Trying to process Netflix’s new adaptation of Death Note is an exercise in schizophrenia. Adaptation is already one of the most delicate tasks that can be bemoaned from both sides—i.e. being too faithful or not faithful enough—but on top of that, it appears to take influence from several other random sources. Heathers, Final Destination, a slick aesthetic and synth-laden soundtrack all come together on top of an already complicated story. And the sad truth is, the sum of all these pieces (that I love on their own) come together to make something that is merely “eh” and seriously dramatically muddled.
So, at the risk of being an insufferable list maker, I have to divide my thought process here into three sections. I will first discuss the appeal and strengths of the original Death Note manga/anime, which should also serve as a decent introduction to just what the hell this weird story is. Then, I will go over (shortly, I hope) how this new Death Note is nothing like the anime, and how it therefore should not be judged by its adherence to the source material, but by how well it succeeds in its own aims.
Death Note Circa 2007
The original Death Note follows Light Yagami, a gifted, charming high school student in Japan who comes across a suspicious notebook—the Death Note. Inside, it claims that anyone’s name who is written within the notebook will die of a heart attack 40 seconds later, unless another cause is specified. Out of morbid curiosity and disbelief, Light writes a criminal’s name down only to discover it works. His first reaction is not horror, but to experiment further. At the end of Light’s first night with the Death Note, the notebook’s original owner—a Shinigami (Japanese god of death) named Ryuk confronts Light, only to find out he has already written dozens of names in the notebook. Light is not shocked by Ryuk’s appearance, and gladly admits he expected a supernatural presence like this. He even tells Ryuk of his plans to use the Death Note to kill all the criminals of the world and create a utopian society. And in case anyone in the audience were waiting for the show to make a definitive moral judgement on either side of the matter, Light asks if he’s about to be taken to Hell. Ryuk merely laughs and says only that “any human has used the Death Note will go to neither Heaven nor Hell.”
Tl;dr, in the span of less than 24 hours from picking up the Death Note, Light Yagami goes from a normal high school student to a serial killer with a messiah complex, using the notebook to kill all the criminals of the world.
This can be seen as one of the fundamental problems of the original story. There is no gradual turn, no slow slide into evil. As soon as he knows the Death Note works, Light begins killing left and right, labelling himself the God of the New World. And while I would agree that for some stories, a slower collapse makes sense, I believe Death Note intentionally contracts this arc for the better. In pragmatic terms, most of the audience could see a turn like that coming from a mile away, and they would only be annoyed to see the inevitable prolonged and teased for several episodes (I’m looking at you, most Marvel Netflix shows). As Joss Whedon would say, “Play your cards early. It forces you to come up with new cards.” And boy does Death Note come up with new cards. Soon, a super detective named L starts chasing Light, solving a seemingly unsolvable crime with increasingly clever tricks and deductions, and Light constantly pushing the limitations and learning new uses for the Death Note in response. New characters, situations, and dramatic ironies are thrown in at breakneck speed, all while staying logically and dramatically consistent.
More important than that pragmatic concern, however, Light’s immediate shift serves a crucial thematic purpose. It pushes us away from the easy out of separating ourselves from Light’s actions, implying that we would all be capable of this kind of wanton cruelty given this particular tool and unaccountability. Light is a serial killer, but one who can justify every single one of his actions (up to a point). The more rational, calm, and charming Light appears while carrying out these heinous crimes, the more effective and unsettling a villain/anti-hero he is. (Noticing a not-so-subtle critique of the new Death Note there? Good.) As L says at one point in the show, for someone to murder without even changing the expression on their face, their psyche must reach a God-like level. Put in less dramatic terms, the show explores how our egos can distance us from our vulnerable, yet deeply necessary and human selves. What Light does is inhuman, because our egos are inhuman. Constructions meant to flatter ourselves, scare ourselves, whatever it takes to not face the parts of ourselves we don’t like. And, especially several episodes in with a bizarre moral version of Sunken Cost Fallacy, you can bet Light’s ego works overtime. Light’s non-arc is not a lapse in writing or a pragmatic necessity, but a deliberate thematic decision that informs his character for the rest of the show.
This character, in my opinion, is the core of the show. There are nice-sounding yet deeply juvenile ruminations on the nature of justice, manipulation, family, and all that, but Death Note only works as more than a simple game of cat and mouse because of Light’s Teflon morality and its implications for ourselves. The rest is just icing on the cake—high end production values, a soundtrack that is sometimes great (when it’s not being overbearingly dramatic with wailing guitars or choral sections), a somber atmosphere, and a story that, if nothing else, really goes for it and shows the full scope of the ramifications for Light’s actions. It’s a show that compels with, essentially, descriptions and deductions between two characters for 22 minutes at a time. That’s impressive as hell.
