Death Note – written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata – is one of the biggest manga series of all time. Not only has it enjoyed massive success in Japan since its debut in December 2003, selling over 30 million copies, but it’s one of the few series that has crossed over to the West and taken it by storm. With its instantly recognisable characters, gripping story and the iconic Death Note itself striking such a chord with the audience, it’s been picked up by the media negatively on several occasions. It has – for better and for worse – effectively become the gateway series for an entire generation.
Of course, due to its success, it has had numerous adaptations and re-tellings from an anime TV series, to musicals, Japanese TV drama, and numerous films (live action and animated). An American version of the story was first rumoured back in 2007, with many companies interested in adapting the source material and numerous fan castings including Zac Efron as the main character. Behind the scenes however, Death Note seemed to suffer from the early stages of Development Hell with rewrites going against the source material drastically, and studios adopting it and eventually failing to launch the project. It wasn’t until April 2016 when Netflix picked up the rights that rumours turned into news, and streams of castings, interviews and eventually trailers worked their way onto the net. Now, nearly 14 years since the original manga’s debut, the first American adaptation of Death Note has been released worldwide, launching exclusively on Netflix on Friday 25th August.
As Death Note has had such an impact on the Anime UK News team (many of us fell in love with the series at different stages of its long lifespan) we decided that instead of just releasing one review, we would all share our thoughts.
So, what DID we think of the Netflix’s version of Death Note? (Spoiler warning…obviously!)
Death Note holds a special place in my heart, not just because one of my best friends introduced it to me many years ago and the manga is in my Top 5 of all time, but it’s also one of two anime series I’ve managed to get my husband into (the other being Elfen Lied). It’s a show we first enjoyed watching together as a couple, and all the movies thereafter. We loved the original story and unique characters so we were both highly excited for this adaptation. My husband’s reaction was quite positive; as for me, I’m not so sure…
Let’s start with the positives. Ryuk has some bad CGI effects for his model; however since his character is almost always out of focus or is obscured by shadows, this makes him seem more elusive. Combined with Willem Dafoe’s ‘Green Goblin’ voice, Ryuk has a creepier presence in this adaptation and it really works; despite being far more active and manipulative in this version, he is still fun and highly watchable.
Mia is arguably the least recognisable compared to the original Misa, but I think for the better; she’s no longer constantly pining for Light and just used as a tool for his games, instead Light pines after HER from the start and the pair become a sort-of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ duo using the Death Note together to reshape the world. Personally, this was my favourite part of this new version. Seeing the Death Note used in a different way with a pair of like-minded individuals and watching it corrupt them together as the movie progresses, is a fresh take whilst still remaining loyal to the original manga’s themes. In the second half, when the couple start to clash and distrust each other, the building of the final climax is the closest it gets to the original story as they play mind games with each other and attempt to bend the rules of the Death Note to their advantage. The twisted final death is well done and a satisfying conclusion to their arc.
L’s actor (Keith Stanfield) clearly watched the original anime because he copies L’s mannerisms effectively, and for the first half of the movie he IS L. Then the plot decides to change him into a much more emotional and impulsive character to up the stakes, but the actor still tries to maintain the physicality of the character, so kudos to him.
Light Turner, on the other hand, is the character that will most likely make or break the fans for this movie. To put it bluntly: Light Turner is the exact opposite of Light Yagami, in fact, some of Turner’s actions just within the opening scenes would probably give Yagami a heart attack! A quick comparison: Yagami is from a happy home life with loving parents, a sister and a well-maintained house. Turner’s house however is very run-down with his mum recently murdered and he constantly clashes with his misunderstanding father. Yagami is known for being incredibly smart, the top of his class, well respected and loved by many but also gifted in athletics as well. Turner’s a delinquent who’s not popular in school or physically capable either. Lastly, when Yagami gets the Death Note it doesn’t take long for him to start using it, forming a complex master plan; he strategizes constantly to maintain the ‘Kira’ persona, keeping his secret and careful not to kill anyone that can be traced back to him. What does Turner do? He starts killing people nearest to him, brings the Death Note into school IN FULL VIEW of other students AND doesn’t hesitate to show another classmate what it can do. Controversial choices were made for the entirety of Light’s character, and mostly not for the better. As a result, the whole ‘cat and mouse’ game between L and Light in the original is completely non-existent in Netflix’s version, in fact L figures out who Kira is very early on and runs circles around this Light, who is only able to carry on for as long as he does due to his partner Mia.
