Manga Madness: Death Note (2017)

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Let’s just start with the obvious: Death Note is a mess. Watching it is like ticking off a check-list of How To Make The Worst Manga Adaptation Ever: Adaptation of a multi-volume series in under two hours? Check. Nonsensically altering the plot to make it ‘appeal to a Western audience’? Check. Completely missing the entire point of the source material? Double check. And to top it off, it even throws in a handful of high-school movie clichés, a forced romance, and dialogue so awful it will make your ears bleed. The best thing that can be said for this barely-recognisable, mangled excuse for a Death Note adaptation is that it is, at times, rather funny. Of course, this humour is rarely intentional, but considering it is the only thing making this travesty mildly bearable, we’re going to let that slide.

The premise remains broadly the same as the manga series on which it is based: high-schooler Light comes into possession of a notebook that kills anyone whose name is written inside. Cue vigilante-style mass murder and a seriously unhealthy god complex. Soon, the news of criminals dropping dead reaches the ears of the super-detective known only as L, and the chase is on. This iteration of the story follows Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a Seattle teen with a grudge against the justice system after his mum’s killer was let off. When he finds the Death Note, he takes it upon himself to rid the world of evil… starting with the decapitation of the school bully. Over-the-top, gory, and ridiculous, the extent to which the film revels in the splattering gore displays an underlying deficiency the filmmakers’ understanding of the source material. For all its dark content and gothic imagery, Death Note was never a horror story at its heart; the appeal came from its characters, from Light and his adversaries trying to outwit each other, not from inventively gory deaths, which seems to be all director Adam Wingard brings to the table here. To make it worse, the abominably unrealistic CGI is ultimately more laughable than scary, halting any honest attempt to reframe the story as a serious horror.

But the gory deaths are not the only way Wingard uses horror tropes to worsen his film, as death god and fan-favourite Ryuk (voiced here by Willem Dafoe) is reduced to a cliché monster with glowing red eyes, a sinister laugh, and (as we see in the climax), magic lightning powers. Oddly, his iconic love of apples is retained, but is somehow supposed to be creepy rather than comedic. It’s disappointing, as Ryuk was such a beloved character for the way he subverted traditional ‘monster’ tropes by being, for much of the series, the comic relief, while the real evil in the story was meted out by the human characters. Unfortunately, this misstep is not a stand-alone issue, but underlines a much bigger problem with the script; wherever original creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata chose to take the path less travelled, to subvert genre tropes or societal stereotypes, this Death Note always chooses the obvious option. The God of Death is a scary, cackling demon, the vigilante mass murderer is a bullied loner, the mysterious young detective grew up in a spooky torture mansion… At every turn, the filmmakers take an original idea and swap it for something trite, cliched, and conventional.

This is perhaps most glaringly evident in the seemingly unending high-school teen movie tropes. From the forced romance between the loner and the popular cheerleader, to the climactic scene happening on the night of the homecoming ball, the film is littered with ill-fitting references to what is perhaps the last genre anyone in their right mind would associate with the Death Note story. Predictably, the film’s radical departure into teen movie territory adds nought to the story, and at times reaches cringeworthy levels of awful that somehow manage to lessen a film that is already dire.

Aside from the obvious artistic shortcomings of turning Death Note into a teen movie, the choice is even more puzzling considering that, given the 18 certificate, one would infer that this iteration of the franchise is aimed at an adult audience. If that be the case, it is hard not to conclude that the filmmakers believe Western adults to be less intelligent than Japanese teenagers (the target audience for the original manga). Whereas the source material was a complex thriller comprised of increasingly clever moves and counter-moves between L and Kira, the US version is simply unrelentingly stupid. The characters are stupid, the dialogue is stupid, the plot is stupid, even the SFX are stupid…. But for a story that revolves around a battle of great wits, it is in the characters that this infectious stupidity is most strongly felt. Light, originally a cunning psychopath capable of running rings around global law enforcement, is reduced to a whiny kid who openly reads the instructions to his WMD in school, then demonstrates it for a girl he barely knows because he thinks she is hot (really). In the opening scene, we see him attempt to talk his way out of a conflict with the school bully, only to get punched in the face and knocked out. It’s humiliating for him, hilarious for us, and damning for the filmmakers’ attempts to get the audience to take him seriously at any point in the remaining ninety-plus minutes. It is this moment that comes to mind when L (LaKeith Stanfield) ludicrously describes the idiotic protagonist as ‘a particularly bright kid.’

L himself fairs somewhat better than Light, but suffers from the script having zero interest in him as a character. From his first appearance, L is set up as robotic and inhuman, just to turn over-emotional rage monster at the flip of a switch without any kind of character development half way through, seemingly as a contrivance to shoehorn some action into the movie. The result is a character that feels so disjointed as to be unbelievable. Stanfield’s performance is about as good as one could expect given the material, giving a good shot at both Ls – the only problem being that there should only have been one in the first place.

