characters in this cast. That said, there's not much chemistry between L and Light as they match wits, so I don't expect a lot of BL/slash doujinshi to come out of this film.

Even with Dafoe as his voice, the movie Ryuk is also more of a one-dimensional demon, who lacks some of the quirky, humorous aspects of his personality that made him kind of likeable in the manga. Also absent are the rest of the Shinigami posse who help readers understand Ryuk's backstory.

This movie condenses the 12-volume Death Note story into a single 101-minute feature film, vs. the 37-episode animated version or the nearly 4-hour Japanese movie that was split up into two films. As a result, many characters and details seen in the original series were simply omitted, mostly to keep the action moving at a brisk pace.

However, with this brevity comes the necessity to leave out some key plot and character developments. For example, viewers never get the sense that Light / Kira is a world-famous vigilante who is feared and respected by millions, much less see Light succumb to the megalomania that such notoriety can bring. We also don't get much of a chance to get very attached to the FBI agents who work alongside L, or at least not enough to really feel sad or horrified when they meet an unfortunate end.

If you didn't like how the manga and anime versions of Death Note ended, well, the bright side to this new version is that there's something you might prefer (or not) at the end of this film. Death Note is basically a remix that starts from a familiar place, but takes viewers on a stylishly-shot joy ride full of clever twists that will surprise even long-time readers of the original story. Fans of blood-and-guts horror flicks will appreciate some of the gleefully gory, over-the-top death scenes in this movie too.

ADDRESSING THE WHITE-WASHING CONTROVERSY

There are a few nods to Death Note’s Japanese origins, with producer Masi Oka making a cameo as a Japanese police detective who meets L at a crime scene in a Tokyo nightclub, and Light explaining that “Kira” = “killer” in Japanese as his rationale for choosing his alias. Japanese-American actor Paul Nakauchi also does a turn as L's loyal majordomo, Watari.

Does this counter the inevitable “whitewashed cast” criticism? Probably not. But as a Japanese-American manga fan who was expecting the worst here, I thought this movie tried to toe the line between being respectful to the source material and telling a story set in America that would be appealing and accessible to general audiences, not just the otaku faithful. It made me re-think what parts of Death Note are inherently Japanese, and what has made it one of those rare stories that has universal appeal for readers worldwide.

While Death Note isn't likely to win any major awards, it did turn out to be one of the better live-action manga-to-movie adaptations I've seen to date. Admittedly, the bar is pretty low to begin with, but Death Note rose above its baggage to be a movie worth watching. I'm not inclined to see it again and again, but it DID keep me entertained for over an hour and half. It also gave me lots of food for thought -- it's a film that will spark a lot of conversations once it's in wider release. It's never going to generate as much buzz as Justice League or Thor: Ragnarok, but it didn't suck, and that, my friends, counts as progress in manga movie land.

 

 


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