Anyone who knows me personally will also know I adore characters and premises like this in most shows. It’s what drives stories like Mad Men, In Treatment, The Wolf of Wall Street, Breaking Bad, Rick and Morty, and Magic Mike. It’s not enough to preach to the audience that something is bad. Show something to them with a completely straight face—sexism, self-loathing, greed, a neurotic need for control, anything—and allow them to decide for themselves. This gets a message across beautifully, but more importantly, it allows us to be more empathetic. Distancing flawed characters, slapping them on the wrists in a film only gets you so far. It’s one thing to say that Don Draper is a reclusive asshole who hides behind his aura of hyper-confident masculinity. It’s another to see him hold it together perfectly yet still be miserable. Not only does this speak volumes, it helps us see these flaws not just in them, but ourselves. And when we empathize with these flawed characters, we empathize and perhaps forgive the imperfections in ourselves as well.
Speaking of imperfections, let’s get back to that new Death Note!
OMG It’s Not the Same as the Old One
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, the new Death Note is absolutely nothing like the anime. For starters, Light is no longer a charming, popular genius (showing how even the most normal, well-adjusted person could be capable of this) but a loner malcontent who gets beat up by the bullies at school and is perpetually angry/whiny. (Mistake number one, equating Light to a Chronicle or school-shooting type loner character. This goes back to that “easy out” I was talking about—now we can just say he was a freak and move on rather than more deeply examine ourselves.) If he’s smart, we only know through lip service and some shots of him doing other people’s homework for money. Instead of coming to use the Death Note himself naturally, due to human nature or his own ends, he is goaded into it by Ryuk (who, admittedly, is played very well by Willem Dafoe) in a very tired snake/demon/devil allegory. While I always wondered about the apple analogy in the original show, now it is the often trod-upon snake/apple thing. Yes, let’s put all the blame on a demon rather than facing the uncomfortable truth that human nature is capable of this. Yawn. Instead of slowly coming into knowledge of the Death Note’s abilities, Light is handed all of the rules upfront by Ryuk in a cursory exposition dump. In order to try to explain Light’s behavior, the movie gives him the quick and dirty motivation of “a criminal killed his mom and got off on a technicality.” Misa, who was supposed to be a wildcard of sorts to shake up the existing stalemate between Light and L as well as an element of innocence to show just how far Light had gone, is now named “Mia” and serves as another person to goad Light on. It takes Light 30 minutes to start killing in proper, but Mia takes only about 5 to be on board. (Though this serves a purpose which we’ll get to later.) Light quickly loses all agency and rather finds himself caught between Ryuk and Mia’s plans.
Besides airing some of my frustrations, that long wall of text should show just how different this new film is. And rather than spend the rest of our collective time wailing about the tiny differences, let us acknowledge this simple truth: the new Death Note is attempting something different than the old Death Note. Clearly. The question is not how similar it is, but if it succeeds by itself.
Death Note Circa 2017
Death Note (from now on that will only be referring to the new film) draws from several odd sources that seemingly fit into the existing story without having to change much. The most glaring one to me, as a sad lil’ ‘80s obsessed person, was Heathers. In case you aren’t familiar, Heathers plays like a standard Mean Girls high school film (in fact it came out before Mean Girls, just saying), except Winona Ryder’s love interest (Christian Slater) is a psychopath who encourages her to kill the lead mean girl, pass it off as suicide, and start killing all the mean kids at school. I’m not going to pretend Heathers is perfect, but it’s a damn interesting film that has easily one of the most vicious senses of humor I’ve seen, capturing the mentality of the uncaring teenager perfectly. And you can see Death Note visibly struggling to do the same thing.
Rather than a well-defined yet perverted sense of justice, Death Note attributes Light’s actions to Ryuk goading him and his desire to impress Mia. You can see Mia very much as a Winona Ryder-ala-Heathers type, drawn into a world where murder is allowed, and her teen angst/dissatisfaction with the world can be writ large in blood. As Winona Ryder said in Heathers, “My teen bullshit has a bodycount.” Except Death Note is neither funny nor clever enough to make the same point nearly as concisely. Indeed, if there is a point to Light or Mia’s actions, it has to be heavily inferred, because their vague, stated motivations sure as hell don’t help. Mia says she loves Light and that before she met him (it’s heavily implied she more just loves his killing power and the Death Note) she was just a cheerleader. Again, I see what they’re going for here. Killing criminals gives Mia a twisted sense of purpose that poses as the answer to her teenage apathy and malaise. It’s just that they never state it so outright, or really do anything with this. Light, on the other hand, is a fucking mess. He slowly dips his toe into using the Death Note, alternating between whining to Ryuk and killing the guy who killed his mom in a fit of rage, only to then brag about it to Mia later. After they make out he apparently considers himself a god now. (Talk about using others for an inflated sense of self-worth, Jesus.) To make matters more annoying, he then goes back to pretending to be the victim ten or fifteen minutes later when Mia and Ryuk push him to kill the investigators following him.
