Netflix’s Death Note, a rant; or, please don’t make a sequel
I know a film is not a person, but I want to write this into the Death Note
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe
Now playing on Netflix
Every day, we see crime, bullying, and discrimination — such injustice must be stopped. Meet the Death Note, a magical notebook that kills the people whose names are written in it. So when death god Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) drops a Death Note onto Earth, high school student Light Yagami — sorry, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) — picks it up...only to get frustrated by the number of rules in it. Who knew killing people could get so complicated? Then, Light, along with his new girlfriend Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), uses the notebook to kill criminals while a detective named L (Lakeith Stanfield) investigates these deaths.
The Netflix film received flak in the months leading to its release, notably for whitewashing. I wasn’t surprised. American film adaptations of anime have not had a good track record (I’m looking at you, Dragonball Evolution), but I always hoped it would change. There is some level of frustration when adaptations like this, which require a smaller budget than a film like Ghost in the Shell, fail to convey anything that was compelling from the original when the original manga (and its anime and film adaptations) are presented in a silver platter.
Let’s start with “whitewashing.” I’ll state my unpopular opinion: whitewashing isn’t necessarily a problem if the white actors are the “perfect” fit for the role. The problem is that this is rarely the case. Instead, we have white actors act for Asian characters much more than Asian actors act for white characters, without consideration for character portrayal. Presently, Hollywood lacks prominent Asian roles, thus when the few Asian roles we do have do not go to Asian actors, it is upsetting.
The writers decided to switch the setting of Death Note to an American high school, with American teenagers leading the film. I would have respected this change, had it led to interesting questions. The original work tackled the morality of violence (or murder) in the face of injustice. This adaptation could have looked at the relationship between racial profiling and law enforcement, at American youth activism and its utility, at current incarceration rates and prison reform; unfortunately, the film did none of that. When you degrade a work rather than elevate it, then you have no right to call it by its original name.
If the concept of the Death Note wasn’t clear: names are important. This Light is nowhere near as compelling as his Japanese counterpart, whose surname Yagami contains the character for god. In the first anime episode, church choir music bellowed as Light Yagami declared he would become the god of this new world. He was cunning, condescending, and brutal. His Achilles heel was his arrogance, a personality flaw that L took advantage of. Even the original L, the representative of justice, danced in the gray zone of morality, and the police force are noticeably uncomfortable with his ruthlessness. The original explored morality with Ryuk’s nihilistic glee. All that mattered was the game, the tension, the cure of boredom. For Ryuk, humans were interesting: wind up Light like a toy and watch him go. For Light, his new god-status was exhilarating; he wrote human justice for the world.
The original also tastefully chose its humor with its character quirks (L sits awkwardly with his bare feet on his chair) and its self-awareness of the show’s seriousness (there is a beloved scene of Light Yagami declaring his consumption of potato chips to choir chants). The film adaptation takes itself seriously in all the wrong places. Several minutes of Light screaming and running away from Ryuk is out of place. It’s not funny; it’s irritating. It disrupts the content of the film, or lack thereof. If the writers intended for Light to be anywhere close to his Japanese counterpart, then they have utterly failed.
I mildly applaud the writers for giving Misa greater involvement but only with a slow, sardonic clap: Mia Sutton, ironically, is less interesting than Misa Amane; her manipulative streak is given little time to develop in the film. Misa, whose Gothic lolita fashion and obsessive love for Light might render her a weak female character, is at least given justification for her actions, as Light killed her parents’ murderer and she is indebted to him; it was her unhealthy obsession and irrationality that made her a dangerous player.
This film destroys this relationship dynamic entirely. No longer is Light the manipulator but rather the manipulated. He is manipulated by L, as per the original, but then he is also manipulated (rather, blindsided) by Mia, and then by Ryuk, who was impartial in the original. Light is a terrified teenager who justifies himself like a child who repeats to himself that he is still a good boy. Spoiler alert: he isn’t. And in the original, he never was. Every fairytale needs a good, old-fashioned villain, and Light Yagami was he.
If it wasn’t obvious from the fan reaction, this film was a disgrace to a beloved franchise. I have one last comment: the film loves using the Dutch angle so often that it’s a fantastic opportunity for a drinking game. You might need it when you watch this.