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How Not to Adapt a Manga Classic

Netflix's "Death Note" is a case study in whitewashing a great story so thoroughly that it becomes unrecognizable.


Death Note was an immensely popular Japanese manga series that ran from 2003 to 2006. It sold more than 30 million copies in Japan, and was turned into an anime television show that had crossover success with American audiences. So when Netflix announced that it was making a live-action movie of the franchise set in Seattle instead of Tokyo, and that starred white actor Nat Wolff as the protagonist Light Yagami, who in turn would be renamed Light Turner, accusations of whitewashing flew thick and fast. But the setting and the casting only scratch the surface of how deeply director Adam Wingard has robbed Death Note of its identity, messing up nearly everything that made the original series so compelling.

The premise of Death Note would seem to be eminently translatable, a kind of cross between Dexter and American Gods. A slim black notebook falls from the sky and lands in the lap of 17-year-old Light Yagami. Light discovers that he can kill anyone just by writing their name in the notebook. He can also specify the time and manner of a person’s death, as long as he writes those details down within 6 minutes and 40 seconds of deciding on a victim. He also must picture the target’s face so that he won’t kill a different person with the same name. Light becomes known as the god Kira, who kills criminals across the world to deter anyone from committing any crimes at all. He is accompanied by Ryuk, a resplendent shinigami (death god) who turns out to be the one who dropped the note for Light to find.

As Masi Oka, the Japanese actor best known for his role as Hiro Nakamura in Heroes and who has a small cameo in the film, told Vulture, “The whole idea of whitewashing is putting white people in roles that were meant to be a different race. But this wasn’t specifically a racially bound story, because it was set in America.” Wingard has taken a similar line, arguing that he had created a completely new story that built on the original material, rather than a straight adaptation.

But the result is that the whitewashing goes well beyond casting, with the story itself becoming completely Americanized. In the original series Light Yagami grows up in a happy family, the son of a police detective. He is brilliant, gets top marks at school, dates nice girls, and is an all-around perfect teenage boy. Which is what makes his god complex so compelling; the cold logic with which he targets hundreds people is sociopathic, as is his conviction that his individual view of justice is supreme. It is also what makes the show universal, a nod to how power can turn even the most stable and successful boy into a fascist. Light Yagami is not meant to be a sympathetic character.

In contrast, Nat Wolff’s Light is given a troubled backstory. His mother was killed by a man who paid off the jury to avoid going to prison. Light gets beat up at school; his teachers don’t understand him and his father is standoffish. Like the original series he is a mass murderer, yes, but he is cast in a much more agreeable light. As Isha Aran wrote at Splinter, “It’s this absolution of Light that actually whitewashes the story. Once again, a white American kid isn’t actually responsible for the murders he commits.”

There are, of course, problems with the original series. It suffers from the misogyny that pervades much of anime. All of the protagonists are male, with the exception of the character Misa Amane (who is now Mia Sutton, played by Margaret Qualley, in the new movie), a scantily-clad model who is Light’s obsessive girlfriend. But these present opportunities for Wingard, who claims he wanted to make a movie that was truly new. A version of Death Note with a powerful female protagonist would have been an impressive reimagining.

But the new Death Note does nothing to rectify these failings, while also missing the mark on all the good stuff. Near the beginning of the movie, when Light is pressing Ryuk about all the rules written in the death note, Ryuk groans in response, “Is that what we’re going to do with the note, Light? Rules and warnings?” Then, at breakneck speed, the movie plows through 90 minutes of action in just that spirit: The rules become secondary to the alleyway chases and Light making out with his girlfriend, while they kill some 400 people over the course of a 30-second montage. But the myriad ways in which these deceptively simple rules complicate the plot is precisely what made the original manga so interesting.

Wingard’s inability to appreciate this is most evident in his treatment of the character L, the genius detective brought on to track down Light and who is Light’s only match in wits. In the movie, L is played by Lakeith Stanfield, whose singular performance is tasked with carrying an entire failing movie on its back. (Stanfield also recently gave a wonderfully bizarre L-like interview to GQ: “I was a fan… of… justice. I’ve always been a fan of justice. And uh. Carrying out ... Bringing it to those who deserve it.”)

In the new movie, L is introduced in a press conference to the media, in which he challenges Light to kill him. Because he doesn’t give away his real name and L’s face is covered, Light fails to do so, leading L to implausibly deduce that Light needs both a name and a face to murder his victims. In the original series, however, the set-up is far more precise: L has a death row inmate pretend to be him in the press conference, and when Light kills him, that’s when L discovers that all Light needs is a name and face. L also reveals to Light that while it was announced that the press conference was being aired globally, it was actually being aired in one small region after another, which is how L discovers that Light is located in the Kanto region of Tokyo. The devils in Death Note are most certainly in the details, and Wingard fails to respect them at all.

Wingard claims that he wasn’t “really expecting” the backlash. He also believes that people only started to care about these issues after the controversy surrounding the Hollywood remake of the anime Ghost in the Shell, in which Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role. But all that illustrates is the privilege of someone who has never had to think about minority representation. The result is a movie that employs the same tired excuses for its whitewashing, and with little to show for it.