DISCLAIMER: I highly recommend you view the trailer for the Netflix adaptation of Death Note released a few days ago for clarity. I will be referencing the trailer frequently throughout for the purpose of this article.
According to Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the perception of complete departure from convention and lingering uncertainty are among many reasons why humanity often expresses resistance towards change. Change is an inevitable aspect of life however: we witness the world evolving at a rapid pace for the better or worse with innovation; we experience changes in personal mindset as we come across new information; we live to improve ourselves as individuals and a species, requiring the willpower to adapt to new conditions and advance. Change can be beneficial or detrimental, but it ultimately relies on context and understanding to fully grasp its implications.
And the latest trailer for Netflix’s film adaptation of Death Note has fallen victim to the opposition of those unsatisfied with this new interpretation.
With over 2 million views on YouTube, the reaction to the official trailer is polarizing, with the like-to-dislike ratio nearly 1:1 (although leaning in favor of dislikes). A clear, yet confusing division is arising as a result of its supporters and adversaries, although the social media reaction has heavily promoted the latter. The central theme of criticism involves the departures the film is taking from the original source material, both tonally and aesthetically. Whether it be the “whitewashed” or “Americanized” casting choices or greater prominence of action scenes, it’s not only clear that the overwhelming majority of critique originates from fans of the anime or manga, but that their expectations of a completely faithful adaptation have been thrown out the window.
Adam Wingard, director of the upcoming Death Note film, made clear in an interview with IGN that this interpretation of the series will stray heavily away from the original source material on a surface level. He explains that the change in setting was both a result of adapting Death Note for a new audience and the avenue it provided him to make alterations to the story. For the film, Wingard proposes that he is “taking the themes of who the characters are but it’s exploring them in a new context”, considering the atmosphere and issues taking place within America.
So this version of the much-acclaimed Death Note will definitely challenge what fans and newcomers will come to expect from the film, but it doesn’t dismiss that instances of change in any capacity will arise concern among some.
As someone who is quite optimistic and excited for the eventual release of the film, and more importantly a huge fan of the Death Note anime, I am going to examine the latest trailer that dropped and analyze its components, most prominently the four standout characters. From there, I will attempt to fairly justify the changes in the film and potentially construct a forecast as to how the film will play out from a thematic and narrative perspective
*The assertions that I propose throughout will primarily be based on fact or personal observation, but theories nevertheless
I think the perfect pedestal to holster this discussion is Light himself, as he embodies the core of Death Note itself. In the anime and manga, he is portrayed as a righteous and adept genius that has garnered the utmost respect of his peers at school and his own family. However, he finds society to be “rotten” and feels any hint of justice to be nonexistent. When he happens to come across the Death Note, he takes it upon himself to rid the world of criminals, believing that only he can lead the world to a better future under the persona of “Kira”
However, it is his arrogance and obsession with the newfound power that eventually leads to his downfall. While he can maneuver his way out of suspicion through sheer intellect and manages to outsmart L, it is undeniable that his killing spree at the beginning of the series, in which consisted solely of heart attacks, and the rather limited locations of his killings ultimately garnered suspicion upon his locale, which soon traced back to Light himself.
Light Yagami wished for a world free of crime, and his normally quixotic aspirations were made obtainable by the Death Note itself. While his ideals were pure, his disposition was tainted by a superiority complex. By allowing himself to believe he can act as a god, he refused opportunities presented to him, including the bestowal of the Shinigami eyes. He additionally manipulated Misa as a scapegoat to accomplish his deeds and jeopardized the lives of his own family to pursue his goals. Whether his actions were liberating or cruel is wholly unimportant. The series poses an impartial stance on the matter and highlights all aspects and scenarios that can arise when a teenager is granted the power to dictate death. Nobody is necessarily right or wrong in their beliefs, and the perspectives of characters on all areas of the spectrum are grounded in legitimate reason.
These are a few of the core principles of Death Note and by far the most crucial elements that must remain intact to stay true to the intentions of the source material and fully embrace its title.
And after viewing the latest Death Note trailer multiple times, I have confidence that Adam Wingard fully realizes this himself and has simply applied a fresh coat of paint.
Now some might be wondering what and where in the trailer I find remnants of the source material to make this assertion. The safest answer to this question is everything.
