I love Death Note, but this movie is not Death Note. It may bear the title of “Death Note”, but it’s really not. It doesn’t surprise me that this movie is bad. I fully expected the American version of Death Note to be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as terrible as this.
What is Death Note?
In case you’re not aware, Death Note is an anime about a Japanese high school honour student named Light Yagami who finds a shinigami’s notebook, which allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it—usually by heart attack. Light decides to use the notebook to become, as he puts it, “the god of the new world” by killing all the world’s criminals, followed by anyone else he sees as unworthy to live. A brilliant detective named L realizes early on how dangerous “Kira the Saviour” is and makes it his goal to catch the serial killer.
With context out of the way, let’s get on with why the American film is so awful. I’ll start with the characters, who bare little resemblance to their counterparts in the source material, and I think I’ll leave the worst for last.
Ryuk is by far the best thing about this film. As many other critics have said already, Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast in the role. Sadly, though, he’s barely in the movie. Even when he does make an appearance, his motivations seem somewhat altered from what they were in the anime. You see, in the anime, Ryuk the shinigami becomes so bored with life in the shinigami world that he steals a second Death Note and drops it into the Human World in the hope that the resulting chaos will quench his boredom.
In the American movie, however, we are told that it’s his job to give the Death Note to a never-ending sequence of humans. We’re made to assume that he’s been doing this for all eternity and that Light is some sort of chosen one—I’ll get back to this, but suffice it to say this is a bad change from the source material. What this means for Ryuk is that his agency as a character in the story is compromised, as he’s no longer acting of his own free will.
L (called Ryūzaki by the Japanese Task Force), despite retaining many of his idiosyncrasies in the film, is still quite different from the detective in the source material. L is quirky, analytical, and somewhat machiavellian. Before I speak about L’s character in the film, let me just say that I don’t give a toss about the race of the actor, per se. Ideally, you’d be able to find actors that look like the characters from the show while also being talented enough to portray them, but one’s ability to act is more important than their appearance. Since L is meant to be of mixed race anyway, I don’t see any problem in casting whomever is right for the part. That said, the casting of L in this movie strikes me more as a pathetic attempt to appease a particular demographic than a legitimate decision based on the actor’s rightness for the role—particularly ironic as most every other role has been whitewashed to oblivion.
To his credit, Keith Stanfield does an excellent job with what he’s given, even if the script quickly veers away from what it’s adapting. His portrayal’s not the Ryūzaki I know, but it’s not totally terrible either. That is… at least until the car chase scene. Yes, this movie has a car chase between L and Kira. It has a long car chase because it’s an American film, you see, and American films need big, stupid car chases.
Misa Amane Mia Sutton
Misa Amane (also known as “the Second Kira”) is a model and actress who falls madly in love with Kira and later with Light after she discovers he is Kira. Light enters into a manipulative relationship with Misa so he can use her power to his advantage, as she is able to know a person’s name merely by looking at their face. Of course, Light intends to kill Misa once she is no longer useful.
All that is out the window in this version, where “Mia Sutton” is a cheerleader Light has a crush on and the primary villain of the film. Now she’s the one manipulating him so as to take his Death Note for herself; indeed, she’s far more similar to Light than the Light of this movie is. Don’t get me wrong; she’s every bit as idiotic as Misa Amane—it’s just that everyone else in this movie seems to be even less intelligent. Fans of the source material will no doubt be asking themselves why Mia needs Light’s Death Note when Misa already has her own—not to mention the shinigami eyes that, were it not for light’s intelligence, would make her a far more dangerous Kira than he. Well, it’s because in this version she’s just a crazy cheerleader who craves the power of the Death Note.
Again on the subject of casting, I find it odd that when picking an actress to play a Japanese woman with dyed blonde hair the filmmakers decided to cast a white woman with brown hair. It just seems to me that even if you’re going to change Misa’s ethnicity so that her hair could easily be that colour naturally, you should at least give her that hair colour so she’ll look at least somewhat like her character from the source material. Hell, even Shyamalan had Nicola Peltz dye her hair brown when she was going to play a bastardized version of Katara in The Last Airbender!
