Note: this piece contains spoilers.
Today marks the release of Netflix’s live action adaptation of Death Note, the iconic Japanese manga and anime. And golly, it does not hold up.
Back in March, when Netflix issued the first teaser for the film, it faced considerable backlash over the whitewashing of the story and main character. Even beyond that, fans of the anime and manga had understandably low expectations for the remake; Netflix’s Iron Fist and the disastrous adaptation of Ghost in the Shell had come out the week before and were still smoldering from all the roasting.
Unfortunately, Death Note’s detractors were right to be skeptical, as the film is yet another example of a Western adaptation of an anime that severely misses the mark.
Briefly, the plot concerns a young man named Light (Nat Wolff) who finds a magical notebook that belongs to a restless and chaos-enjoying death god, Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). The gist is, whoever’s name is written in the book will die. So Light takes it upon himself to write the names of a bunch of criminals and bad people into the book and thus rid the world of evil. But when the police catch on to the pattern of deaths, a very distinguished detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield), takes the case, and a game of cat and mouse ensues. Think Death Wish (another remake we definitely don’t need), but instead of guns, it’s a magical notebook.
To be fair, Death Note, an extremely popular and acclaimed piece of work, is also an incredibly difficult thing to translate to live action, so I don’t envy director Adam Wingard at all. Any one of the original’s riveting elements—the power to kill someone by writing their name, the death gods, the bright and megalomaniac high schooler, the concept of extrajudicial killings of criminals, and a brilliant but eccentric, candy-obsessed detective—could be an entire show on its own. What makes Death Note so enthralling and addictive is the way it brings all these elements together. To translate hours of animated content into a 100-minute movie removed from the society the original content is steeped in requires making difficult decisions and cuts that, no matter what, will offend those familiar with the source material.
But the new Death Note doesn’t even work on these generous terms. As a standalone, supernatural, teen angsty, slightly gory horror film, it is at best unremarkable and at worst laughably bad. It’s visually nostalgic and neon-saturated, with a synth-laden soundtrack to match. The plot is rushed and a little confusing, as if the whole movie was a pilot episode for a show that won’t be made. You get the sense that Wingard is banking on the visual style, the teenage hormones, and the audience’s familiarity with the source material to forge ahead and mask the inconsistencies and deficiencies in his mov. Despite Willem Dafoe’s masterful effort as Ryuk, it feels like Wingard is trying to build a castle out of quicksand. (Also, sorry, there do not appear to be any references to taking a potato chip and/or eating it.)
Then, there’s the whitewashing. The new Death Note takes place in Seattle, and has a predominantly white cast, save for Lakeith Stanfield’s detective, L, and his assistant, Watari (Paul Nakauchi). There’s no getting around the erasure that’s taking place.
After initially showing frustration over the whitewashing criticism, Wingard came around and stated that he was open to the debate, telling Vulture:
“It’s one of those things where it’s a good conversation to be having, and it wasn’t one we were really expecting,” he said. “It wasn’t until the Ghost in the Shell cracked it open [that] it became a conversation. But by then, we had already cast all of that stuff.”
Masi Oka, who has a producer credit and maybe 30 seconds of screen time in the new film, also tried his best, telling Vulture:
“The whole idea of whitewashing is putting white people in roles that were meant to be a different race. But this wasn’t specifically a racially bound story, because it was set in America,” he told Vulture. “Anyone could have played that title role, whether it was white, African-American, Latino-American, or Asian-American. Anyone could have played that role.”
It’s a really lovely sentiment, but unfortunately saying that anyone could have played a certain role doesn’t make it more comforting that white people inevitably are cast in these roles. It is even less comforting when characters that really are meant to be Asian are consistently cast with white actors, and that’s the case here. Light’s heritage is not meaningless in the original Death Note. But we’ve still got a white actor playing him because Hollywood will never stop using “white” as a default for “everyone.”
Of course, Lakeith Stanfield’s casting does add a spin to the whitewashing accusations. How can the film be whitewashed when its most lovable character is portrayed by a black man? The actor himself has said that the whitewashing accusations are a “fundamental misunderstanding.”
But this is a misreading of the original text. L’s character in the anime has a very different relationship with society than Light does. Light is a product of society, his psychopathy a way to remove himself while abiding by it. L is an actual outsider, a recluse. His only gods are deductive reasoning, justice, and candy. He occupies a kind of cultural vacuum, so while it’s dope that he’s being portrayed by a person of color, he’s not really affected by the cultural whitewashing the way Light is.
Wingard makes a brief effort to turn the film’s new Americanness against itself in a brief montage of Light and his increasingly power-hungry love interest Mia using the notebook to kill Asian dictators, Arab terrorist leaders, and Latinx cartel members. It’s apparently supposed to be a thought-provoking comment on U.S. imperialism, as Wingard explained in an interview with The Verge:
Yeah, I think there’s an aspect to this film that is very American, in the sense that we’re a country that always seems to think we’re number one, and that it’s our responsibility to police the world…But really, at the end of the day, just like other American things, he really doesn’t know anything about anything, because he’s just a high-school kid. He’s kind of the embodiment of the CIA and the American military.
Wingard failed to mention that this deep symbolism is interspersed with shots of Light and Mia making out. But it’s the rest of Death Note that inadvertently delivers the most US-centric commentary of all.
The most American, pernicious thing the makers of the new Death Note have done is to turn Light not just white, but “good”: to make him an average kid, an understandably misunderstood victim.
In the original, Light Yagami is a top-ranking student, a seemingly caring son and brother, and charming. But he’s also a manipulative psychopath. He’s a genius, and because he knows it, he feels morally superior to other people. He literally goes crazy with power and makes it his goal to rid the world of evil and rule the world as a god—not just because he has the power of the Death Note, but because he’s the only one smart enough and right enough to wield it. The American Light Turner, on the other hand, is smart enough to do other students’ homework for a fee, but he’s not exceptional. He knows that bullying is wrong and that the world is not a good place.
Light Yagami shows deadly initiative—killing two people to confirm that the Death Note works before Ryuk, a passive force who sometimes throws a few wrenches in Light’s plans, even shows up to introduce himself. In the Netflix version, Light Turner is accosted by Ryuk and goaded into his first kill. Both Ryuk and Mia are far more active and self-serving than they are in the original material, driving the plot forward. Ryuk actually writes a dozen names in the book, and Mia happily puts Light’s life in danger to claim the Death Note for herself. Netflix’s Light is just a good American boy who fell in with a bad crowd.
It’s this absolution of Light that actually whitewashes the story. Once again, a white American kid isn’t actually responsible for the murders he commits. The story loses its thrill because Light’s personal exceptionalism is translated to regular ol’ American exceptionalism. And we’re left with a movie that is little more than an unexceptional failure.