Adam Wingard is a man of secrets. After successfully pulling off one of the biggest film reveals in a long, long while at Comic-Con — where he announced his film The Woods was, in fact, the long-awaited The Blair Witch Project sequel — he's currently underway in production on Netflix's feature film version of the popular anime series (and manga book series) Death Note. And I'd be willing to bet we won't hear much about the film until Wingard's ready to tell us.
Luckily, Death Note has already seen many iterations in the form of a manga book series (written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata), an anime TV series, three live-action Japanese films, a live-action TV series, and, believe it or not, a musical. There's even a fourth live-action film, Light Up The World, due in theaters in Japan this October. These previous (and current) iterations can provide an idea of where Wingard may go with his film and recent casting news gives us plenty to consider as far as Wingard's vision for this beloved anime/manga story.
Death Note is the story of a high school boy, Light, who finds a notebook that allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes within its pages. Sociopathic in his determinedness to create a more perfect world, he begins to cleanse the earth of cons and villains who he deems a blight on humanity. These killings quickly catch the attention of an internationally-famed detective, "L", who works to track down "Kira" (killer), the nickname the media has given Light. As the son of the police chief, Light and L eventually work together in the cause, upping the stakes as Light tries to hide his identity from the only genius sincerely at his own sordid level of wit and intellect. The cat and mouse-ing is epic.
So, here's what we know and what we hope for in Netflix's live-action Death Note due on the streaming site sometime in 2017.
The most recent, and by far most exciting, casting news to come out of the film was released this week: Willem Dafoe will voice Ryuk, Light's invisible Shinigami or death spirit. In the show, Light finds the notebook, a Death Note, when Ryuk drops it on earth. The Death Note has a myriad of very specific rules that Light has to obey, but one is that as long as it's in his possession and usage, Ryuk stays by his side.
With a devilish and playful spirit, Ryuk is Light's constant companion and darkly-minded cheerleader. He also proves useful to Light many times with Light's convoluted schemes to both kill all the bad guys and stay undercover. Ryuk is a gruesome and large creature, but harmless in personality. His most defining feature might just be his love of apples, which he craves constantly.
While Dafoe is only reported to be voicing Ryuk, meaning he's likely to be a CG animated character, fans of the show are sure to hope they'll use Dafoe's likeness. With his oversized mouth and eager eyes, he's probably the best casting decision the filmmakers have made yet. Which might not be saying much, because the film has had some regrettable casting announcements.
A Step Backward In Diversity
It's easy to be excited about Dafoe's involvement, his character is one of the few of the series that could easily be played by an actor of any race. The other characters are trickier. While the story is modern and universal in its themes, many of its elements are fundamentally Japanese. Father/son dynamics of honor, the existence of Shinigami which are tantamount to the Western idea of a Grim Reaper, and another interesting point Shusuke Kaneko, director of the Japanese live-action films, points out:
"The idea of spirits living in words is an ancient Japanese concept... In a way, [Death Note] is a very Japanese story"
Despite the obvious Japanese cultural infusion of the already many previous iterations of the story, Wingard's Death Note film is looking sadly white. Nat Wolff has been cast to play Light, the film's lead. Shea Whigham will play his father. Margaret Qualley will play Mia Sutton, Light's obsessive girlfriend, devoted follower, and sometime murderous protege. The other main character, L, will be played by Keith Stanfield. Granted, he's not white, and L, as an Interpol agent coming from England could in theory not be necessarily Asian, but it's an odd move and not one that addresses the diversity issue at hand in this iteration of Death Note.
Death Note's original series creator, Tsugumi Ohba, has made the following remarks on L's ethnicity:
"I think of him as a quarter Japanese, a quarter English, a quarter Russian, a quarter French or Italian, like that."
Hmm, there's artistic license and then there's changing the fundamentals of a story. Here's hoping the racial differences of the film from its origin material doesn't affect the way the story unfolds or the cultural dynamics that enhance it so well.
Interestingly producers Roy Lee and Dan Lin have spoken roundaboutly on the film's diversity:
“Our vision for 'Death Note' has always been to bring this captivating story to the screen for its longtime manga fans and to introduce the world to this dark and mysterious masterpiece. The talent and diversity represented in our cast, writing, and producing teams reflect our belief in staying true to the story’s concept of moral relevance — a universal theme that knows no racial boundaries.”
Sadly, there are already reports on a few definite differences to expect in the film. As part of the character's ethnic changes, a few names have been changed as well. Light's last name has been changed Turner instead of Light Yagami. Light's girlfriend Mia is named Misa Amane in Death Note's other iterations, a significant name in that she's also a famous model and actress in the story. Light's father, Soichiro Yagami, will now be James Turner. Paul Nakauchi as L's assistant and former caretaker, Watari, is the only one keeping both his original character name and ethnicity since Ryuk has no ethnicity.
It goes without saying the film won't take place in Japan. Instead, filming is underway in Vancouver, with the city standing in for Seattle. Seattle's rainy mood is a reasonable fit for the story, but once again, the cultural implications abound. One has to wonder if screenplay writers Anthony Bagarozzi, Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater, and Chuck Mondry altered some of the more culturally specific elements to reflect Western customs instead. Will they use the word "Shinigami"? Will the Death Note's rules and regulations work the same? Will L still constantly be eating in every scene or walking around barefoot?
While the changes already outlined do cause some hesitancy, there is at least one thing to be excited about. Netflix has no intention of watering the film down from its source material. Death Note is a dark story full of a lot of death and a lot of psychological manipulation and battle. The manga books are even banned in certain countries and areas of the U.S. and have inspired a few copycat killings and the suspension of students found with their own versions of the notebook.
The film's producer, Roy Lee did say this about the film's darkness:
“It’s definitely for adults. It is zero chance it will be below an R-rating...It will be one of the first manga adaptations that feels very grounded but still has fantastical elements.”
With an R-rating, Death Note is bound to keep much of the thrills that make it an iconic anime/manga staple. L and Light are among the most detailed and absorbing frenemies every written and in an age where the idea of taking justice into one's own hands is highly attractive, this remains a hotly anticipated new film. Wingard and crew wrap filming at the end of August in Vancouver. Death Note will release sometime next year on Netflix.
Does recent news have you excited for Death Note or wary?