By Paul Cheng, Ph.d.
In the American version of the Japanese manga Death Note, the titular notebook that gives its wielder the ability to kill whoever they want appears accompanied by a sudden rainstorm, punctuated by appropriately ominous thunder and lightning. As fresh-faced high school kids scatter from the rain, the aged, leather-bound book drops into the unsuspecting hands of Light Turner: a brilliant, if slightly delinquent high school student. Contrast the first appearance of the notebook with the same scene in the original manga. A bored and listless Light Yagami is staring out the window of his typical Japanese classroom when the Death Note simply drops out of the sky. No thunder, no lightning, no rainstorm. Just the surreal and inexplicable image of a very ordinary cardstock notebook falling out of the sky.
The American version of Death Note begins as a horror movie: lightning, rain, thunder, and ominous music herald the coming of dark things to come. The original suggests something else, something more sinister and even more disturbing. In many ways, the opening scene clearly marks the difference between the new Netflix movie and its Japanese source material, and much like other recent adaptations of anime and manga (namely the ill-fated Ghost in the Shell), the American version bears only a superficial resemblance to its source, missing out on the very qualities that made the original work so compelling in the first place.
As mentioned before, this version of Death Note very much wants to be a horror movie: in addition to the ominous entrance of the Death Note itself, the movie takes advantage of its Seattle locations by casting the movie in a near-permanent gloom. Much of the action in the movie takes place at night, with indoor scenes bathed in foreboding shadows, and even daytime moments are suffused with a general gloom. Contrast this with the manga where, as mentioned before, it’s Tokyo setting is almost mundane in its appearance. Furthermore, the movie Ryuk (played with evil aplomb by Willem Dafoe in a mo-cap suit), the “death god” who owns the book, is never seen fully. His appearances are cloaked in shadow and he is almost never seen directly, as opposed to the manga Ryuk, who surrealistically, and often hilariously, converses with Light over the course of the latter’s everyday activities.
These horror movie tropes are most apparent in the ways the Death Note kills its unsuspecting victims. In the manga, even the most horrific deaths are not depicted graphically. Not here: the deaths are both gory and graphic and owe more to the Rube Goldberg-like deaths from Final Destination, a fact illustrated by the very first death in the film, when a high school bully is killed via bloody decapitation by a wayward ladder.
In many ways, these tonal shifts cover up the most significant difference between the adaptation and the original. In the manga, Light begins as a fully-formed sociopath. In his first appearance in the manga he has already determined that the world is rotten and once he gains possession of the book, he decides to put it to use to cleanse the world of evil and remake it in his image as its megalomaniacal ruler. The Netflix Light (Nat Wolff), while bearing a remarkable physical resemblance to the manga character, is still waffling: he hesitates to use the book for things he deems evil, and has to be prodded or manipulated into doing things either by Ryuk, or by Mia (Margaret Qualley), the disaffected cheerleader that becomes Light’s partner-in-crime.
Mia is a character that has no analogue in the source, and arguably, highlights a vital change, wherein a female character is given much more agency than the original’s Misa, who is almost slavish in her devotion to Light. Mia is instrumental in pushing Light towards using the Death Note and even forces his hand by orchestrating the killing of the FBI agents who are trailing him. Despite this change, Mia’s characterization fails to move past the noir-like femme fatale, and with her death, her character still serves as a motivational element for getting screen Light to become manga Light, the character who learns about the rottenness of the world. Even worse, Light’s romance with Mia causes the movie to veer awkwardly into the genre of high school romance, with the climax of the movie occurring at, where else, prom.
Perhaps the most significant change caused by the transformation of Light from genius sociopath to insecure high schooler is in Light’s relationship with L, (Lakeith Stanfield), the mysterious, quirky investigator on the trail of the mysterious Kira. In the manga, Light and L were like Holmes and Moriarty, each finding a way to outsmart the other with schemes upon schemes. The delight was in watching these two equally matched opponents engage in a duel of wits that drew them inexorably closer in a delicate cat-and-mouse of play and counterplay. The movie’s L has his quirks, and Light seems clever enough, but this interplay between the two never materializes in any real way as Light never sparkles with that evil intelligence that is so central to the original.
In the end, this adaptation fails to understand the elements that made the original Death Note so compelling. The horror movie trappings aside, in the end, the movie needs the audience to understand how Light could become evil; how a basically good kid could become so cold and heartless. The original saw Light’s evil as a given, rather than as something that needed to be explained, and with this fundamental difference, an entirely different product was produced: a product that only superficially resembles the original and really begs the question of why it needed to be made in the first place.
Executive editor: Nien-chen Lin
Proofreading editor: Liz Carter