As a viewer, who had never read the highly regarded, Japanese manga series “Death Note” – original title in Japanese, “Desu nôto” – written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only thing I did know about it from some articles I had read was that the film was based on the twelve-volume manga. A manga is a type of Japanese comic book and or graphic novel, which is read by individuals of all ages. The manga, “Death Note,” was published from December 1, 2003 until May 15, 2006. In addition, I learned that the Netflix film was not the first time the series has been brought to the screen; an anime of the work, consisting of 37 episodes, premiered on Japanese television on October 3, 2006 and ran until June 26, 2007. On October 11, 2006, a feature length film based on the manga premiered in Singapore. Furthermore, an 11 episode mini-series was released on July 5, 2015, as well as an update to the overall series, “Death Note: Light Up the New World” which premiered on October 29, 2016 in Japan. The main objection I had to the Netflix, live-action film adaptation of “Death Note,” and it is a glaring one, is that the majority of the characters, as well as the plot, are not developed well enough. I will, however, grant, that the film’s runtime of 101 minutes, considering the source material that preceded it, doesn’t help matters.
Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is an intelligent teenager, who for the most part, is ostracized from the rest of the students at his high school, in Seattle, Washington. He is, however, called upon for his intellectual prowess to complete homework and assignments for his peers, for which he is paid. The viewer will learn, after not much time has passed, that Light is coping with the loss of his mother. She was killed by a criminal, Antony Skomal (Artin John), a man, who thanks to his high powered attorneys, walked away from the crime without serving a day in prison. The fact that Skomal walked free, is a point of contention for Light between himself and his father, James, a police detective, portrayed by Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island).
At the start of the film, Light is sitting on the outside bleachers while cheerleading and football practice is taking place. An exchange of homework for money is made, but a moment later, a strange storm materializes out-of-nowhere. During the storm, a book falls from the sky. On the book’s cover are the words ‘Death Note.’ Taking a quick look at the book, Light sees that it contains lists of names within its pages. In addition, there are specific rules that govern the book. For instance, the owner of the ‘Death Note’ need do nothing more than write someone’s name in the book, have a clear vision of the person’s face in their mind, and choose the manner in which they want that person to die. The rule, in, and of itself, sets up an interesting question: What would you do if all of a sudden you had the power to decide who lives and who dies?
While Light is serving a week’s detention, after the teacher leaves the room, it is torn apart by the arrival of a supernatural presence. Light will soon learn that the ‘Death Note’ book belongs to Ryuk, an apple eating, death god, voiced by two-time Oscar nominee, Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire). Ryuk can only been seen by the keeper of the ‘Death Note,’ and acts, at least at first, as a sort of guide for Light, regarding the numerous rules that govern the use of the book. I would have liked to have learned Ryuk’s back story, as well as his motivations for his actions, but none of that is explained. Defoe does a competent job voicing the character, but his role is, by and large, reduced to providing exposition to move the film from one scene to the next.
Light’s first use of the book is to take out Kenny, a school bully (Jack Ettlinger), who recently knocked Light out with one punch. While Light was resting at the school nurse’s office, Kenny got Light into further trouble, when other students’ papers were discovered among Light’s possessions; the reason why he was in detention. Light shares the power of the ‘Death Note’ with his love interest, cheerleader, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) – a relationship that to me, as a viewer, came across as forced. At first, Mia thinks Light is pulling a gag on her, but after he demonstrates his new found power, the couple set their sights on targeting high powered individuals and organizations; crime and the criminals who perpetrate it, are starting to refrain from their activities. The film mentions, that a number of criminals, are turning themselves in to law enforcement, not wanting to become the next victim of Kira. Light and Mia use the pseudonym, Kira as a way to throw off law enforcement, by attempting to make people think that the assassin originated in Japan. The name Kira is a transliteration of the English word killer. While most are fooled, Lakeith Stanfield’s (Atlanta) eccentric, character ‘L’ is not. He is a Sherlock Holmes type of detective, who almost never sleeps, and eats large quantities of candy to keep his mind focused on the task at hand. The only time, he seems able to calm his mind enough to get a few hours of sleep, is if his protector, Watari (Paul Nakauchi), sings to him. L is not fooled by the Kira name, and begins to center his investigation in Seattle; it won’t take long before he begins putting together a list of suspects, one of which is Light. The ironic thing is that Light’s father, is one of the few in law enforcement who want to help L, as many others are feeling that Kira is making a real difference in the world by his actions.
Will L catch Light before he plays God one too many times? What will become of Mia if Light is caught? Would he give her up as his partner in killing? What about Light’s father, could he allow L to capture, imprison, and perhaps even kill his only son? Could Ryuk be persuaded to use his powers to save Light, or would he merely pass the book along to the next person? The answers to those questions and more will be provided by the film’s end.
“Death Note” was directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next). The screenplay for the film was adapted by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater. The film encompasses the genres of adventure, crime, drama, fantasy, horror, mystery, and thriller. Netflix released the film for worldwide streaming on August 25, 2017. The premise, when I first read about it sounded compelling, and by itself it is. The cast that was assembled to portray the characters is comprised of a talented group of actors, but due to the mediocre writing, and an overall lack of execution when it came to tension and drama, the cast didn’t have enough to work with. Based on its premise “Death Note” should have been an exciting and interesting film, to watch, but at least for me, didn’t deliver. In my opinion, it would have been better as an episodic series, where further character development and back story could have been delved into, as opposed to a standalone film.