Death Note : Slightly less likeable than the Last Airbender

It seemed like everybody had seen Death Note before me. I knew there was a manga about it. I knew there was an anime based on it. I even knew there was a live-action version coming. I knew my co-workers had seen/read it. I knew my daughter had seen/read it, but I didn’t see the point.

This is how it was described to me: A school kid finds a notebook. If he writes someone’s name in the notebook, that person will immediately die. So, it gets into moral questions about capital punishment and religion. . .

When I heard that description, I pictured a sixteen-year-old kid calling himself a hero because he killed the bully who stole everybody’s lunch money. He might get revenge on teachers, family members, friends. There would be some tearful scene where his new girlfriend says, “I can’t believe it! You never wanted to help anybody! You’re a bully just like the rest of them!” And in the end, everyone would learn a valuable lesson.

Somebody convinced me it was nothing like that, and that it was, in fact, really cool. So I took a chance on the anime. I’m really glad I did. This story is so much better than I had anticipated. There was no “revenge” killing, no crime of passion deaths. There’s no love interest (I’ll admit that I’m only on episode 8 of the anime, but that’s about a quarter of the way through the show. Long time to go without introducing a girlfriend if you’re planning to make them a love interest). But in addition, there were a couple of points that made the story FAR more interesting.

First of all, there’s Ryuk. He’s the pointy, monochromatic, leering demon with yellow eyes that don’t look the same way. The most obvious assumption to go with his part would be that he is tied to the book, and that he is the slave who performs these killings. But that’s not the case at all.

Ryuk is a God of Death (with no explanation of what that means). The book belongs to him. He dropped it to Earth basically because he was bored. Watching humans squabble cruelly against each other was a constant source of comedy for him. He isn’t the slave of the book. In fact, it’s not really clear if he is the one performing the killings himself, or if he’s just watching the effects. This makes his character far more interesting, because as he says multiple times, he’s on nobody’s side. He doesn’t work for or against the student. Most of the time, he just laughs when the police catch the kid at something.

That’s the other thing. I was thinking about schoolyard bullies and revenge against the teachers. However, by the end of the first episode, Light (the kid who found the notebook) has already killed 42 people. All criminals who he has personally condemned to death. He was acting like an avenging god of Justice who would kill criminals until all criminals decided to spurn their evil ways.

By the third episode, we meet a shadowy Sherlock Holmes-ian character named “L” who shows incredible skill at tracking Light down. He also sees himself as an avenging god of Justice, and provides an excellent foil to Light.

It’s like a long police procedural with a massive body count. Light starts using his criminal-killing hobby as a way to send messages to L. L almost catches up to him at several times, and out-thinks Light several times.

All of this made the anime SO MUCH better than I had expected.

I watched the Netflix live-action movie, even though I’d seen the reviews. I knew that a lot of true believers didn’t like it, but true fans always crap on every little detail. As a neophyte to the series, I might find that I like the watered-down version anyway.

I really didn’t. This movie was exactly what I originally thought the story would be. The VERY FIRST thing they show in the movie is a love interest for Light. She’s not just hot, but she’s a cheerleader who can’t be bothered to look happy. She’s a cheerleader who smokes during practices. And when she looks at Light, sitting in the bleachers, she gives him a lingering look that says, “I may not care about anything, but I think I care about you.”

When Light finds the notebook, he meets Ryuk in a jump-scare scene that looked almost ripped off from Gremlins. Ryuk pushes Light into killing people, and gives the impression that he is the one doing the killing. And after running a few tests, Light decides that the best thing to do would be to tell his new girlfriend about it.

They have a version of L in this story, but he’s basically an exposition stand-in and deus ex machina that lets Light look like he’s always one step ahead. The whole “god of justice” thing is pretty much jettisoned.

The TV show is full of betrayals, plot reversals, missed clues, and other great storyline shifts that keeps you enthralled. NONE of that made it into the movie until the very last point, where they go from no strategy at all to everyone having a ridiculously convoluted strategy, which is quickly resolved for the climax.

A long time ago, I said that I could really like The Phantom Menace if it hadn’t been set as a Star Wars movie. If Phantom Menace stood on its own, I would probably quite like it. But with all the baggage and emotion involved in a movie that basically took every possible chance to either show a merchant federation arguing, and every possible moment that Jake Lloyd could say, “Yippiee”, I just couldn’t see it as anything other than ruining one of my favorite trilogies.

If I walked in on the live action Death Note with no preconceived notions . . . I still wouldn’t have liked it. The movie isn’t bad in comparison to the anime. It’s just bad.

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