Oh boy, here we go. Today I’m going to rant about Netflix’s 2017 adaptation film of the Japanese manga/anime Death Note. I’ll give you a summary of the movie with commentary and explain how this film is problematic when you look at how America creates adaptations of foreign entertainment for American audiences.
Here’s how the story unfolds. Light Yaga- *ahem* excuse me, Light Turner is a brilliant high school student living in Seattle with his single dad, who is Seattle’s Chief of Police. A mysterious book falls from the sky at Light’s feet, with the words “Death Note” written on the cover.
Wait, let’s pause for a minute. This character, who hasn’t even had any lines yet, receives this life-changing notebook right after we meet him. The only set-up of his character before he gets the Death Note is him doing some other kid’s homework and exchanging it for money.
Moving on. Light sits and watches a kid get bullied to the ground and when the bully turns toward the girl he likes, he stands in between them and yells the fuck word at him for a few seconds before getting beaten to the ground himself. After he wakes up, he learns that a teacher found the other kids’ homework in his backpack, so they give him detention. In detention, when Light is alone in the classroom, a death god (shinigami in the manga) named Ryuk appears and destroys the classroom, making Light scream like a little girl. And I’m not exaggerating when I say he sounds like a little girl. Ryuk tells Light that the Death Note has the power to kill people, and that when you write the full name of the person with their face in your mind, you can kill them in any way you specify on the page as long as it’s possible for it to happen. Light, unsure if it will work, writes down the name of a bully outside the window, and chooses to kill him by DECAPITATION. And it works.
Now confirming the Death Note’s capabilities, he uses it on the man who got away with killing his mom, mending his broken relationship with his dad. From that point on, he decides that it is his duty to act as God and punish those who commit crimes in order to wipe out all crime forever.
The next day or so, Light sits in his school gym while students are practicing, casually reading the Death Note in public. Naturally, the girl he likes sees him and asks what it is, to which Light replies “I can’t tell you.” Smooth, Light, not suspicious at all. She doesn’t care enough to press him further, and as she starts to leave, Light asks her “Do you really want to know?”
I can’t express to you how many times my palm smacked my forehead after hearing this. He just met this girl, and he’s about to share with her the murder weapon he used on the bully. And she didn’t even care enough to know in the first place.
She replies “Sure?” and he takes her to a private spot to explain the Death Note to her. She, being the murder-obsessed crazy person that she is, thinks it’s amazing and wants to watch him kill people. They go back to his place and make out while looking up criminals and writing their names. Gross. I don’t know if the director thought this choice would be edgy or something, but it just comes off as embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Well, at least it fits the rest of the movie.
Light decides it’s a good idea to take on the persona “Kira” and have non-Japanese speaking criminals write the name on walls in Japanese kanji before they die (which, by the way, is contradicting the established rule in the movie that the victims can’t write what they do not already know how to do). Light explains that he wants criminals to know that this is an intentional punishment being done by a god-like savior, and that they should be warned that they will die if they commit crimes.
In the manga, Light does not pick the name Kira. His anonymous followers on the internet name him that, and Light embraces it. Therefore, the Netflix writers had to come up with an idea for how he chose the name. Light Turner told Mia that “kira sorta means killer in Japanese,” so they would try to look for him in Japan. I love how they think this is a genius idea, and yet my 6-year-old cousin could have come up with that for all I know.
Later, we meet L, who is a super-genius detective who solves unsolvable crimes anonymously so he won’t be punished for operating outside of the law. At least, I assume so, because in the movie they never really explain why he wears a cheap scarf over his face. It’s a good thing Light conveniently can’t kill without knowing what his face looks like! His assistant and adopted father Watari, on the other hand, has a bad habit of showing his face and giving out business cards with his name written on them. But we’ll get to that later. L tells Light’s dad, the chief of police, that he knows that Kira is in Seattle and not Japan because the information that Kira obtains is only available to the Seattle police force. He then goes on the local news network himself, and dares Kira to kill him now, because otherwise L will find him.
The movie completely dumbs down the brilliant scene in the anime and manga where L uses a decoy to see if Kira can and is willing to kill him, which he does, and then L proceeds to ask Kira to kill him, which he cannot do. By these means, L figures out that Kira would kill him if he had the chance to, and that Kira can kill someone by knowing their name and face. In the movie, he comes to the same conclusion. However, because L did not confirm that Kira would kill him if he could, it could have been that Kira would refuse to kill an innocent life even if he was coming after him. Therefore it isn’t right for L to jump straight to the conclusion that Kira couldn’t kill him. This scene is the best example of how the writing is lazy throughout the film.
