As Netflix prepares to debut its Death Note adaptation, we understand that you might have a lot of questions—chief among them, “what the hell is Death Note, anyway?” It’s understandable: unless you were in the habit of watching Adult Swim in the late aughts, or are actually into anime and manga, you could easily have missed it. It’s a story about a teenage boy named Light who discovers a notebook with a sinister power. (You can probably guess that power from the name of the story.) The original manga—which ran for 108 chapters—was a sensation in Japan, and quickly made its way overseas. Several adaptations were made, but the only good, prevailing one was the anime version, which spanned 37 episodes—19 hours in total.
Intrigued? Here’s a quick explainer of the original, and a preview of how the adaptation will differ.
So, what is a Death Note?
It’s just a plain-looking notebook! And there’s more than just one; in the series, every death spirit—or “Shinigami”—possesses a Death Note. They live in another dimension, and end the lives of human beings by writing their names down in the books. The remaining lifespan of each person they kill gets added to that of the Shinigami. In other words, they kill people to grant themselves immortality.
Humans who find a Death Note can kill whomever they want by writing their names down and picturing their face. (You must do both to prevent killing anyone with the same name as your intended victim; someone’s gotta look out for the Michael Smiths of the world.) Exactly 40 seconds later, that person will die of a heart attack. Should the writer choose, they can also write down the circumstances of their intended death—within the realm of possibility.
O.K., so who is Light, and how did he get a Death Note?
Light is your average misanthropic, borderline-genius high-schooler. He’s at the top of his class, but has severe disdain for a lot of the people around him—particularly bullies and criminals, who he thinks have turned society “rotten.” Meanwhile, another disaffected soul—a Shinigami named Ryuk—finds himself bored, and drops his Death Note down to Earth for his own entertainment. Whenever a human finds a Death Note, it becomes theirs, and they will be followed by the Shinigami whose book it is until they either give up possession of the book or die.
Once he finds the book, Light becomes bent on ridding the world of criminals and evil-doers; he obsessively begins killing them off, one by one. He quickly gains fame as a faceless killer known to the public as “Kira”—but the police begin to track him down with the help of a super-detective named “L.”
Just “L”? What kind of a name is that?
“L” values his secrecy; as the story begins, no one knows what he looks like or what his real identity is. (We find out later, of course.)
All right, so what makes “L” so special?
Basically, he’s a genius. He and Light are both extremely logical thinkers. “L” quickly grows to suspect that Light, who happens to be the son of the Japanese police chief, is actually the killer Kira. Light hates “L,” and is bent on destroying him before the detective can find him and sentence him to death. As their cat-and-mouse game ensues, a lot of the story is driven by their internal monologues.
If they’re making a movie adaptation, I assume the original was good?
Yes! And it mostly holds up. (If you’re interested, Hulu got its hands on the rights, so you can binge-watch all of it—either dubbed or subtitled.) It lags a bit in the middle, but then again, so do most TV shows. It’s worth a shot, especially if you like anime.
So, what was this white-washing controversy I saw surrounding the remake?
Well, the story is set in Japan, and all of the characters were originally Japanese. In the Netflix remake, Nat Wolff, a white dude, plays Light, and now his last name is “Turner” instead of “Yagami,” so . . . you get it. “L” is actually played by Lakeith Stanfield, whom you might know from Atlanta, and Willem Dafoe plays Ryuk. The film also moves the story to Seattle, and if you look at the cast list you will find startlingly few Asian names.
Well, that’s lame! Is the movie good, at least?
Critics are not particularly wild about it so far. As Polygon’s Julia Alexander notes, it seems that director Adam Wingard (Blair Witch, You’re Next, The Guest) wanted to do something more than just regurgitate the source material—a necessity, since the new Death Note must condense 37 episodes’ worth of material into one movie—but the effort largely falls flat. As Alexander puts it, “it’s the dialogue, the strength that made the original manga remarkable, that is Death Note’s weakest link. The actors cant’t sell their lines in any kind of convincing manner and everything seems rushed.” Wingard’s adaptation turns Light into a misfit, turns his dedicated dad into an absentee parent, and gives him a misunderstood cheerleader girlfriend—all of which, Alexander points out, are pretty well-worn tropes. (In the original, Light’s girlfriend is a model named Misa Amane, who worships “Kira” because he avenged the deaths of her parents. She gets her own Death Note and becomes a “second Kira.”)
Wingard cranks up the horror elements of the story, but does retain some of the lighter aspects of the original as well—like Ryuk’s playful nature. As Bloody Disgusting’s Daniel Kurland notes, “The work done to bring the crazy creature to life is phenomenal, and Willem Dafoe is clearly having a great time getting in this monster’s head.” Similarly, Kurland notes that although the adaptation changes “L” a bit, Stanfield also maintains certain characteristics, like the character’s constant snacking and the bizarre manner with which he carries himself physically. (In the anime, “L” says that he sits in the strange way he does because it enhances his intellectual abilities by 40 percent.)
The biggest change seems to be the power dynamic between the two adversaries. Traditionally, they are pretty evenly matched; although “L” knows in his bones that Light is “Kira,” he has a hell of a time finding any proof, as Light seems to head him off at every turn. But in the Netflix adaptation, David Ehrlich argues in Indiwire, “L is too good. Death Note, in all of its forms, ultimately boils down to a twisted game of cat-and-mouse between L and Light, but this matchup is too lopsided to be any fun. L is a kooky 21st-century Sherlock Holmes—Light does other students’ math homework for money and screams at the top of his lungs when he first meets the demon who comes with the Death Note.”
In other words, the film may be worthwhile for completist fans of the franchise. But for newbies, it might actually be better to simply check out the original—either in manga or anime form. That is, if you’ve got several hours to kill.
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