Now we come to Light Yagami, the villain protagonist of the series. Here he’s whitewashed with the casting of Nat Wolff (a child actor from an old Nickelodeon sitcom) and renamed Light Turner. The name “Light Yagami” (夜神月 “Yagami Raito”) is quite an interesting one, as “Raito” (Light) is written with the kanji for “moon,” which is written with four strokes. According to superstition, the number four is associated with death. “Yagami” means, in this case, “night god.” What does Turner mean? “One who works with a lathe?” What the hell does that have to do with anything?
Light Yagami in Live-Action
As you may already know, Death Note has been adapted into live-action movies before, and if a Japanese crew can’t adapt an anime correctly then what chance has an American one? Whenever anyone makes a live-action film based on Death Note, they always feel the inexplicable need to make Light Yagami sympathetic. Shūsuke Kaneko, who directed the first two parts of the Japanese live-action film series, rightly thought that audiences would have a hard time sympathizing with Light as he was in the source material. He therefore changed Light’s motivation to frustration rather than boredom. The problem here is that Light Yagami is a great villain, but he’s not a sympathetic villain. Nor should he be made a sympathetic villain.
The American version is many, many times worse than the Japanese movie could ever have hoped to be. Instead of trying to make Light a sympathetic villain or even an anti-hero, the Americans just go the whole hog and twist Light into their idea of a relatable teenage hero! Far from being a sociopathic serial killer with an evil laugh and an inflated self-image, Light Turner is portrayed as a misunderstood vigilante—so much so that many people have interpreted it as a superhero movie, with the stuck-up authorities hunting Light as they would Batman or the X-Men.
Almost everything about Light’s character is changed quite drastically. Turner is angsty and quite dim-witted for someone who makes his money selling test answers, he’s not self-righteous or narcissistic, and he’s motivated by revenge and lust rather than megalomania.
Now we’ve got the gist of this movie’s problems out of the way, we must begin looking at it in more detail, which shouldn’t take as long now I’ve summarized what’s so wrong with all the main characters. Keep in mind if you’ve not seen the anime; there will be at least some spoilers in the review. Of course there will also be major spoilers concerning the American version, but you shouldn’t care about that because you shouldn’t waste your time with this movie.
The Netflix Movie
Three seconds in and we’ve already got our first problem: the music in the film is terrible! The anime greeted us with a well-thought-out opening sequence and then set the tone with Gregorian chants. The American version starts with a montage of high schoolers doing high school things to the sound of a bad ‘80s surf rock song.
The death note lands at Light’s feet in the movie, whereas in the show he just happened to be the one to pick it up. This change makes it seem like he really was chosen for the task. Then it starts raining. On their way back inside, Light Turner and Mia Sutton defend a kid who’s being bullied by school bully Kenny Doyle—the first attempt this movie makes to have Light be sympathetic. Nat Wolff’s nerdy voice is completely wrong for the confident girl-magnet and honour student. After Light gets punched out, he gets in trouble for selling test answers. Not only would Light Yagami never help other students cheat, but he most certainly would not get caught doing so. Again they’re trying to make him sympathetic or relatable, missing the point of the character entirely.
Light’s First Kill
In detention, Light is approached by the death-god called Ryuk. Light’s shock at seeing Ryuk for the first time goes on for far too long. It makes Light seem too normal. In the anime, Light claims to have been expecting something of the sort to happen. Wolff’s screaming is comical, which doesn’t help the scene. It is here that we start to see the problem with the swearing in the movie. The swearing in the American version is half-assed and feels thrown-in-for-edge-factor:
“Relax, Light. You’re asleep. You’re asleep and you’re dreaming of some… eight-foot-tall demon-looking motherfucker.”
Compare that to the swearing in the anime. The swearing there was potent and made an impact:
“Matsuda, you idiot! Who the hell do you think you’re shooting at? Don’t fuck with me!”
In the American version, Ryuk has to push Light into using the notebook, despite Light Yagami having done so out of boredom long before the shinigami arrived. In the show, Light sits down to test out the Death Note out of boredom and is about to put pen to paper when he realizes that if someone does die as a result, it will make him a murderer. He therefore turns on the television and finds a criminal to test it out on. After the criminal dies of a heart attack, Light decides he needs to find another criminal to test it out on just to be sure it wasn’t a coincidence, and he all but stumbles upon a rapist who becomes his second victim.
