When rumours of Death Note‘s Hollywood remake surfaced throughout the early months of 2015, the probability of the project really following through wasn’t one I gambled highly on. As a fan of the series for years, who had also bought volumes of the manga and enjoyed the anime immensely, I didn’t really see the hype for Death Note coming back. The anime had aired in 2006, which seemed centuries ago, and not much had occurred regarding Death Note that appealed to western audiences following this. So, it just seemed much too late for a remake to appear. However, when Adam Wingard seemed adamant on letting a Death Note revamp hit the screens and Netflix was added to the equation, my interests were piqued.
Though the trailers didn’t offer much to raise my hopes, I had a semblance of faith in Netflix, hoping they would at least refrain from butchering the psychological thriller. I went into the movie open-minded, residing in the comfort in my home and hoping for an experience that was at least enjoyable. For the first few moments of this movie, that seemed somewhat possible. Then, as quickly as anticipation had built up, it was obliterated, and all that was left was disappointment, for an array of reasons. I’ll go into detail regarding these issues while reviewing Death Note‘s latest adaptation, and explain my own reason as to why this movie was a failure when it comes to live actions.
Death Note‘s concept is one that comes across as fairly straightforward at first glance. It involves a notebook which is bestowed with the supernatural ability to kill whoever’s name is written inside of it, however the writer may please. While they’ve been used by death gods since time itself began, when a human is given such power situations become much more complex. Therefore, when a smart individual named Light finds the Death Note, a psychological thriller-esque story is given the chance to play out in a dark and enthralling way. As he uses the note, he arouses suspicion from the police, leading to a glorious cat and mouse chase of the mind as a battle of wits is waged between a detective, L and the high school student.
This is, essentially, what Death Note’s franchise advertises the show as and what many would say – in a nutshell – summarises the entirety of the tell tale thriller. Essentially, that was what I perceived the Death Note live action to be based off. However, I acknowledged that this was no run of the mill Japanese adaptation; this movie was catering specifically to the western audience, so slight changes and differences in the plot were unavoidable. Also, it was a feature movie, so cramming in hours of episodes would be near impossible, therefore, I wasn’t too wary on how they’d allow the plot to unravel. Variation seemed acceptable and I anticipated seeing a fresh take on the Death Note story that had been told more than enough times. So when Light’s role was taken on by an American actor I had no qualms; I anticipated seeing diversity in the cast through L’s role being given to the talented African-American Keith Stanfield. As long as the characters could play out the overall story of the movie there was nothing to be dissatisfied about regarding their choice, and though the only Asian featured in the main cast was Watari, it was obvious this cast was crafted in order to appeal to a wider audience. However, the writers succeeded in disappointing almost everyone who could bear to sit through this movie, and made my stomach churn from how the plot was presented.
The plot of the original Death Note had been more than altered in this remake, and I was willing to overlook this. It’s obvious that when a Japanese manga is made into such a big box office production catered mainly towards the US, things were going to change. However, the distorted view of some of anime’s greatest, most complex characters that was thrown in my face unceremoniously during this movie is just simply unforgivable. There were a myriad of plot holes that lazy writing overlooked or simply neglected because it would be too much work to fix. Even as a stand-alone it was a rushed movie that left a bad taste in my mouth, but when I’m forced to come to terms with the fact that it’s under the same franchise as one of the greatest mangas to date, my blood boils.
Though I am expressing my irritation towards this film quite explicitly, it’s mainly because the movie started off in a way that achieved the unfathomable; it bestowed me with a semblance of hope. The first few scenes were gritty, dark and mysterious as they showed an American high school, elevating the chances of this movie actually living up to the dark masterpiece that Death Note is still viewed as. Light is first seen completing a delinquents homework, making it clear he’s smarter than your average Joe – keeping with the Light we all know and love. The beginning continued this way, containing many notable similarities to the anime but not recreating them; adding a little Hollywood spin that enthralled me further into what potential this movie may hold. In fact, I liked that Light Turner was willing to decapitate a school bully – even though the gore was unnecessary if anything – as it rang true to the Light that would always view criminals or bad people as unworthy of living, playing on his god complex slightly.
Then, everything went wrong. This was mainly because of the way Light’s character suddenly took a nose-dive off a cliff into shark infested waters, and got thoroughly mutilated by the most mind-numbing plot I’ve ever been subjected to. Suddenly, Death Note turned from a psychological thriller into a Bonnie and Clyde-esque train wreck with a ‘I’m going to get the girl with my note that kills people’ washed out, two-dimensional protagonist and his psycho girlfriend, if even that. I’ve been told by various people to view the Light Turner in this remake as a completely different entity from the evil mastermind Light Yagami, but I simply can’t. It’s clear from how they both harbour the same name and same stage name, ‘Kira’, that the Hollywood makers wrote this character in order to portray the same Light from the manga and anime as the protagonist. This is why I hold so much malice towards the screenwriters who butchered the essence of Death Note completely the second Light got out his Death Note – the same note he created a makeshift petrol bomb for in order to keep it away from others in the anime – and showed it to Mia. That was really the moment where I lost all faith in this movie; yes, I was still holding onto some kind of hope after Light screamed like a little girl during his first encounter with Ryuk.
The plot however did have some redeeming moments – very few with large intervals between them – and though they twisted the story slightly, they weren’t close to being interesting enough to detract from the overall disappointment that was this remake. Near the end of the movie, it’s unveiled that Light essentially plotted to kill Mia and get back the Death Note days in advance by writing it all on the notes pages. Therefore, he wasn’t just an idiot who failed to think, but showed a glimmer of the initial masterminding prowess Light Yagami is known for. However, the way this particular plot device occurred was, funnily enough, not believable in the slightest for Light Turner. It seemed like the screenwriters forgot they had made Light a spineless coward within the last few minutes of the movie, and he was given character development we as an audience failed to notice. One second he was loving Mia and the next he was watching her die from falling off the top of a Ferris wheel – which honestly felt like a spoof the first time I watched it. If the movie had been written differently, maybe this scene would’ve garnered more credibility, but when you bunch it up with the rest of the painful moments this movie delivered, it’s a substantially underwhelming ending.
Overall, the Death Note remake was far from perfect, or even just successful, in terms of remakes. A plethora of over-used or even just badly used tropes washed out the plot significantly. This, paired with bad screenwriting, character development and aesthetics made the remake as a whole painful to sit through. Nothing was remotely believable about Watari’s death, and the effect it had on L’s character was near comical. In the end, it would’ve had more success if it was advertised as a spoof of the actual show, not an actual remake that could have any kind of standing in the franchise. However, one redeeming quality about this remake is the way in which the characters of L and Light didn’t mirror the anime character’s personalities to the point where it was stiff and unbelievable; in fact, they varied so largely you could never imagine Light Yagami was Light Turner in this remake.
While there were low points and high points – very rarely featured but existing in the CGI of Ryuk and William Dafoe’s voice acting – at least this remake has reminded fellow anime fans of the impossible-to-rival plot that centres Death Note. While the initial premise was a refreshing adaptation and take on the Death Note story, its execution failed to live up to standards. In the end, all is not lost – the anime is available on Netflix too!