That anguished sound you’re hearing? That’s the collective howl of a thousand Death Note readers reacting to Netflix’s brand-new film adaptation, which debuted last night. The project was controversial enough to attract interest from major media outlets like Variety, The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times. While many news organizations have been kinder to Adam Wingard’s movie than rank-and-file fans, critics more knowledgable about the source material have taken issue with Wingard’s efforts to transplant Tsugumi Ohba’s story from Japan to Seattle.
Writing for GQ, for example, Joshua Rivera praised Wingard for his diverse supporting cast — brilliant detective L is played by Lakeith Stanfield — while noting that the Americanized Light “is an angry, disillusioned young white guy who might as well be a faceless Redditor who gains the power to kill people via forum posts.” Other reviewers — such as Forbes critic Dani Di Placido — took issue with the way that Ryuk was reimagined as “a malevolent force, pressuring Light into murder and pursuing his own private, twisted agenda.” Di Placido noted the strong contrast between Wingard’s interpretation of Ryuk and Ohba’s original creation:
In the original, Ryuk is simply bored. That’s it. That’s his motivation. He hangs around in the world of death, bored out of his mind, until he decides to give his Death Note to a random human and just … see what happens. To his delight, the tense game of cat and mouse that ensues is the most entertaining thing he’s ever witnessed.
Ryuk is supposed to be a spectator, just like the audience, standing beside Light and giggling at the human’s plans. He doesn’t have a horse in the race – he just likes eating apples and watching the chaos unfold. I really loved that aspect of Ryuk, and again, it’s a shame that his character had to fit the Western perception of demonic entities.
Roger Ebert contributor Brian Tallerico was less charitable in his assessment than Di Placido, awarding Death Note a measly one star rating and arguing that “it doesn’t feel like any of these alterations to the source material, and there are many of them, had true artistic or thematic purpose.” His sentiment was echoed by BGN critic Jamie Broadnax in her aptly titled review “I Watched Death Note So You Won’t Have To,” in which she catalogued the film’s myriad problems, from frantic pacing to an ill-conceived love story. Broadnax’s most trenchant comments, however, addressed the race-bending of the story’s principal characters:
…the whitewashing of Death Note is problematic as hell and it was even more egregious to see Asian actors used more for set dressing than actual principal characters. And as much as I love LaKeith Stanfield and I stan for most of what he does, racebending L and listening to him speak very bad Japanese is not enough for me to forgive the whitewashing of Light Yagami.
Also addressing the whitewashing issue at length was Pajiba’s Kristy Puchko, who shared Broadnax’s frustration that the film’s Asian American actors functioned more as props than people:
Wingard transported the story from Japan to Seattle, then decided to cast white actors in the two lead roles of Light and Mia. (Because people of Japanese heritage don’t live in Seattle?) “Kira” is still used as a pseudonym as it means “killer” in Japanese, but it’s presented as a misdirect to keep the cops off Light’s trail. Yup, the white hero is hiding behind an assumed Japanese identity. Aside from supporting character Watari (Paul Nakauchi), the greatest representation for Japanese actors is the slew of dead yakuza members, and their molls, who are clad in skimpy lingerie, dead or alive.
I give the last word to Anime News Network’s Jacob Chapman, who joined his fellow cinephiles in panning Death Note while arguing that Wingard’s film has a unique integrity:
It’s hard to imagine Death Note aficionados being pleased with something so flagrantly disrespectful to its source material, but there’s still reason to rejoice in the specific flavor of badness we were gifted. Rather than being dull or disposable, Death Note 2017’s desire to be different no matter the cost gives the movie its own maverick charm, inimitable by the flood of safe remakes we forget one week after they hit theaters. (Lookin’ at you again, Ghost in the Shell.) There’s a trashy kind of triumph that rises from the uniquely poor decisions holding Death Note together, and every fan should watch it just once for a one-of-a-kind example of how adaptations can go wrong.
If you’re in need of a palette cleanser, VIZ has you covered: on September 5th, the publisher will release a 2,400-page Death Note omnibus for a wallet-friendly price of $39.99 — which, as the folks at Gizmodo helpfully observed, translates into a per-pound cost of $1.50. As an added incentive, VIZ will include a new epilogue chapter that hasn’t been published in English before. Pre-order it here.