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I sit here with my pen prepared
To dish out justice undeclared,
And when I write, no one is spared,
For who’s more right than I?
Most secret of dictatorships
With death upon my fingertips,
I munch upon potato chips
And choose who’s next to die.

They’ll fear the killer none can see
And puzzle at the mystery,
Not knowing it was always me
Who hands out just rewards.
Repaying vengeance now is mine;
The world will bend by my design.
How wise the man who wrote the line
That pens kill more than swords!
___________________

MPAA rating: R (for brief graphic violence and frequent language)

I’ve been nervous about checking out Netflix’s live-action Death Note movie, especially based on the reviews I’d read. Movie adaptations of anime have about the same track record as those based on video games, yet I really hoped that Netflix’s Death Note movie would be the one to break the mold. (I know it was originally a manga, but I mainly know the anime.) Its story has all the ingredients of a great psychological thriller, a battle of wills between a megalomaniacal teen with a killer notebook and a genius detective intent on bringing him to justice. I was never that invested in Ghost in the Shell or Dragonball and thus didn’t much care when their American versions flopped, but I am a definite fan of the Death Note anime. That’s why the recent American adaptation was such a disappointment, even as I saw traces of the good movie it almost was.

I suppose I’ll address the casting controversy first, allegations of whitewashing that I honestly don’t get. An American version has every right to be set in America, and moving the story from Japan to Seattle makes casting white actors perfectly reasonable. Japan does the same thing, even when it goes against the source material; just look at the all-Japanese casts of Attack on Titan or Fullmetal Alchemist, both of which are supposed to have European settings and characters, for the most part. Casting good actors should take precedence, which is why I also don’t mind Keith Stanfield as a black version of L, since he at least acts closer to the original character than the other actors.

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As that last statement implies, Death Note misses the mark most, not as a film in general, but as an adaptation. It may seem like a strange comparison, but it’s a lot like last year’s live-action Beauty and the Beast; they both could be reasonably fine movies if they weren’t entirely overshadowed by exceptionally better animated originals. The basics are there. Formerly named Light Yagami, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a gifted but resentful high school student who finds the mysterious Death Note, which claims to kill anyone whose name is written in it, usually by an unexplained heart attack unless a different method is specified. Goaded by a demonic death god named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) and believing he can right all the wrongs of the world and become godlike, Light sets out to rid the world of criminals as the killer called Kira but runs into conflict with the eccentric detective known only as L.

Those are the basics, and the film follows them and asks similar moral questions of how one might use power over life and death. Yet there’s so much changed as well, from minor details to entire character arcs, and the changes are generally for the worse. Light and L start off close to their animated counterparts but end up with vastly different goals and mindsets. As I said Stanfield is appropriately weird and intense as L, though he’s shaken (by events that didn’t happen in the anime) to act with uncharacteristic rage at one point. Likewise, Wolff has a good sense of normalcy about him, making him unlikely to be suspected as Kira, but he also overacts on occasion, like the epic meltdown he has upon meeting Ryuk for the first time. He comes off as intelligent and crafty but hardly the self-assured genius from the anime; that Light went to painstaking lengths to avoid detection by anyone, while this Light brings the Death Note to school and uses it to show off to a girl named Mia (Margaret Qualley). This Mia (formerly Misa in the source material) is the biggest change of all; instead of being an airheaded Kira groupie with a Death Note of her own, she becomes a driving force for Light’s crimes and even tries to outsmart him, which is actually a more interesting direction for her character. The best direct translation to live-action is oddly enough the CGI one; Dafoe is perfectly cast as the sinister Ryuk, employing his Green Goblin voice with relish.

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In addition to all the character changes, the plot spins along trying to carve its own path while muddling its story. The Death Note in the anime did have a lot of rules as to its various uses, but the film loads on more to confusing effect and even seems to break a few. For example, people whose names are written in the note can be controlled for two days prior to their death, and Light tries to use this detail by writing someone with a single-word name, which I always assumed was fake. If he can do that, why not do it with L? The ending is actually pretty thrilling and finally reveals the depths of Light’s Sherlockian foresight and cleverness, but it also exaggerates the note’s abilities to the point of seemingly predicting the future rather than just controlling people.

As one last complaint, I also was disappointed that it had to be R-rated, likely thanks to director Adam Winguard’s reputation for horror. I enjoyed the anime because it gradually developed as a dark and compelling narrative, and did so without a single F-word or graphic decapitation. It was proof that you can explore dark material without going to extremes for extreme’s sake, something I wish Hollywood and Netflix would have learned. Oh, and what was with the soundtrack? Some of the songs were complementary, but others clashed really strangely, like playing Air Supply over the ending scenes.

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By the end, it seems open for a sequel, yet certain characters know things they shouldn’t and there’s no easy way to see how the story could continue in any direction that remotely resembles the original. There are traces of brilliance in the climax and in the confrontations between Light and L, yet I would much sooner recommend the anime over this misguided adaptation. Actually, I wish Netflix would take a real chance and make a movie out of Death Note: The Musical, courtesy of composer Frank Wildhorn, who is apparently popular enough in Japan that he was asked to musicalize Death Note. It’s actually quite good, and you can find it on YouTube, like here. I’ll just have to wait a little longer for that really good live-action anime adaptation (Your Name maybe) because sadly this isn’t it.

Best line: (L, to Light) “You’re the one who flew into the sun; I’m just here to make sure you burn!”

 

Rank: Dishonorable Mention

 

© 2018 S.G. Liput

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For those familiar with Death Note, here’s a little parody video combining it with The Fairly OddParents that cracked me up, since they changed Light’s last name to Turner.