Thursday, November 2, 2017

Death Note: Rules, principles, and the purpose of a remake

Oh, hello friends.  I didn't see you there.  Please, come in.  At the time of writing, I just finished watching the Death Note remake on Netflix and it proved to be the perfect material to break the ice on this long-forgotten snark platform of ours.

(I wish I could say this is the start of regular blogging here again, but that tragically seems unlikely.  I do have a twitter now, and of course the blogqueen has been tweeting prolifically for years.  We'll see if I can follow in her illustrious keysteps.)

Death Note (The American One, Mostly)

(Content: death, murder, sexual assault, misogyny.  Fun content: that depends on how much you missed me.)

I feel like any adaptation--whether it's book to film, or a series reboot or reimagining, whatever--has two extra criteria for judgment that original creations can ignore: 
  1. Does this story stand on its own, without already knowing the source material? 
  2. What value did the adapters get by changing whatever they changed?
And I feel like, regardless of one's opinions on the original story, the American Death Note fails completely on both of these points.  Its protagonist, Light, is changed in bizarre ways that sabotage the thesis of the original, while the supporting leads Mia and L are burdened with new rubbish flaws all too typical for the treatment of women and black men in US cinema.

Death Note (as in 'notebook') started out as a hit manga, which got turned into a hit anime, which got turned into a bunch of other supplementary materials and movies and such, all of which were Japanese and all telling the same core story of high school student Light Yagami, who gains magical murder powers and gets into a years-long battle of wits with law enforcement as he slaughters hundreds of criminals for the supposedly greater good.  It was far from perfect, but it was compelling and creative, telling a story of a seeming paragon of his community who didn't need to be corrupted--he just needed the opportunity to be evil and he'd drag himself down without a blink.  In the name of saving the world from dangerous criminals, he'd kill innocent people to cover his trail, to protect himself, or just to make a point.  He'd manipulate people's emotions, twist and control them, sure of his own perfection and his justified ends.

Light Yagami is a model student, a star athlete, an Encyclopedia Brown-grade genius who helps his cop father solve crimes, and gorgeous heartthrob with legions of girls swooning over him.  He might have gone on to become a brilliant lawyer or miracle doctor or follow his dad's path and be a legendary detective, but he finds a magic book that can kill people and he thinks why not be a god?  Death Note is a story about how someone who's basically modern nobility might actually be the worst kind of monster.  (Before it meant anything else, 'aristocracy' meant 'rule by the best people'.  Sometimes we have to remind ourselves not to trust that idea.)

Light Turner, the protagonist of the Netflix movie, is not this*.  Instead of the outwardly perfect superman, he's a standard American teen protagonist: a nerdy outcast, smarter than bullies but still getting into trouble, with a recently-dead mother and a crush on a cheerleader.  Where the original story makes the Yagamis a magazine-perfect family with mom, dad, and 2.3 kids, Light Turner lives with his dad in a tiny house next to a freight rail line for no apparent reason.  Class politics aren't part of this story, it's just a truth universally acknowledged that a sympathetic teenage protagonist comes from a working-class family.

Where Light Yagami showed vulcan-ish logic and emotional control, Light Turner is every inch the awkward teen, ineffectively confronting bullies and stuttering when pretty girls acknowledge his existence.  Where Light Yagami started experimenting with the killing book of his own accord and didn't hesitate to start offing detectives getting too close to his trail, Light Turner has to be pushed into using it for the first time (to rescue another student), and ultimately goes through the whole movie without killing anyone who hasn't already committed some ghastly crime.  (His second kill is the mafia goon who killed his mom in a traffic accident, who apparently went free because the mob bribed the jury.)

I spent most of the movie trying to figure out if the adaptation writers had intentionally chosen to make their protagonist nothing like the original, or if they thought we were supposed to sympathise with Light.  I think it was intentional, but good lord, at what cost?  Let's talk about the women of Death Note.

Light's mom is not significant in the original story, and she's already been killed for plot fodder in this one.  Other women were mostly extras or quickly killed.  His sister got left out of this version entirely.  The only major female character in the original is Misa Amane, a model who hero-worships Light for killing her parents' murderer and becomes his willing accomplice and nominal girlfriend.  She's clever by normal standards but, of course, foolish compared to proper geniuses like Light, and thus spends most of the story being his willing plaything, killing as he directs and absorbing whatever casual cruelty he shows because she just wants to be useful to him.  It's awful, and the audience is meant to condemn Light for his treatment of her, even if she is also a killer.