To compromise, we get far more of a visually spectacular type of movie with chase sequences, rapid editing and many ‘Final Destination’-esque death scenes, with only ONE of them being a heart attack. It’s understandable that Netflix was afraid that a whole movie of watching back-to-back heart attacks and two dudes merely playing mind games would be boring for the younger audience, and they would want to cram as much of the original plot points as they could. However, aside from the over-the-top death scenes (which the original DID have plenty of) and the already mentioned climax, the story does not feel like the original at all. Many famous scenes are sadly skipped or merely glossed over, and two rules of the Death Note are re-written for this version which may or may not go down well with audiences.
If your favourite part of the original story is the L vs. Light mind battles and the creative ways they try to ‘one up’ each other, then you’ll most likely hate this version. If, however, you enjoyed more of the world building, seeing how the Death Note could be used in creative ways and don’t mind encountering fresh (if controversial) takes on the characters, this film could satisfy your next popcorn movie Netflix night binge.
Whilst I doubt it’d crack my top five favourite anime, I do hold the original Death Note in quite high esteem. Despite the reputation it seems to have earned as being ‘edgy’, I found the high stakes cat-and-mouse antics to be some of the most gripping and addictive anime I’ve ever seen. It’s because I like it so much that I was very much dreading this Netflix adaptation. Live-action adaptations of anime properties seem to have a less than stellar track record, so the chances of this being any good seemed slim to none, and after watching it, it’s safe to say that all such assumptions were indeed justified.
There are probably a hundred smaller things you could point at as to why this fails as an adaptation, but the crux of it boils down to two main reasons, the first of which is the total ruination of Light’s character. In the anime, Light is a total sociopath, using any means necessary to shape the world with his new-found Death Note, almost totally lacking a conscience and shedding what remains of his humanity to achieve his goal. This contrasts greatly with his live-action version, who seems to be the antithesis of his manga counterpart, coming across as a much less ruthless, softer character. The opening of the movie demonstrates this perfectly; Light meets Ryuk for the first time and promptly freaks out and starts crying and screaming, the total opposite to the anime which shows him unfazed by the shinigami standing in front of him. This seems to be a by-product of the odd decision to split the personality of anime Light into two here, shifting the more sociopathic tendencies to the film version of Misa, renamed to Mia, doing away entirely with anything regarding her anime counterpart, and sacrificing the fantastic Light/Misa dynamic in the process. L’s character also doesn’t get off lightly either, in fact you could argue he gets it way worse, with the cool, calm and collected character being replaced by one that seems quick to lose his temper and showing willingness to kill Light, going against everything his anime counterpart stood for.
My second biggest issue with the Death Note movie is the fact that it was a movie at all. The whole first arc of Death Note (you know, the good bit) lasts 25 episodes, equalling out to roughly 8 hours’ worth of anime. That slow game of cat and mouse, with the tension slowly but surely ratcheting up as Light has to devise more and more complex plans to avoid capture just doesn’t translate well to an hour-and-a-half long movie. Death Note, to me anyway, is about the long game, and that’s what made the original series so massively addicting, and the film version just fails to capture that element at all, with L deducing Kira’s identity around the halfway mark. I’m not sure how feasible it would have been to pull off, but if Netflix made this a 10-12 episode series of 45 minute episodes, it would have been so, so much better, allowing the writers to encapsulate the appeal of the original and also not have to rush and skip over important plot points for the sake of time.
