My non-surprise this week was the garbage fire that was the most recent live action adaptation of one of my favorite animes, Death Note. And of course, the subsequent rocks being thrown at the burning pile were no surprise, with titles like: The problem with Death Note on Netflix in one scene, and Netflix’s Death Note should be returned to sender. The most expected distastes dealt with cultural appropriation, I mean after Ghost in the Shell I guess it’s hard not to start there. Still, I wouldn’t accuse Death Note of doing the most in that sense (still some though, yes). Adam Wingard decided to set this iteration of Death Note in the U.S. so it didn’t feel odd that the main character was a White Boy with frosted tips. Now, did he have to make his name “Light” still? Or have him take on the alias “Kira” as a “purposeful misdirection”? Fuck no. That just felt stupid, and much of the tomfoolery that followed can be traced back to some simple initial decisions. What I’m actually angry about, as in many of these things is the sheer lack of imagination Wingard employed when he got this magical thing that is the story of Death Note, that lazy, ungrateful bastard.
Anime itself has always appeared to me as the foremost imaginative method of storytelling, and in large part it’s what made, and continues to make me want to tell fantastical stories. It’s why I get so frustrated when people who enjoy speculative fiction–on screen or on the page, which let’s be real, is pretty much everyone–think that anime is beneath them, all while remaining enamored with the relative philosophical, emotional, visual and intellectual simplicity of a Game of Thrones or what have you, compared to say, Eden of the East or Fullmetal Alchemist. I won’t get into what assumptions often underlie the pre-denouncing of anime because they are too similar to the assumptions people have when they denounce “genre” or speculative fiction more broadly, but especially writing, which are the same things that people like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler and Lev Grossman, etc. have dismantled over and over again and I’m kinda tired of that conversation and they keep saying it in better anyways, so back to Death Note.
Aside: I actually had a Death Note of my own that I nearly filled. Sadly, it didn’t work, but I still wouldn’t have brought that shit out in public like the American Light’s dumb ass did, telling everybody and their mom about it just to get some ass in like the first ten minutes of the movie. I have never been that much of a hoe to throw away being god and risk so much of my life for some random, probably not good ass from a creepy sociopathic cheerleading stranger who probably has chlamydia like the rest of the school because they’re all like seventeen.
Anyways, was Wingard aware that Ryuk wasn’t the only Shinigami, nor was he the only one to ever “drop” a Death Note? All I’m saying is, a perfectly plausible story set in America with frosted tips and cheerleading and football could just be another death god dropping another note and another kid, in America, who is not fucking named “Light” picking it up. There wouldn’t be this soft reliance on the previous narrative which seems to be adopted purely for convenience and name recognition–the names, more boring rules of the note, Light’s father being a cop–but that breaks down as soon as things get complicated. The same Light who is up against the same hyper-intelligent L just so happens to be a complete idiot when it comes to secrecy about the note; making decisions that are self-aggrandizing, yet stealthy and ten steps ahead; not incriminating himself; choosing allies; managing boundaries between himself and Kira; and just about everything else. Meanwhile, L’s character was played decently until he loses his cool pretty early on and has a breakdown about Watari who at no time during the film did he consider protecting even though he’s a super genius and demonstrated his knowledge of Kira’s ability by protecting his own face/name. Ryuk was changed to a completely active, rather than reflective, curious, shadowy presence and he ended up being more annoying and desperate than interesting.
My point is, none of this would have been as much of an issue if Wingard would have delved some lesser known death god and just picked a new kid. You still have the note, with the world and it’s rules intact, which in itself is interesting, unlike the narrative it was squeezed into. Hell, he could have even used one of L’s siblings or some other kid who was trained with them. I think the initial advantage of having recognizable characters in adaptations backfires too often because these directors continue to pay little attention to what made those characters interesting in the first place. Hint: it wasn’t just their names. I keep wondering how many more of these disrespectfully lazy, boring narratives we’ll have to endure before even the simplest considerations are brought to Light. Pun intended.