Death Note (2017) Review

I haven’t seen the anime, before you ask.

Death Note is an insanely popular Japanese anime, based on the equally popular manga of the same name. It focuses on Light Yagami, a high schooler who finds a book that kills anyone whose name is written in it. The first issue of Death Note released on December 1, 2003, and has since gone on to be one of the most critically acclaimed manga of all time, with an incredibly massive fanbase that was only further fueled by the anime. The anime premiered October 3, 2006, to critical adoration by both critics and fans of the manga, and is now regarded as one of the best anime to ever exist. Naturally, anyone making a film adaptation of this phenomenon would already have an enormous amount of scrutiny on them from the start. They’d have to play it safe, not make any huge, nonsensical changes to the material, and with some luck, it might rank among the best anime adaptations of all time.

Let’s change the main character from a genius Japanese kid to an insufferable white boy from Seattle.

Needless to say, this was doomed from the start.

The funny thing is, I didn’t even mind the “whitewashing” itself that much. The film’s set in Seattle, and while it wouldn’t be out of place to have an Asian kid in Washington, having a white guy as the lead isn’t movie-ruining. Rather than the act itself bothering me, it’s the motivation behind it that gets me. Assuming that because the leads aren’t white, the film will be unrelatable to American audiences, is possibly one of the dumbest things to assume in the history of cinema. If the race of a character is the deciding factor on whether you can relate to them or not, you need to take a step back and slap yourself. If it’s about a rapper who comes up from the hood into stardom, and you’re a white guy from Vermont, it’s understandable that you can’t relate to this specific struggle. But even then, you should still be able to put yourself in his shoes and think how you would react to the situations he’s put in, regardless of circumstance. Race absolutely doesn’t matter in terms of how relatable a character is. What does matter is how they’re written, if they respond to situations like human beings, that kind of stuff. In the case of Light Turner (they changed his name, too,) it wouldn’t matter what race he was. White, black, blue, purple, maroon, no matter what race he was, he would still be an annoying brat. Annoying brats are annoying no matter what race they are.

From what I’ve heard about the anime/manga, Light Yagami is a genius. In the movie, Light Turner uses the death note to impress Mia (yes, they changed her name, too) by showing what it can do. If this sounds like a bad idea, you’d be right, because if murdering someone right in front of the girl you’re trying to woo sounds like the epitome of romance-killers, you may be a rational human being. Alright, I’ll give Light this: He doesn’t actually walk over to some guy and murder him right in front of Mia’s eyes. He pulls up a live feed of a hostage situation and murders the guy holding the hostages. Because that’s so much better. The most infuriating thing about this situation is that it works. Think about this for a second. If a guy you barely knew walked up to you and stabbed someone in front of your very eyes, you’d probably run for the hills. Mia, however, is not normal (she has a “normal people scare me” magnet in her locker, ugh,) and she thinks Light’s power to ceaselessly kill is the coolest thing in the world. I recognize that some high-schoolers would find this to be impressive, and maybe they’d want to fall in love with Light as well. However, those people are a) hard to find and b) usually called sociopaths and c) usually not cheerleaders. Yeah. She’s a cheerleader. She isn’t exactly the typical cheerleader, but nonetheless, you’d have to be borderline braindead to think that showing a girl your power to kill would make her want to date you. But it worked, and that stumbles us into the next problem: Development.

The development in this movie sucks. Development of characters, development of the plot, everything. Light and Mia transform from normal high schoolers to sociopaths through a montage. Not just any montage, a news montage. Deciding to guide your characters through a change as drastic as this by way of a news montage is akin to shooting your film in the foot with a .50 caliber machine gun. A change like this deserves time, it’s something that you have to devote a sizable chunk of the movie to. Under five minutes is unacceptable, especially when you spend most of your time around a really bad romance instead of something interesting. By the way, the romance even has a scene where they kiss in the rain. Yeah. That bad.

Moving on to plot, most of the film centers around Light killing criminals all around the world, and a hacker by the name of L (along with a few other characters) trying to find out who is causing all of this carnage. L’s investigation has the potential to be one of the most compelling parts of the movie, but, like most things in this movie, it’s botched. There’s a scene where they call in Light’s father (a Seattle police officer) because they believe that Kira (the moniker Light chooses as a calling card) is related to the police force somehow. The problem with this is that they never show how Light is choosing his victims. For all we know, it’s a Google search. We know that he needs the victim’s name and face, and most crimes are usually reported somewhere easily accessible to the public. How did L come to the conclusion that Kira was involved in the Seattle police force? His first victim was livestreamed on the news. Every subsequent victim is presumably found somewhere public, and they even touch on how each victim had their information publicly released. I’d buy this stab in the dark if we saw Light kill someone he could have only found on the Seattle police force database. After all, his dad has access to these records. It would have made sense, but instead, because they don’t show any of the actual investigation, it’s frustrating beyond belief.

(Spoilers in this paragraph. If you would like to avoid spoilers, skip to the next paragraph. I warned you.)

If you thought that stab in the dark was lucky, check this one out. Light’s callsign, Kira, translates to “killer” in Japanese. He chose it because it also means “L” in another language, so people would think he’s operating halfway across the world. It’s a little stupid to leave behind your first initial on crime scenes, but the Japanese translation is more widely known, so it’s not entirely brainless. What bothers me is how quickly L and his team find Light out. The first piece of evidence L brings up is how “Kira” translates to the letter “L.” We don’t see how he comes to this conclusion. Later in the movie, when L says with complete certainty “Light Turner is Kira,” you feel cheated. I certainly did, especially because no investigation was shown, they just told us their conclusions and expected us to just take their word for it. It’s like Sherlock, but they weren’t even trying.

(Spoilers finished.)

Despite all of this, there are still some silver linings, most notable being Willem Dafoe as Ryuk, the demon who gives Light the book. He is the single best part about this movie, and every time he showed up, I started having as much fun as he was. Trouble is, he’s in the film for maybe 20 minutes. According to some of my friends who’ve seen the anime, he’s supposed to have almost as much screen time as Light. This is a serious waste of talent; whoever decided that the best part of the movie should be regulated to barely showing up needs to have a psych evaluation. Another good thing about this movie is the look. It’s shot well, the special effects are all good, there was clearly effort put into the production of this film. For all this trash I’ve talked, I cannot say it was an effortless project. Adam Wingard clearly cared about the film he was making, no matter how terribly it turned out. I just feel there’s so much potential for a great film, but somewhere along the line they switched focus from the death note and the mythology surrounding it to yet another bad YA romance.


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