In the American movie, Light hesitates to kill the school bully (in the anime the only reason he didn’t kill him was because it would be suspicious if someone close to him fell victim). Indeed, this version of Light takes a great deal of convincing before he kills the bully. He even tells Ryuk that he doesn’t have a pen, and when Ryuk presents him with one…
“It’s a good thing you have a pen.”
I hate this movie… I really do. When I review something I have to watch it at least twice, and it is much, much worse on the second viewing. Indeed, it was painful to sit through this again. Instead of starting with a nursery school-shooter, Kenny Doyle serves as the first—needlessly gory—death. Rather than sticking with the show’s heart attacks and psychological horror, the American movie—being an American movie—goes with over-the-top gore, with deaths ranging from decapitation to being shot by peelers (the latter being something the Death Note can’t do, as it can’t compel a person to kill someone else). Despite the gore, the bully’s decapitation was so dull that I couldn’t even be bothered to shout, “O, my god! They killed Kenny! You bastards!” I was too busy shaking my head at every needless departure from the source material.
A Sympathetic Hero
Ryuk then introduces Light to the rules of the Death Note, and it turns out that the American version has decided to make up its own set of rules. The movie’s seven-day rule, for instance, which states that you lose possession of the Death Note if you don’t use it at least once every seven days, reminds me of one of the fake rules that Light used to trick L in the anime.
The scene where we’re introduced to Sōichirō Yagami—I mean “James Turner”—is terrible. Not only is there something not quite right about the actors’ performances, but we also learn that Light’s mother was murdered and the murderer got away with it. His sister Sayu doesn’t appear and is never mentioned, despite both she and their mother being alive in the original. It’s another pathetic attempt to make us feel sorry for Light. “O, his mother was murdered and the killer got away with it! Feel sorry for him!”
History of the Death Note
Light goes upstairs to use the Death Note to avenge his mother, rather than using it in an attempt to become a god as he does in the anime. Having him be driven by revenge and grief is yet another attempt to twist him into some sort of hero American audiences can root for, because somehow the filmmakers didn’t realize that Light’s supposed to be the villain.
Light discovers a message scrawled into the Death Note:
“Don’t trust Ryuk. He is NOT your pet. He is NOT your friend.”
This has no impact on the plot and serves no conceivable purpose. Then Ryuk says something I find quite confusing:
“Every human spends the last moments of his life in the shadow of a death-god.”
I’m pretty sure everyone in Death Note is supposed to have a natural maximum lifespan that a shinigami can shorten in order to increase his or her own lifespan; that’s the whole point of the notebooks.
“The last keeper of the note passed away. It fell to me to find a new one.”
Er… in the anime, Ryuk stole the notebook from another shinigami in order to use it to create chaos. He then dropped it in the human world, and Light just happened to be the one to pick it up.
Light’s Second Kill
In any case, he kills the guy who murdered his mother, which makes Light a sympathetic hero out for revenge. You know… instead of the sociopath who uses the notebook out of boredom. The whole scene with “James Turner” telling his son that the mother’s murderer is dead seems calculated to make us like Light and see him as the good guy this film is determined to cast him as. It’s infuriating to watch it and compare this to the far superior story of the privileged sociopath who wants to become the god of the new world.
The problem with this movie is that even though they try to make Light likeable, they don’t really succeed. In the show, he’s not likeable because he’s the villain; usually he’s the character you love to hate, but he’s so captivating that you can’t help but root for him just because you want to see what’ll happen next in his quest for world domination. Here, however, he’s just an annoying asshole whom the film wants you to view as the hero.
Mia approaches Light at school and talks about how she’s happy that Kenny got decapitated. She admits to wishing she could have seen him die and then introduces herself, and the awkward teen-romance dialogue is painful to sit through. There’s something wrong with these performances.
“Yeah. The thing is, I know what it’s like to be fucked over. Some asshole killed my mom and got away with it until I got this book. I just keep thinking, I mean, why should it just be for me? I mean, all the people who make life miserable, make life dangerous—I can reach them now.”
