Death Note Netflix Film Review: Manga Series Butchered
Netflix's Death Note turns the celebrated Japanese Manga about morality and mortality into a story about an American teenager's romantic angst
A still from Death Note.
Death is inevitable. That simple if resounding truism is the basic foundation of Death Note.
Death is inevitable and for those whose jobs it is to usher the souls that pass over, Death is boring. And so Ryuk, a Shinigami (Japanese death god, basically a prescient psychopomp) decides to throw down a notebook into the human world, just to see what happens. Whomsoever's name is inscribed in it dies, as long as the writer has seen the victim's face.
Death is inevitable, but it doesn't have to be as boring, and to Ryuk's delight, the "Death Note" book is discovered by Light Yagami, a genius Japanese high school student who, after discovering the notebook's power, plots the death of a number of criminals (to save the world, of course). And as they must, things get out hand. But at least Ryuk is briefly entertained during his eternal vigil.
That was the basic idea of Death Note,the Manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, and this basic idea is the first thing that the 2017 Netflix adaptation manages to ruin.
Since the publication of its first Manga in 2003, Death Note has amassed a cult following, with numerous adaptations ranging from Musicals to web series to live action films in the original Japanese, apart from all that sweet, sweet merchandise. Which makes Netflix playing fast and loose with such a pedigreed property even more tragic.
Let us, in any case, swipe past those threads and conversations about the white washing of the cast and storyline, and look at Light Turner of Seattle, Turner meaning Yagami in American, we guess. Light Turner doesn't seem to be a genius but he's a loner and he's called a smart kid a couple of times in the film, so it's the same right?
While the Light from the original series is a charismatic if Machiavellian genius whose discovery of the Death Note organically leads to a plan of killing criminals and delivering justice, Turner is a grouchy loner who "hates criminals" because his mother was murdered by gangsters (she has a happier life in the Manga in that she's not dead).
In any case, as in the original, Light begins his wholesale execution of criminals, covering his own crimes as sentences meted out by a justice god, Kira, whose ingenuity (and murdering ability) seems to know no bounds. And while pictures may well be a thousand words, with this slaughter unfolding beautifully over the panels of the Manga, the movie is mute on the subject.
In literally less than two minutes, Light manages to kill off "400 criminals" (a figure which is bandied about with much gravitas during the whole film despite it's utter insignificance to the plot), establish Kira as a symbol of justice being hunted by Interpol and introduce the world's most famous detective, L, who is also on the hunt for Kira. He also manages to get a girlfriend to whom he spills all his secrets, erring on the side of hormones, as it were. Oh yeah, and his father is also part of the international police effort to catch Kira.
Alas, this efficient editing of the film also pares away all the nuances and intricacies that made the original an instant classic. The girlfriend, who was a side character in the Manga and essentially an aesthetic for its male readers, is central to the movie and with far more alarming mannerisms. Her complete psychosis and sheer enthusiasm for murder are given no causal history, rendering her a one-dimensional stock sadist character.
The editing and screenplay, as we've mentioned, butchers the actual story of Death Note; and speaking of butchery, while the original usually had Light just write down the name of his victim, who would than keel over with a heart attack, the film goes for gore, with Light coming up with various bloody ways with which to wreak death and destruction, egged on by a gleeful Ryuk.
And here we come to my main grouse with the Netflix adaptation. While Ryuk is pretty well digitally rendered and gloriously voiced by a William Dafoe in full maniacal form (let's just let him voice all villains in all movies, please!), his character's motivations are completely misrepresented, even maligned.
Dafoe as Ryuk capers on the sidelines of Light's weird slasher romance story as a malevolent and murderous deity whose only interest is to get Light to kill more and more people and seems overly concerned about a non-stop body count.
The Ryuk in the original, however, is far less partisan; he's just bored. The entire point of throwing down the Death Note, the entire point of toying with a seemingly moral Light, indeed, the entire point of the damn story is that Ryuk is bored. He has an eternity to spend shuffling individuals back and forth the mortal coil and he needs some diversion to help kill time (pun unintended). He's not especially bloodthirsty or homicidal, because whether they go in a heart attack, or in a freak decapitation, or peacefully in their beds at the age of 92 surrounded by loved ones, the point is they go. Ryuk knows this.
That death is inevitable.
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