So. I get into Death Note when I’m 14 or 15—ninth grade, in any case, which makes it 2008, 2009 maybe. I’d watched anime before, read a bit of manga, but I’d never considered myself a fan per se, not the way the other kids at my school were anime fans, fanatic with their dog-eared manga and garish T-shirts proclaiming their loves out to the world. You know the type I’m talking about, right? It’s weeaboos. I’m talking about weebs.
And look at me now.
There’s a Tumblr post floating about how Death Note is everyone’s starter anime and yeah, guilty as charged: Death Note got me into anime (RIP all pretense of dignity I ever had). Death Note got me into cosplay. Death Note got me into yaoi.* Death Note got me, nearly six years later, into an ill-conceived attempt at light novel translation despite that my Chinese was a equivalent to that of a third-grader’s. Death Note didn’t get me in fanfiction—I don’t remember when that happened, but I’m pretty sure I was always trash—but it did get me into writing it, to the tune of writing a 60,000 word murder mystery AU based on it. I physically printed out fanfiction, okay, and read it on long car rides. It was, in hindsight, only mildly tragic.
I mention all this background not to emphasize my superior knowledge of this franchise, some sort of weapon to yield against fake fans, but to underline just how much this show was an integral part of my adolescent development, how emotionally invested I was in this silly anime at the peak of my teen angst. I loved Death Note, okay. A lot of people did. None of us, really, needed this movie to be a masterpiece—Death Note fandom is about camp as much as it is about death: if a TV drama two shades away from L/Light fanfiction and a musical where they play tennis without an actual tennis ball can become widely beloved, then you don’t exactly need to be Chekov to pull this off. Just. Try a little, okay?
So. Here we come to it, the moment of truth, part where I finally give my thoughts on this movie, and all I have to say, fortified by a pumpkin-flavored beer and mutually inebriated friends is:
This movie was Bad.
Not Bad as in a bad adaptation of the manga, not Bad as in a bad take on the general Death Note mythos, not bad as in tone deaf to every sociopolitical discourse screaming NO about it, but just Bad, B, A, D, BAD. Poorly-plotted, poorly-written, poorly-conceived in general—like, I know you were trying to Taylor Swift your way out of this and ignore the haters or whatever Adam Wingard, but did you maybe once think, just once, that it might have been smart to maybe consider some of that advice before proceeding? No, because you’re an artiste and God forbid creative types take constructive criticism or anything, a thousand writing workshops around the country be damned.
So. Death Note is a bad movie, yes, but it’s not a bad movie in the vein of The Room or Sharknado. No, this was a movie that had a budget, that had people who had actually gone to film school and know what a movie should look like but who nonetheless somehow still decided to hang onto this obviously sinking ship—i.e., it’s Avatar The Last Airbender, it’s Suicide Squad, it’s The Emoji Movie, every last film that for some reason spent all their money on promotion and visuals and instead of developing a coherent plot or compelling characters. I.e., it’s bad, but a sort of tiring, Hollywood bad, where you can there was obviously an effort to make this good…and yet here we are.
So. Onwards to the actual critique I suppose. In terms of things this movie did well, the aesthetic was pretty neat. Again, this was a movie that was obviously made by someone who knew how to make a movie, so it’s pretty visually decent (except for Nat Wolff’s hair, because I am never letting go of how stupid it looks). So, you know, good job. You had production values.
You also had a top-secret detective show his face on national television and a ten-minute chase scene that accomplished nothing except “oh look at how cool our choreography is.” Also, Light’s hair. Also, Light Turner (and oh yes, there have been parodies). Also, acting that oscillates from mumblecore to first-time theatre student who thinks louder automatically equals better—or was that just really bad sound mixing? And, speaking of the acting, the dramatic and/or terrifying moments were so over-the-top they’re unintentionally hilarious—did we really need a whole Rube Goldberg sequence for every death? Did you really need to knock over approximately eight shelves of chemistry supplies and have a whole ominous storm in the background when Light first sees Ryuk? Did we really need a contrived het romance complete with ferris wheel rides and uncomfortable teenage making-out?
