Monday, August 28, 2017

Thoughts on Netflix's Death Note

I'm in a month where I'm currently subscribing to Netflix, which is not my usual state of being. I don't watch much aside from anime (maybe one live action series and a movie two or three times a year). But Netflix's rendition of Death Note landed last Friday, so I'm actually in a position where I could watch it.

And there was a part of me that was morbidly curious about it.

The thing is, Death Note has been adapted multiple times already, so I'm not concerned about fidelity to the original. The anime exists for that. (When I mean original, I mean the manga.) Japan has already made live action movies and a live action TV drama, the latter of which I enjoyed and reviewed for Diabolical Plots last year.

You can deviate and still tell a good story. The TV drama Light was a softer, more sympathetic character than the original and his father actually confronts him over being Kira. It added a nice tension that didn't exist before. As someone who was already familiar with the story, it was a nice alternate take on the series.

I hoped, in my better moments, that the Netflix version would be the same, but the more I saw of it, the less I liked it, and ultimately I decided to pass. I don't need to add a view to the tracker that Netflix uses to see who's watching want. I don't want to give it that kind of recognition.

But on the other hand, I think it's worth talking about why I'm not watching, because it might be of use.

1) The best thing about Death Note is the cat-and-mouse game between Light and L

Apparently, this is not a thing in the Netflix version.

Particularly, in the early volumes of the manga, how Light manages to track and trick his enemies so he could kill them was freaking amazing, especially when he manages to murder a bunch of FBI agents without seeing their faces or even knowing where they are.

The Death Note is the supernatural device that allows the story to happen, but how people use the Death Note is what makes interesting. It's all about discovering the limits of the rules and then bending them in a creative fashion. Light's tests of his power are what attract L's attention.

L knows that Light requires certain information to use his power, because of his behavior, but he has no way of knowing about the Death Note's existence, so there's a lot of the two feeling each other out to find out how much their opponent knows.

2) The series follows Light becoming an irredeemable psychopath

One of things I really disliked from one of the Netflix trailers was that Light looks like he's pushed into using the Death Note by Ryuk, which implies that he's a victim of some kind and it's not entirely his fault.

Whereas in the original, Light tries the Death Note and murders dozens of people before Ryuk ever shows up. Ryuk is more of a witness, who is there neither to help nor hinder Light, so much as to have a good time observing the chaos unfold. Light's fall is entirely due to his own hubris.

If he had been a less arrogant criminal, he probably would have continued long past the point the manga ended, but Light's character flaw is that winning is not enough. He has to rub the win into the face of his enemies. That's why he falls.

3) How the whitewashing concern was handled

I am not as bothered by the accusation of whitewashing for this one, because I don't think it's a uniquely Japanese story aside from the concept of shinigami (though I could be wrong, I'm certainly not Japanese), and I think this could have been adapted without Ryuk if it came down to it.

But the way the criticism was handled was lame. Saying that the roles had already been cast before Ghost in the Shell blew up isn't an excuse, because whitewashing has been concern since long before Ghost in the Shell. It's more of an admission that they didn't think they would get bitten in the butt over it. I've written about how Asian Americans who can find careers overseas often do, because there aren't the opportunities for them here.

I find it incredibly ironic that the one Asian cast member in Netflix's Death Note is for a character who likely wasn't Asian at all in the original. (Watari's real name is Quillsh Wammy and he hails from England.) Considering that the original cast was mostly Japanese, it would have been nice to have someone in the main cast who wasn't the assistant played by an Asian actor.

My Netflix sub is still good for a few weeks so I'll probably watch something to make use of it while I can, but it's not going to be Death Note.