Review: Netflix’s Death Note

The human whose name is written in this note shall die.

-The first rule of the Death Note.

TL:DR – a whitewashing controversy masks far deeper flaws.

Death Note is unusual in that it’s the only manga I’ve been able to get into, probably because – unlike the handful of others I’ve read – it relies more on good storytelling and a fairly well-crafted background than fan service and absurdities galore. And yet, I was not enthused by any of the animated or live-action versions of the manga. Being a largely cerebral story, Death Note simply doesn’t lend itself very well to the TV screen. I was therefore unenthused when Netflix announced that it would turn Death Note into a movie.

The sad irony, alas, is that Netflix’s Death Note – hereafter NDN – is a very good horror movie … if one knows nothing about the original. If it had been stripped of the title – and much of the background – it would be quite watchable, although not – perhaps – memorable. But watching NDN reminds me of watching the Harry Potter movies or Batman Vs Superman, stories where the source material is warped out of shape to suit the director, rather than the long-time fans. NDN isn’t as bad as the Starship Troopers movie, but it doesn’t impress the fans.

Death Note revolves around a Villain Protagonist – Light Yagami, a genius-level Japanese high school student who discovers (or is given) a supernatural notebook that grants its user the ability to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. Egged on by a Shinigami (Ryuk), Light starts using the Death Note to kill criminals in a bid to reshape the world, eventually taking the name ‘Kira’ and declaring himself a god. In doing so, Light comes into conflict with a mystery detective – known only as ‘L’ – and a cat-and-mouse game begins, with Light trying to discover ‘L’s’ true name while ‘L’ seeks proof that Light is the supernatural killer. The immense manga follows Light, L and a handful of others as both sides devise gambits to trap and incriminate the other.

That is, in many ways, a poor description. Go read it. Seriously. You won’t regret it.

Light himself is not the hero, although he clearly sees himself as the hero. Light is very much a narcissistic sociopath, delighting in the power of the Death Note even as he works towards a world cleansed of crime. The manga doesn’t lose sight of that, even as we – the readers – are brought to admire his intelligence and adaptability. Light is cool and confident when in control, but – when provoked – he can lose his cool as easily as he can lose his nice suit. One may argue that the Death Note corrupted Light, turning him into a monster. But the seeds of disaster were already planted by the time Ryuk found him.

The manga is huge, with over a hundred chapters and story arcs. It really should have been turned into a series – the material was there. Instead, Netflix ruthlessly hacked and slashed at the story, removing huge aspects of the overall whole and changing others beyond recognition. While I understand the problem with telling a complete story in less than ten hours, it cheapens the source material and removes some of the more interesting aspects.

NDN makes the fatal decision to treat Light Turner as a far more likable person than Light Yagami. Turner is a more average student, one familiar to most as a classic geek or nerd from any high school. He’s scared by the Death Note and Ryuk, when the Shinigami makes his appearance. Ryuk has to urge him to use the note for the first time, being more of a corruptor in this incarnation than the manga. His sinister nature and black comedy jokes – “Each death must be physically possible. So, no shark attacks whilst someone’s on the toilet, as much as I love that idea.” – only underline his true nature. The bumbling and somewhat apathetic death god of the manga has been replaced by the devil.

Light is joined by Mia Sutton, a cheerleader who urges him to use the note to punish criminals. In doing so, Light comes into conflict with ‘L’ and – worse – his own father, a police officer. His reluctance to proceed further with his plan leads to Mia taking action to thwart the police and then secure the Death Note for herself. Light’s bid to find L’s name fails, forcing him to launch a desperate gambit to kill Mia and clear his name. And when he does, the ending is ambiguous. Light may be cleared, but ‘L’ has a piece of the Death Note and he might write Light’s name …

The whitewashing is a very minor matter indeed, compared to the other travesties perpetrated on the manga. Just about every character has had their race swapped around. Light, Mia and James Turner are all white; ‘L’ is black (I’d say he was mixed White/Asian in the manga); Watari is Japanese (elderly English gentleman in the manga). Names have also been changed to fit – Soichiro Yagami has become James Turner. (Light Yagami’s sister and mother were both adapted out of NDN, along with every other Shinigami.) None of this is a problem, although it does seem rather pointless. The arguments in favour of whitewashing in ‘Doctor Strange’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ hardly seem to apply here.

What is more annoying is that the characters have been changed. I’ve already touched on Light being more of a whiny student in NDN. Mia provides the sociopathic tendencies that NDN’s Light lacks, but she also lacks the charm, intelligence and devotion of her manga counterpart (Misa Amane.) In some ways, this works: Misa became a less interesting character after she meets up with Light Yagami, losing most of her agency. In others, it makes Mia far less charming than the original and removes the ‘Second Kira’ aspect of the plot. ‘L,’ meanwhile, is a confused mess, showing some of the intelligence and bravery of the original, but lacking the original’s cool and collected approach to solving the case. (This is made worse by the cut-downs, which removed most of L’s justifications for suspecting Light Yagami.)

James Turner, by contrast, is something of an improvement, being the first person to point out the dangers in Light’s approach to law enforcement. Who do you complain to if ‘Kira’ kills the wrong person? He is also more defensive of Light, to some extent; police officer or not, he does nothing when Light is bullied, but angrily berates and threatens L for accusing Light of being Kira. And Ryuk is almost perfect, save for the darker side of his nature. When Light throws a tantrum and threatens to write Ryuk’s name down …

You could try. But I warn you, there are four letters in my name. Most anyone’s ever gotten were two.”

The production values were clearly a little mixed. Some elements are good – dramatic, even – others are just annoying. I’m no fan of playing songs over scenes, particularly when they don’t seem to fit. The visual effects are suitably gruesome – Ryuk’s giggling suggests he was doing the killing, rather than the Death Note itself – but they do seem to go a little too far at times. At other moments, the story jumps forward with a vigour that convinces me I’m missing something. The manga’s slow build is completely missing.

Like I said, NDN would be reasonably watchable as a stand-alone. But it doesn’t come up to the source material.

The major problem, of course, is Light himself. He just isn’t the outright Villain Protagonist of the manga. And ‘L’ isn’t the detective of the manga either (and a number of other characters are wiped from existence.) This erases the moral dilemma of the manga – is Light right to kill criminals? – and cuts down the people who support Kira, as well as the involvement of other Shinigami. There’s no final warehouse confrontation, nor is there the denouncement of the manga:

No. You’re just a murderer, Light Yagami. And this notebook is the deadliest weapon in the history of mankind. If you had been a normal person and had used this notebook once out of curiosity, you would have been surprised and scared of what had happened, regretted what you had done, and never used this notebook again. To speak of extremes, I can actually understand those who would use this notebook for their personal interests and kill a couple of people, and even think that they’re normal. But you yielded to the power of the notebook and the Shinigami and have confused yourself with a god. In the end, you’re nothing more than a crazy Serial Killer. That’s all you are. Nothing more… and nothing less.”

Indeed, the decision to move the story from Japan to America leads to other missed opportunities. America is different from Japan, so why not have an American Kira tackle American problems? Should George Zimmerman be killed? Or that a-hole who arrested a nurse because she wouldn’t let him commit a crime? Or … I don’t really blame Netflix for keeping away from (more) controversy – it would probably have ruined the launch – but it’s still a missed opportunity.

Netflix’s Death Note wasn’t a complete disaster. It had its moments. But it neither lived up to the manga nor carved out an existence of its own.

In truth, I don’t think the former is actually possible.

Editor’s note:  This review was previously published on the author’s blog.

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