Up to this point, all my complaints have been based on the quality of the film as an adaptation, which is to say nothing of how well it stands up on its own. If you completely disregard the source material, then I think the film is pretty decent. Not good or great, simply decent. The gory deaths, whilst infrequent, are pretty entertaining if you’re into that sort of thing, it never really seemed to drag, keeping up a good pace, and Willem Dafoe’s turn as Ryuk is a stroke of casting genius, despite his rather fleeting appearances. However, given the majority of people watching this likely will be fans of either the anime or the manga, these few saving graces will not be enough to save it from being yet another failure from America to successfully adapt an anime property to the big screen.
It has to be said that Death Note isn’t usually the kind of thing you see me writing about. I love simple stories about good vs. evil, where the villain is clear cut and you cheer for the hero to save the day. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a show about characters with more debatable morals. In the original Death Note manga Light truly believes he is doing good for the world, while L just sees him as a coldblooded murderer. Between the two characters, it’s then up to the reader (or viewer) to decide who’s really right or wrong in this world. I always liked that aspect of the story when I read the manga, but most of all I loved the cat-and-mouse game between Light and L which this adaption completely loses.
It’s not just the fact that Light and L aren’t really pitted against each other for long or even trying to outwit each other, considering how quickly Light confesses to L about being Kira. My major problems are with the characters themselves. In this adaption Light is shown to be fairly smart but is obviously a delinquent and spends a lot of the movie doing really stupid stuff. The original Light would never dream of taking the Death Note out of his house after the world begins hunting for Kira, while for this movie Light has the book in plain sight during school. He just isn’t smart enough to truly live up to the Light many of us know and love. This is also why the whole battle of wits between him and L doesn’t work this time around as he just cannot outwit L.
The only real redeeming factor in this movie is L himself. Keith Stanfield does a remarkable job at capturing the many mannerisms we’ve come to recognise L for and his performance is only let down by the terrible script towards the end. L is a perfectly fine character until the conclusion where he suddenly loses his mind and does things the original character never would have. As a Death Note fan it’s upsetting to see the character used this way
Ultimately the Death Note movie leaves me cold, but I don’t think it’s terrible if you watch it with friends who can laugh along to the silly on-screen antics. I also feel that if you can get over the changes to the characters and the overall situation, then you’ll have a much better time with it than I, and it seems my fellow reviewers, did. Your enjoyment of this movie depends on how much you originally liked Death Note and why you did. However, if you’re a newcomer to Death Note then please read the manga first as I’d hate to see anyone put off the series because of this unremarkable adaption.
To get the good out of the way, so to speak, the Netflix film isn’t without merit, it’s well shot and Ryuk is well realised, and I have no problem with the change in setting or names, given that it’s a US remake after all, and there are plenty of Japanese live action versions of the story. Sadly what I didn’t like was the change to the core principle that made the original so good: the sometimes impossibly clever ways Light would get out of situations and the ever increasingly tense cat-and-mouse chase between L and Light. Instead Light was an idiot, and L became a crazy person, leading to an on-foot chase where L was waving a weird type of special handgun around and Light was scared stiff (which is a fair enough reaction to a madman with a gun chasing you, but that’s not the point!) That was the big climax between the two characters! It was like Death Note with all the intelligence sapped out of it. What made this more annoying was that L at the start of the film was a perfectly good live action take on the character. He had similar mannerisms and characteristics, but was still an interesting new take on it… why it so quickly had to devolve into insanity I have no idea…
I didn’t mind Mia/Misa as a character in this; the new direction was actually quite interesting, but once again for the most part she got one over on Light and was presented as far more competent and interesting that what’s supposed to be our lead character. I liked Light’s Dad in this as well, it was an interesting idea to go with a broken family situation and actually, once again, worked well, except when he figured out his son was Kira because, once again, Light in this film is an idiot. I wasn’t a fan of the overly gory death scenes either, they served no purpose other than a vain attempt to make this “cool”. In the end the film wasn’t a complete train wreck, it was well made, it’s just the script is weak, with two lead characters who have nothing of interest about them compared to their original versions. I truly hope someone who has never seen/read the original doesn’t watch this and then thinks that Death Note is just some gory horror/action series with no real plot, because the name “Death Note” deserves so much better…
I might be unique among the AUKN staff for coming to this film entirely blind. I’ve never read or watched Death Note in any fashion, therefore I intend to assess the film as a standalone work. I had no preconceptions about the characters or overall story going in, so, for a viewer mostly ignorant of the original franchise, does it work?
