Review: Adam Wingard’s DEATH NOTE Breathes Life Into To A Bittersweet Conversation On American Adaptations
Admittedly, I’ve avoided promoting Adam Wingard’s latest manga adaptation, Death Note, largely due to my own distate on the count that in small, but no discountable terms, the film was made on behalf of a falsehood. The notion made public several months ago by co-star and producer, Oka Masi, that the production couldn’t find Asian actors who spoke good English hasn’t sat well with me for months leading up to the film’s release, which made it all the more bittersweet watching it.
The director of You’re Next brings something slightly derivative, albeit stimulating to this newest cinematic treatment of the hit manga by creators Ohba Tsugumi and Obata Takeshi, telling of a mysterious book that falls into the hands of a brilliant high school kid named Light Turner, giving him conditional powers to kill people with the stroke of a pen. Balancing between his consultation with the notebook’s donor – an otherworldly ghoul named Ryuk, his new relationship with girlfriend, Mia, and her own fascination with him and the book, Light’s hero complex is consumed by weariness with the proliferation of a public inquiry led by L, a genius independent investigator with affluential pull in law enforcement. Before long, Light’s actions draw him and L closer in a bitter clash that will ultimately test the bonds of trust between loved ones, as well as Light’s own conscience.
I have to hand it to Wingard on this one. It’s the fifth feature-length live-action take on the manga, written here by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater and I reckon, of course, that there are still folks in a lot of areas around the world who have never heard of Death Note apart from its cult reception by fans, and for this, I’m glad that it was done. I’m also delighted by the performances of the cast led by Nat Wolff (Light Turner), Margaret Qualley (Mia Sutton), Lakeith Stanfield (L), Shea Wigham (James Turner) and Willem Dafoe (Ryuk) in a staunch display of Americanized iterations of Japanese characters, and the film’s embrace of certain Japanese elements with respect to the film’s progression.
As a horror thriller, you get what you get from an Adam Wingard movie with lots of blood spilled on arrival, and intense kill scenes coupled with some exciting chase sequences in the third act. Other obligatory changes and enhancements are made to the story to suit its 90-minute+ narrative and surely enough as this latest report from THR, leaves the door open for potential sequels to arise.
This all being said, while I lend much credence to this youthful, whitewashed thriller, neither I nor anyone can let the fact that this good, mildly tone deaf, albeit palpable thriller was made on the count of a producer’s bull-faced lie. Wingard is terrific filmmaker and I would hate to see any prospects of ANY reinterpretation of a popular Asian IP go down in flames because of poor decisions made by a group of people who “have their own way of doing things”. I don’t know what compelled Oka to say what he said back in May and I don’t buy that BS he said in July in “correcting the record” or whatever the hell he wants to call it. All I know is that from the blowback that arose thereafter by Asians, as well as Asian actors on social media, he was clearly and inherently just plain wrong.
That the movie ends on one of the worst, most soulless and humdrum revivals of a classic Celine Dion love ballad I’ve ever heard is just one other small grievance I have with this film. Apart from this, I offer the following: Love it or hate it, I recommend watching Wingard’s offering here for the sake of perspective or just good old-fashioned interest. Unsound judgement made by people in suits with no vision or sense of innovation or consideration shouldn’t overshadow the work that actors bring to the business end of the lens, and, well… I like what I saw. I was less pissed off and steaming at this version of Light handed to us by Wolff than that of the anime, but I was entertained and thrilled at certain moments. Of course, that line will ring dissonantly with hardcore fans upon reading this but…hey. It’s my viewing experience. Sue me, or fight me.
Rest assured, a sequel is not yet a sure thing as of this review. However, if one does moves forward, at best, fans can – and should – rightfully voice their opinions and make them heard and read. Loudly. And, hopefully those involved in the prospective sequel will take heed to what the fans want, and suggestively ought to happen out of necessity; As we speak, there’s a white guy set to play a Japanese-American supporting role in a Hellboy movie – a looming omen into a habitual repeat of history Hollywood tends to befall when refurbished Asian properties with prolific caucasian casting tend to bomb.
Much like Light’s systemic paranormal killings, this should not be viewed as coincidence. Beyond that, and with humility, prove me wrong…Or just simply enjoy the other four movies, and the live-action and animated series wherever they are streaming or sold. Those still exist.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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