I just realized… this is a superhero film. They turned Death Note into a superhero movie! Think about it… Light Turner is just a murderous version of Bruce Wayne; his loved one was murdered and now he wants to get justice for others who’ve been through the same thing. He becomes a powerful vigilante of the night, but the cops don’t understand so he has to keep his identity a secret from everyone except his girlfriend. In fact, that’s just about every superhero origin story ever!
The Birth of Kira
Mia suggests using the Death Note to change the world, and all Light can think about is that she said the word “we,” apparently meaning they’re a couple now. So instead of using the notebook of his own accord to create a world where his will is absolute, this Light does it to impress a girl he likes. O, and then there’s a kissing scene—a clichéd teen-romance kissing scene followed by a montage of Light and Mia shagging amidst shots of people’s heads exploding. Instead of a montage of people dying of heart attacks, we’re made to watch as a couple of teenagers develop a shallow relationship.
Instead of being given the name “Kira” by the people who will become his worshippers (“kira” being derived from the English word “killer”), this Light comes up with it because it apparently means “light” in Russian and Celtic (although I wasn’t able to verify this). As an afterthought, he decides to use it to make people think he’s Japanese. I’m not sure whether this is a show of contempt for the source material or some ill-conceived attempt at a nod to it. Either way, it’s stupid. That Light would use his own name as an alias makes him an idiot, which could not be farther from the evil genius of the show.
“They’re gonna be in the wrong continent.”
Er… Japan isn’t a continent; it’s an island nation, you bastardized moron. I think I may have also figured out the problem with the performances in this movie: everyone mumbles their every line!
A terrorist leader is made, by means of the Death Note, to blow himself up along with his whole organization. In the show, this would have caused him to simply die of a heart attack, as in the event that the specified “cause of death” would cause others to die the Note defaults to a heart attack. We’re almost a half-hour into this Death Note movie, and we’ve still not seen even a single heart attack.
The Coming of L
We then get a bunch of news stations reporting on Kira. L is introduced, and he’s probably one of the least awful parts of this movie, as the actor does everything he can with what he has. Unfortunately, this is still the American version of Death Note, and in this version he does pretty much everything in person. I find it odd that L would openly show himself in public without so much as a false identity, given his asocial nature.
There’s a scene of Light Turner talking to his father about Kira, and Light all but voices his support of Kira. This is quite different from what happens in the show, as Light Yagami goes so far as to join the Japanese Task Force, pretending to be against Kira. I’m really not liking Shea Whigham’s performance as James Turner (Yagami Sōichirō). He mumbles even more than the others do. Mia shows Light a website for Kira worshippers, and the dialogue here is so horribly bad I can’t believe it. Moving on.
My problem with L isn’t that he’s black (which seemed to excite some silly people); my problem is that he and everyone else are all American. O, and in case you were wondering, L grew up in an orphanage in Winchester, England. In any case, American L meets Police Chief Turner and is impressed with the work he’s done.
“So you did all of this yourself…”
And apparently he did. Wait a second… What about Matsuda? You know… the guy who killed Light at the end of the show!
The Press Conference
L holds a press conference where he openly challenges Kira. In the anime, L used a death row inmate called Lind L. Tailor as a stand-in. It was a brilliant scene in which Light Yagami showed his true colours by killing Tailor, only to find out that the real L was still alive. Also, since the broadcast was only in the Kanto region, L was able to use the incident to find out Kira’s approximate location. The movie throws that all out the window. In this scene L shows himself in public, openly announcing to the world that he’s L.
Of the main characters in this movie, I’d say that apart from Ryuk, L is probably the closest to the source material. That is, until partway through the movie when he goes mental, and then there’s a car chase. Again, this is an American movie, and it doesn’t want you to forget that. Light questions his father about the press conference. He acts incredibly suspicious because, unlike Light Yagami, Light Turner is a bloody idiot.