In itself, Death Note is a good concept: take a mythological artefact capable of tearing society apart, give it to a teenager, and see what happens. Death Note’s core is the classic American superhero plot turned on its head – many action films give their adolescent heroes great power and a mission to save people, but the Death Note bestows the ability to indiscriminately murder instead. It’s an interesting concept, with a lot of potential for thrilling storytelling and great action, but simple enough to explain to an unfamiliar audience. Unlike other adaptations such as Dragon Ball or Ghost in the Shell, Death Note’s concept is not strongly tied to Japanese culture – take the basic concept in a new direction, and you have a brilliant response to the current superhero movie trend.
The problem, as is likely evident from my colleagues’ views, is the execution. The direction and cinematography are inconsistent, but largely competent. There are a few well-shot scenes, using unconventional camera tricks to good effect, but also a few shots that come across as more pretentious and amateurish than stylish. By and large, the music and sound design is solid, but unremarkable, and the visual effects are pleasantly cheap and cheerful.
The writing proves to be a much bigger issue. Unfortunately, to describe it as a mess is an understatement – the dialogue is ham-fisted, the two lead characters unlikable and one-note, and the plot is inconsistent and uninspired.
The script’s sloppiness is evident throughout the film, but nowhere is it more evident than the main leads, Light (Nat Wolff) and Mia (Margaret Qualley), and their relationship. Both characters are written without a trace of likability or depth; Light is supposed to be smart, but spends most of the film making sloppy mistakes – like taking the Death Note out in public under his arm – and never gives the audience any reason to like or root for him.
Mia’s intended personality is a mystery to me, but she comes across as a psychopathic murder fantasist and little else. They’re supposed to team up to try and “save the world,” but her character is so devoid of motivation that everything she does seems arbitrary or generic – almost like she’s the token female lead whose only purpose is to give the male lead motivation, and as someone to let the audience ogle at one point in the film for a misjudged and entirely pointless sex scene.
One particularly strong example of how the writing fails to carry the characters is the portrayal of Light’s second kill with the Death Note. This is a classic revenge subplot, done well in so many other stories and normally a sure-fire way to keep the audience engaged. Skomal, the man in question, is as despicable as he is disposable, as the story explains that he killed Light’s mother – revealed through a painfully awkward and forced dialogue scene earlier on between Light and his father. If written well, the character’s dramatic and super-gory death would be a great catharsis to the audience, and sell them on the idea of using the Death Note to purge the evil in the world. Unfortunately, the writing is so poorly executed that it just feels like badly-done farce, rather than the cathartic release the scene calls for. What should be exciting and gratifying becomes morbid, awkward, and limp.
The sad thing is that this movie really does seem salvageable – most of the changes I’ve seen make sense for the audience, and a bolder, more confident spin on the concept could have produced a truly memorable movie. The Death Note, as a concept, is a winner, and the decision to make Light an ordinary teen, rather than a super-genius, is a solid change for an audience less used to the concept. This film could easily have been a superb, cerebral action-thriller, probing both the limits of what the Death Note can do and the moral compass – or lack thereof – of those who come into contact with it. Questions could have been asked and thoroughly answered – who, if anyone, can be trusted with the ability to kill indiscriminately? Is it even possible to do good with an artefact that can only bring death?
Death Note reminds me most of my favourite Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. Both are revenge tales, taking characters who have been wronged and giving them great power in order to set things right – and showing the side effects of such power. But where Kill Bill really shines is where Death Note falls short – a smart, well-written script, a fanatical attention to detail, and a confident, bold spin on a familiar concept. Perhaps Death Note’s scriptwriters could use a careful viewing of Tarantino’s masterpiece, and perhaps realise how Death Note could have been a solid, powerful film, rather than the committee-produced clunker it wound up being.
Death Note (2017) is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.