The structure of the trailer itself follows its own character arc, centered almost entirely on Light Turner. Just as with the change in the last name, Light has also gone a significant personality change. He is no longer the perfect student, the role model to aspire to. Rather, he seems to be a timid and introverted student who has fair intelligence and ability to recognize the wrongs of society. However, he requires some degree of moral support to take the initiative, as demonstrated at the very beginning of the trailer. He seems to act as a bystander to an assault on a fellow student by two peers, his face clearly tainted with anger with what he witnesses, but doesn’t immediately take any action to stop the incident. When a girl comes rushing by, who I presume to be Mia Sutton (this film’s interpretation of Misa Amane), Light confronts the two instigators, only to be knocked down cold, suffering a battered eye and other bruises to the face.
From these details in the first few seconds, we can already grasp that this Light will be more emotional and insecure, but more importantly that he himself witnesses these injustices right in front of his eyes. It further cements his motivations to eradicate crime from the face of the Earth when he obtains the Death Note, and it makes clear that under all circumstances, Light metaphorically starts as a lowly bystander.
I find this to be a critical change regarding Light’s circumstances, but doubly a modification that can more clearly feature his ascent and descent. If executed properly, it will allow the audience to more clearly see how the Death Note morphs his attitude and ego over the course of the film and realizes the extent of the newfound power.
Earlier, I asserted that Light Turner was a smart individual, although much of the reaction to the trailer by commenters seem to dismiss this notion.
However, I see a Light who’s willing to employ his resources to his advantage and uses the Death Note in a way to avoid as much suspicion as possible. At one point in the trailer, we catch a glimpse of one of the pages Light has written on in the Death Note, and we notice an interesting detail: the varied circumstances and locations in which his early victims died.
Remember when I said Light Yagami killed many of his victims through the method of a heart attack? It was this notion that incited suspicion that something strange was occurring in the source material due to the repeated nature and targets of the deaths, prompting Light to diversify the methods in which his victims were killed. In stark contrast, it seems Light Turner is aware of the Death Note’s capacity from the very beginning, and some of his methods are much more brutal than the source material, including decapitation and the ingestion of a grenade. The scope of his victims early on has also broadened, most notably the Tokyo cartel massacre and the death of several terrorists in a presumably Middle Eastern country. Given the movie takes place in present-day Seattle, it’s unsurprising that terrorists would be some of Light’s early victims, given the free flow of information and constant discussion about such subject matter, typically regarding the refugee crisis and the debate over the regulations regarding immigration. This simply would not translate well if the film took place in Japan, given that threats of Islamic terrorism are a virtually nonexistent problem there.
Going back to Light Turner himself, the trailer takes the time to demonstrate a few of the deaths that occur at the hands of the Death Note, all while Light Turner states that the notebook is “not going to solve a few crimes. It’s going to solve all crime”. For the most part, this forward-thinking mindset parallels that of Light Yagami, and the confirmation that this line is his attempt to persuade Mia to team up with him demonstrates that these thoughts are his and his alone. Just as he needed the push to stand up to the bullies at the beginning of the trailer, the Death Note is the nudge he needs to fully realize his intentions.
The trailer also puts the spotlight on a scene where a group of young adults are worshipping Kira. Here, narration from Light begins, in which he questions Mia if he’s crazy. This makes Light feel more human than his counterpart, implying that he initially feels remorse over his action, something Light Yagami never once concerned himself over. It plays into my theory that there will be a more clear, slower path of ascent filled with doubt, and Mia will be the catalyst that pushes Light along, demonstrated when she responds that he “isn’t crazy enough”.
Now, this comment is particularly ambiguous. How is Light not crazy enough? He has asserted that he wants to rid of all crime already, so what is Mia referring to? My only guess is that Light isn’t using the Death Note for anything except crime and that he has the potential to control life and death for other regards for his own personal gain. For now, this line is a bit confusing in context but nevertheless shows the significance Mia will have in Light’s character arc.
For the next minute or so in the trailer, Light plays a less prominent role, but we catch multiple glimpses of his face in two scenarios: a telephone call with L and another writing session in the Death Note (just before the three guys jump off the building). His expression is similar to the one he made in the beginning, except the Light we are witnessing here is in a much different position from the helpless student who could only stand aside and watch injustice occur in front of him. Trickles of arrogance taint his face, unwilling to concede to other’s threats or opinion, indulged within his responsibility as the bringer of a new age.