We get a scene of “James Turner” confronting L, as he’s angry that the detective is investigating Light. I actually like Keith Stanfield’s performance as L in this scene; he just calmly explains why he’s investigating him, and it reminds me of a similar (albeit much better) scene in the anime. Mia suggests they kill all the agents investigating Light, and Light refuses because in this version he’s the good guy. He even says, “Well, then I guess we’re really fucking lucky that it’s my book.” In the anime, Light killed Raye Penber the first chance he got.
“We’re Not the Good Guys Anymore”
We see the assistant director of the FBI die of a heart attack. Forty-five minutes in and this is the first heart attack we’ve seen in a Death Note movie! A Death Note movie!
Then we get a scene of a bunch of FBI agents walking off a roof, and it’s eerily similar to a scene from The Happening. That’s not a good thing! Of course we see the blood and gore as they hit the ground, because a heart attack just wasn’t gory enough for an American film.
Light Turner is furious that Ryuk killed the FBI agents, because Light is the good guy in this movie, you see. Even though in the anime it was Light who killed Penber. Mia acts more like the real Light. Ryuk says, “There are no sides—only the game. And I knew eventually you wouldn’t be able to handle playing.” Why? Because Light’s so good-hearted and merciful? This movie is determined to make the villain into the hero, and it sucks. Ryuk suggests that Light give the note back to him, but Light refuses because he’s afraid of what someone else would do with the power. This is because Light is the hero in this version, you see.
Light’s father holds a press conference, goading Kira, daring him to retaliate. Light refuses to kill his own father.
“We’re not killing my dad! Mia, this is over! Ryuk fucked us! We’re not the good guys anymore.”
This scene is terrible. Light Turner is the exact opposite of Light Yagami. In the anime, Light never wavers in his belief in his own moral superiority.
L Confronts Kira
I know this is a hundred-minute movie, but I feel like L figures out that Light is Kira a bit too quickly. L confronts Light in a coffee shop and, being uncharacteristically straightforward, tells him that he’s a hundred percent certain that Light is Kira. Light, rather than feigning ignorance, comes back with a threat. O, man! This Light is an idiot!
“What if it turned out that all arresting Kira did was give that power to someone else, someone potentially much worse?”
Well, that cleared it up; Light is officially the good guy in this pathetic excuse for a film.
“I’m suggesting maybe what you and the person you’re after want isn’t so different, and maybe they’re as ready to see the killing end as you are.”
What happened to the Light whose god complex prevented him from seeing how evil he was becoming? What about the Light who believed that he was justice and that anyone who questioned him was, by definition, evil? Also… Nat Wolff’s performance—there’s something wrong with it. Mia and Light kiss in the rain after Mia tells Light she loves him. Light writes Watari’s alias in the Death Note, and somehow it works despite Watari’s real name being Quillish Wammy. This is part of a plan to find out L’s real name, but it’s so convoluted and stupid that I won’t get into it.
The Rules of the Death Note
In the movie, instead of the Note defaulting to a heart attack as it does in the anime, it turns out that if you don’t write the cause of death, it’s “dealer’s choice.” Let’s just get this film over with.
It also turns out that the American filmmakers were so unimaginative that they had to add a loophole so one might survive having their name written in the Death Note. In the movie, if you burn the page containing the name, the person will be spared. I cannot describe how stupid this is. Even stupider is that Light, being the moral and merciful hero in this version, plans to burn the page containing Watari’s name so he won’t die after revealing L’s name. This isn’t Light! This isn’t Death Note! This is a bad American superhero film!
“If the person who writes a name destroys its page prior to the death being carried out, the target will be spared.”
Firstly, this conflicts directly with one of the real Death Note rules. Secondly, keep the wording in mind; it’s going to come back to bite this movie in the arse later.
Once Watari disappears, L starts acting illogically and out of character. L has cameras placed all over Light’s house, and I thought that at least there’d be a scene where Light takes a potato chip… and eats it! Clearly I’d forgotten what movie I’m watching. While they prepare for the Homecoming dance, Mia reveals to Light that she stole the Death Note.
Kira the Superhero
We cut to the dance, and I was hoping they’d be playing The WORLD by Nightmare, which—in case you’ve not seen the anime—is the theme song. That would have been a nice nod to the original even if the rest of the movie were still crap. Apparently even that was too much to ask. While at the dance, Light discovers that Mia has stolen a page from the notebook. Mia reveals that she was the one who killed the FBI agents and that she’s written Light’s name in the Death Note and will only destroy the page if he gives her the rest of the notebook.
