Gothic and messy, the title of greatest live-action anime adaptation is hardly a proud one; Death Note is an original take on an interesting premise that for new viewers is a mediocre thrill ride, and will leave die-hard fans angry that they tried.
‘This world is rotten and those who are making it rot deserve to die… I will become a god of this new world…’ – Light Yagami, Death Note (anime), 2006
‘Sometimes you’ve got to choose the lesser of two evils’ – Light Turner, Death Note (film), 2017
We could spend hours playing spot the difference, so let’s quickly confirm – yes, this version of Death Note is drastically different to the original; so much so that comparisons are at times unfair.
This new Death Note takes the premise of a book that kills simply by knowing a person’s name and face into thematically untouched territory; but how does it succeed on its own as a film?
The gothic Death Note falls from a gloomy sky next to genius high-schooler Light Turner; he’s bullied, vengeful from his mother’s killer walking free and he’s only a small push from using the note – that push coming from William Defoe’s creepy god-of-death, Ryuk, introduced like a horror creature lurking in shadows, cackling as he watches Light turn down a dark path of murdering criminals in a quest to make the world a better place.
The first twenty minutes as the premise unfolds claw you in, director Adam Wingard’s neon-lit and abstract world highlighting the terrifying gore of endless murder. The note can specify the cause of death too – beheading, knife attacks, explosion – anything physically possible and Light uses the note’s many powers and rules to his advantage in evading the police.
There are flavours of something different in Death Note as a film; and for anime fans in the handling of the characters and style too. When the police catch on that the mysterious murders are connected, creating Light’s media persona of Kira, it’s the sweet-munching introvert L, world-class detective, who is chasing.
‘just another anime adaptation whose best purpose is to introduce new fans to the acclaimed original series’
Here Death Note becomes the cat-and-mouse game of the original anime; here is where comparisons start; and here is where the film starts to fail. Despite a few interesting new ideas and twists, there’s no tension in L’s search for Kira and Light’s efforts to evade him. Light as a character lacks so much conviction in himself, having to be persuaded into continue using the Death Note by others and unclear of his own intentions, that his actions and desire to act is weak; L meanwhile takes logical leaps with no explanation (if TV’s Sherlock never explained itself and was only condescending).
Any genius the two have is underused by the story. The anime’s heavy themes of justice are replaced for vengeance; whether this is a Westernisation or attempt to do something different doesn’t matter, it means both characters act emotionally and irrationally and the game between them becomes much messier and unsatisfying.
But Death Note’s more fundamental flaw is it lacks thematic richness; it’s unclear what this story is really about and even turns into a YA thriller for much of its 3rd act. There is a thankful surprise ending, which pulls its weight making up for the apparent mistakes of much of the film’s errors, but coming in at the end deadens that impact and its execution is unclear, like much of this film’s ideas and attempts to be different.
The anime may have beaten you over the head with the psychological war over what is justice and its Christian symbolism, but Death Note is without substance besides gore, leaving an overall mediocre taste.
‘the best live-action anime adaptation I’ve seen… but that’s hardly saying much’
He may be underused, but the shining light is William Defoe as a wonderfully spot-on Ryuk – the man looks like a death god even without CGI, but the Shinigami character design is delightful. Light himself meanwhile, and the rest of the cast, could’ve been chosen a little better; but trying something new is still admirable and for all its flaws, Death Note is clearly a passionate attempt from the filmmakers at going for something and something that’s different to what was expected. It was enough to appease the original creators at least, even if no fans enjoyed the changes.
The Netflix Death Note movie is an insult to what Death Note is and stands for.
— 『 ZeRo 』 (@TSMZeRo) August 29, 2017
Death Note is the best live-action anime adaptation I’ve seen, Western or Japanese-made; but that’s hardly saying much, when Ghost in the Shell was a lifeless oversimplification, Dragonball Z was a joke, and Japan’s live-action Attack on Titan was horrifying for all the wrong reasons.
The real issue here isn’t the difficulty in adapting anime; it’s the idea that live-action is the ultimate edition of a story. Western media is live-action saturated; the opposite of Japan’s 2-D animation-centred media. Both formats have strengths and weaknesses; animation, for example, allows for greater control over design and execution of a scene, whilst live action might heighten realism.
Still, it’s a shame that despite its efforts, Death Note will be just another anime adaptation whose best purpose is to introduce new fans to the acclaimed original series.
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