The initial outrage and subsequent backlash over the live action, feature length Death Note film that premiered recently on Netflix gives it’s source material perhaps a bit too much credit. Far from some sacred tome like the recently adapted Ghost in the Shell or the oft threatened Akira, series’ that defined their genres both in print and on film and brought to the masses not only anime but cyberpunk as well, which shaped much of the look and feel of western genre filmmaking throughout the 90’s and beyond, Death Note is… well, was… uh… not that.
Appearing at the tail end of the DVD industry fueled and Adult Swim nurtured early to mid aughts Anime boom, Death Note, like a lot of its contemporaries on the racks at Best Buy or FYE (hell, even Target had a decent anime section at the time), was a brilliant concept that’s execution couldn’t quite keep up, and the grueling 37 episode length of the 2006 series stretched these characters’ potential for interest to just about to breaking, piling on subplots, idiotic twists and additional characters until the initial “Light vs. L” cat and mouse dynamic was muddied and obscured to utter pointlessness.
Which is to say that the Netflix iteration succeeds by default for being an exercise in brevity and streamlining it’s inspiration’s surplus of not entirely great ideas. No interminable sequences detailing trap doors in desks and miniature televisions hidden in potato chip bags here, just the bare minimum of set up (high school student finds a magical notebook that kills any name written in it, he begins with noble, Punisher-style ideals, and shit goes sideways really quickly), and a decent amount of payoff, which works in this truncated form not because of it’s faithfulness to the existing IP but due to it’s willingness to make clever alterations.
The MVP here is Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) as Mia. Obviously heavily modified from the original Misa Amane character, she may be the most ruthless piece of this entire puzzle, and that’s saying something considering the outright hostility that both L (LaKieth Stanfield of Get Out and Straight Outta Compton) and Ryuk (Willem Dafoe, clearly having a great time) show toward Light (Nat Wolff) in this version of the story. Qualley’s borderline sociopathy is melodramatic, yes, but within the confines of typical American high school drama (especially those with clear supernatural elements) it rings true, and Qualley plays it beautifully, taking a character from the comic that was a distraction at best and annoying at worst and making them an integral component of this nihilistic tapestry.
The rest of the cast makes a decent effort as well, with Wolff injecting a goofy charm into the somewhat thankless role of Light and Stanfield nailing L’s various tics and quirks to a T. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) injects some style into the proceedings, with several impressive gore setpieces (both practical and CG enhanced) and one of his excellent trademark synthwave soundtracks, this time provided by frequent Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross. It’s an undertaking as a whole, a high concept anime/manga adaptation made for American TV, that shouldn’t succeed at all, but does. I was fully prepared to hate watch this thing and then run it up the twitter flagpole but I found myself pleasantly surprised by almost every frame of it.
So the Netflix Death Note is good. I personally enjoyed it just as much, if not more than anything else to carry the “Death Note” name, again, thanks to the deft economy of it’s storytelling. I was never the biggest Death Note fan so your mileage may vary (if this creative team were to tackle say, Berserk or Hellsing, I may not be so agreeable), and it’s not the total slam dunk that Castlevania was, but don’t just go with the internet dogpile on this one. You may find yourself just as pleasantly surprised as I was.