Comparing Death Notes
Death Note, the anime, was one of the better selections of animated mayhem to come from the Land of the Rising Sun over the years. As such, the news of an American adaptation of the film fell upon hopeful ears, particularly with the revelation that none other than Willem Dafoe would be voicing Ryuk, the Shinigami Death God who oversaw the titular notebook itself.
In theory, Willem Dafoe was a great addition to the cast, his performance was as good as one could expect. On that note, the performances by Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield and Margaret Qualley were quality. Director Adam Wingard did a wonderful job working with the script and delivered some great scenes with top-notch cinematography.
In practice, however… the movie was terrible. Not because of any particular fault of the actors or director, but rather the writing. In particular, in the way the characters were written. Again Hollywood has decided to stray too far from the source material so as to alienate many of its fans, presumably in hopes it would draw in those who were unfamiliar with the anime. The sins are almost too numerous to count, so let’s start from the ground up.
Light Yagami/Light Turner
In the anime, Light was presented as a genius. A young man of devastating intellect and remarkable ambition who had even, at his age, done case work at his father’s police precinct to help solve cases. He was shown to have foresight, an intense focus on his goals, and an overwhelming sense of justice. From the beginning of the anime the viewer was presented with an almost likable Light as he was given the Death Note and used it to bring down justice on violent criminals and the like. But it soon goes to his head, and Kira really begins to emerge. It’s almost difficult to pinpoint where Light ends and Kira begins.
In contrast, the Light in the American adaptation is shown to be somewhat intelligent, making a few extra bucks on the side by doing his classmates’ homework. But the devastating intellect is completely absent with this new American Light. Rather, it’s replaced with a sort of desperation. He never fully emerges into Kira. Kira is little more than an identity he chooses to adopt, seperate from the character of Light himself. Furthermore, Light Turner descends into utter desperation a number of times during the movie, most notably when in relation to Mia Sutton, and L. He is no longer the emotionless, methodical killer you actually grow to like in the anime, but a young teenager in over his head and flying by the seat of his pants.
Misa Amane/Mia Sutton
Misa Amane was introduced in the anime as a lovelorn fashion model who’d formed an obsession with Kira, who she learns is none other than Light Yagami through use of her Shinigami Eyes, given to her by another Shinigami, Gelus. She worships the very ground Light walks on. While she wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, and often caused no end of trouble for Light, she was fiercely loyal to him, even to the point of willingly giving up three quarters of her life span for him. Every move she made was for Light’s benefit, and while Light often found her to be an annoyance, he still managed to manipulate her actions with ease, using her professed love for him to his advantage a number of times.
Mia Sutton, on the other hand, is and out-and-out bitch. Opting instead to make her a bad girl cheerleader rather than fashion model, she claims to love Light early on during the film. However, she soon starts to go behind his back, using the Death Note without Light’s knowledge to murder several FBI agents and indirectly kill Watari, L’s right hand. Her professed love for Light is tossed away at a moment’s notice when she demands that Light pass the book over to her, writing his name in the notebook in order to blackmail him. The American version of Misa is conniving, self-serving and perhaps a little smarter than her Japanese counterpart, but only just.
L in the anime was cunning, emotionless. A Holmesian genius able to think three or four steps ahead of Light, which made the two characters a somewhat even match with each other. When presented with a problem, L would find cunning and methodical ways of dealing with them, sometimes putting himself right in the midst of the danger.
L in the American adaptation shared some of the same qualities, but he was also an emotional trainwreck. He was impulsive, quick to anger, and a little bit vindictive. This took away from the efficacy he was known for in the anime series and made it very difficult to respect the character’s capabilities.
Ryuk likes apples. And humans. He finds them to be incredibly amusing, often laughing at how clever they can be. Sure, he doesn’t really respect the sanctity of life, but hey. He’s a death god after all. Regardless, the Ryuk of the anime is quite cooperative and friendly, often praising Light, assisting him in many of his well-laid plans, and expressing astonishment at the tricks he pulls. Why? Well, Ryuk’s easily bored, it seems. And so he amuses himself by giving a human a Death Note and seeing what they do. Regardless of the fact that he’s a death god, Ryuk is actually a likable character.
Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk, while masterfully-voiced, is… not the same Ryuk. This Ryuk is much more sinister and clearly dangerous. At several times during the film, he outright threatens Light, even going so far as to tell him outright that he plans to write Light’s name in the book himself. And certainly, he eats a couple of apples, but the meaning behind his love of apples is sadly absent from the adaptation, instead being used as a creep factor for the viewers. Gone are the lighter, funnier moments from the anime and in its place is a dark, foreboding demon that if Light Turner had been in any way believable, would have run at the sight of him.
Once again, the American adaptation had a few saving graces. The cinematography was noteworthy. The acting wasn’t horrible. The direction was good.
But the writing… the writing was bad. It shouldn’t have to be a choice between butcher the story to draw in new fans or stick to the script to appease the original fans. There is a middle ground, a best of both worlds. Unfortunately, this adaptation failed to heed it.
Both seasons of the Death Note anime series and the Death Note movie can be streamed right now on Netflix.