Film Review: netflix's death note
Written by Andrew Busch, Staff Writer
After a few months of publicity and hype surrounding its release, the live action version of Death Note finally hit Netflix on Friday, Aug. 25. The streaming titan’s latest big-budget venture attempts the bold by creating a two-hour adaptation of a highly regarded manga series created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Unfortunately, due to a whitewashed cast and some strange changes to the original story, Death Note becomes less like its source material and more like a film adaptation of a young adult novel.
The problem starts with the film’s cast. While Death Note features seasoned actors like Willem Defoe and Keith Stanfield, the performances of its leads are forgettable with the exception of a couple moments. An even bigger issue is the film’s lead, Nat Wolff, playing Light Yagami. The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns actor channels the same edgy, misunderstood teenager he plays in his past films. His angst and bland personality turns this cosmic horror into a high school drama. At some points, I was even convinced that Netflix had tricked me into watching a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed that more.
At the same time, while it is easy to make jokes about Wolff, the twenty-two-year-old-perpetually-stuck-in-high-school-prepubescence, the film’s issue is much bigger than the cast. The more global concern is that Death Note is the second adaptation of an anime (following in the footsteps of Ghost in the Shell) in the last year where the leads are almost entirely white actors and actresses.
When the film originally faced scrutiny for its whitewashing of the source material producers Roy Lee and Dan Lin explained, “Our vision for Death Note has always been to… introduce the world to this dark and mysterious masterpiece. The talent and diversity represented in our cast, writing, and producing teams reflect our belief in staying true to the story’s concept of moral relevance — a universal theme that knows no racial boundaries.” This all sounds quite nice, but when considering the main cast members with the exception of Keith Stanfield are Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, and Shea Whigham I have a hard time seeing diversity represented by the actors and actresses that spend the most time on screen.
Death Note also makes a major mistake when considering how it compares to the source material. If you watch the anime, the first episode is already enough to show you the major liberties that this adaptation takes with the original renditions. Specifically, Light is much more maniacal in the anime and when he finds the Death Note he wants to use its power to eliminate all evil people so he can become a god over the rest of humanity. He even decides that he is allowed to pass judgment on others because of his supreme power. On the other hand, in Netflix’s rendition, Light just wants to be a vigilante and use the power for good because his mom was murdered when he was young. This might seem like a small change, but by making Light a “good guy” the film removes a major degree of complexity from the series.
Additionally, in the original the Shinigami, or “death spirit,” Ryuk, that owns the Death Note drops the notebook to earth because he is bored. He never actually chooses a host. However, in the live-action adaptation, Ryuk actually chooses Light. So, what’s the big deal? Well, by making Ryuk’s decision intentional part of the cosmic horror of Death Note diminishes. The removal of random chance from the equation makes him more at fault for what happens because of the Death Note while removing most of the blame from Light. Moreover, even though each of these changes are small, they affect the plot in major ways. In the end, the finished product feels like an oversimplified shadow of its former self.
However, Death Note is not a complete flop. A major element that this film gets right is its atmosphere and aesthetic that matches the dark and brooding style of its anime. Its sweeping shots of Seattle, heavy storms, and even grisly death sequences perfectly capture the spirit of the series. The film’s depiction of Ryuk is also remarkable. The death spirit is terrifying, mysterious and menacing with his coat of strangle quills as well as his piercing orange eyes. Willem Defoe’s voice also matches perfectly with Ryuk’s appearance, creating a character that will unsettle you more than the moral dilemmas that Light faces throughout the film.
Netflix’s Death Note gets a couple of elements right in terms of both its aesthetic and its portrayal of the Shinigami, Ryuk. But the adaptation ultimately suffers due to its lead, Nat Wolff, its whitewashed cast and the oversimplification of its source material. As a result, Death Note is not an authentic retelling of a beloved series. Instead, it is a botched opportunity to expose a broader audience to a masterful work of Japanese storytelling.
Death Note is now available on Netflix, as in the original manga series. View Andrew's website, Gamefes, here