In this version, Misa becomes Mia Sutton, and she is the Real Villain of the story.  Mia is the one who pushes Light to kill more people, more publicly, to kill anyone who dares challenge him, and possibly manipulates his emotions to keep him on her side.  I'm sort of impressed that the adapters managed to substantially increase female agency while also keeping the misogyny, and even bumping it from 'evil people mistreat women' to 'the only woman is pure evil'.

Mia is introduced early in the story as the cheerleader that Light watches from the sidelines like an earnest shy creeper.  He's shocked that she knows his name (as American movie tradition demands), and the minute she shows any interest in the book he's reading, he tells her everything about it.  He even declares that she "of all people" should understand the potential of the book, indicating she has some important backstory that got cut from the final version of the movie.  They talk about being able to bring peace to those who have been let down by cops and politicians, and inventing a god of justice to make people too scared to commit crimes.  And then they have sex, because (again) American movie tradition demands it.
[Light and Mia sneak past his dad, sleeping in front of the TV, and up to his room.  Light leans toward her, then hesitates.] 
LIGHT: Can I kiss you? 
MIA: You're not supposed to ask. 
We actually have scenes where they are actively making out or undressing each other while googling war criminals to kill off.  This is just apparently their fetish. (ERIKA NOTE: Just saying, Drawn Together picked "murder and wreckage" as a fetish for one of their episodes and probably handled it better. That is not a high bar.)  They also decide their murdersona needs a name--where the Japanese public just started referring to the force murdering all these criminals as Kira ("killer") in the original, Light intentionally chooses the name in this version, with the justification that it means 'light' in Celtic and Russian, and then tries to use the Japanese connection to throw off suspicion.  It doesn't work, and that's when we meet L.

In all versions of this story, L is the counterpart to Light.  Light appears normal, trustworthy, and pretty, and he is an utterly amoral murderer-protagonist.  L is weird, no one trusts him, he looks creepy, and he's the virtuous antagonist.  He's Light's only intellectual equal, tracking down an untraceable killer just as fast as Light can cover his tracks.

Like everything else in this story, the adapters appear to have missed or ignored the point.  Even just consider the following:

Pictured: the live-action American Light played by Nat Wolff, an archetypal gawky Movie Teen, next to the cool and precisely styled anime version of Light.

Pictured: the anime L, an unkempt man with an unsettling stare, and his American live-action counterpart, Lakeith Stanfield, who is more attractive than any human really needs to be.

Granted, apart from making L hot, the adaptation's initial depiction of him is pretty solid.  He's still eccentric, still obsessed with sweets, and they even cast a black actor in this heroic role (I'm generally for this!).  We find him inspecting a Japanese crime scene (cameo by producer Masi Oka) and then boarding a jet with his assistant, the elderly Watari, the only character who stayed Japanese through this adaptation.  L is a Sherlock-esque consulting detective, smart enough to have already narrowed down Kira's true location to Seattle.

(While the original story spends immense time on the details of Light and L's battles of wits, this movie glosses over most of them for the sake of time.  I will summarise because I have a question.  L realised that, before the Kira name started going around, a guy in Seattle in a standoff with police suddenly set his hostages free and then died in a convenient traffic accident, inexplicable events typical of Kira's murders.  To confirm his theories, L started seeding older criminal files into police databases in the Seattle region, and Light apparently used one of those to kill off gangsters in Japan.  When we first see L, he's examining a club where said gangsters appear to have killed each other, but the staff working the club are also dead.  Light wouldn't have been writing the names of the club dancers or waiters unless they were also violent criminals.  Was that just literally a Villains-Only club, or did a bunch of innocent people get killed as well?  That's not supposed to be how the Death Note works.  It has rules.  It has so many rules.**)

Once L arrives, the hunt for Kira amps up, and Light realises he's being tailed by an FBI agent (on the grounds that Light may have access to the police database, which they know Kira does).  Light, as our sympathetic protagonist, gets scared and wants to stop using the Death Note entirely, even though public faith in the justice of Lord Kira is taking off.  Mia says they just have to find out who all of the agents on the team are and kill them simultaneously, to scare off further investigation without implicating Light specifically.  Light is shocked, shocked to hear Mia suggest they use murder to solve their problems.  He's a sympathetic protagonist, after all!  All he's done is kill a few hundred bad guys.  That's what American heroes are supposed to do!  But Mia isn't an obedient girlfriend in this one--she steals a page from the book and kills the FBI agents herself, while Light just thinks it was the work of Ryuk.