The one point in the trailer regarding Light that concerns me is the moment when Light states that he and Mia aren’t “the good guys anymore”. Since Death Note is a story regarding the grey area of morality and fair judgment, it is strange for Light himself to explicitly say something like this. The only way this could be consistent with his character is if it’s meant to demonstrate his mental state before his eventual downfall, one who was legitimately concerned about the well-being of the country by ridding it of crime.
The most damning point of the trailer of Light Turner, however, comes at the very end, where he states the following:
“What they want…is a god, so let’s give it to them”
If this is not the clearest allusion to Light’s eventual god-complex that signifies an important part of the character, then you might as well write my name in an imaginary Death Note. It served as the pinnacle of Light Yagami’s ascent to the top, and I guarantee it will serve the same purpose of Light Turner.
Despite his appearance, Light Turner shares striking similarities to Light Yagami but offers a fresh take on a character that has been recreated several times over in a live-action film and live-action TV series. If this incarnation of Light progresses through a similar character arc, it is safe to say that the thematic narrative is faithfully grounded.
Before I proceed to discuss L, there are two quick criticisms that I want to address. The first being the outrage concerning Light’s race being of Caucasian descent.
To those angry about this matter, I will simply pose two questions:
- Did Light’s race ever play any significant role in the actions he partakes in beside the fact that the story was set in Japan?
- Is there any basis that Light must be Japanese in this interpretation of Death Note?
The other criticism regards the alias Kira making a return in the film. In the source material, Kira is a Japanese word that for the purpose Death Note plays on the word “killer”. Without any significance in American culture, I can understand why some may be unsatisfied with this. At the same time, I would wonder how fans would react if Kira was substituted for something like “Killer”.
Perhaps the most quirky (and arguably most popular) character from the Death Note series is L himself. The highly intelligent, sweet-loving, insomniac detective is the second half of the cat-and-mouse chase that ensues when he assumes the mantle of taking down Kira and bringing about his own sense of justice. Through sheer wit and deduction, he has garnered his status as a world-renowned detective, even though his appearance is shrouded in mystery to all but his closest acquaintances. Easy to deceive with appearance, L is a calculating individual that is always thinking three steps ahead, aided by tactics such as misinformation and duplicity to gain leverage and find the light at the end of the tunnel (pun completely intended).
His looks were quite distinctive as well: the pale skin, unkempt appearance, lack of shoes or socks, among other things. It’s no surprise then that the casting choice for L in the upcoming film served as a heavy point of discussion. Instead, L dons a hoodie and a face mask in public, concealing the lower portion of his face.
As to why he shows up in public, YouTuber Mother’s Basement has an excellent video about the Netflix adaptation of Death Note in which he offers an explanation on the inconsistency among many others. I have included the hyperlink above for readers to go check out.
Many have already noted that the L in this movie is hosting a press conference to the public, with some claiming that it’s out of character for him to do so in the first place. At first, this is a valid point, until we remember that the L in the anime and manga also went out in public occasionally, although admittedly not under the alias of L. He is also covering his face here, preventing Light from killing him immediately in the film. This means that somehow, Light Turner will have to unmask L and find his true name, perfectly explaining why he appears at an abandoned building that may be an orphanage.
Another detail in the trailer shows L standing next to who I presume to be Watari, reminiscing about the Tokyo massacre featured in the film. This confirms that L has international ties and may be known outside of the United States.
It should be mentioned that several of the quirks that make L who he is are still present here. He crouches in his chair like the original. He has a sweet tooth like the original. He speaks awkwardly intelligent like the original. He owns a long-sleeved white shirt like the original. It is clear that the team behind Death Note was well-aware of the source material and that despite the personality shifts for many of the characters, their actions and key characteristics will continue to shine through.
We do not get to witness L’s wits in action during the trailer, but at the very least he has deducted that “Kira” is a human being and that he believes Light to be a prime suspect for taking up the mantle. I am interested to see how he arrives at his conclusions, and more importantly, the cat-and-mouse chase that occurs between the two.
