If you have ever had even the slightest exposure to Japanese anime, there’s absolutely no way you wouldn’t have heard about Death Note. Originally written as a manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, Death Note achieved cult status among comic enthusiasts and then among anime-buffs when it was adapted to an animated TV series by Weekly Shonen Jump in 2003. Since its TV debut, fans have clamored for a live action non-animated full-length feature film but it was easier said than done. Attack of the Titans, which was also one of the fan favorites had been adapted into a live-action film but it had utterly failed to capture the dread and the intricate beauty of the original. This is a curse that plagues almost all live-action adaptations that are inspired by manga or anime. Artist illustrations in these latter mediums are complex, highly expressive and elaborately designed giving more time to the reader to absorb and appreciate the works. Converting the same to live-action basically removes a lot of the artwork that fans crave for, leaving a cinematography which may feel drab and devoid of character. Needless to say, it becomes a huge challenge for directors to carry over the essence of the anime into their live-action film.
When Netflix announced a couple of years back that a Death Note live-action film was in the works, there was palpable excitement. Soon after a special screening had been held for the original creators and word had gotten out that they had approved of it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. For the uninitiated, Death Note revolves around a high-schooler named Light Yagami or Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff) as in the live-action film, who is a brilliant young man, doing other people’s homework in exchange for some pocket money. However, life isn’t easy for him as he is often bullied by the school jocks. Light, who happens to be a local cop’s son, has had a difficult childhood. His mother had been murdered by a criminal overlord who had escaped punishment owing to his clout in the city. The young boy had harbored a deep angst against his father and the law in general which had allowed this monster to roam free without consequence.
One fateful day as he is sitting on the benches watching the cheerleaders practice, a leather-bound notebook falls on his lap, literally, out of the sky. As he turns the notebook in his hand, the jagged title spelling – Death Note, stares back at him. Confused and intrigued by this, he opens the notebook and finds a list of strange rules listed down in systematic order page after page. He also finds names of unknown people scribbled randomly in them. Unable to make heads or tails out of it, he starts going through the rules which basically say that, the keeper of the Death Note would be able to kill anyone in the world, just be writing down their name and the manner of the death in the notebook. The catch was that the keeper should be able to visualize the face of the person they were writing the name of.
However, the idea sounds utter nonsense to him as it would to any rational person until he meets what comes with the notebook. While going through the notebook, Light feels another presence in the room. As he looks around unsure of what was happening, he hears a maniacal cackle as the presence reveals itself. What he sees is a towering figure whose body is covered with sharp spines, looking at him with bright gleaming eyes and a smile like Heath Ledger’s Joker. The figure introduces himself as the Death god (or Shinigami) Ryuk who does the bidding of the Death Note, executing the killing of whose name is written down by the keeper. To see if all this was true, Light write down the name of the bully in his school and as promised, the boy ends up dead in a “freak accident”. Light realizes the immense potential of the power he now commanded and decided that he would purge the world of evil, starting with the man who had killed his mother.
As people start dying all over, the FBI secretly starts their investigation. Meanwhile, Light is not just satisfied with the purging. He also wants people to know he was doing it so that they would appreciate his work. While writing down the manner of death, he writes down the word “Kira” for his victims to write before they died. Soon, the fictitious Kira becomes a god in the eyes of people who were seeing the world being cleansed. This comes to the notice of an eccentric yet intuitive investigator named “L” (played by Lakeith Stanfield) who reads through the pattern. He realizes that every one of those “victims” had files which were public records, so Kira knew their names and faces. By broadcasting info about a criminal only in Seattle, he is also able to deduce that Kira, despite being a Japanese name, lived in Seattle. The case is eventually assigned to Light’s father by L to see if Kira goes ahead and harms him too. Meanwhile, Light has gotten close to a girl in school named Mia (played by Margaret Qualley) with whom he shares his secret. For a while they work together, searching for criminals on the internet police databases and executing them. As they get to know that the case had now been assigned to Light’s father, Mia in her coldness asks Light to write down his name too as this was way bigger than family. Light is distressed by her behavior and knows that she had somehow become attached to the notebook and wanted it for herself. He also gets to know from his father that “L” was getting close to uncovering him. However, “L” was way too smart for him and he had never shown his face in public television. No one knew his real name too, making it impossible for Light to kill him. He realizes that his window was closing fast and he had to do something as quickly as possible. Little does he realize that Mia was going to betray him by tearing away a page from the notebook.
You may realize that a lot is going on for a feature length film of roughly 90 minutes. The exposition that happens in the series over a few episodes has to be done in less than half an hour in order to allow the latter part to make sense and keep the audience invested without baffling them. Death Note overcomes these challenges by crisp writing and tight editing without a wasted minute and unnecessary rambling about for suspense. Things do happen fast but the pace is kept consistent so that expositions seem to happen naturally and the story of Light and the notebook unfold without feeling like a crash course to the anime/manga series. Even if you have never heard of it, you would be able to comfortably follow the story and get hooked into it.
Anime puts a lot of focus in their characters and their quirks which are often exaggerated a bit through intense facial expressions accompanied with secondary movement of their forms through the screen space. Netflix’s Death Note does not have any Asian characters which was a cause of worry for the fans earlier. But director Adam Wingard’s faithful representation of the characters coupled with a well-written script makes it a fast-paced thrill-ride. Nat Wolff’s portrayal of an introverted and bullied teenager is authentic on screen and projects the working of a mind struggled in a dilemma between right and wrong. After his disturbing performance in Jordan Peele’s cult breakout classic Get Out, Lakeith Stanfield brings the much needed quirks that define “L” in the anime series – his addiction to sweets, the crouching style that is so characteristic of him while he brainstorms, his cold mannerisms and social awkwardness. Everything is measured and right on point, making him, perhaps, the best adapted character in the film. Ryuk, the Death god or Demon, is voiced by Willem Dafoe who reprises his green goblin voice from Sam Raimi’s Spiderman including the much applauded wicked cackle that makes Ryuk a sneaky player who makes the Keeper feel as if he were in command while its actually Ryuk who becomes the puppet master making him/her do his dirty bidding. Margaret Qualley who plays Mia, gets limited space in the script but is a strong character herself who almost single-handedly brings Light close to destruction. Again, this is Wingard’s attention to detail that makes sure that no character is wasted, making the narrative much more meaningful and layered. Although there is little background given for Mia, you still feel invested and ultimately betrayed by her as the climax unfolds.
Death Note is a great example of how adaptation challenges like script-writing, character development and exposition, can be tackled effectively to be able to put together a story that would carry the essence of the original and still be unique in itself. Some fans may still be disappointed about the depth of the characters but considering the limited time of a feature-length film, it does an admirable job in making it a decent standalone production.
gobblscore : 7.5/10
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