Death Note is great. The American remake, which premiered on Netflix last Friday? Less so. Directed by Adam Wingard and starring Nat Wolff and Lakeith Stanfield, the amateurish adaptation of one of modern anime’s great gateway drugs to the medium is staggering in its ineptitude, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of its writing. Every decision made is a bad one, and little work is done to justify those changes, from seeping the central protagonist of his active villainy to softening the melodramatic menace of the tone in favour of a pseudo-Heathers dark teen comedy, only devoid of laughter. Instead of intellectual bombast, Wingard gives us childish violence and excessively dumbed down plotting. By the end of its needlessly long 100 minute running time, you can’t help but wonder if the film was part of a cunning scheme to make the worst adaptation possible in order to drive Netflix traffic to the wildly superior anime. Of course, that would be too interesting for this film, which is above all else excruciatingly boring.
Death Note is also very white, which has been a topic of contention since the project was first announced several years ago, with Zac Efron tentatively attached to playing Light Yagami (here renamed Light Turner). It never made much sense that a story about a Japanese god of death would be almost entirely devoid or anyone or anything Japanese (the film’s justification for including Ryuk and using the name ‘Kira’ are pretty weak and barely work as fan-service). It seems as though the film-makers assumed that the story could be moved to Seattle and populated by white Americans with little to no impact to the story. Even if the film had rigidly stuck to the anime’s plot, instead of bastardising it into a cowardly edgelord tale, it’s doubtful the story would have worked as effectively. It’s a Japanese story, and so much of its power is found in that cultural specificity. That’s something Hollywood seems to conveniently forget when it cherry picks anime for big-screen adaptations. Reverting everything in them to a state of whiteness simply seeps them of their most fascinating elements.
The international market is now more important than ever to the America-based film industry, particularly this year as Summer profits at the box office dropped 13% from this time last year. Several wannabe franchise starters like The Mummy and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t click with audiences, and even old reliables like the Transformers sequels struggled compared to their predecessors. Increasingly, with the domestic box office remaining sluggish, Hollywood has become reliant on appealing to China’s audiences. The bubble could burst on that market at some point - possibly soon given recent developments - but for now, it’s arguably the priority of the major studios to pander to this market. Said pandering has taken form in various ways, like China-specific product placement, plots moving to Macau or Beijing, and the inclusion of famous Chinese actors in supporting roles.
What doesn’t seem to be happening during this business shift is a wholehearted embrace of Asian actors or their stories. Anime remains just another opportunity to give white actors work, and the excuses for doing so no longer ring true, if they ever did. For the past decade of major anime adaptations spearheaded by Hollywood, whiteness has prevailed and the ticket sales have consistently disappointed: From Speed Racer and Dragonball Evolution to The Last Airbender and Ghost in the Shell. Studios tried to justify casting choices with claims of box office security, which may explain Scarlett Johansson but seems laughable when applied to Justin Chatwin or Emile Hirsch. It’s even sillier to stick to this argument when you see the films doing well in China, such as the diversely cast Fast and Furious franchise, which consistently breaks box office records in the country and further refutes the Hollywood mandated image of whiteness as a heroic default.
It’s simply bad business to whitewash, but it’s also supremely lazy storytelling. Nowhere is this more evident than in Netflix’s Death Note, where a bleak idea of a murderous sociopath is smudged into a more palatable message of a good boy being led astray by an evil spirit. As played by Nat Wolff, an actor so devoid of charisma that I yearned for the deft expressions of Sam Worthington, Light is a shrieking puppet who only seems to use the Death Note when guided into it by Ryuk, and his primary objective seems to be getting into bed with Mia, the story’s vague stand-in for Misa (played by Margaret Qualley). The film lacks the nerve to commit to the story’s inherent darkness and the idea of a bored genius quickly moulding himself as a new god on earth solely because he feels entitled to it. What the audience gets instead is another tale of a spoiled white boy who can’t take responsibility for himself, all while the story goes out of its way to justify that.
This is made all the more aggravating by the fact that the film creates an entirely new racial dynamic not present in the anime, one that could have offered a truly challenging exploration of the material’s themes of privilege. In the anime, the contrast between Light and enigmatic detective L is stark. Light is the polished, exceedingly handsome model student from a nuclear family, with a father in a position of power and the world at his feet. The world bows to Light even before he finds the Death Note because he’s the embodiment of the perfect man, the kind everyone aspires to be. L, on the other hand, is scruffy, deliberately off-putting in his public persona, says whatever is on his mind and talks a little too casually of murder. He sits on the furniture, barefoot and gobbling on cakes, all while coming to incredible leaps of logic regarding the identity of Kira. Society would have its citizens believe that Light is too good to be Kira and L is the more obvious suspect, even though statistically we know the demographics fit Light more. But he’s too darn charming, right? Even long-time fans of the anime still fight over whether he’s an anti-hero or simple villain (remember, this is the guy who declares himself to be a new god on Earth one episode into the anime).
While both Light and L are Japanese in the anime, in the remake, L is played by Lakeith Stanfield, who is easily the best thing in the film. He is the only prominent black character in the story, and he makes his big speech to Kira in front of a police lectern while wearing a hoodie and a covering over his face. Light is still the son of a police officer, but now he’s a walking representation of white male privilege in America, with a cheap bleach blonde dye-job and life as the school bully’s favourite target. The narrative bends over backwards to make Light as innocent as possible, even as he murders people, yet completely ignores the blatant dynamic it sets up by making L black. By the film’s final act, the story reduces the cool, ever in control intellectual L to a panicky, near animalistic mess who can’t keep up with the stupidest teenager in Seattle, and once again the film sees no issue in doing this to its only black lead.
This year’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell added its own muddled attempt at racial commentary through the backstory to Scarlett Johansson’s Major, but it simply highlighted the glaring problem of this iconic anime character being played by a white actress in the first place. A film so desperate to recreate the iconography of Ghost in the Shell conveniently ignores the reasons for the story itself. As much as Hollywood producers would like to push the lie, these aren’t universal stories. Trying to make them so is just an excuse to make whiteness the default.
Hollywood will continue to option anime for future projects, and maybe they’ll be delighted to discover that some anime actually features white people, such as Attack on Titan and Monster. There have already been rumblings of the inevitable Akira adaptation getting off the ground after years of turmoil in the planning stages. It’s not hard to imagine ways that one of modern fiction’s most famous stories of Japanese youth culture and the country’s difficulty in dealing with its own history will be watered down to a chase movie with cool LA bros on motorbikes. I not so eagerly await yet another fascinating and unique piece of pop culture being diluted into something I can see anywhere. I’m already bored.