Death Note is the Netflix live-action adaptation of the wildly popular Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Death Note follows a high school student who comes across a supernatural notebook, realizing it holds within it a great power; if the owner writes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die. These godlike abilities become the focus of this story about a young man who begins to kill those he deems unworthy of living.
This psychological thriller directed by Adam Wingard stars Nat Wolff (Light Turner), Margaret Qualley (Mia Sutton), Lakeith Stanfield (“L”), Shea Whigham (James Turner), Paul Nakauchi (Watari), and Willem Dafoe (Ryuk).
A society of villains are in danger from Light Turner, who decides to take an eye-for-an-eye approach to the notebook and becomes Kira; a name created by the public in response to the massive deaths of cold-blooded criminals. However, Kira aka Light Turner is in for surprise as he allows the deaths written in the Death Note to consume him. The setting of Death Note takes place in one of the whitest cities in America. Seattle, Washington. Which perhaps justifies the godawful whitewashing in some odd way. The stylized slow motion shots of pouring rain and the ominous dark clouds looked like a 90s alternative rock video. Not sure how one can make precipitation look hipster…but it happened.
The story is goth, dark, morbid and perhaps a bit frightening, but the only thing frightening about this movie was its script. I was scared of the fact that I would nod off way too long and be forced to re-watch scenes further prolonging minutes that I will never get back.
What disappointed me the most was the cat and mouse games Light and L were known for in the Death Note manga and anime. It’s completely erased. Light is not a detective, sure he figures out how to be cunning once in awhile and sets up a plan that becomes a major setback for those chasing him, but the chase itself was minimal. He was sloppy, easy to find, and the lackadaisical moments between Light and L were enough to no longer care for anyone. I just wanted this story to be over with.
I will mention some high points in the film. The cinematography in Death Note was stunning to watch at times, and it’s not surprising that director of photography David Tattersall (Star Wars: Episodes I, II and III) is behind all of the beautiful stylized shots. LaKeith Stanfield’s depiction of L was surprisingly accurate. I noticed a lot of parallels between Stanfield’s portrayal and the anime which I personally thought he nailed. His cadence of speech, posture, as well as his affinity for confectionery products, were true to the essence of L. LaKeith Stanfield leaping into a chair using a perfectly executed squat was a skill I could respect. You’ve got to be flexible and limber to achieve those kinds of moves and he pulled it off. So did Lakeith’s L take an “L” in his performance? I’m gonna say no on this one.
I was also very impressed with Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk. Having watched the anime, his voice is eerily similar to Brian Drummond’s voice in the English dubbed version. Drummond also voiced Vegeta in the Dragon Ball Z anime series. Ryuk in this live-action version is not as prominent as he is in the anime, we don’t even see how the Shinigami (the death gods) live outside of the human world. The makeup and wardrobe for Ryuk were okay, it wasn’t terrible. However, all of his scenes were lit pretty darkly which leads me to believe the cinematographer didn’t have much faith in Ryuk’s look.
Nat Wolff as Light Turner was the complete opposite. Nothing about Wolff’s performance embodied the original character of Light Yagami. Light in the anime version of Death Note was charismatic, charming, and very much a detective himself. Wolff was lackluster, boring and mediocre. There was nothing compelling about his performance nor the character of Light Turner.
Now I do understand that it’s difficult to unpack an episodic anime based on a series of manga books to consolidate into a feature length film. However, the fast pacing was patronizing to a first time viewer; and if you never saw nor heard of the Death Note story, it may be challenging to catch on to what was unfolding from one scene to the next. For example, Ryuk’s fondness of apples. Why was this never explained? Why do we see Light with an apple in the first place and when Ryuk voraciously devours them, we as the viewer never get an answer as to why? There were so many unexplained conundrums like this in the film. The relationship between Light and his girlfriend Mia was also rushed and too manufactured for me to even believe it was plausible. I just needed this tragic relationship to go away.
As I mentioned before the whitewashing of Death Note is problematic as hell and it was even more egregious to see Asian actors used more for set dressing than actual principal characters. And as much as I love LaKeith Stanfield and I stan for most of what he does, racebending L and listening to him speak very bad Japanese is not enough for me to forgive the whitewashing of Light Yagami. He was a likable character, but even L got on my nerves sometimes. Stanfield speaking under his turtleneck for the first 20 minutes of the film was unnecessary. We get that L is a brooder and recluse but do we need to make it obvious by hiding him under some fabric? Make sure to turn your closed captioning on for those parts.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention in spite of all of the whitewashing going on there was a diverse production team behind the film which includes Asian crew members producer Roy Lee (The Departed), Dan Lin (Sherlock Holmes), and Masi Oka (Heroes). Masi Oka also makes a brief cameo in the film.
Mia who is Light’s love interest undergoes an annoying and yet predictable plot twist given how quickly their relationship began. I won’t share the details since it goes into spoilery territory here (then again you’re reading this post so why would you care) but she becomes obsessed with the Death Note as well.
The ending is one of those kinds of endings that try to be ambiguous but instead is so uneventful that we couldn’t care less how the story actually finishes.
Would this film have been better if they cast Asian actors? I guess the same question could be asked of Marvel’s Iron Fist
I’m honestly not sure if a sinking ship could be saved. However, Death Note’s story is much stronger and compelling; but in this live-action adaptation from Netflix it ends up being watered down and weak. Perhaps seeing Asian actors in the role at least for Light Yagami our lead protagonist could have made for a far more interesting journey into Kira’s story.
Death Note is currently streaming on Netflix
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.