OnScreen Review: Death Note

Brittany Strelluf

Death Note is a Netflix original feature film. It is based on the Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It was adapted into a highly popular  anime television show.  The series was directed by Tetsuro Araki, who also directed the masterpiece Attack on Titan. Along with the Netflix version, the manga has also inspired three live action movies, video games, and other spin-offs. 

The premise is that a genius high school kid named Light finds a Death Note, a notebook which can kill anyone whose name is written down in it.  Light decides to use the book to enact justice and end crime. The show becomes a cat and mouse game between Light and a brilliant Interpol detective named L. Death Note crosses genres and mages to be a mystery, a thriller, and a horror show. It is cerebral, suspenseful, thrilling, and intelligent. 

This Netflix original was released after much hype and controversy.   We are so lucky to live in a world where high quality movies and television is available so easily.  Unfortunately, the Netflix adaptation had many otakus screaming delete, delete, delete.

Now, there were some good things about this movie. The production values in this film were excellent. There was some very nice cinematography work and special effects.  The montage of Kira broadcasts was effective. The very best thing about this movie was the casting of Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. Defoe is impeccable as ever in this role as a death god.  To be honest, the movie really didn’t utilize him as much as they could have. It might have interesting ifRyuk had been turned into a Book Thief style narrator. 

It is really impossible to review this and not compare it to the original anime series. The original is much more intellectual and has more dynamic dialog, whereas this one relies on action to engage American audiences.

Possibly the biggest change in the series was the protagonist Light. In the original, Light is arguably, a textbook sociopath. He is charismatic, arrogant, manipulative, and extremely intelligent.  On the outside he is a model student who excels at everything he attempts. In this adaption Light is written to be much more sympathetic. The first two victims that Light takes out are a horrible schoolyard bully and the man who murdered his mother. It is completely understandable why the producers wanted the protagonist to be a good guy.  While it is somewhat effective, Light really comes across as a bit of twerp, only really becoming Kira near the end of the film.

This change in Light affected the relationships and motivations of Ryuk and Mia.  Originally, Light is the villain, he isn’t really likable to the audience. In this adaptation, Mia is a bored cheerleader who pulls a bit of a Lady Macbeth on Light.  In the anime, she falls hopelessly in love with Light and becomes his pawn throughout the series.  In this version, Light is more of a victim of circumstance and manipulation. The initial meeting of Ryuk and Light is a good example of how the two shows are so different. In the Netflix remake, Light literally screamed  like a little girl. In the anime, Light is a startled by the sudden appearance of a scary, ugly death god. Then he calmly composes himself and says he has been waiting for Ryuk to show up.

There has been great criticism over the casting choices, and after viewing this in completion, I believe that criticism is justified.  Washington State in general andSeattle specifically. Both have large populations of Asian-Americans  There were missed opportunities for motives and characterizations.  The scene where we finally meet L, the character came from a crime scene in Japan, and he spoke perfect Japanese.  It simply didn't make sense that L was not Japanese. 

It should be stated that the goal here is not a literal scene for scene adaptation. Nor does it have to be an English version of the other live action films.  However, a little more of the source material probably would have made for an adaptation that was better received  by fans. The last few minutes of the show proved a relatively satisfying ending.  If only the cat and mouse games could have been stronger throughout the movie.

The Netflix adaptation was a good college try.  However, it missed the mark on what made the original so good and so popular to begin with. Watch and decide for yourself.