After years of development hell, finally an American adaptation of Death Note has made it to… well, the small screen, technically, since it’s been picked up for distribution by Netflix. Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to get Western moviegoers to care about a live-action movie of a popular anime, because inevitably your target audience usually already has some kind of familiarity with Japanese version and will inevitably find yours wanting. Death Note tries its hardest and certainly brings something new to the story, but despite its admirable efforts, the movie still might not be enough for some fans to get behind.
For those who know nothing about Death Note, here’s a quick primer on this version: Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a bright high school student who discovers a magical notebook that gives him the power to kill anyone in the world by writing their name down. With the help of his classmate, Mia (Margaret Qualley), he enacts swift justice on criminals of the world as a godlike figure named “Kira,” but his father (Shea Wiggum) has joined forces with a mysterious detective known as “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) to find out Kira’s true identity and put a stop to his reign of terror.
I will admit that prior to watching this movie, I was internally very conflicted; although I’ve seen the Death Note anime in its entirely, I would not have call myself a fan prior to watching it, as there are elements of the show that frustrate me. I was also disappointed that a white actor was cast as the lead, because it seemed like another example of Hollywood not being particularly interested in creating roles for Asian American performers, even while adapting stories that would easily afford them that opportunity. (See also: Ghost In The Shell, Edge Of Tomorrow, 21, The Last Airbender, Dragonball Z, Ed Skrein’s newly revealed role in the Hellboy reboot as a previously Japanese-American character... I could keep going.)
The good news is, this American adaptation is not completely without merit. Adam Wingard, who also directed two of my favorite recent horror-thrillers in The Guest and You’re Next, brings an interesting aesthetic sense to the story that at times feels like a moody ‘80s teen drama and at other times feels like Final Destination. Lakeith Stanfield does not get nearly enough screen time as L, but it’s very clear that he adores the character and manages to give him a lot of depth, even as he’s maintaining his eccentric emotional distance. Mia is a refreshing departure from the Japanese Light’s love interest, Misa, whose depiction in the show often struck me as a little gross and exploitative at times (even though I dearly missed Rem, her usual supernatural sidekick).
Most surprisingly of all, the movie completely nails its depiction of Ryuk, the god of death whose book Light uses to enact his violent desires. Not only is Willem Dafoe as comfortable and menacing in the role as you'd expect him to be, but the character’s foreboding presence makes the focal point of every scene he's in—even though (or, more likely, because) the details of his face are almost always out of focus and obscured by darkness. It's not surprising to learn that Wingard used primarily practical effects to create his Ryuk, because you can really feel the difference compared to previous CGI iterations.
Depending on if and how you enjoy the source material, that might be where the appeal of this adaptation ends. Nat Wolff is certainly giving it his all, but Light Turner, a disaffected outcast who seems completely in over his head (at least until the final few minutes of the film, which make zero sense without context), just doesn't work as a protagonist if what you liked about Light Yagami was his methodical, manipulative nature. Similarly, L and Light barely get the chance to battle each other in their usual game of wits, which is half the fun of the original series; instead, L spends most of his time trying to compel Light to confess, which just feels too soon at this point in the (possible) franchise.
This also speaks to the biggest problem of the movie, which is that it’s paced so quickly and is so focused on action that it never really feels quite like Death Note should. As much fun as I had with the gory deaths and the gloomy Seattle weather (and Ryuk, who, again, is magnificent), I sorely missed the careful logic and intense character moments present in the anime, to the point where I felt compelled to revisit the first episode after finishing the film. Luckily, both are currently hosted on Netflix, so the streaming service gets your attention either way—and maybe that might have been their goal all along.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Burritos
Images: James Dittiger/Netflix
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD OF ANIME?
- The Death Note director wanted David Bowie to play Ryuk
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