Death Note, the second major Japanese manga to be adapted as a major Hollywood production this year, is facing some of the same criticisms that its predecessor (Ghost in the Shell) did. Accusations of ‘whitewashing’ the film and its cast have hounded the Netflix film, especially as its release date has drawn near. It’s director, Adam Wingard, was quick to point out that Japanese adaptations of western stories don’t worry over pulling in American cast members to stay true to the source material. And perhaps it’s not an issue. Release territories often cast film and television to best relate to their native audience. The Office (UK) already existed when the American version of The Office was released stateside. Both star an English-speaking cast, but producers must have determined that the American audience required something slightly different in order for the series to succeed. Whether or not American audiences are ready for a Japan-set and Japanese-starring adaptation is another matter. Some may welcome it, but it seems it may not be for everyone yet. And until the bottom line is not dollars, don’t expect filmmaker
What’s more troubling, in the case of Death Note, is that whitewashing here means not trading out Tokyo for Seattle, nor casting American instead of Japanese actors, but rather, trading out an intelligent, thoughtful, and emotionally controlled protagonist for the typical angsty, emo, American high school outsider. And in the case of Death Note, the presence of brains, or fully-functioning, strategizing, and highly calculating minds on both sides of the chess board is not only central to, but instrumental to the success of the story: it defines the saga. Without it, you get a very different, and arguably, inferior story.
Director: Adam Wingard
Release Date: August 25, 2017
Meet Light (Nat Wolff). He seems to be a bit of a loner. We’re told he’s highly intelligent, so don’t let his actions make you think otherwise: he is. Hold on there, Light? Would you mind stopping acting like an idiot? I’m trying to tell the readers how smart you are! Thanks! Right, really smart Light is sitting outside his high school when a notebook mysteriously drops from the sky and lands right next to him. Its cover says DEATH NOTE. Inside, it says, “The human whose name is written here will die.” And that’s where we start, with a preposterous notion, one that most would write off, and one which Light probably would too, only supernatural phenomena do a marvelous job of helping him to believe, and quickly. It turns out there’s a death god, Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), who is a sort of interactive guide to using the Death Note and he’s not only helping Light to believe the note’s powers are real, he’s encouraging his every move.
Turns out Light is a troubled kid, one whose mother was killed by a man who got off on legal technicalities. And Light’s not much a fan of bullying either. Put these ingredients together with the supernatural power to kill by writing a name in a book and Light’s recipe is A better world, now. With light at its head as the god of justice, Kira.
The film’s strength is its ability to condense down the material that comprises the manga and anime into a single movie, successfully. It’s tough to pace the material to this condensed narrative format, but the Netflix team did it with their story. And you must call it their story, as beyond the presence of Light, L (Lakeith Stanfield), and Ryuk, oh, and a book that kills people whose names have been written in it, the story ceases to be the one that you may already be familiar with. Gone is the cat and mouse interplay that made the originals so devilishly enjoyable. Instead, it’s more like lion, mouse, and too much moody music and too many Dutch angles. This is MTV filmmaking if you’ve ever seen it (hopefully you haven’t—does anyone else remembrer the abysmal The Perfect Score?).
L lives up to his character history. Clearly, he’s been given the intellect of both characters when it was supposed to be split between the two.
But the most egregious error of this story is Light’s giving up all his secrets in the moments after they become his secrets, all to impress a girl. And, once convinced, impressed she is: their first time killing someone together immediately leads to sex. And here, I think the story loses itself. This is not Bonnie & Clyde with a hint of vigilantism, or it’s not supposed to be. Nor, if it were, would only half of the couple really care to stick to their guns about killing the innocent. It’s a diluted version of the original story, wherein Light is not afraid or hesitant to kill law officials if they’ll hinder his plans. This splitting of the personality and character serves to create problems that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and ultimately makes Light a less interesting character.
Which is a shame, for if given the proper material, Wolff seems a more than capable actor; his turn at being terrified at the first appearance of Ryuk is amazing—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone act “scared” as well as he does. But, instead of letting him act the cool, calculating sociopath, they give him a turn as out outburst-prone, temper-tantrum throwing teenager who has daddy issues and “behavioral problems” at school. We’ve all seen many versions of that before. Light, the character essence of Light, is above this petty normal stuff. Which is funny, because inside this Light’s school locker, we see a sticker that says “Normal people scare me.” That should be right, but Light is far too average for it to hit home.
For those uninitiated in the Death Note lore, this will probably play better than for those already familiar with the story. How well is another question.
For those who are already familiar, you do find more than pleasant turns from Lakeith Stanfield as L and from Defoe / Jason Liles as Ryuk. They’re much truer to form and both play their parts well. L’s quirks are by and large wholly believable, feel natural—as much as someone like L can feel natural. With only occasional tics (the use of some sort of neural eyewear to help him maximize the benefits of one hour of sleep) as fails, and those can be chalked up more to poor writing than acting.
Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) as Mia Sutton, Light’s disenchanted cheerleader turned girlfriend makes due with what she’s given, but her own righteousness and willingness to compromise and kill anyone who’d get in Bonnie & Clyde’s way is never satisfyingly explained. Her motivations are utterly unknown, other than the apparent sexual fetishization of violence that we’ve already touched upon.
The twists begin transparently and grow in effectiveness as the film progresses, ending on a stong(er) note. But mostly, the deaths rely on gruesome effects that show explicitly what’s happening to people. I counted at least three that equaled the gore found in The Walking Dead’s most violent moments. They were cringe-inducing, and felt in the audience. Perhaps this served to underscore just how real this seemingly unreal phenomena was, but more likely, it seemed an easy out to use shock against the viewers rather than intellect.
Maybe portraying an emotionally stable and dedicated high school student was too much the challenge for any director to imagine. It’s true, culturally, the image of Light as such conforms more to Japanese idealism than American. Either way, outside its interesting pitch line, Death Note fails to deliver anything new and truly exciting—it may have been better served as an eight-episode Netflix series rather than movie.
Side note: this story takes place in Seattle, yet Light is caught not once, but twice in pouring downpours acting as if he hates the rain; have people forgotten umbrellas in Seattle? Details matter.