Once again, I should bring up the fact that most of the criticism directed at L had to do with the fact that the actor (Keith Stanfield) portraying him is African-American. As with Light, I would pose the same two questions as I did for him. However, I must also clear up one huge misperception that most viewers have about L.
According to the author Tsugumi Ohba, L is multicultural, and has stated the following regarding the matter:
“I think of him as a quarter Japanese, a quarter English, a quarter Russian, a quarter French or Italian, like that.”
I only address this because a good portion of the critical fans of the film believe that the actors should have been Asian-American because the story is set in Japan and presumed that Light and L especially were Japanese (the former being the case, however). At the end of the day though, this is an American adaptation of the film, and there was a reason that Nat Wolff and Keith Stanfield were chosen to represent these roles, so demeaning the integrity of the film for being “whitewashed” is rash.
On the surface, Mia seems the most heavily departed from her source material counterpart Misa Amane. Mia Sutton isn’t a pop star, but seemingly a cheerleader lacks blonde hair and pigtails, and isn’t visibly adorning any jewelry with allusions to Christianity. Even more damning is that she is likely not in possession of her own Death Note. Yet, Mia is not as different as one might assume.
Consider this: Mia seems to be infatuated with Light, to the point that she is devoted to his cause and willing to commit criminal acts, like the instance in the trailer where she tases an unsuspecting fellow. Where she gained possession of the taser is unknown to me, although I suspect that it belongs to the police department.
These characteristics put her in league with the original, although her role in the film can be brought into question. In fact, it appears Mia is encouraging Light to “change the world” using the Death Note, an assertiveness that was not present with Misa. So what gives?
My theory is that Mia’s primary role in the film is one of three possibilities: to feed into the ego of Light, act as the scapegoat for Light’s schemes, or a combination of both. The second option would be consistent with Mia’s role in the original source material, as Light often included her when he devised a plan to not only keep up appearances, but to take advantage of the fact that she had a Death Note, and more importantly Shinigami eyes.
Speaking of which, are the Shinigami eyes even present within the film? As I had already mentioned, Mia doesn’t appear to have a Death Note for independent use. Not to mention, there is nothing that indicates the Shinigami eyes exist in this universe.
In the manga and anime, Shinigami eyes were a special ability that could be granted upon an owner of the Death Note, in which they could gain the power to identify anyone’s name by looking at their face at the cost of half their lifespan. Light refuses this offer from Ryuk since he wants to live for as long as he is supposed to, but Mia accepts the gift from Rem, the Shinigami beholder of her Death Note. Given the circumstances, Rem cannot exist. Despite this, it is possible that she may see Ryuk, as she seemingly writes some of the names in Light’s Death Note. Could she make a deal with Ryuk instead?
Honestly, Mia is shrouded in the shadows of obscurity, and I can’t quite get a complete read on her yet. Besides some key personality traits, I have no clue what purpose she will serve in the grand scheme of the film, and I am quite curious to find out. What I’ve managed to dig up on her raises a few concerns about what aspects/rules of the Death Note will carry over into the film, such as the Shinigami eyes and how many people can own one Death Note at any given time, and we will likely have to wait it out until the film’s release to uncover the truth.
There isn’t much to say about Ryuk, other than he acts and feels the most similar to his counterpart in the anime and manga. It also happens to be the one aspect of the film that everyone can totally get behind. William Dafoe was the perfect candidate to play the part, from his sinister laugh and dark undertone to the dubious aura that he emits. He accompanies Light and will most likely have his strange obsession for apples, given that one was shown in the teaser trailer and the promotional poster features it.
Ryuk is meant to represent the grey area on the spectrum. He simply acts as a bystander and doesn’t make attempts to interfere with the happenings of Earth, even though he is capable of causing mischief since he is invisible to normal bystanders. In a complimentary image of Light and L at a cafe, there is an image of Ryuk shrouded in darkness, presumably watching a conversation between the two. He has the Shinigami eyes and probably knows the real name of L, but out of veracity does not disclose it to Light.
It is quite likely that his character perfectly translated over to this new adaptation, and therefore was remained wholly intact. He looks ever slightly more sinister than the original manga and anime depicted him as, but nevertheless retains the same purpose.
