If you haven’t watched or read Death Note in any capacity, I recommend avoiding this post and coming back until you have. Otherwise for you fans who have, enjoy the post!
Death Note has been a cultural phenomenon ever since it first debuted back in 2003. The story of one of Japan’s brightest and best, discovering a notebook with the power to take human life was thrilling in just concept. Once you mix in all the other goodies the series has to offer(shinigami, super detectives, Matt), that is when it is uplifted to a new plateau of the god of anime! Alright….maybe that was a bit of a stretch, but that’s what makes Death Note so fresh and captivating. Light Yagami, is a seemingly ordinary highschool student in every regard, yet a single small dose of power changes him completely. He transforms from status quo, to self-proclaimed patriarch trying to create a utopia with his definition of justice. That is the word thrown around the most as well, justice. The idea of right and wrong defined through morals, societal rules, and so forth. Death Note primarily is about life, death, and justice all viewed differently by the opposing parties in the main conflict. That is what makes Death Note so engaging, it is the universal appeal of something we all share.
In the short 14 years that Death Note has existed, it has amassed worldwide recognition, and a staggering amount of adaptations in such a small span of time. There are 16 different ways the story has been told outside of the original manga, spanning from novels, to games, to films. Clearly the narrative of Death Note is fascinating to us all, and it shows with how many people talk about it so much, even after a decade and half. It has not lost steam, nor been slowly treading to being forgotten. It’s a landmark series, and the one adaptation that ushered in all this success was the anime. However, with the recent U.S. film being made, I decided to look at more than just the anime, and see how Death Note fairs through a variety of mediums. So sit down, buckle up, and don’t forget to take a potato chip and eat it, we are going to talk about Death Note adapted!
The Breakdown: So before we can dissect how well each adaptation delivers the ideas of Death Note, we need a precedence to base it off of. What better way to do that then to talk about what the manga does essentially. Death Note, as prior mentioned, is the story of Light Yagami and his exploits to becoming the god of the new world after he gains possession of a life taking notebook aptly named the Death Note. The plot houses a bevy of fantastic characters who are at the heart of the series. You have of course, Light Yagami, the central lead, who is as calm and calculating as he is handsome, and he is a dashing fellow. Then there is L, the super detective who, whilst being quite abnormal socially, is a bonafide genius with his deductive reasoning and problem solving skills. Death Note has many interesting characters from the bored Shinigami Ryuk, to the obsessively loyal Misa Amane. The way they all intermingle is so fascinating due to the overall themes and nature of the plot.
Death Note is all about the ideals of justice. While we as a human race normally equate that to our law and order system, there are folks who would say it is severely lacking in power and execution. Light is one of these people. He sees many things in need of fixing, and the main one is the human race, who in his eyes have been corrupted to a significant degree. He has chosen himself as the one who will usher in a brand new world with a society that is governed by his ideals of justice. Those who misbehave will be judged not by the system but solely by him. Life and death will be determined by the flick of a pen on paper. Those who oppose this vision are the police, L, and a large portion of the general worldwide populous. From this point Kira(Light) is against the world in a clash of ideals. Whose justice is the right one?
This is what makes Death Note such a meaty piece of entertainment. Many folks who watch it are simply captivated by the mind battles of Light versus L(or whoever else he battles at the time), and seeing how the result will be achieved by either side. Of course, the average viewer is rooting against Light to win because his vision is twisted and normally seen as morally wrong, yet we still want to see how he plans to keep winning. There are few things humans relate to universally no matter what culture you are a part of, but life & death are something we all share. Alongside that simple fact, we all view the weight of human life in different standards. The idea of justice is how we treat bad behavior in this world towards our fellow man. Would killing all the bad be such an evil act? Death Note poses this question by making it clear that crime rates drop, wars stop, and the world altogether is more “peaceful” with the actions of Kira. On the other hand this is all from the result of a lot of forcible death, tons of fear, and one man dictating judgement on everyone else. Death Note is a story of many facets all relating to justice and the consequences of how it is enacted.
If an adaptation hopes to carry the torch of the original it will have to do a few things right. The characters will have to make a similar impact on their world to stay consistent with the overall themes. The narrative itself doesn’t need to be beat for beat the same, but the thrills of mystery, and weight of the themes of justice are required to carry it. I keep hammering in the word themes to an excessive amount, so I think that should go without saying, but since I wrote up this sentence, I will say it has to deliver on its THEMES!!! And finally to a lesser degree of importance, I will be looking at the music in each adaptation, and how well they hold up in their own specific mediums. With all that out of the way, let us proceed on into these pieces of art!
