Netflix's Death Note Does Way Too Much In Way Too Little Time

Image: Netflix

The thing about the adaptation of Death Note, premiering today on Netflix, isn't that it's bad. It isn't even the questions raised by the whitewashing controversy. It's that everything in it happens so fast that it's hard to care about any of it.

All images: Netflix

Adam Wingard's Death Note takes the manga's original premise — a book that kills anyone whose name is written in it — with the frame of a, like, John Hughes misunderstood teen movie bolstering it. Then there's an international manhunt and a governmental conspiracy raising wunderkinds thrown in.

On top of that, there's the previously-hinted-at-but-never-fully-explained backstory of L (Lakeith Stanfield, manic and weird as hell), which is invented for the sake of this movie. Then you've got the murderous 500 Days of Summer vibe that Death Note holder Light (Nat Wolff) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) have going on.

It's a lot.

And that's not even including the fact that the Death Note has rules — rules not explained by the death god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the spirit attached to it, and which appear to come and go depending on the needs of the story. Explaining the events of Death Note takes significantly longer than its 100-minute running time, mainly because people will keep stopping you with questions you will have no answers to.

It looks good — the violence is gory and shocking and constantly reminds you that these kids are playing with lives of actual people. But the moral dilemma is never allowed to land with the audience because there's no breathing room. Knowing the original gives it slightly more weight, but if you were being introduced to the characters and story by this movie, you're going to get lost.

The movie hurtles through Light finding the book, Light and Ryuk talking, Light and Mia arguing about who to kill, Light inventing Kira, Kira becoming famous as a vigilante killing morally reprehensible people, Light's dad being assigned to the Kira task force, L showing up to hunt Kira, L's backstory, Mia and Light trying to outwit L, more killing, betrayal, accidental murder, a homecoming dance, a big set piece ending on a Ferris wheel, and a reveal that is so convoluted the movie has to spell it out with a voiceover. None of that leaves time to actually consider the grey-versus-grey morality of Light and L.

In fact, Light's not really trying to cleanse the world of evil as much as he is a guy doing things to please his dad and his maybe-girlfriend. All of Light's more crusading impulses are passed onto Mia — and that's all we know about her.

Whereas L gets a brand new background shoehorned into the movie, Mia is just... there, mainly to make Light more sympathetic in comparison. And to give the story someone for him to try and redeem.

Neither Wolff nor Qualley ever get to acting heights greater than a '90s teen drama. Dafoe's an unsurprisingly great Ryuk, manipulative and charming. Stanfield's performance is very weird and I wish it were in a movie that supported it better.

Basically, the movie just sort of washes over you in a sea of pleasantly constructed images, less pleasant acting, and no other impression whatsoever. You won't remember it in a week, so maybe watch one of the other, better offerings Netflix has?


    Why does this movie have a "whitewashing controversy" when it is adapted loosely from the anime and set steadfastly in America?

      I'm not sure it actually does. This is the first I've heard of it, anyway.

      I mean I'm sure it annoyed a few people enough to make some twitter posts about it because regardless of what you do you'll annoy a few people enough to make some twitter posts about it, but I don't think there was really any widespread controversy to speak of.

        Allow me to start some controversy then.

        This monstrosity should never have been made. In Shinto and Japanese mythology, Izanami gave humans death, so Izanami is sometimes seen as a shinigami. However, Izanami and Yama are also thought to be different from the death gods in western mythology. Some forms of Buddhism do not involve believing in any deities, so it is sometimes thought that the concept of a death god does not exist to begin with. Even though the kijin and onryo of Japanese Buddhist faith have taken humans' lives, there is the opinion that there is no "death god" that merely leads people into the world of the dead. After the war, the western notion of a death god entered Japan, and shinigami started to become mentioned as an existence with a human nature.

        As you can see, it was the West, and the use of the atomic bombs by the United States in particular, which gave rise to the notion of the shinigami (such as Ryuku, the shinigami in Death Note). How macabre, that something that was created by the Japanese psyche as a result of its horrific and degrading treatment at the hands of the Americans, should be appropriated by the very instrument of its creation. A harvest of death, if you will.