By tying together Light’s desire for Mia with the desire to use the Death Note, Death Note firmly places itself in Heathers territory, where Ryder and Slater’s chemistry encourages her to keep killing classmates. But, as the comparison to the original Death Note is unfavorable, so is the comparison to Heathers. It lacks the humor of its ‘80s doppelganger, the bubbly visual style as a counterpoint. In one crucial way, however, Death Note almost outdoes Heathers, and almost makes me like it.
The moral problem that Heathers ran into was trying to justify Winona Ryder’s descent into murder. She got into it, but rather than own up to her actions, the movie had her go against Christian Slater as a way of wiping her slate clean. “See!” it said, “she’s no longer on board with killing people. That makes the last few murders less heinous, right?” I would have much preferred to have Winona Ryder go deeper into that hole than Slater, even, not letting her off the hook nor the audience for indulging in the film thus far. And for a hot moment, Death Note does just that. Mia goes further than Light, even writing his name in the Death Note and blackmailing him into giving her the notebook. Upon learning he’s been double crossed at the school’s winter homecoming dance, Light stalks over to Mia. As the pleasant ‘80s music plays, she lays out her plan and how she killed the investigators for him. Then she says, “Now go get me my fucking book.” It’s easily one of the highlights of their “relationship,” which was previously defined by his basic lust for her and her lame sense of purpose from him (go figure, a female character whose only purpose is a male character hmmmmmm). There’s a catch, though. Because she’s not the main character the same way Ryder is as Veronica in Heathers. What’s actually happened is insidious, and a little gross.
Light has been let off the hook.
Sure, there are lines paying lip service to the contrary. The dad finding out that he’s Kira. Light saying that he just wanted to kill the bad guys and he thought that would help but he knows it’s more complicated now. But for all dramatic intents and purposes—what actually happens, not just what has been said—Light is in the clear. He started as an anti-hero (more likely villain), but his ladyfriend’s escalating actions make him look tame in comparison, they make him appear to be the victim. Due to an elaborate series of events/double crosses shown in flashback (yayyyy) Light survives while Mia ends up dying. So, dramatically speaking, the movie is saying, “Yeah Light was a bad guy but not as bad as that girl and he learned his lesson and he’s clever so he gets to live? Also fuck that bitch?” It’s really confusing and kind of icky. Yes, let’s villainize women and men’s desire for them even more. I understand that she was that way from the start, and the movie is not in any way trying to say that all women are like this, but dramatically speaking, Light wouldn’t have become a serial killer if it weren’t for Mia. Which is lame, and not an uncommon trope.
Say what you will for the ending of the original, but at least Light was made to frickin’ answer for what he did and then some. Here, all we’re left with is a shrug. Light’s dad finds out that his son is Kira, they look at each other awkwardly on the hospital bed, and Ryuk says something to the effect of “Gee, humans sure are interesting!” Which is a great way of saying you have no idea what you’re saying.
This indecision is probably what led to the film’s aesthetic choices. “Well there’s murder and what’s a popular supernatural murder film series, oh Final Destination, so let’s have needlessly gruesome and elaborate deaths that conflict with the detached nature of the killing.” “Well, we’re kinda going for a teen angst high school vibe more than a cat and mouse vibe like the original, so let’s have lots of synths like those ‘80s movies?” Ugh. Don’t get me wrong, I love the soundtrack in this film, and may have even jumped up and down in my seat when I heard my boy MAKEUP AND VANITY SET start playing during a chase scene, but it just communicates how misguided some of the decisions are in this film. If you’re going to make it cool, calm and collected like the original, do that with say, a Michael Mann treatment. Think Heat. Stylish, yet very, very calm. And if you’re going to make it more of a teen flick with blaring synths, then great, make it brash, make it emotional, make it human. But oh wait, for that we need to care about the characters and their relationships, and we’re given very little to do that with.
Like Light between Ryuk and Mia, Death Note is torn in too many different directions and has no agency of its own. It has no message it wants to impart, no themes it wants to explore. It just wants to get through its version of the story as quickly as possible while drawing surface-level-pleasant cinematic and aesthetic allusions out of its ass to pass the time. (A cynical part of me wonders if some of these aesthetic choices were not made from Netflix’s own vast data, which probably shows that ‘80s aesthetics and shows set in Seattle do very well coughcough Stranger Things cough The Killing cough.) It’s telling that the most meaningful messages I get from Death Note I get from what it’s referencing, not the film itself. The original and its commentary on the ego and humanity. Heathers and teenage discontent turned violent. Maybe on the next Netflix adaptation go around, we could stop wasting time and just put a little post-it-note on the front that says “INSERT STUFF YOU LIKE HERE.”