Way back in December of 2003, subscribers and fans of the weekly Shonen JUMP! Magazine were treated to the first installment of Death Note. A couple of years later, the first manga would make it to the United States where its success and popularity would continue to build. The Death Note manga is the story of high school student Light Yagami stumbling upon a supernatural notebook which would give him the power to kill basically anybody he wants, no matter where they are. Death Note would explore the themes of morality, justice and, challenge the reader by asking if world peace can be attained through mass murder and global fear. Death Note took place over a span of years and was written in such a way that up until the end it was easy to see Light as a good person, despite all of the murder and despite the people who he does have to murder to maintain the mantle of Kira. In 2017, an American adaptation of this 13-part manga series was launched directly to Netflix and it’s...it’s definitely something. There will be spoilers for Death Note and its adaptations from here on out so consider yourself warned.
Death Note 2017 has three writers credited which makes it difficult to cast blame so I guess I’ll just pick on Adam Wingard. Adam Wingard of V/H/S/ and You’re Next fame is the director of this adaptation and during pre-production he read the manga but his main concern was finding a way to re-work the story to better resonate with an American audience. Both the original and this film do essentially ask ‘do the ends justify the means’ or rather, ‘what is the lesser of two evils’ as the film itself literally asks more than once. Unfortunately, a lot of the nuance from the source material isn’t here. Take the character of Ryuk for example: in the source material and the first live adaptation (when I bring that up again by the way, I’m going to refer to it as Death Note OLA) is presented as an active observer of Kira. Here, Ryuk acts more like an embodiment of Light’s conscience, like an evil Jiminy Cricket.
Before I start nitpicking and really ripping into issues here I should get through the plot synopsis: Death Note 2017 follows Light Turner, a demonstrably intelligent if trouble high school student who picks up the Death Note after it falls from the sky. After being beaten up by a school bully, he starts to read the rules of the Death Note and meets the demon Ryuk who explains that with the Death Note, Light now has great power. With his newfound powers, Light and his new girlfriend Mia decide to kill as many criminals as it takes to inspire the world to stop being so awful and crime-ridden. As the body count rises, Light and Mia have to find a way to continue acting as Kira without Light’s father, the lead investigator on the Kira case, or L finding out who they are...And Homecoming is tomorrow!
In this adaptation, Light Turner is played by Nat Wolff, who you may recognize from The Naked Brothers Band. Where Light Yagami from the original series and Death Note OLA was cold, calculating and always in control, Nat Wolff’s Light Turner is far more emotional and prone to flipping the Hell out. Light Yagami is written in a way that he always seems to be several steps ahead of the police and L; like Batman, Yagami has a way of making his mistakes look like they were planned and almost always bounced back spectacularly from them. Turner on the other hand seems to always be shocked when an obstacle comes up and reacts to issues by screaming at them on more than one occasion. When Turner meets Ryuk for example, he backs into a shelf screaming in a way that cracks his voice and nearly makes me lose consciousness from my uproarious laughter. Light Turner isn’t uneffective he just lacks Yagami’s finesse and level-headedness.
Misa Amane in Death Note OLA was the host of a TV show and was at least popular enough to have a deadly stalker. In the original manga too Misa was a popular enough Idol that she was being stalked and would have likely been killed if not for...well that’s not important here. Here in Death Note 2017, Mia Sutton is played by Margaret Qualley who I’ve never heard of and who IMDB seems to suggest is an up-and-comer with acting credits for several projects from 2016 and 2017; she’ll be in Io and Strange but True apparently but I don’t know anything about those projects either. This being an American story about American teens, Mia is of course a cheerleader but she’s one of the cool ones who smokes, practices cheerleading on-screen once and she has black hair. She never has her own Death Note but she does turn out to be another devil on Light’s shoulder, encouraging him to kill the people investigating the Kira case and eventually stealing a page from the note itself. I feel like Misa’s character was definitely mangled more than anyone else, even though Light’s character was dragged through the mud in places, Mia is a completely different person to Misa.
James Turner is played by Shea Whigham who played Moe in the Fargo series and is also attached to other popular titles like The Wolf of Wall Street and Kong: Skull Island. In this adaptation, Light isn’t the oldest child in a family of four but he was. His mother and an unnamed sibling were stricken down in either a hit-and-run or possibly a more deliberate act of mob violence. James is portrayed as a talented police investigator though we never see any of his work before or during the Kira investigation. Unlike the original or OLA, James Turner doesn’t really have a team of officers to help him until L and Watari show up. Whigham’s performance is really solid in this and while it’s not true to the source James Turner is a pretty decent character even if there are some lapses in logic from time to time.