The worst part of this mess, personally, the one that still gives me a headache even now, was just how stupid they had to make everyone. I’m not one of those people who’ll argue that Death Note is some deep exploration of morality and the human psyche (though I will likely fight you about that on Evangelion)—Death Note doesn’t really try to be profound, but it is clever. In all incarnations, the defining feature of L and Light is that they’re smart people, the moves in their mental chess battle genuinely surprising.
Here? Outside of doing some kid’s math homework, Light is a complete idiot—he fucking opens his Death Note in the middle of gym class, like COME ON. Geez, I don’t know how in the world L got on your trail Light—maybe it’s because someone overheard you talking about murder in plain view? L’s a little better, but halfway through, the writers seem to kind of just give up and resort to making him scream or throw things everywhere instead of actually trying to deduce. Misa shows some signs of intelligent life, but she also has 0% backstory besides being a cheerleader and Edgy, which is somehow even less than what she was given in the manga. Adam Wingard’s also gone on record saying that he saw the movie as a “tragic (™) romance,” and okay you wanna go that route, go ahead. Just give your female love interest actual motivations and, you know, actual chemistry with the main character. Or you know, why not pursue what is actually the most tragic relationship present in Death Note, aka L and Light? They don’t have to kiss. They don’t even have to be a romantic thing, because as much as queerbaiting is a thing, asexuality and aromanticism also exist, but they ARE the key relationship of Death Note in practically all its incarnations. It’s the whole duality thing, mirror image characters who understand each other perfectly yet are still on opposite sides. Literary foils and all that jazz. That—even if L and Light’s relationship was just another 100 minutes of queerbaiting—would at least have been interesting. Far more interesting than the relationship we do get, which is two ~edgy~ teenagers getting off on murder.
And just. Who is this movie for, really? Long-time Death Note fans aren’t going to like it (spoilers: we mostly haven’t), and that’s roughly two thirds of your potential viewer audience right there. Thriller fans aren’t going to like it. Even Adam Wingard fans don’t seem that excited, from what I’ve seen on the internet. I can’t really even see newcomers really enjoying it either, not when the plot and tone of this movie is so inconsistent and Light is so consistently an irritating piece of shit. Maybe if you were drunk or high or a decade-long Death Note fan who approached this movie as an exercise in poor decision-making and decided to approach this movie with a six-pack and multiple friends, just for the sheer oh-god-why hilarity of seeing how bad they could have gotten this—
And like. It didn’t even have to be this way. You want American Death Note? Fine, go ahead, but explore what that means. Look at any of the political tensions in the US right now. To reappropriate a quote, there is a lot of anger on both sides, and it would have been fascinating and timely to see how an angry teenager would react to oh, say, any of it. The George Zimmerman trial. Gamergate. Ted Cruz being the Zodiac Killer, I don’t fucking care, take your pick.
But no. We get this weird, decontextualized movie, where terrorists are nameless (to us, the audience) foreigners, where our only major Asian character ends up dead, where Light’s father—a white man—can put a black man in a chokehold and somehow that has no uncanny political resonances at all, no sirree. It hurt, watching this movie, and not only because I was dying of laughter through half of it. The Death Note movie left me in physical pain, and the only way I think of countering it is by listing all people who have managed to do their own thing while honoring, for free, on the internet, years and years before this debacle. Observe, Adam Wingard:
Are we done? Is this good? Has the point been made? Because I stopped being seriously involved in Death Note fandom roughly five years ago, and I’ve still got miles and fucking miles to go before I sleep, kids. If a bunch of college and high school kids can get these characters right back in 2008, you have no excuse movie, N-O EXCUSE.
Is this the most balanced, fair review of the Death Note movie? No. Is it the most nuanced and original? Again, no. But if you’re wondering why the majority DN fanbase feels the way it does, the intense passion that’s been deployed against this movie—well. I’ve been in this fandom for almost a decade now. Consider this a primer.
*Okay, this is kind of an exaggeration—Hetalia got me into yaoi—but Death Note was my first exposure to it a la dubiously characterized stories from fanfiction dot net—hey, just because there was a lot of talent in the fandom doesn’t mean it was all good. Some of us** were fifteen years old and dealing with the multiple existential crises of puberty when we were writing this, alright.