Much has been made of the Video Game adaptation’s inability to definitively produce a single great movie from all the attempts hurled at our cinemas over the years; but there’s another sub-genre that arguably has fared worse: the Live Action Anime Adaptation. What with a fair few low budget attempts back in the 90’s (Crying Freeman, Fist Of The North Star) and some modern swings such as Dragonball: Evolution, Ghost In The Shell and Alita: Battle Angel all hugely varying in quality and critical plaudits, you’d be forgiven in thinking that with all the rage fits from dedicated fans to accusations of white washing traditionally Asian roles (they’ve got a point, ScarJo…), it might be wise for Hollywood to avoid tangling with Anime altogether.
This, however, didn’t stop Netflix from attempting to capture lightning in a bottle with Death Note, a massively complicated Manga/Anime title that dealt between the massive mental tussle that ensues after disillusioned teenager Light manages to get his hands on a notebook that invokes death on anyone who’s name is unlucky enough to be scribbled within – but was cramming a super dense, 27 episode series into a single live action movie really a good idea?
Light Turner is the typically maladjusted high school student you get in these kind of movies; fiercely intelligent, the death of his mother has left him the kind of brooding outsider who glares at the popular kids while running a homework scam for money. One day, a strange book literally falls from the sky with the words “Death Note” etched on the cover and before you know it Light has found himself in a world heavy with murder and conspiracy. You see, if you write a name into the book while picturing the owner’s face, then that poor sod will die in whatever way you dictate and the book even comes with it’s very own exposition spewing, demonic being known as a Death God who goes by the name of Ryuk (think an 8 foot, spikey haired Danni Filth with Willam Dafoe’s bone structure who’s voiced, unsurprisingly by – you guessed it – William Dafoe). As Light starts to smite wrongdoers who’ve escaped the clumsy grasp of the law he immediately lets the similarly damaged kindred spirit Mia in on his murderous doings and things soon shift into high gear. After firmly planting countless criminals six feet under under the pseudonym of “Kira”, Light soon finds the fact this alter ego being worshipped as a god is going to his and Mira’s head but reality comes a knocking in the twin forms of Light’s police detective father and the arrival of highly eccentric, candy consuming brainbox “L”, a man trained by a special order since childhood to be one of the greatest sleuths the world has ever seen (stay with me here) to sniff out Kira’s true identity. Soon everybody starts to fray under the strain of the pressure of the game and as paranoia hangs in the air like a poisonous fart, all the players try to concoct ever ballsier counter moves to stay one step ahead.
Adam Wingard is a director who’s career I’ve been following for quite some time and features such as A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next and The Guest have shown him to be a talent that is exceptionally good at flipping genre conventions to create awesomely original experiences. However, the director has proven to be less sure-footed when it comes to projects based on existing work with his “true” Blair Witch sequel ending up getting lost in the woods and unfortunately Death Note also turns out to be a wobbly bastardization of the source material. Fans of said material will be no doubt be horrified at what has been removed and what has been lost from what little actually remains, while newcomers will wonder what all the fuss is about while trying to negotiate a story that’s both sprawling and horribly confined. Simply put, Death Note is simply too big a story to accurately slot into a 100 minute run time and unsurprisingly most of the (many) plot twists passed over from the source material ends up feeling either forced, stupid or unearned as the cast regularly pull 180⁰ decisions that simply doesn’t line up with who the characters are.
The actors try to ground the material as best they can but it’s an up hill struggle as most of the aspects that work so well in animated form just comes across as wildly illogical when being performed by straining meat puppets.
Another issue is that the “westernizing” of the material is often a loggerheads with the tone with some of the excessive bloodshed, while certainly impressive to an old gorehound like me, kind of feels a little out of place but also seems like Wingard is trying to single-handedly resurrect the protracted and gruesome accidents seen in such franchises as The Omen and Final Destination, which isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it leads to other moments where Hollywood seems to have blithely missed the point. Why exactly does a story that’s chiefly about an intense supernatural battle of wills have to end with a sweat streaked dash across town? Why is the climax so messy with all of the characters seemingly suffering a convenient drop in IQ just so the film can clumsily manoeuvre them into a position to try and and the story cleanly? With this in mind, why does the script then suddenly jack their smarts up through the roof to near Nolanverse Joker levels in order to attempt a rug pull that just feels hideously unearned?
Despite all this, those ignorant to the charms of the anime (and let’s be honest, the animated series didn’t exactly have the best ending either) will find the film watchable enough, Wingard infuses the film with the same sense of style and catchy 80’s tunes that made The Guest such a winner and while the gore is a little out of place, it’s still well done.
The movie does include some nice visual cues (L’s chair perching is intact and the main title nicely references The Thing, for some reason) but most of all, the apple addicted death god Ryuk looks bang on, and the decision to keep him mostly in the shadows and make him more of a malevolent presence as opposed to a sidekick with the same taste in feathery shoulder pads as Beyonce is one of the changes that actually works really well.
Yet another Hollywood anime adaptation that nails the flair but loses the heart along the way, Death Note has it’s moments but for the most part, maybe this particular note should’ve been crumpled into a ball and tossed in the bin…