        Americans and Westerners in general should never think to export Japanese literary and cinematographic creations such as this, while at the same time stripping them of the uniquely Japanese aspects that define them. The resulting horror such as this feature (and Hunger Games, for example) is more than one can stomach.

          It's fine to make a movie about a demon that writes the names of those who will die and nothing you said makes me care more or less about the demon.

          I've watched the anime as well, they're different shows with the same core plot point. A boy can write names in a book and kill people, he is then investigated by a mercurial detective while being followed by the book's demonic owner.

            But dude, cultural appropriation, colonial oppression, something, something... :-P

          The resulting horror such as this feature (and Hunger Games, for example)

          The Hunger Games is not a different take on Battle Royale, let's dispel that myth immediately.

          Your notion that a culture should not attempt to retell another cultures tales is utterly rubbish, I'm sorry. It's saying that one is untouchable to another, placing it on a heirarchy above them. A culture can, and should, retell stories if they can place their unique take on them. Sometimes succesful, sometimes not, this is a practice that has been going on for millenia. Sun Wu Kong himself for example, has been retold in many different forms, as Hanuman in the Indian culture, as Son Goku in Japanese culture. We've seen the influence of various cultures spread throughout literature, cinema, comicbooks and whatnot, this is through the initial contact, the direct telling, the retelling and the peripheral influence that comes from this. The ignorant stance that 'noone should touch this or retell it' leads to a xenophobic, exclusionary attitude that does noone any benefit and quite frankly, is the wrong way to think.

            +1 Weresmurf, very....weresmurftastic?
            Magnificent Seven is a good example, also the Japanese appropriate a lot of other cultural tropes and ideas and give them a Japanese spin. look at all the Gibson influences in the GITS manga and the animes. Or look at the use of the Gnostic tree of life rubbish they dumped in every anime they could during the 90's.

            Hell Early anime looks very much like Tintin (probably due to allied occupation after WWII and the cultural influences there) and even the word Anime is taken from the French word for animation. Monkeypunch's manga are particularly close to the earlier french styles of comic.

            I didn't really have a problem with Death Note being remade in an American context because it only used the source material as a loose framework, while recontextualising nearly everything else. The Ghost In The Shell remake deserved all the hate it got in my opinion because, by setting it take place that was Japan in everything but name, with nearly all the pivotal characters being inexplicably white, it appropriated the bits of Japanese culture that it so desired, without letting Japanese characters take centre stage. I didn't get this impression with Death Note so much.

            That's not to say it was perfect with cultural appropriation. I let out an audible groan during the introduction scene of L, where they had him speaking Japanese... Some might see that as an interesting nod to the source material, but I saw that as a huge misstep. Also, I really wish they didn't try to shoehorn in the "Kira" with some hamfisted explanation that it is Japanese and Celtic... that felt so jarring.

            Overall, I didn't mind the film. I think it has been long enough since I watched the original that I wasn't so bothered with the changes. The film looked great and had some neat set ups. Besides the afore mentioned intro scene, I thought Stanfield was excellent. Dafoe was perfect but under-utilised. They did bite off more than they could chew with the sheer depth of the source material and it felt super rushed, but I was expecting it to be so much worse.

              I pretty much agree with you on all points there.

              The Ghost In The Shell remake deserved all the hate it got in my opinion because, by setting it take place that was Japan in everything but name, with nearly all the pivotal characters being inexplicably white, it appropriated the bits of Japanese culture that it so desired, without letting Japanese characters take centre stage.

              I agree there too. I think it would've been interesting to shift GITS to an American setting, where Japan, like in early 90s movies, had become a predominant American culture, where they had influenced them heavily in the future, causing a clash of culture. That would've been a viable midway method. However, I do think GITS was a very pisspoor production in my books. When I say other cultures should be able to retell stories, they absolutely should, it's just not all efforts are going to be succesful. Seven Samurai for example, has led to an almost infinite amount of remakes and inspirations that have been awful, good and incredible (Star Wars!).

