Netflixing: Death Note (2017)

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I managed to watch up until there was a topless scene in a strip club. At which point I walked away.

This, unfortunately, is Death Note, the Netflix movie.

And boy is it disappointing.

Panda Ring

As a introduction, allow me to state just how much I despise being pandered to, especially when it comes to shocking sexual imagery.

The original Death Note was perhaps the most well written television show in history. I am not exaggerating. The show had everything: mystery, suspense, thrills, plot twists, astounding characters, cliffhangers, mind games, explosive revelations, and depth, depth, DEPTH!!!

And it was always tasteful. Apart from a decent amount of blood spatter, the show abstained from graphic violence. The thrills were generally more psychological than physical. And it never cheapened any of the characters by reducing them to mere toys to be exploited. More than perhaps any other television series, Death Note respected its characters.

Which is why it is particularly damning that its namesake so quickly throws in a few semi-nude scenes, in hopes of pandering to the lowest common denominator. As if Netflix is saying, “Yeah, since you’re a fan of anime, we know you like looking at kinky stuff.”

Even if such a sentiment wasn’t supremely insulting, it would still be stupid. There is no shortage of pornography in this world. Those who seek it have no trouble finding it. Including the same in your supposedly story-driven film will not give audiences something they can’t get elsewhere.

But there is one thing that the Death Note audience can’t get: a really good movie based on the source material.

Not (Entirely) Netflix’s Fault

Live-action adaptations of manga properties have a history of sucking.

This seems to be mitigated, somewhat, if the live-action adaptation is based only on a manga which has never been turned into an anime.

But for some reason, if a property has ever appeared as an anime, then it is doomed to never have a decent live-action version. And Death Note is no exception. Even the Japanese movie industry failed to make it work on the big screen.

And western movie studios are even worse at adapting anime. From the recent mediocrity of Ghost in the Shell to the vomit-inducing badness of Dragonball: Evolution, we’ve had quite a few duds.

It all stems from a misunderstanding, among movie producers, about what makes anime properties so great. Hollywood keeps trying to force its filmmakers to dumb down their storylines, in an attempt to make movies more accessible to mainstream audiences. This is one of the biggest reasons why consumers flock to anime, which offers them a level of complexity that sophisticated intellects desire. Trying to dumb down anime to more closely resemble a typical Hollywood production is a doomed enterprise, as it will still be too complex for the simpletons but also vastly too simple for the original fans.

But is the new Death Note really that much worse than all those others?

Yes. Yes, it is.

Bastardizing the Characters

In this respect, I have the same complaint that everyone else is having about the new Death Note: they screwed up all the characters.

Now, Willem Dafoe was the perfect choice for playing Ryuk. If things had played out differently, he could have been the best part of the movie. But, due to poor writing, the character did not survive the translation. The original Ryuk was that blissful combination of intimidating yet non-confrontational. He only gave the killer notebook to the protagonist because he was bored, and he wanted to see what a mortal would do with such near-unlimited power. All Ryuk wanted Light to do was tell him a story—something to keep him distracted for a while. Apart from that, he just watched, only offering advice during those moments when Light was being indecisive, as a way of spurring him into action.

The new Ryuk, on the other hand, is your typical demon of temptation. Much like the Joker in The Dark Knight, he wants to see his new friend shed all pretense of good intention and just start killing people for fun. And that kind of character works in certain stories, but not in Death Note.

But Ryuk is hardly the main character, in any version. The strength of Death Note comes from the tension between Light and L.

Honestly, I don’t care about the race changes—either of the race changes. Such things have their problems, sure, but they pale in comparison to the changes made to the characters’ souls.

The original Light is a genius prodigy with a sense of justice so strong that it leads him down dark roads.

The new Light is a bullied loser who has no depth beyond a directionless desire for revenge.

The original L is a living computer who is impossible to fool, but also has immense fragility as a person who could never function in society on his own.

I didn’t spend a lot of time with the new L, since, as I explained above, I quit the movie early. However, it appears that, while he is still a powerful mind, he lacks the fragility that made the original character so interesting. The new L is cocky and confident. Granted, the old L was stubborn, and firm in his beliefs, but he had trouble getting people to follow him, and almost mucked up the whole investigation due to his inability to interact with humans.

Now, the other factor to consider in the new movie is the love interest, who is called Mia Sutton in this incarnation.

This character “encourages” the new Light to go deeper into his killing spree, as it is the only thing that attracts her to him. The whole arrangement is just a touch Bonnie and Clyde, and also oddly reminiscent of a Simpsons sketch that pulled off the same story but did it much better.

“So killing people together has really spiced things up in the bedroom.”

The new Light’s love interest is little more than a Lady Macbeth, and that was also done better by The Simpsons in yet another of their anthology episodes.

Ceding an Inch

Still (and I can’t believe I am admitting this), there is one positive thing I can say about the new Death Note:

It almost worked.

The changes that were made, to time, location, and character, could have been molded into an intriguing take on the Death Note mythos. And it would have required only a handful of changes, one in particular: they should have had an entirely new batch of characters.

Ryuk could still be Ryuk, of course. But the American protagonist should not have been Light, or even a distorted version of him. Likewise, the detective working on the case should not have been L.

Instead, the new Death Note movie could have been a sequel to the original series, featuring a new Kira. Or even an Elseworlds tale taking place in a different reality, showing what would happen if someone else had acquired the killer notebook.

In such a scenario, the filmmakers could have made this project work. The idea that the new Kira consists of a teenage couple killing people out of spite and feeding each other’s aggressions could made for an interesting expansion to the mythos. After that, remove all the misguided pandering and you have a Netflix-original movie that could potentially be turned into a franchise.

But it was not to be. We are stuck with this trainwreck…for now.

My Judgment

We should all remember the reason why this movie was made: the original Death Note anime has been extremely popular on Netflix. It has introduced the story to a broad audience, and that audience was captivated by what they saw.

Obviously, there is an appetite for great anime stories among western consumers. Big media companies are right to try to capitalize on this. They just need to figure out how.

I’m going to ask you not to watch the new Death Note. It would only be a waste of your time. But the original anime is still on Netflix, and while it is there you can still send a message to the people behind the curtain, by showing them your support for quality anime content. Let the people in power know that you can be satisfied, but that your standards are high.

In time, I believe things will change for the better.