(I haven't mentioned Ryuk until now because, in this version of the story, he's basically irrelevant.  Ryuk is the death god who originally owned the book, and he pushed Light to initially use it to kill the school bully who was at that moment threatening to rape another student.  In the original story, of course, Light needs no tempting, and Ryuk mostly exists so Light has an audience surrogate to explain his schemes to.  In this version, he has Mia to help with plot exposition, and she handles the corruption for him too.)

In the aftermath of the agents' mass "suicide", Light's cop father makes a public challenge to Kira, and when he doesn't die for it, L immediately concludes that Light is the killer.  (They have a showdown which is actually pretty good, because Lakeith Stanfield is a top-notch actor.)  To save himself, Light uses the book to compel Watari to go find L's real name.  (The book can "influence" someone's actions for up to two days before killing them, but One Time Only you can burn a page from the book to spare someone's life even after condemning them, so Light is planning to save Watari once he's got the information he needs.  Light's a protagonist, after all, and therefore a good guy!)

I said at the start that adaptations need to stand on their own without knowing the original version***, and this is once of the places where Death Note faceplants.  In the original story, L and some of his colleagues have a complicated and mysterious backstory that is only occasionally hinted at over the course of many chapters.  In this version, the compelled Watari phones up Light and hypnotically explains that L is an orphan raised in a special program that conditions its subjects from childhood to become ultimate detectives.  L was only initiated into the program when, at the age of six, he was able to endure the requisite seven months in solitary confinement without a complete mental breakdown.



Look, in a fifty-episode anime or a hundred-volume comic book, okay, I guess you can spread out the heavy lifting that it takes to introduce those sorts of concepts organically, but in a robotic monologue from a hypnotised butler in the middle of this movie about the corrupting influence of power, that's fuckin' weird.  (Not to mention also being much more backstory than Mia ever gets!)

The conclusion of this is that L's name can only be found in the abandoned orphanage's records, which the writers could have done without the bizarre Ender's Game For Detectives exposition slam.  Watari goes off to hunt for the name, and his disappearance immediately causes L to crack.  Now, far be it from me to object to rational characters acting irrationally when people they care about are in danger, but for the rest of the movie L becomes an increasingly loose cannon, starting with storming the Turner house to accuse and threaten Light's life face-to-face.  That's not something the original L would ever do, and it's at best uncomfortable that they've decided to add this uncharacteristic emotional unhinging after making him the only significant black character.  (It only ramps up after the plan fails, Watari dies, and L, who hates guns, grabs a gun and steals a cop car to chase down Light.  But I'm getting ahead of myself; there's more feminine evil to discuss first.)

Lest we forget just how incredibly American this version is, the climactic events all occur on the night of the homecoming dance at Light and Mia's school.  There's some very weak misdirection involving a top hat that's supposed to let Light slip away from the dance, get L's name from Watari by phone, and then burn the page to save him, but Light discovers that page has already been taken from his book by Mia.  This knocks Light into realising that Mia, not Ryuk, was behind the deaths of the FBI agents--as she explains, she was "protecting" him, both from the cops and from his own cowardice.  She doesn't want to ever stop meting out death in judgment, so she demands that he make her the official owner of the book.  As insurance, she's written his death into it, but since she stopped him from saving Watari, the One-Time-Only Takeback can still be used to spare him.

(Side note: like a lot of the schemes in this movie, this doesn't actually make sense.  Light knows where the book is; Mia does not.  To save himself, he doesn't have to give the book to her, he just has to go burn his own page.  Mia does have one page that she stole, but that's not the one with Light's name on it.  There's no reason for him to give her the book now.)