              Death Note was a true mixed bag for me, but ultimately I can't say it holds a candle to the original. On its own? It's a cheesy, shitty 'so bad it's fun' horror. As a comparison point to the original anime/manga? It's a shocker.

                Definitely agree it GITS would have been marginally more interesting if it was set in a neo-San Fransisco or Manhattan or something but, yeah, the movie failed on more accounts than just it's setting/casting dissonance, so it wouldn't have miraculously turned it into a good movie on that alone.

                Spot on with your summary of Netflix vs. anime/manga iterations.

            Two points:

            1. Hunger Games is scientifically proven to be a rip-off of Battle Royale. 57% of people can't tell the difference!

            2. 'Cultural Appropriation' leads to fear of experiencing the culture of 'the other', which in turn leads to misunderstanding and misplaced hatred. The more people who can experience 'foreign' cultures, the better. That's why SBS is, without a doubt, a world leading television station. If watching this adaptation of Death Note leads even one person to search out the original and give it a go, it's existence is justified. Doesn't mean this adaptation isn't a giant pile of shit :-)

            So yeah, in my comment I was mostly being contrarian and poking fun at the PC brigade :-P

              I want a good BR sequel :( Not that horrible shitshow they made...

              In regards to BR and HG, both were pretty much typical dystopian stories, one was just horrifying and the other a tween/teen novel series come movie series.

                I have mixed feelings about BR2. On the one hand, it's not got a lot of what made the first film great, but on the other hand, it's more BR :-)

          If you're going to copy and paste from Wikipedia, you should at least remove the spelling mistakes.

          And by your argument, any Japanese 'literary and cinematographic creations' that don't exclusively use pre-Meiji period cultural concepts should all be thrown in the bin and burned, because nothing from that period onwards is 'uniquely Japanese'.

          You went full weeaboo, man. Never go full weeaboo.

            B...but... I AM full weeaboo :-P

            Yeah, the Wikipedia article was ready-made for my purposes.

      It doesn't. More like a shitwashing controversy since the film is absolute trash.

        Mythbusters proved that you can't wash a shit.

          You can absolutely smear feces on something though.

          For example the writer of this film did it with the script.

        I thought it owned, but I intentionally got really high before I watched it. The demon laughing made me shriek and then laugh uncontrollably.

        10/10 movie.

          The first half is so bad it's funny, then it just gets unfunny bad. :(

            Oh god, when Light first sees Ryuk, I'm guessing they wanted to make it scary? He just looked like a frightened cat lol. It was hilarious.

      If Light's casting is 'whitewashing', then is L's casting 'blackwashing'? I mean straight up...

    The only thing I really liked about this movie was Stanfield's performance as L. He seems like the only person involved in the production who actually watched the anime - the way he moves and his mannerisms are extremely similar to L in that, and the combination of awkwardness/intensity is kind of interesting to watch.

    Aside from that... yeah, it was okay. I think most fans of the original will hate it because of how much it changes the story and characters (generally in ways that make them less interesting rather than more) and I think people who haven't seen the original... I don't think they'll have a hard time following the plot, but yeah, I seriously doubt they'd find anything to care about here.

    I've seen much worse but it's hard to actually recommend.

    Possibly the worst part of the movie is that they switched Light's character with a less interesting version of Mia and Mia's character with a less interesting version of Light. Everything just fell flat and they seemed insistent on shoehorning random elements from the anime in a way that only made the movie feel more crammed and nonsensical.

    if Dragonball Evolution was 0/10, and Avatar the last Airbender is 2/10, the Deathnote would rate a high 3/10 or a low 4/10.

      Hard to distinguish between slightly different variations of vomit though :-)

    The tragedy of this film is that they left out the most glorious scene of all. The potato chip eating scene! It's completely unwatchable now. ;p

    My biggest take away from this and the scenes where it was left to fate to fill in the blanks on how people actually died, that I realy really want another Final Destination movie. Revive that franchise Netflix! Hell its already set in the US revolving around teens! No source material necessary!!!

    I don't know why they deviated so much, so many core points that really brought the original together have just been tossed out, don't do yourself the disservice of watching this, watch the original instead.

    I really really wanted this to be good :(

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