Netflix’s Death Note: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Quick Take

Adapting a 37 episode anime in to a 90 minute movie is an enormous challenge, so a reduction in depth is expected. Instead of the anime’s philosophical dialogue on justice, Netflix’s new Death Note film attempts to tackle the blurry distinction between good and evil. But does it succeed? Join us as we explore the ideological inconsistencies in this Wisecrack Quick Take on Death Note: What Went Wrong?

Written by: Claire Pickard
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon

Netflix’s Death Note: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Quick Take

Hey Wisecrack, Jared in the the very pale flesh again. So we watched Netflix’s new Death Note movie this weekend, and thought it merited some discussion. And, of course, some spoilers. If you watched our video on the Death Note anime a couple weeks ago, you know that we’re big fans. The show draws out incredibly nuanced ideas about the nature of justice and even participates in its own kind of philosophical dialogue throughout the series. It’s just damn good television. The movie? Well it’s not exactly good cinema. Now off the bat, I just wanna say that adapting a 37 episode anime to a single movie is really, REALLY hard. If somebody hired me to do that I’d be shitting my pants, so we’re not here to grade how closely the new film sticks to the anime or the manga. It’s an adaptation, and it deserves some room to do its own thing. So let’s look at the film on its own terms. It’s definitely got some good things going for it, and the thing that I most admire is its attempt to preserve some of the thematic richness of the anime, which is an impressive goal for a 100-minute movie that already packs in a lot— action sequences, detective games, gore, and teen romance.

From Light’s argument that his systematic cheating is no big deal to his conversation with his dad at the end, Death Note tries to put some moral ambiguity into Light’s character and to gesture to bigger questions about the nature of good and evil. Given the time constraints, it was smart not to attempt the massive discourses on justice that we see in the anime. But the film makes clear that it’s still interested in ethics, just in a simplified form. Unfortunately, that’s where the film gets itself into trouble. Toward the beginning, Mr. Turner tells Light that “a gun is only as good as its aim. I make sure people can trust our aim.” Here, of course, he’s talking about the role of the Seattle police. But Light seems to adopt a similar principle. Using the power of the Death Note, he— like his anime counterpart— wants to create a new world where innocent civilians are protected from the “people who make life miserable.” The Death Note is his gun, and that’s the aim.

Although he gets squeamish about offing some law enforcement, we never really see Light compromising the intentions behind that aim until his David Copperfield reveal at the end of the film. Instead, they bring in a seductive, power-hungry girlfriend to play the role of bad cop. For 90% of the movie, Light is unambiguously the good guy, or at least the kind-of-okay guy. And that’s a problem. Kira largely had the support of the people, including the police, until the death of the FBI team. And who sent eight federal agents walking off a building? The duplicitous Mia. Who stole the notebook from Light and wrote his name in it? Bad, bad Mia. Who killed Watari by not burning the page with his name on it? We’re clearly supposed to blame Mia… even though Light put him in there in the first place. Although the film spends next to no time developing what Light wants out of his new world, he’s still shockingly quick to abandon it once someone dies who hasn’t committed a felony or stolen someone’s lunch money. “We aren’t the good guys anymore”sounds a lot more like “people don’t like us” than an actual statement about Kira’s morality of Rule.

And while the third act of the film tries to play up the differences between Light’s reluctance to kill people and Bad Mia’s bloodthirstiness, Light’s shift seems more pragmatic than anything. Light’s change of perspective isn’t an indication that there was ever problems with his plan for becoming a God, just that the circumstances have changed and he doesn’t want to go to prison but Mia doesn’t really mind. If a gun is only as good as its aim, it seems like the film should be asking questions about Light’s aim with the Death Note. But instead of saying “Be careful of aiming your gun in this direction,” it’s more “make sure your crazy girlfriend doesn’t get ahold of your gun.”

Even L’s quick personality flip from “I don’t kill; I bring people to justice” to “I might kill you in the same way you killed hundreds of people” seems to be totally dependent on circumstance. The detective’s strong moral framework, developed since childhood, gets tossed away instantly when his friend goes missing— but there’s no emphasis on the significance of that change. Light ends the film by telling his dad that “I thought it was gonna be simple at first: I was just gonna kill all the bad guys, and the good guys would win, but it wasn’t like that…. It’s like you said. Sometimes you gotta choose the lesser of two evils.” But what are those two evils? My guess is that not even Light knows. Unlike the anime— sorry, had to say it— Death Note’s ethical ambiguity is less about opening a multitude of possibilities and more about shrugging in the direction of good and evil, while ultimately saying nothing.

Once again, condensing an anime of that magnitude into a relatively short film is a difficult task, and I won’t begrudge the filmmakers some reductions in depth. But what the story clung to most— questions about good and evil— was poorly executed and ended up hamstringing its potential, both philosophically and dramatically. Anyway those are our thoughts. We’re still experimenting with this new quicktake format, so if you have thoughts on what we should cover next, let us know. Peace guys.

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