“Death Note” Starts Off Promisingly, Then Gets Lost In Translation

James Dittiger / Netflix

Lakeith Stanfield and Nat Wolff in Death Note

Light Yagami, the handsome, misanthropic genius at the center of the original Death Note manga series, has been transformed into Light Turner in Netflix’s movie adaptation. Americanized Light is still a bored, bright teen who gets gifted with a nearly boundless power to kill at the start of the story, but he’s not popular the way he predecessor is. He’s introduced huddled on a table outside his high school doing other students’ homework for pay. This Light is friendless, aloof, and also white — a furor kicked up online around the film in the wake of the whitewashing perpetrated by the earlier 2017 anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. In transferring the action from Tokyo to Seattle, director Adam Wingard and producers Jason Hoffs, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, and Masi Oka cast Nat Wolff in the lead role rather than an Asian-American actor.

Then again, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s saga isn’t Asian-American either. It’s imported from Japan, where it’s already been the basis of four homegrown live-action movies with Japanese casts. In the complicated and evolving conversation about Asian representation onscreen, adaptation, and erasure, it’s not accurate to describe Death Note as replicating the exact outrages of Ghost in the Shell, which kept the cultural trappings of its source material while discarding the actual people. That film literally had Scarlett Johansson playing a character who had the stolen brain of a Japanese woman transplanted into the body of a white one, an accidental but incendiary metaphor for the vampirism it was perpetrating.

James Dittiger / Netflix

Netflix’s Death Note fails Asian-Americans in the more mundane way that most Hollywood releases continue to — by not casting Asian-American actors in any significant parts, a fact that has some extra sting given where the source material came from and the film’s predominantly Asian-American producers. But Death Note isn’t an act of cultural ventriloquism or cringey orientalism — it’s an earnest, ludicrously overstuffed attempt at reworking the original story for an American context, part of the latest instance of Hollywood’s long pattern of devouring international intellectual property and remaking it (for better or worse, usually the latter), from Vanilla Sky to The Departed to January’s ill-fated Jamie Foxx vehicle Sleepless. It’s not an illustrious tradition, but it’s one Death Note is part of, and to classify it as straightforward whitewashing is to suggest that Lakeith Stanfield, who plays one of the other two main characters, is effectively white — protesting one act of erasure by committing another kind.

Netflix’s Death Note at least seems to have had some intention behind its primary casting choice. In headphones, a flop of home-bleached hair, and a black T-shirt, Wolff isn’t just sporting a general uniform of teen outsiders, outcasts, and burnouts; it’s a look that, in combination with the aura of resentment accompanying it, feels intended to bring to mind some more specific connotations of the Dylan Klebold or James Holmes variety. Death Note‘s antihero is, like them, a spree killer, albeit one whose journey of mass murder is meant to better the world as well as serve as an act of ego.

James Dittiger / Netflix

Wolff and Margaret Qualley

Light isn’t just any young white man. His look evokes a very specific sort of young white man, the kind who’ve made up the majority of mass shooters in the US. Light comes into possession of something scarier than a gun: a notebook that drops from the sky, and that allows him to dictate someone’s death through the simple act of writing their name inside it. The film doesn’t try to overexplain the notebook or the death god that comes with it, a demonic figure by the name of Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) whom only Light can see. He’s functionally a divine troll, and Light an overconfident Redditor sure that he knows how to fix society — a smart, bullied, self-righteous, motherless kid who comes into possession of a frightening amount of power. It’s a shrewd opening gambit that hints at what Death Note could do by using its source material as an inspiration rather than a burden. But the film never fully embraces or lives up to the possibilities of its provocative, slow-motion introduction.

Death Note instead tries to cover so much ground that it barely gets a handle on the mechanics of its murderous wish fulfillment and its teenage antihero before it sets off at a sprint. As a manga series, Death Note ran for 108 weekly chapters; then, as an anime series, it spanned 37 episodes. The Netflix adaptation tries to cram everything into a just-over-100-minute runtime. Light gains a girlfriend and partner in crime almost instantly — Mia Sutton, played by the always intriguing Margaret Qualley, a disaffected cheerleader barely bothering to conceal the sharp edges no one expects to find in her. Mia serves as a promising confidant and a devil on the shoulder of Light, who embarks on a global campaign of killing off criminals under the pseudonym Kira. But their romance is treated as foundational before we ever really get to see it form, consigned to a montage in which their first fumblings are intercut with footage of death row inmates, terrorists, and cartel leaders dying off while the planet gapes and cheers.

James Dittiger / Netflix

Stanfield’s character, when he arrives, gets an arc that’s similarly condensed — he’s a legendary detective who goes only by the name L, and takes on the unpopular task of tracking down Kira. The eccentric candy chomper is the film’s most overtly cartoonish character, and Stanfield leans into that nicely, disguising himself by pulling a turtleneck over the lower half of his face and folding his lanky limbs into a squat on top of chairs rather than sitting in them. He’s enjoyably weird and, like any good fictional detective, brilliant, which we see in how quickly he homes in on Kira’s true identity. But there’s no space here for the prolonged battle of intellects between L and Light that forms the backbone of the anime series. One of the unfortunate realizations as Death Note churns onward is that it would have been better off either cutting L (to the ire of fans) or cutting Mia, and focusing on Light’s relationship with whichever character remained as forces threaten to expose his identity as Kira.

As is, neither connection is all that resonant, and neither, ultimately, is Light, whom the movie softens right when it should be making him more charismatically monstrous. Wingard is a clever director with an unignorable sense of style, and his great earlier films, You’re Next and The Guest, had a way with deconstructing genres while paying homage to them. But he never finds a baseline to riff off of with Death Note, which — despite floating a few good ideas and demonstrating a welcome sense of humor — can’t manage to pull together into any kind of coherence. Its most electric moments are the ones that have no direct relationship to the source material at all, from Light’s just-short-of-a-trench-coat stylings to the rainy, neon-lit look of its Seattle, from the semi-ironic soundtrack that includes the notable use of Air Supply to Light’s tense relationship with his policeman dad (Shea Whigham).

For all of the film’s weaknesses, it’s still fair to say that Death Note is one of the best American adaptations of anime and manga to date, because the bar has been set so very low. It is, at least, a project whose problems aren’t related to a condescension to or bewilderment by its source material. But between its attempts to service the sprawling nature of the original story and its desire to transform it for a new medium, Death Note gets mired in a limbo — neither a functional standalone film for those unfamiliar the manga and anime, or one that seems like it’ll satisfy existing fans, despite producer Masi Oka’s insistence they were the audience for whom the film was made.

Death Note compresses a frustrating volume of plot twists, no breathing room allowed, and yet it doesn’t end up capturing the spirit of what it’s transliterated. We’re still waiting on the first good American anime remake. Maybe we’ll never get there — but Death Note does, at least, hint at what it might look like when we do, and that endeavors at adaptation aren’t totally doomed.