The Breakdown: In terms of proximity of how far each adaptation veers in an original direction, the anime is the closest to the manga. The exact same story progression occurs in it to it’s predecessor, and only minor changes are present that are mostly minute in terms of gravity. The only major thing separating the two is the way scenes play out due to animation being different than traditional manga art. Of course, the opening and ending themes relating to the series belong to only the anime, but those really don’t hold a ton of game changers with how the actual story plays out. As anime is a moving and fluid visual medium, there are some things only it can do with the way scenes are shot. All in all though, this is the one that is really the least interesting to talk about. Just like the manga it is split between pretty much 3 parts of the story: Light discovering the notebook and the battle between him and L begins, Light loses his memory of the Death Note culminating in a huge twist to give him an upper hand on finally defeating L, and finally Light versus the combined forces of Near/Mello leading to his eventual demise. This is the only adaptation so far that has the characters introduced in the last third of the story, all of the rest of them decide to end it with a Light v. L showdown instead, like most fans wanted.
Strengths of this adaptation:
- Intense direction, with music supporting it to bolster already exciting scenes to a whole other level.
- 37 episodes to tell the story in an evenly paced manner in-line with the weekly chapters the manga had.
- The closest adaptation for those who want an exact as possible delivery of their favorite manga.
- Extra things only anime has, to splice in little bits of fun content.(The openings/endings are chock full of symbolism, the way the camera moves and highlights characters with color palettes live action can’t mimic.)
- Talented voiced performances in Japanese/English that really showcase veteran talent to bring the characters to life.
- It’s the adaptation that kickstarted the popularity to make the rest.
Weaknesses of this adaptation:
- Inconsistency with the animation throughout
- Some parts of the story drag on and despite being an exact adaptation remain the weaker parts of the series(Business men & Near)
Characters: A Story: B+ Themes: A- Music: B+ Anime: B+
The Breakdown: Now this is where things get a little bit different! Light this time around is not in highschool, but a college student when the story kicks off. His picture perfect societal personality is slightly altered this time around. While he still looks amazing to everyone else, we get a sense he’s a much different Light in this version. This ends up being something you’ll see in every Death Note adaptation outside the anime, they all have variations of the way Light is portrayed. In the Japanese films, Light is angry that justice from the law system isn’t stopping crime the way he expected or was raised to believe. The Death Note fuels his passionate fury and allows him to condemn those he wants to punish. That is what makes the Light in this movie adaptation so unique. His brash personality in his interior always finds a way to impact the way he acts. He is far more sinister in the Japanese films than any other version in my opinion. In the second film he is ready as can be to kill his own father because he is in the way, rather than weigh it more carefully with a very complicated plan that allows his dad to die in peace without ever knowing he is Kira if it were to come to that. Light is pretty cocky in the anime/manga, but in this movie I would say this is the most brazen version. Outside of Light however, the majority of the rest of the cast is pitch perfect in depiction, which is always a genuine nice surprise to see for fans of the series.
Now, the story does veer off and do it’s own version of some classic events, while keeping some scenes exactly the same. I honestly don’t mind it too much, since it was something that kept the movie suspenseful for a pre-existing fan of the franchise. It was also interesting to see a finale that was a total Light versus L showdown. With the omission of Near, the last third act has been reworked to a more expected final battle. I would say it still holds a few issues with how it gets to that point, but in terms of watchers longing for this to be how it would end, this is the best there is for a Light v. L bout. Altogether though, the story follows a lot of the same beats as the original while tweaking here and there for some new twists and turns. A bit of old, a bit of new, and a lot of the Death Note we all know and love.
Strengths of this adaptation:
- Most of the Cast is well acted and well adapted. L in particular is pure gold.
- A lot of callbacks to the original manga/anime plus new fun surprises await
- The Light v. L showdown to cap it all off that most fans wanted
- As a movie on it’s own, it is pretty enjoyable as well
- L wins
Weaknesses of this adaptation:
- Light is far more malicious in tone and loses some of his charm as a character
- Cutting out certain parts of the story makes the second half of the final film feel a bit rushed.
- Why is the Red Hot Chili Peppers the ending credits?
Characters: B+ Story: B- Themes: A- Music: C+ Movies: B-
The Breakdown: We have come to the most recent and radically different Death Note. This time around, Light(Turner not Yagami) is an angsty teen who wants to fit in. He does homework for the bullies, and is sort of a rebel. When given the Death Note in this version, he kills in brutal and violent ways rather than simply testing it out methodically. This Light is a far cry from the one you know. The planning nature of his personality mostly all but dissolved for a relatable teen with an inferiority complex, and desire to fix the broken world as shown with his strained family relations and school life. He immediately shares his hidden death power with a popular cheerleader and they begin to date. The strategic moves to make the police and world around him fall into his hands are much sloppier in design, and much more abrasive. Light/Mia are a tag team duo enacting a juvenile justice, without thinking of the repercussions as seen by Light wavering as L draws nearer to finding him out. The cast is not the one fans know, but something brand new for American audiences, and for better or worse take Death Note on a far more distinct path.
