I don’t consider myself to be a massive fan of Japanese animation. There’s always been one series that I recommend to friends without hesitation, however. “Death Note” was literally my first foray into the world of anime. To this day, the cat and mouse game between Light and L remains as one of the most intriguing stories I’ve watched in any animated series. The latest film adaptation from Netflix may not live up to the original, but it serves as a condensed version of the story that ultimately gives anime haters a chance to experience it.
For those who have avoided any and all subtitled entertainment mediums, here is Death Note’s plot. Our protagonist’s name is Light, a high school student who receives a book called the Death Note from a death god named Ryuk. Any person whose name is written in it by its owner dies a horrible death. Light, along with his girlfriend Mia, decides to use his newfound power for good by killing off criminals. Their goal is to make the world a better place by ridding it of those who harm others.
Despite their good intentions, Light and Mia have a bit of a roadblock ahead of them. The police are after the mysterious killer the media refers to as “Kira”, and Light’s own father is leading the investigation.
As things start heating up, a mysterious, reclusive detective only known by the letter “L” becomes obsessed with apprehending whomever is responsible. A manhunt ensues as Light and L do their best to outwit each other. Kira becomes drunk with power and will do everything he can to protect his secret. L attempts to use his intellect in an attempt to catch up with the killer. And Mia convinces Kira to keep pushing towards his cause.
I really hate to sound like one of those hipsters that says “the original was better”, but I truly do feel that way. Kira and L were two incredibly entertaining characters to watch on screen when they had thirty-seven episodes to develop. There’s simply not enough time to invest in the depths of this rabbit hole plot or its characters. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film adaptation nor that it did not have its own advantages. On the contrary, I actually preferred this ending to the messy letdown I watched in the anime.
While I wish the writers had made Light/Kira’s character come across more intelligently, Nat Wolff did just fine with the role as written. He offered a greater degree of range than I experienced in “Fault in Our Stars” or “Paper Towns”. Margaret Qualley’s Mia was equally serviceable, but she can’t seem to shake her “cute girl from ‘The Leftovers'” persona for me. To be perfectly honest, the two together come across a little ‘CW’ for me, but not enough to detract from the narrative.
The standout, by far, is Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. Although he lends his voice more than anything else, I haven’t seen this level of perfect casting since Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. His reimagining of the Green Goblin is tweaked perfectly to fit the creepy demeanor of the death god with ill intent. He’s officially the Morgan Freeman of unsettling characters.
As I watched Death Note, I felt as if I were experiencing a film set in the same universe as Adam Wingard‘s “The Guest“. I’m not certain that this style fit with the tone in this movie, however. It has a retro 80’s flare (particularly with the music) that felt unnecessary and more of a reflection of the director’s taste than it contributed to the story.
It’s not fair to compare the film to the series, but the anime provided a theme that just might not translate to live action quite the same. On its own, however, it’s a solidly shot film. The action sequences (particularly the chase scenes) were intense with many quick surprises. I just found myself looking for more of those surprises with the narrative itself.
Netflix’s take on the Death Note tale may not be my first recommendation to experience these characters, but it’s still entertaining. You’ll get many nods to the original that fans will appreciate, but those same fans will cringe by what’s missing that made the original so great. This story just deserved more time, and 101 minutes doesn’t do it justice.
Let me put it this way: I’d rather you gave this a shot over nothing at all. But I’ll always recommend the series first.