Review: Netflix’s Death Note disappoints with whitewashed adaptation

“The human whose name is written in this note shall die.”

It’s a pretty straightforward concept with a wealth of storytelling potential. It’s also the basis of the Death Note series of manga, anime, and films. The most popular story to come out of this series is that of Light Yagami—spelled with the Japanese kanji for “Moon Night God” if you’re feeling pretentious. After a Shinigami (death god) Ryuk drops his ‘death note’—which grants the user the ability to kill any human by simply writing their name in it, in the human world—high schooler Light Yagami decides to use the notebook to reshape the world in his vision by becoming the widely-beloved god of justice Kira, killing criminals and those who pose a threat to him so that he may become supreme judge, jury, and executioner of all mankind. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking tale that has been adapted successfully many times over across many media. Most recently it was Netflix’s turn to take Light’s story for a spin, and they did just that—they took it into a tailspin and crashed into a mountain.

Let’s start with the large white elephant in the room—the casting. In adapting the story for an American audience, Netflix moved the setting from Tokyo to Seattle—or, “White Tokyo” as precisely zero people call it. In so doing, they swapped the mostly Japanese characters for white ones, because Asian people totally don’t make up 14 per cent of the population of Seattle as the second largest ethnic group in the city. Oddly enough the only non-Japanese character in the manga, the highly secretive and mysterious investigator L, has been reimagined as the only person of colour in this adaptation. Evidently, it’s really easy to keep a low profile when you’re the only black person in Seattle. The only defense I will make for this film’s casting is Willem Defoe’s computer-generated Ryuk, who absolutely crushes it. His voice is so perfect I want to steal it and harness its powers like a vengeful sea witch. My only regret is his talents are put to so little use, even when Ryuk himself plays a much bigger role in the source material.

Now, inevitably in the media circus fire that arises whenever a whitewashed anime adaptation is announced, a media outlet such as Inverse will report that Japanese fans don’t ‘understand the controversy’ or ‘don’t care about race in casting.’ Despite the overwhelming urge for white people to grant themselves a pardon, this is not an out. It is the height of Western exceptionalism to think the intricacies of American race relations are as constant of a reality in Japan as they are here. The people of Japan see themselves represented proportionally in Japanese media. But the west is much more diverse than our media represents – in a lot of ways, but specifically racially and culturally. Now, I acknowledge that I’m not the best person to lecture you on this subject, which is why I’d recommend reading Rebecca Sun’s ‘”Death Note” is what Happens When Hollywood Doesn’t See Race’ in The Hollywood Reporter, or USC Annenberg’s study on media representation, Inclusion or Invisibility?.

Aside from race, many of the film’s issues boil down to one obvious—and related—problem: Netflix bent over backwards to try and make Death Note ‘make sense’ in an American context, and completely lost the plot as a result. Firstly, Light’s last name is not Yagami, but Turner. The change is certainly fitting, as this iteration of Light has much more in common with the small and feeble common starling, from which the French name Turner is derived, than he does with any kind of vengeful god. Other characters undergo similar name changes which ultimately lead to bad ‘Engrish’ jokes, like Light giving his alter ego a name that deliberately sounds like English with a Japanese accent to throw the police off his scent.

The circumstances of Light’s family are changed too, swapping his upper middle class family of four for a lower middle class single dad, who has also been changed from a well-respected captain to just an average detective who works too hard and struggles to relate to his son. Light is shown to have a vengeful streak, anxious to punish the man who killed his mother. Light’s mild-mannered, preppy overachiever profile is replaced with a reputation as a troublesome, oft-bullied loner who uses his smarts to sell test answers and homework assignments as a side hustle.

If American Light leaves an uneasy pit in your stomach, it should. To make him more ‘relatable,’ Netflix rewrote Light in the spitting image of a disaffected, angry shooter archetype, because America. To make matters worse, this new character profile changes the entire thrust of the series. Instead of a tale about budding young detective who wants to rid the world of corruption and crime and make it a safer place for the downtrodden, Netflix’s Death Note is an angsty teen’s revenge fantasy, complete with murdered jocks and a hot girlfriend. The emotionally-charged battles of intellect for which the source material is well-regarded are swapped out for a chase sequence that feels like the spiritual successor to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and a ridiculously convoluted Ferris wheel stunt that may as well have fallen out of a Final Destination treatment and stuck to the back of the script by accident.

There are bright spots to this film, but they are few and far between, and mostly overwritten in my memory by the damage done to the Death Note legacy. Like a common criminal whose name has been written in the titular book, the heart of Death Note has been stopped by a single-minded puppet master. What makes Death Note great has been swapped for what makes Hollywood money. It feels less like “what would happen if Death Note came to America”, and more like “what would happen if Hollywood executives got their hands on the rights to Death Note”—oh wait, that’s exactly what happened.