Posts Tagged ‘Americanization’

Death Note is a franchise I’ve been aware of since high school, and despite some issues I have with the source material (*cough* the second half of the manga *cough*), I’ve always looked at it fondly. It’s clever, has some really memorable characters and scenes, and the themes present in the story are always relevant. When I first heard of plans of an American version of the story, I thought it had some potential, which is why I was disappointed when it fell into development hell. But when director Adam Winguard and Netflix finally started to put the film into production, and despite the troubling news I heard leading up to the film’s release,* I still had hope.

Imagine how I feel now when I find the final result is not what I’d hoped for.

So for those of you who don’t know, Death Note is originally a manga about a Japanese high schooler named Light Yagami who discovers a notebook that kills anyone whose name is written in it. With the help of a death god named Ryuk, Light starts a killing spree of the world’s criminals to end all crime and to become a new god named Kira. He is opposed by L, a mysterious detective who has solved several high-profile crimes in the past, creating a cat-and-mouse game that could determine the fate of the world. The story has been adopted into anime, TV shows, novels, and even a couple of Japanese movies. Winguard’s version is the latest addition to the franchise, and unfortunately, it’s like that one relative whom you invite to family gatherings because he’s family, but you’re not happy about it because he’s an embarrassment to the whole family.

The biggest problem I have with this film is the many changes from the source material. Now, I’m open to some changes, like what the Japanese films did. Those were changes that strengthened the story instead of taking away from it. However, the majority of the changes here were unhelpful. Light Yagami, a handsome, charismatic and intelligent young man motivated by a sense of justice and boredom becomes Light Turner, an outsider who’s only a few degrees away from shooting up a high school, whose intelligence is only hinted at, and who screams like he has no confidence. Misa Amane, a blonde and bubbly airhead whom you actually feel sympathy for, becomes Mia Sutton, a cheerleader with no personality or backstory and too much enthusiasm for killing criminals. Lakeith Stanfield is actually pretty good as L for a while, but then in the last third goes completely off the rails.

Something went very wrong with this transition.

There are a whole bunch of other changes that I didn’t care for. The purpose of the Death Note and the reason why Ryuk drops the Death Note is changed, the default method of death for the Death Note isn’t in this adaptation, Mia isn’t given a good reason to want to use the Death Note like Misa Amane has, so her enthusiasm for using it feels strange, and the way L and his assistant Watari interact feels a little creepy rather than the working relationship they had before, and the list goes on and on. In fact, some of these changes open up plot holes in the story. For example, the change in the way L identifies the first victim of Kira, rather than making some sense like it does in the manga, leaves open some questions in this adaptation. Also, why does L have a false name but Watari is actually his real name, with no last name?

I also did not care for Margaret Qualley’s acting in this film, which felt emotionless and uninvested. It seems like she was trying to channel Kristen Stewart’s Twilight performance, which given all I’ve heard of that performance, explains a lot, but it’s obvious it’s not what we’re looking for in this movie. Also, who’s idea was it to make her look like an Emma Roberts impersonator in every shot?

Ryuk, played by William Dafoe, is definitely one of the better parts of the movie.

There were a couple of things I did like about the film, however. Ryuk looks absolutely terrifying, as he should, and is kept sinister throughout the film, thanks in part to William Dafoe’s phenomenal performance as the voice of the character (that man can do villains like no other). Mia is treated more as a partner in this film rather than as a pawn, which I’m sure many Misa fans, including myself, have always wanted to see (what can I say? You feel for her, despite her flaws and the blood on her hands). And if it weren’t for how bad the rest of the film is, the climax and its twist would actually be pretty impressive.

However, the rest of the film outweighs everything else, forcing me to give Adam Winguard’s Death Note a 1.1 out of 5, possibly the lowest score I’ve ever given anything on this blog. This is just the latest example of how NOT to adapt a beloved manga and anime, with way too many changes from the source material and bad choices on the part the people behind it, and a horrible introduction for newcomers to the world of Death Note.

Trust me, this is a much better movie than what we got.

If this left a bad taste in your mouth and you’re still willing to give this franchise a change, I highly suggest you check out the original manga or anime (the latter also on Netflix), or check out the Japanese films based on those. Unlike the Netflix film, any of these will show you how exciting and clever the original source material, as well as how memorable and even likeable, the characters really are. Believe me, there’s a reason why this story is the phenomenon it is. It’s just the Netflix movie isn’t part of it.

Hopefully in the future, if we have any other American adaptations of anime or manga, they won’t be anything like this.

*To be clear, I will not be getting into the whole issue of the races of the cast. Yes, whitewashing is a problem, and the casting decisions made in regards to this film are extremely problematic, but it’s not one I want to explore here. Why? Because it’s an extremely complicated issue and not something I usually get into in a movie review. I’m judging this movie as a movie, and I’m judging the actors for their performances, not for their racial or ethnic heritage. If you don’t like that, I’m sorry, but that’s just how I do things here. And if you want to voice your anger about this, don’t voice it at me. Voice it at Hollywood, because that’s how you can possibly make some positive change, instead of sending it my way while some corporate VP thinks Zac Efron would make a great Kaneda in a live-action American Akira remake or something (that’s an example, not an actual thing as far as I know).

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