The Supporting Cast
Outside of the main cast, I want to quickly go through the other two significant individuals in the film to confirm their roles and how they might play a part in the film:
For any unaware, Light’s father is still a detective in this incarnation of Death Note and will be known as James Turner. This means that Light might gain some form of access to information flowing through the police department and can effectively take advantage of it to divert suspicion. Given the dominating public and media perception of the criminal justice system in America, the dynamic between the public (supporters of Kira) and the police could be interesting if Kira is technically accomplishing their job for them.
Watari is still present in the film and acts as L’s assistant during the pursuit of Kira. In the manga and anime, he was also the founder of “Wammy’s House”, an orphanage that took in children that were gifted, including L himself. Since the orphanage seems to appear in the film, it would not be surprising to see Watari remain the founder here. One of Watari’s significant actions involved him erasing every trace of data at Task Force if something were to happen to L. For all we know, this might not play out in the same fashion in the movie, so his contribution to the story is a bit mysterious at the moment.
The Action Scenes
Already the characters reveal so much content about the world of Death Note in the context of Seattle and unhinged much potential while leaving key plot points out to encourage speculation. Just by looking through the main cast, much of the trailer was covered in order to support any arguments I posed in this article. This demonstrates that the film is one that will be driven by its characters, the actions they take, and the interactions they encounter as a means of development and progression.
However, there is one uncharted territory that I have yet to cover, and it is by far the strangest portion of the entire trailer: the action scenes.
There are plenty of instances where we catch Light running, either from the police or an unknown force attempting to track him down. Whether the police are on to Kira’s identity or believe Light might know critical information about Kira, it begs to question how Light found himself in these situations. Nothing like this quite happened in the anime or manga, but it is possible that these scenes might be found closer to the climax of the movie.
Yet nothing explains the presence of the Seattle Great Wheel. The massive Ferris wheel seems to be the largest set piece in the entire film, taking the brunt of a malfunction or helicopter crash, and bending out of proportion with Light and Mia within one of its cabins. Something of this scale seems so out-of-place, and therefore I feel as though what occurs here must act as a major turning point for the narrative. It’s difficult to tell how early or late in the film this scene takes place and the exact reason why they are on the Ferris wheel in the first place.
Or that’s what it seemed in the teaser trailer…
Here, Ryuk has a quick line to express as he stands by gazing at the Ferris wheel:
“Hope you know what you’re doing.”
In other words, Light and Mia are not at the Seattle Great Wheel by coincidence; it is an intentional move. Light might have planned for something to occur at this Ferris wheel under his watch, and it completely upends the circumstances. There is something at risk here that Light is attempting to account for if we are to take Ryuk for his word, yet there are absolutely no clues to base any assumption on. Were the police responsible for the malfunction? Did Light call for the Ferris wheel to collapse in the Death Note? Questions like these continue to fill my mind without a tangible answer, successfully leaving me in suspense and nudging me to watch the film.
However, if you desire my most far-fetched theory thus far, it is possible that Light is attempting to pull off deaths through supernatural circumstances as a means of gearing suspicion away from humanity, but more importantly himself. After all, we do see a church collapse in the middle of the trailer, but that may simply be dually symbolic of Light’s eventual descent and challenge against God himself.
Hopefully, the major sequences of action throughout the film are spread out and serve as highlights of spectacle rather than act as a cluster of chaos that demeans the psychological warfare between Light and L. If paced out well, they can serve as a break of pace that allows viewers to engage in something more visually entertaining.
We are always witnessing some form of change in life: it may be unbeknownst or painfully aware to us, but it is important that we remain acceptive and tolerant and embrace the opportunity to have a new experience. How to Train Your Dragon takes significant departures from its original novel, but still manages to be an exciting, heartfelt, and gorgeously animated coming-of-age film filled to the brim with thematic depth. Jurassic Park adjusts several of the characters and focuses more on spectacle than science, but nevertheless was a box office king.
Here, Death Note relocates the setting to America and alters the characters’ personalities, but it retains the beating heart of its original source material under its surface. Whether the film will be a classic in the making or another film left for the garbage is yet to be determined, and August 25th will be the fateful day when audiences can develop their own opinion on the film’s quality given its changes and how it compares to its prior adaptations. In the meantime, give the Netflix film a chance. Dwelling on the cosmetics and obvious changes may project one idea, but focusing on its inner workings may reveal something much greater.