Death Note was my first anime. It was also the first animated property that showed me that complex, entertaining narratives were not limited to live action. I owe my current interest in animation and storytelling to Light and L’s 40-episode long game of chess, and I dreaded the Netflix adaptation from the second it was announced, as the West is notorious at this point for bastardising popular Japanese properties. Dragon Ball Z, Ghost in the Shell, and many others have already had their moments on the chopping block, and it seemed like Death Note was next. Having now watched the movie in its entirety, I am sorry to say that I believe it fails as an adaptation like so many others before it.
Being an adaptation, the Death Note movie by no means had to imitate the original. Several Japanese movie and stage adaptations have already been made, and they all stick to the source material quite heavily. Anyone who wants to see a live-action verbatim adaptation can just see those, so it was in Netflix’s best interest to be more unique and make significant changes. However, most of the choices they made are completely nonsensical. Every character is a shadow of their original selves, and the story’s focus and direction is way off. While the original was mostly about two very smart people playing a game of wits not unlike that of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, the adaptation is more focused on the romantic drama between Light and Mia, as well as Ryuk’s manipulation of them both. You tell me which sounds more interesting.
If the intention was to make a version of Death Note steeped in American culture and an American setting, the movie doesn’t do it very well. Light could’ve still been the hyper-intelligent sociopath he was in the original, but the setting could’ve changed his character in interesting ways. How are people like him treated in American high schools? How does his culture affect his sense of justice? These questions are overlooked by the Netflix adaptation. They try to make Light seem disenfranchised, but the only true injustice he ever suffers is his mother’s killer getting off scot-free. They try to make Light out to be an intelligent teen, but all his actions paint him as above average intelligence at best, and woefully gullible. If he was as smart as the movie says he is, why does he allow himself to constantly be manipulated? Why does he barely even attempt to battle L on a psychological level? Why would he think that a school bully is deserving of death as if he was an actual criminal? None of his decisions are intelligent (excluding an uncharacteristic and barely plausible use of the Death Note in the film’s climax). Oddly enough, Mia (the Netflix version of Misa) shares more with the original Light than this new Light does.
With Misa, I’m not as sure how her character could have been adapted for an American setting. Her original career as a pop idol could still have been maintained in some form, but I don’t think that was a very important aspect of her character. What is more important is her devotion to light. Light Yagami is a character who manipulates people to get what he wants, and Misa is easily his most valuable asset. While she is rather dim-witted, she is an integral part of the story, and I’m not sure how I feel about the decision to make Mia a more active and antagonistic force in the story. While it was nice to see some form of ruthlessness from Kira, it’s hard to understand why they would strip Light of that trait and give it to Mia. A part of me thinks they didn’t want their female lead to be too passive, but Mia ends up being far more infuriating than impressive. She may have some of Light Yagami’s ruthlessness and drive, but she woefully lacks the intelligence to back it up. Due to this, her strategies end up feeling like poorly thought-out power grabs instead of impressive, well calculated moves.
I’m not going to speak about it in too much detail, but I also feel that they made Light and Mia’s relationship extremely uninteresting. What was originally a one-sided and manipulative relationship that aided Light in his constant deceptions has been reduced to a cringe-inducing teen romance, complete with PG13 sex and badly-written dialog.
The only things salvaging this adaptation are L and Ryuk. While their characters have suffered ultimately unwise changes (like Light and Mia), Willem Dafoe and Lakeith Stanfield offer incredibly faithful portrayals of their respective characters. Dafoe’s voice provides Ryuk with the right amount of arrogance and nonchalance, while feeling distinctly sinister, and Stanfield as L maintains all the odd mannerisms and speech patterns we could’ve hoped, albeit with a few alterations in emotion and organisation. If it wasn’t for his intense emotional instability, I might have liked this rendition of L almost as much as the original.
Still, I feel like the casting choices must be mentioned. Putting aside the acting ability of the cast, I must oppose the choice to cast Light as a White American. Going in I didn’t think I had a problem with this, but after seeing how poorly the movie plugged in distinctly Japanese concepts like “Shinigami” and the very name “Kira,” I must say that a Japanese American would’ve been a better casting choice. Not only could a Japanese-American Light still retain the character traits they chose to give him, but it could’ve also made the incorporation of these Japanese elements a lot more natural. Imagine if they had set Light up as a mixed-race teenager with a white father and Japanese mother: his feelings towards his dead mother could’ve connected with not only his knowledge of Shinigami, but also his decision to adopt a Japanese Moniker. Many people may disagree, but I think this would’ve been a much better path to take.
This poor casting choice exemplifies the problems with this adaptation. It tries to make big changes to distance itself from its source material, while still feeling the need to pay lip service to it. Creative decisions that seem obvious to fans are completely overlooked by the team in charge of the movie. At times it does seem like you’re watching Death Note, but other times you could mistake it for Final Destination or a teen drama. If we are to believe that this is what Death Note would be if set in the USA, then we should be happy it isn’t.
It might be that we will never see a good western anime adaptation; I’m not sure whether the wrong people have been put in charge thus far, or if there are larger cultural differences stopping these adaptations from working. Death Note could’ve broken the apparent curse, but it would seem that the creative team behind this adaptation lacked the vision and respect for the source material that is required of a good adaptation. Art is subjective though, so someone else may very well have different opinions on this film than I do, and I would love to know how others felt about Netflix’s Death Note. At the end of the day, maybe this film can serve to teach us something about how to properly handle adaptations — especially when adapting works from different mediums and cultures.