The role of Light’s girlfriend goes to Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), who, despite the similar forename, has ultimately no resemblance to the manga’s Misa Amane other than her role as Light’s lover/accomplice. There isn’t really much to say about her, because her entire character can be summed up in three words: Hot Evil Girl. That’s it. That’s all there is to her. Concerns have been raised over the representation of the female characters in the original story, but hey, at least there they had personalities.

Pretty much every other character has either been cut or (like Misa) replaced with an entirely new character to fill the same role. This is a real shame, as Death Note the manga contains so many engaging supporting characters, not least of all the National Police Agency (NPA) taskforce, headed up by Light’s father Soichiro Yagami, who provide the human heart of the series. The stoic, caring, and noble Soichiro is himself replaced by plain James Turner (Shea Whigham), who fulfils the role of L’s police sidekick but has none of the depth of his manga counterpart, and his team has vanished completely. This is hardly a surprising decision considering the way the investigation into the Kira killings – the backbone of the original story – is sidelined completely now protagonist Light is obviously too dim to be of any help to L or the police.

Of course, there is one manga character present in this adaptation that I haven’t yet mentioned – L’s right-hand man Watari (Paul Nakauchi). Much has been said about this film in relation to the whitewashing of a Japanese story, as only two of the main cast are people of colour, and only one (Nakauchi) is Asian. This casting choice is knowingly ironic – the only Japanese character in the film is the character portrayed in the source material as a white Englishman. Unfortunately, being the centre of terrible plot decisions (SPOILER: his name is written in the Death Note, and it is revealed that the mononym Watari is his real, full name) is not even the worst part of the film’s attempt to represent its source material’s home country. The kindly, if enigmatic philanthropist is now a racist caricature of the Wise Asian Elder, who uses most of his few lines murmuring broken English aphorisms like ‘sleep is key to strong thought.’

With none of the characters recognisably those from the manga, this new interpretation of Death Note is so different from the source material that it would have been better off starting from scratch with nothing but the premise of the killer notebook. This could have allowed the filmmakers to create something wholly original, using the mythology created by the manga to explore its themes in a different context without the burden of including particular characters or events. Instead, what we get is a shallow, shoddy film that takes the bare bones of the story, strips them of all their complexity and depth, and fails to add anything new or interesting in their place. Sure, there are some cool shots, and the soundtrack is good – if completely unsuited to this movie – but these things only reinforce the movie’s complete lack of substance. If there’s one scene that highlights this prioritisation of style over substance, it is the killing of the FBI agents trailing Kira suspects on L’s behalf. Instead of the intricately plotted and tightly-orchestrated plan to discover the names of the agents and kill them without incriminating Light, we get a stylishly-shot mass suicide based off a throwaway shot in the anime. It perfectly matches the shallowness of this movie to swap a great, tense set-piece scene in exchange for a ‘cool shot’.

It is what comes next, however, that really takes this American re-imagining of Death Note from just another poor movie to one truly deserving of Kira’s wrath. “We’re not the good guys anymore,” Light (who did not kill the FBI agents and is currently blaming the killings on Ryuk) says to Mia, in a rare glimmer of something approaching conscience. In Light’s own twisted worldview this makes sense: criminals are fair game, but killing police officers is beyond the pale. The thing is, it feels uncomfortably like the film agrees with Light’s idea of justice; agrees that two mass murderers really were the good guys up until the point they kill the wrong sort of people. It feels like the script is unable to hold Light accountable for his own actions, with him being arguably manipulated into his first kill by Ryuk, then later steered by the corrupting influence of Hot Evil Girl Mia. He even gets a whole no-justice-for-dead-mom backstory to make his serial killing more sympathetic. But in trying so hard to make Light a sympathetic protagonist the film strays too far into the morally dubious ground of trying to make the audience root for a mass murderer. Thank goodness they’re pitifully unsuccessful.

All in all, it’s hard to say Death Note is a disappointment because that would imply that someone, somewhere, actually had some hope this movie would be even remotely good. From the original sin that is the script, through to unconvincing performances and unbelievably poor directorial choices, this movie’s attempt to create an American Death Note is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Stripped of its characters, plot, and themes, the resulting story is barely recognisable but for the odd shallow visual reference. Much has been said about the questionable ethics of uprooting a Japanese story and putting it into an American context with barely an Asian actor in sight, but perhaps more offensive is the way in which this poor excuse for a movie shows complete disregard for the thoughtful thematic content that author Tsugumi Ohba infused into every twist, death, and break-neck car chase. At first glance, Death Note is simply a terribly-made mess of a movie; but the aftertaste is much more unpleasant.

Death Note is streaming now.