Lakeith Stanfield plays L (oh hey I just got that) was in The Purge: Anarchy and something called Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town and I feel deeply compelled to seek that out. Stanfield plays L fairly well but the way that L is written feels slightly off. Like with Light, this film has L fly off the handle more than once which felt really strange. In the manga L was involved in a fight scene and circumstances occurred that might have made L in the manga freak out but just like Light, L was always, ALWAYS calm, cool and, collected. L was always in control, L was always able to match steps with Light/Kira. L was always meant to be Light but from the other side of the moral compass and while he’s definitely different in the Netflix adaptation, he still feels like a great analog to this adaptation’s version of Light. I’d also like to note that Stanfield does really well when it comes to getting L’s quirky way of moving down nicely though I don’t think L was meant to be that messy an eater.
The real star of the film is Willem Dafoe who plays Ryuk...well, he voices and does facial motion capture for Ryuk the Death God: it’s Jason Liles who actually wears the suit. Ryuk’s silhouette and overall design is very close to the original vision of the character but his face looks different: he looks like he’s wearing a bleach-burned mask with glowing eyes. As I mentioned above, Willem Dafoe acts as a devil on Light’s shoulder. He explains how to use the Death Note though we don’t really learn anything about Ryuk himself other than a scene of Light reading a history book featuring what look like centuries old Japanese paintings of a much more manga-accurate Ryuk. We don’t learn anything about the Death God society, the word ‘shinikami’ isn’t used once and Rem isn’t featured or mentioned at all in this adaptation. Willem Dafoe plays Ryuk a lot like he played Green Goblin: he never pops Light on the head or sing itsy-bitsy-spider of course but most of what we see if Dafoe cackling or giggling like a madman and that’s really enough to make this role work.
I haven’t mentioned Paul Nakauchi’s portrayal of Watari here yet because in this adaptation, he feels like a throw away character. He’s there, he works as L’s handler but there’s very little to him. It could be that Watari’s diminished roll is because Adam Wingard really dislikes Hanzo. He’s not unimportant to the plot of course but there’s a change in this telling of the story that makes him and L seem much less intelligent than they really should be. We might not see any references to the Shinigami world but through Watari, we do see references to real-world conspiracy theories and a possible opening to introduce Near and Mellow in a sequel that could possibly happen. I did mention there would be spoilers above right, because I’m just about at that point where I start complaining about plot-points.
This being a western production for a western audience, it’s no surprise that the film takes place in the United States. Seattle is a pretty good choice for the city this story to take place in too because there are a couple of scenes where it just happens to start raining for no good reason and it’s nice to associate that city with a film other than Fifty Shades of Grey. Another element added to this American story for American people is the romantic subplot. In the original, there’s enough evidence to argue that Light Yagami is asexual. In this adaptation, Light and Mia start making out and having sex (off-screen) before they’re spent 10 minutes of screen time together. Their dynamic makes the Kira killings seem more like a Bonnie and Clyde sort of thing whereas originally Misa was acting strictly on Light’s orders. Misa was absolutely in love with Kira and would do anything for him but in this adaptation, it seems more like Mia loved the power Light was wielding, even demanding at more than one point that Light should give her the Death Note.
Like I’ve said before, Light Turner is a very different person to Light Yagami. In the original story, Light Yagami finds the Deathnote, reads the rules and first starts to experiment with it when he sees a random young woman being assaulted by a biker. Yagami spends days, possibly weeks, learning how the Death Note works by writing in various methods of death and seeing just how much he can control people before their death. He even manipulates someone into seeing Ryuk before they ultimately die. Once Ryuk reveals himself to Yagami, he expresses interest and joy that Yagami was unafraid to use the notebook and resolves to follow and observe as Yagami continues to use the Deathnote. In the netflix adaptation, Light Turner meets Ryuk on the same day he finds the Deathnote. The sky darkens, furniture begins breaking, papers form a whirlwind in the classroom Turner is in as he desperately tries to get away, screaming the whole time like a scared baby. It’s Ryuk who encourages Turner to write the first name into the Deathnote and it’s that detail that shows the people working on this adaptation had a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material.
The Death Note manga offered Light Yagami the chance to change the world using a notebook. Light Yagami wanted to change the world and was well on his way to becoming the youngest ever chief of police in his district. He was following in his father’s footsteps when he found an easier way to deal with the criminals of the world. When Light Yagami learned that the Death Note was a real tool he could use he didn’t hesitate to use it to rid the world of the people he saw as being evil and as the story progressed he discussed the nature of good and evil, free will and human nature. There was a lot of ambiguity and a lot to be discussed between the pages of the 13 Deathnote manga (well, 12 Deathnote manga, the 13th isn’t necessary to the plot but it’s more for world building) and it’s hard to say definitively if Light was truly good or evil. The Death Note adaptation on Netflix however says that demons are bad, murder is bad and, The Killing Joke was a really great comic with a really cool ending that we should totally use ourselves. If you want to watch an objectively good film adaptation of an anime or manga, the gold standard is still 1995's Fist of the North Star, starring Gary Daniels and Malcolm McDowell...or 2003's Oldboy I suppose...OH! Or 1991's The Guyver, starring Mark Hamill!