After that, L has some FBI agents secretly follow family members of the police force, and when Light and Mia notice, Light decides to lay low until they stop. However, without Light knowing how, all the FBI agents walk up to the roof of a skyscraper and commit mass suicide. Light blames Ryuk, but Mia was actually the one who wrote their names in the book.
At this point, Light’s dad is pissed because innocent lives were murdered, so he goes on live television to threaten Kira, knowing that he could be killed. Light and Mia watch this together at home, and Mia IMMEDIATELY goes to the book and tries to write her boyfriend’s dad’s name in the notebook before Light stops her.
Meanwhile, L now knows that Kira has to be Light, because why wouldn’t Kira kill the chief of police if he wasn’t the chief’s son? That’s right, L still has yet to display the logic of a person older than 6. He decides to confront Light in person in a public place, telling Light he knows he’s Kira. His reason for revealing this? Who knows! His reason for showing his face to Kira, knowing that he needs that information in order to kill him? WHO KNOWS?! Maybe for that sweet drama that the American teens love to see in movies.
Not only does the scene make L look dumb, but also Light. It only took one accusation for Light to crack and hint a confession through preaching Kira’s ideals and motivations for punishing the wicked. He even told L that he should stop working against Kira and start working with him instead. If L was actually smart, he would’ve worn a wire because Light spewed enough evidence to convince anyone that he’s Kira.
After this, the movie gets really strange. Light writes Watari’s name in the Death Note (by the way, he just wrote Watari, no last name, so how did the note actually work?) with this complicated plan of Watari being brainwashed into obsessively finding L’s name and calling Light to tell him what it is. With this logic, why didn’t he tell Watari to just kill L himself? Anyway, he has to go on this long quest to find L’s orphanage, but just before he reads the name, he’s killed by gunshot.
When L figures out about Watari missing, he knows that it’s Kira’s doing and shows up at Light’s house. He then proceeds to attack Light and scream and throw a fit until the police go into the house with a search warrant. But don’t worry, Mia stole the Death Note before the police show up.
Light and Mia go to prom together, where he finds out that she wrote his name in the Death Note, and that he would die if he didn’t officially pass the book on to her. Then, as they realize that they’re being watched, Light secretly leaves the party to scribble the most specific, unlikely plan in the notebook on how he would get L off his back and find out if Mia loves him.
Once he’s done, he texts Mia to meet him at a ferris wheel on the pier to carry out the plan, and L chases him throughout Seattle in one of the most pointless chase scenes I’ve ever seen. When L finds out Watari died, he loses his fucking mind and steals a police car to search for Light. L chases Light until he’s cornered, and he almost shoots him, but a by-standing Kira supporter knocks L out, allowing Light to escape.
Once he meets up with Mia, Light goes up in the ferris wheel with her and explains how he also wrote her name in the book, and when she took the notebook from him, she set off a conditional chain of ridiculous events that Light wrote about earlier how the ferris wheel would break and they both fall from the highest point, but Mia lands on the pier and Light lands in the water, saving his life. Light also wrote in the book that Mia would also rip out the page with Light’s name on it and it would fall into a conveniently placed trash can fire, saving him from the notebook. And it all happened as he said, because that all sounds very possible and not against the rules at all.
L breaks into Light’s house and finds the notebook page with Watari’s name written on it, and we see him debating whether to write Light’s name in it or not. And we never find out! Cliff hanger!!
In the final scene, Light wakes up in the hospital next to his dad, and his dad explains how he saw a newspaper article in Light’s room about his mother’s murder and realizes that Kira’s first victim was the murderer, and therefore it would have to be Light.
Wow, what an unsatisfying way to end that chain of strange occurrences that is Netflix’s live action Death Note movie.
Along with the terrible inconsistencies and dumbing down of the original Death Note characters, this movie has some underlying cultural issues relating to American adaptations of foreign content.
First of all, Netflix changed the location from Japan to Seattle, which completely drowns out the cultural significance of the shinigami in Japanese culture. Shinigami are not really gods, but more spiritual beings that exist by killing humans to add years to their own lifespan. By making Ryuk a generic death god, he loses his Japanese identity, a common issue that Hollywood makes again and again by white-washing characters of color.
In addition, Hollywood studios keep remaking or adapting films because they were popular, without looking into why they were popular in the first place. The Death Note series has a very compelling dialogue about justice and what the purest justice is, while also bringing Christianity, Buddhism, and Japanese mythology into the mix. The American film does not see these themes and exchanges clever and compelling scenes with gratuitous gore, teen angst and sex, and unnecessary action and chase scenes.
Do not watch this movie. It’s a waste of time and I already gave you the plot. Instead of encouraging Hollywood to keep inappropriately adapting foreign films and shows, support the source material. Death Note is one of my favorite animes, and I recommend it to everyone.