“Are you insane? Do you think that I would ever let you near that thing again?”
Meanwhile, Watari gets shot by peelers or something.
Light scrambles to write a bunch of names into the notebook and then texts Mia to meet him at the ferris wheel. Because the Death Note in the movie is all-powerful, he’s able to write that Mia will die and Light will survive.
Then we get a drawn-out car chase where L tries to shoot Light with a gun. This is because this is an American movie, and American movies need bad action scenes that do little—if anything—for the plot. Light knocks stuff over to slow L down, apologizing profusely. Before L gets the chance to avenge Watari, a Kira supporter hits him over the head. Light and Mia get on the ferris wheel and Light says that they need to stop killing people.
“Let’s just run away together and never use the Death Note again!”
This scene is awful. It’s an insult to the source material. Light tells Mia that he wrote her name in the book, and the stated motivation makes absolutely no sense. Moving on.
The Ferris Wheel
The ferris wheel starts to fall, and it is revealed that Ryuk was the one who made it fall. I don’t know how he’s supposed to have done that, but he does. Just as Light wrote in the Death Note, Mia falls from the ferris wheel to her death and the page with Light’s name on it falls into a burning trashcan. Light survives the fall because the Death Note is all-powerful in this movie. In other words, Light saves his own life by burning the page.
Now, the stupid movie rule states that “If the person who writes a name destroys its page prior to the death being carried out, the target will be spared.” Well, Mia wrote Light’s name in the Note, and then Light burned the page. The person who wrote the name didn’t destroy the page, so why the hell did it work? This movie doesn’t even follow its own rules! I just want it to be over.
Light’s father finally figures out that his idiot son is Kira and confronts him. Light reveals how he survived and killed Mia, saying,
“It’s like you said… sometimes you gotta choose the lesser of two evils.”
His father replies,
“Which one are you, son?”
Then the movie just ends. It’s implied that L might write Light’s name in the Death Note, but it’s not shown.
A Really, Really Bad Adaptation
What else can I say about this movie? Don’t watch it! Speaking of not watching things, I’m pretty sure that whoever was responsible for the script never watched the anime. I can’t help but wonder if it’s got something to do with groups of Americans loving capital punishment so much—is this how the filmmakers saw Light Yagami? I mean, it’s pretty clear that Light’s the villain, but Netflix somehow didn’t get the memo! Let me be clear; Light is not a superhero. Indeed, he’s more of a super-villain! Light didn’t use the death note because he wanted to avenge his mother; he did it because he was bored! Light’s character has been changed at his most basic level, from a proactive character to a strictly reactive one.
Netflix Screwed Up
Aside from some production values like camerawork, which are okay, pretty much everything about this movie is wrong. The music being terrible is just a footnote in this thing. Every character is bastardized, whitewashed, and turned into a Hollywood superhero movie cliché. It fails as a movie. Worse, it fails as an adaptation! Worst of all is the main character; I expected Netflix to try and make Light sympathetic, but I didn’t expect they’d make him the hero. This movie is like if some American decided to make a Fullmetal Alchemist movie with Our Father as the hero. In fact, even the awful 2003 adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist (the one that ended with a portal to pre-war Germany) was better than this! Is Netflix’ American version of Death Note as bad as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender? Of course not! It is, however, the latest in a long line of horrible attempts by Americans to adapt anime to a western audience who’d be better off just watching the dub.
After watching this abomination twice, I know exactly what I need to wash the taste from my mouth. I need to watch the anime again, and I suggest you do the same. If you’re interested in this movie, I beg you—skip it and watch the anime instead. If you’re a fan of the manga or anime and have just seen this American disgrace, re-read/re-watch the real Light Yagami’s decent into near-pure evil. If you just saw this film and haven’t seen the anime, please don’t let this appalling film turn you off it. Now I’ve said all I needed to get off my chest, I’m going to sit down with a bag of parsnip chips, turn on the TV, watch a bit of the Death Note anime, take a parsnip chip, and eat it.