There’s a lot to be said of Western adaptations of Japanese properties, and very little of it is nice. Cards on the table: this review won’t be an exception. No, I’m afraid to no-one’s great surprise, the Netflix adaptation of the seminal manga/animé series Death Note is fucking terrible.
Where to begin? Well, we’ll start with the story, because that’s the bit I’m frankly most impressed that they managed to get wrong. For the unacquainted, the manga is about a psychopathic child genius named Light Yagami who gets his hands on the powerful artefact of a ‘shinigami’, a Japanese death god.
For the unacquainted, the manga is about a psychopathic child genius named Light Yagami who gets his hands on the powerful artefact of a ‘shinigami’, a Japanese death god.
This artefact, the titular Death Note, allows the owner to write down any name of anyone in the world, and provided that they can picture their face, that person will die at a time and manner of the writer’s choosing. To anyone else, this would be a tool of petty revenge or profitable crime, but Light has designs on saving the world, and so sets about systematically assassinating crime lords and murderers with the book.
Along the way, he’s accompanied by Misa Amane, a deranged fanatic who falls in love with Light when she learns of his intentions, as well as the original owner of the note itself, Ryuk the death god. Against him are a cross-section of international law enforcement agencies, most notably the master detective “L” who gradually begins to home in on the identity of the killer.
The manga sets up a brilliant game of cat-and-mouse between Light, who must concoct more and more elaborate ruses to conceal his crimes, and L, who – without an available name – is the only person immune to Light’s methods. The film, however, sets up an angsty high school romance drama and utterly destroys all the subtlety and intrigue that made the manga so beloved in the first place.
Light Turner (the laughable American name of the film’s rewritten protagonist) lacks all the psychopathic control and chess-master ingenuity of the manga’s iconic antihero. Actor Nat Woolf is a staple of John Green young adult films, and acts like it here: he plays Light as a pathetic and self-pitying victim of circumstance. Where Yagami thinks five steps ahead, Turner is barely aware that there’s a game being played. Whenever Yagami is composed and cool, Turner panics and loses the little semblance of control he had in the first place.
Light Turner (the laughable American name of the film’s rewritten protagonist) lacks all the psychopathic control and chess-master ingenuity of the manga’s iconic antihero
The absolute joke of a protagonist is far from the film’s only sin, however. From one scene to the next, the tone and direction changes seemingly at random. A high-school dance dressed like an uncomfortable cross between Mean Girls and Carrie cuts to an on-foot chase scene that looked and sounded like a Blade Runner fan film. Important characters are butchered or forgotten entirely – most drastically of all, Light’s love interest.
The absolute joke of a protagonist is far from the film’s only sin, however. From one scene to the next, the tone and direction changes seemingly at random.
Misa Amane was a sadistic and doting devotee of Yagami in the original; hardly a poster girl for feminist writing, but certainly an interesting character in her own right. She had clear-cut motivations and a believable Joker-and-Harley relationship with Light that was always shown for what it was: psychotic, abusive, and dangerous to both themselves and others.
Mia Sutton, however, is more American Horror Story than Harley Quinn. A cheerleader with a sadistic streak that is never even remotely explained, Mia manipulates a clueless Light through overt sexuality, and takes literally zero persuasion to get on board with the whole ‘criminal genocide’ thing. A scene early in the film features her asking about the Death Note, which Light says he can’t tell her about; when she accepts this, he immediately replies ‘you really want to know?’ and tells her everything. You couldn’t make this shit up.
Mia manipulates a clueless Light through overt sexuality and takes literally zero persuasion to get on board with the whole ‘criminal genocide’ thing
However, there’s redemption to be found in the form of Ryuk and L. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of the sinister, in-it-for-the-laughs shinigami is frankly perfect, with all the indulgent enunciation and haunting presence carried over from his time as the Green Goblin in Raimi’s Spiderman. It worked there, and it works here, and Ryuk steals every scene he’s in. Honestly, it makes me wish they’d done a Ryuk-only spin-off series instead.
Lakeith Stanfield’s L is absolutely flawless when it’s done right, and Stanfield himself acts it as well as anyone could. However, the adaptation unsurprisingly forgets or ignores the very essence of L’s character: his unshakable, unbreakable composure. In this version, L is prone to violent outbursts with absolutely no correspondence to his character in the manga, and it only serves to reinforce the notion that the creators really had no idea what they were adapting at all.
Dafoe’s portrayal of the sinister, in-it-for-the-laughs shinigami is frankly perfect, with all the indulgent enunciation and haunting presence carried over from his time as the Green Goblin in Raimi’s Spiderman.
But I digress: I’m acknowledging the positives here, and Stanfield really did a sublime job, another candidate for a different, better spin-off. The soundtrack, too, seemed like it came from a very different and much better film. A haunting, electronic, and vaguely cyberpunk-y score fills scenes in which it clearly has no place, and Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ should be a wonderful addition to any scene, but alas only serves to reinforce the image of a cheesy high school drama. Aren’t we supposed to be watching a supernatural detective flick here?
Death Note is a film completely at odds with itself. Not in the clever, keep-you-on-your-toes way that might otherwise fit a story in which the characters are supposed to know more than the viewer at any given time, but more like the twelve-monkeys-and-a-typewriter kind of way that’s just painful to watch. If you must watch this film, do so with a hard drink and someone to laugh at it with. God knows that’s the only way you’re going to enjoy it.