I did not watch the anime. I have zero attachments to the series other than the two part live action movie that I did enjoy and assumed to be condensed down version of the anime series. Because of this, I decided to give Netflix’ Death Note a chance. It was, surprising no one, a regrettable decision.
First, let’s get the obvious problematic parts out of the way. The controversy surrounding Netflix’s version of Death Note, mostly centered on the casting. Accused of whitewashing, Death Note stars Nat Wolf as main character Light Turner, the US counterpart to Light Yagami. Already there is a blaring cultural difference, the uniqueness of the name “Light” is somehow more believable in the Japanese setting yet is extremely cringe worthy to an American audience. In addition to Nat Wolf, the series stars other non-Japanese actors. To quickly sum up the problem resides in the under representation of Asians in American media. Erasure is a word that gets thrown around when discussing this issue, but it boils down to the fact that Asians are undeniably underrepresented in American media. And by the way, using Japan, a homogenous country whose population doesn’t deal with the same kind of underrepresentation in Japanese media, and it’s acceptance of a more the Western image in Japanese to American adapted media, isn’t an excuse.
The first twenty minutes of the movie are already disturbing, and not in the charming Death Note way. Gratuitously goring, the first murder is weightless and holds no consequence for any of the characters. Forgivable, since it acts as a tutorial moment for Light and introduces the ability of the titular Death Note. But unfortunately all deaths end up that way. Light continues to kill in dull ways. The first victim is killed after someone runs into a street to fetch their basketball, which causes a car to swerve, hit a van with a ladder that detaches and decapitates the victim. It is a convoluted path leading up to an unnecessarily gory death, but even less than that, just because it introduces a lot of elements to one murder, doesn’t make it particularly interesting. A waiter falls onto a patron who’s holding a knife and the knife is lodged into his throat. Inventive? Not at all. What made the murders in the original Death Note interesting was that the path to that murder relied on a lot of deceit and social politics and less on this Rube Goldberg style of deaths.
The movie lacks in weight and substance as all the deaths are nonchalant and characters feel like simply-programmed robots. There is no social or political commentary, there is no feeling of consequence or morality. And almost instantly when introduced to the character of L, who should have acted as Light’s parallel, suspects Light and tries to expose him. What should have been this elaborate game of Cat-and-Mouse or Chess turned into a bunch of kids yelling “He did it!” and “No, it was him!”
Light’s desire and eventual addiction to play God was lost in the montage of deaths. Since no cunning plan was shown, the murders felt very dismissible. There lacks a degree of how far Light will go for his kill and there lacks the audience interaction of guessing which elements are of his plans. His motives felt extremely flippant, despite the heaviness of his actions. I could excuse if Light was jaded in his kills, but there was no indication of that either.
And toward the last 20 minutes of the movie, there is a glimmer of hope. There is a moment of depth when Mia grabs the book from Light on the ferris wheel and that’s the only time where emotions, character, and consequences are not just apparent but also important. And in that moment we see that Mia is just as addicted to the Death Note as Light.
It is suggested in the end that L can and does use the Death Note, and again, his desperation to defeat Light is apparent there.
All that we wanted to know, and that we should have known was unveiled unartfully at the end. Light’s schemes are unearth, and we get to see not only how certain murders took place, uninventively, but that they were linked to a much larger plan. L potentially using the Death Note, was actually a great moment for the character, though very unlike the Japanese counterpart, he became much more emotional and desperate, which made that character moment worth something. But it’s quickly snuffed out with a false artfulness because of that open-endedness which destroyed that worth.
The only thing that Death Note does well is the coloring and cinematography. It was rich in deep yet bright colors that added to the surreal atmosphere. The pop of color with the flowers from Mia’s death, the marbles and crafts present when Ryuk is first introduced added an extra layer of fancy to something that should have been dark and heavy. The scene where L and Light are at the diner, face to face, is the only worthwhile scene that should have been more important that it lead up to be. Rather than a respite for two intellectually tired rivals that spent a great length of time playing this game that wasn’t present in this movie, it was abrupt and unimportant.
And there is a deep sorrow for the actors who all hold such great potential but are put in clunky dialogue or awkward situations.
The most regrettable thing about this movie, is that it seems to have been planned for a series which despite casting controversies could have been really good. But the reality shows that it was picked a part and underexposed. Unfortunately, the final payoff for sitting through the entire film results in this unrealized exposition that avoided importance and a glimpse of what a good Death Note movie (or series) could have been.
What do you think of Death Note? Let Nerdbot know in the comments!
Check out Tiffany Tran at Up Down Left Die!