A prolonged chase scene across the city ensues.  L manages to corner Light at one point, and Light starts to spill everything, but a random bystander shows up on the scene.  L makes the mistake of saying that he's caught Kira, and rando knocks L out with a plank because he is a true believer in Lord Kira.  Light and Mia have their final confrontation on a Ferris wheel.  Light asks her to Choose Love and give up on the book, but as soon as he's distracted she grabs for it and they both fall from the wheel.  She dramatically lands on a flower stall and dies amidst petals, while Light falls into the harbour and gets rescued.  The page with his name on it 'coincidentally' lands in a literal trash fire.

(There's then an incredibly uncomfortable scene in which a bunch of old white cops tell L that Light, currently hospitalised, is clearly not Kira and that, while L might not get jailed for his false accusation, he should know that he ain't welcome in their town anymore.  In a better movie, that kind of implicit threat would be an intentional reflection of police racism.)

Light wakes up from a two-day coma.  He's alive because everything that just happened was according to his last-ditch plan.  He used the book to compel a couple of sex offenders to rescue him from the water and hide the book while he was in his medically-induced coma, then kill themselves when their job was done.  He wrote his own survival into the book as part of their deaths, which... should not work according to any rule we've seen.  It's a book that kills, not saves.

He also wrote Mia's death in, which he admitted to her during their confrontation, but he insisted that it was a conditional thing that would only happen if she tried to steal the book.  This is presented as if it's something we should believe, but according to the rules as presented to us, the fact that he wrote 'she dies after taking the book' means she was magically compelled to steal the book, even if she really did want to Choose Love instead.  Was that what the writers intended?  Was this supposed to be a tragic mistake or a cover for a sinister plan?

Finally, Light's dad arrives and declares that he's realised Light really was the killer--no one else would have caught the connection, but the mafia goon who killed Mom Turner died right before the Kira business started.  Neither of them seems to know what to do now.  Meanwhile, L continues on his Emotionally And Morally Compromised Quest and searches Mia's home (she seems to have lived alone in an apartment, what was her backstory?!) until he finds the page of the Death Note she stole.  He twitches and cries and laughs as he stares at the page and at the nearby photo of Mia and Light together, obviously trying to decide whether to kill Light or not****.  Ryuk pops up to remark to Light that humans are "so interesting!"--and roll credits.

In summary, the white male protagonist gets rewritten as a misled but principled antihero, the white female lead gets powered up from amoral accomplice to ruthless evil mastermind temptress, and the black hero actually on the side of peace and justice goes on a rampage for revenge because he can't control his emotions.  Nothing remains of the original story of an apparent paragon of humanity becoming an unfathomable supervillain just because someone gave him the chance to act without accountability.

So what exactly was the point of this remake?


*When people first heard there was going to be an American remake of Death Note, many people pointed out the worst implications due to cultural differences (like American school mass murders, and the overfilling of US jails with black prisoners).  At least they avoided some of that in this script?  Which isn't to say there isn't still plenty of racism and xenophobia to go around: when we see Kira execute a military commander who's been torturing prisoners, they make sure it's an officer in some east Asian military, not American.  Acknowledging evil within the US army is going too far even for this Super Edgy movie.

**The rules of the Death Note are a central part of the original story, and we get every single one of them in detail over dozens of chapters.  This is a good choice for a battle of wits, because the audience understands exactly what the terms of the game are, and it helps us not feel like conflicts are just being resolved by someone pulling a new superpower out of their ear.  Here in this movie, we get a half-dozen rules and the rest are just blurred past with various exclamations of "Why does this thing have so many rules?"  I can see why they would do that to save time, but it does sort of undercut the characters' supposed cleverness, and Light Turner writes various things that the original rules would never have allowed.

***My personal go-to for failure on this is Star Trek Into Darkness, which wants the audience to be shocked and terrified by the revelation of the name Khan, a character who hadn't been featured anywhere in 30 years, let alone in this storyline.

****They obviously wanted to be able to pick it back up for a sequel if they could.  I'm guessing if they did that, L would in fact kill Light's dad to cause Light to suffer as L has, and then it's back to one-on-one cat-and-mouse between them because no one trusts L or believes Light is Kira.  I would protest the loss of the original conclusion as well ("teamwork > loner geniuses"), if it weren't so obvious that they're hoping to continue this story.

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