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INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Netflix’s ‘Death Note’ Will Kill Your Valuable Time


Yes, if you’re thinking of investing 106 minutes of your life to watch this original Netflix movie, do something more fulfilling, even if it’s watching a “Cheers” rerun instead — or, perhaps, interacting with a friend or family member, taking down the Christmas tree (finally), folding and putting away your laundry or taking a nap.

In fact, you can save even more time by not reading the rest of this column, since it’s gong to be about Netflix’s “Death Note,” which debuted Friday, Aug. 25.

In my Aug. 3 column (, among the TV programs noted was Netflix’s adaptation of the very popular Japanese manga/anime intellectual property known as “Death Note.”

There were some pre-release rumblings over the casting, as it was yet another adaptation of a Japanese IP that producers decided, in order to sell and market it to American and Western audiences, would need to be cast with “American” (translation: Caucasian) actors in the lead roles. Nothing like a second, heaping helping of “Ghost in the Shell,” right?

Interestingly, as in the recent past, not all those raising a stink about the casting were Asian Americans — while the huge North American manga/anime/cosplay fanbase is diverse, its members can’t all be of Asian descent, complaining about another whitewashed adaptation of another Japanese IP. That means there are many white (and black and Hispanic, et al) American fans who would like the live-action adaptation to reflect and respect the vision of the original creatives, who in this case were writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata. I recently wrote:

“But with this Netflix adaptation, it’s set in America. As far as I’m concerned, the producers of this adaptation can do whatever they want with the casting since they paid the money for the rights to make it, even if it’s a dumb decision — and if they choose to make the leads white Americans (or black Americans, for that matter), so be it.

“But one of its stars (and a producer) is Masi Oka, who has been criticized in social media for his somewhat clumsy explanations as to why it was cast that way, including: ‘Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn’t find the right person, the actors we did go to didn’t speak the perfect English … and the characters had been rewritten.’ ”

Another interesting aspect to “Death Note” is that one of its other producers is Roy Lee, the Korean American producer who was a pioneer in helping get Japanese IP like the movie “Ringu” adapted into a Hollywood version, which I thought to be superior to the Japanese original.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) talks to the death god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) in a scene from “Death Note.”

In the case of “Death Note,” however, while I can’t say whether it’s superior to any of the Japanese source material (since I’m not acquainted with either it or the 2006 Japanese live-action adaptation), I can say that this iteration — as a stand-alone product — is neither good nor terrible.

Actually, maybe it is terrible, especially if you’re a young teen, tween, adolescent or grown-up dude who writes a column about stuff like this who thinks it’s filled with gore, unnecessary violence, bad language and other stuff inappropriate for young people who’d be naturally attracted to it, or who might actually have something called good taste. (Incidentally, it’s rated TV MA, which means it contains “intensely suggestive dialogue (D), strong coarse language (L), intense sexual situations (S), or intense violence (V). Mature Audience Only. …may be unsuitable for children under 17.” It’s not for kids, OK?

To review, the premise undergirding “Death Note” is that there is a supernatural book — the titular Death Note — that allows its owner to kill people by writing that person’s name in it — as long as they also know what that person looks like. (As the movie notes, there are many such rules, caveats, codicils and conditions to effectively using the Death Note. Don’t you hate it when you get a magic thingie that can off people you don’t like — but with all these dumb rules?)

The movie’s protagonist, Light Yagami, er Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is the high school kid who gets the Death Note from the supernatural (and evil) Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), a shinigami (death god), who must have left Japan having been enticed by the song that promised the bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.

Now, as you might have guessed, having something that gives its owner great powers, be it a Death Note, a ring of power or severed monkey paw, doesn’t come without some strings attached, even with the good intentions of its owner. That’s a given and that’s what this is all about — but there is nothing worthwhile in the journey to this inevitable conclusion.

Turner and his new girlfriend, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) cook up a character named “Kira” to be the avatar who has caused all the world’s criminals and terrorists to give up after they all start dying horrible deaths; the reason they chose this name is because, the movie tells us, “Kira” is sort of the Japanese word for “killer.” (Actually, it’s just the Japanese pronunciation for “killer.”)

Then there is also the character of L (Lakeith Stanfield), an international law enforcement type whose presence doesn’t seem to organically fit the overall story — maybe he does in the original manga? Whatever.

Director Adam Wingard does provide style (decent production values, but nearly every movie now can do that), but it’s devoid of characters to care about; substance, in other words, unless you consider gory visuals substance.

I also found it confusing toward the end, but admittedly, that may be because I couldn’t sustain the necessary interest to pay enough attention. Maybe part of the problem is trying to fit an entire comic book series’ worth of build-up and backstory into a 1 hour, 46 minute-long movie is foolhardy to begin with. Maybe it was a lack of vision and commitment.

If you’ve read this far, “Death Note” is a Netflix misfire; it’s not worth watching especially if you are a fan of the source material. Usually their originals aren’t too bad — but after “Iron Fist” and “Friends From College,” maybe Netflix is making more chaff than wheat these days.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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