While the characters are vastly different in approach, so is the story. There is still a Light v. L war happening in the foreground, but they seem so different in approach. Light is driven by almost peer pressure through Mia to be more of a killer than a patriarch of justice. Suave and deductive L, is now emotionally unstable and lacking in explanation for his conclusions. The payoffs all seem way less developed for each mystery given to the viewer, and the film gets bogged down in melodramatic and excessive rules from the Death Note. The themes of justice being on two sides of the same coin aren’t present, and rather replaced with a lackluster head to head confrontation of two people who don’t feel qualified for their roles within the story. This isn’t just a massive flop in telling the story of Death Note, but it also is just a very forgettable film altogether.
Strengths of this adaptation:
- Huge budget for better set pieces to build up scenes.
- Pretty good cinematography for atmosphere and dynamic shots.
Weaknesses of this adaptation:
- A weak script and poor direction ail a fairly talented cast
- The story’s themes get muddled with the lack of consistency in both the character’s actions, and the over-arching feel of the movie.
- Light and L are no longer smart but rather conveniently geniuses when the scene calls for it. They both act incredibly brash and unlike their calm collected standard selves.
- The music in the film is often misplaced for the wrong genre of movie, and makes otherwise decently shot scenes unintentionally amusing.
- It was marketed as a delight for fans, but is the biggest departure yet in terms of feel of the story.
- Just not a very good movie in general. Mind you, not the worst out there, but still a poor effort overall.
- It doesn’t really end nor leave it’s open ending with a satisfactory moment.
Characters: D- Story: C- Themes: D+ Music: C+ Movie: D+
The Breakdown: We have made it to the most surprising adaptation to exist. Did you think Death Note could be brought to the land of musical theater? Well it has been, and I’m here to talk about it! Light is once again the perfect student in every way, his only major difference in character is he is far more shy. This time around they try to weave the plot at a break neck pace to leave time for songs to develop characters, and let it tell the majority of the plot. Characters like Misa show up very early and in pragmatic ways to help better mesh together plot points at a faster rate. Most of the cast feels similar to how you would expect aside from Ryuk playing a far more comical role this time around. It’s like the creators wanted the musical to be a bit more fun for viewers who had no earthly idea what Death Note was, so they made a laugh machine. This is common in musicals, but I would say they overplayed the whole thing a bit much. Outside of that minor change to fit the medium though, the cast is pretty spot on overall.
In terms of the narrative, most of the details are in song format. Which, it being a musical, this is totally fine and the best way to approach it. Power duets for face offs, somber solos for tranquil scenes, and group medleys to uplift the whole tone. It makes for a lot of fun if anything, even if some characters sang more than others should have. My biggest beef is Light seems to only be in this adaptation for like a chunk of it, instead of most of it. I feel L and Misa both have more songs than he does. That would be the major drawback, alongside a really really poor ending sequence. I think even though, I was ultimately very disappointed with the western film’s ending(or lack thereof), this ending is the worst out of all the adaptations. It comes out of nowhere with little explanation, has little satisfaction when it does play out, and really just feels altogether anti-climatic. At least the song was good that supported it. This story though, felt good with the song progression until it petered out right at the last act, which with a musical is a terrible way to leave the show.
Strengths of this adaptation:
- Terrific music with strong vocal performances all around. My personal favorites were duets between Light and L, and Misa’s first song.
- Decent job at bringing the cast to life overall.
- Strong story until the very last section.
- If you like musicals or Death Note, or both, you should be overall pleased.
Weaknesses of this adaptation:
- Really lame final act.
- Both Shinigami feel wasted. Ryuk is far overplayed to the point of annoyance. Rem on the other hand is a time hog and ruins time for better spent elsewhere.
- Light once again is missed out on. He must be tough to nail.
Characters: B- Story: C+ Themes: B- Music: A- Musical: B
Death Note, like many things, differs from medium to medium when adapted. It just isn’t possible to have the same type of story work exactly the same way in every adaptation. Manga is constrained to making the viewer feel everything from panel to panel with art/dialogue alone. Anime has the benefit of spacing out the story into many episodes, yet it suffers with where the most time and effort should be spent. Films are far shorter than comics or animated series, so they are constrained to filling in a lot of story in a small span of time. Musicals must rely on their well…..music, to tell most of their story and sometimes this leaves out details that don’t mesh well with that flow. Every one of these things, and the many other types of adaptation Death Note has been brought to, have pros and cons. This is something we all have to realize and be okay with. You can’t be angry at a musical for focusing on the music numbers. Just like you can’t be mad at a film for trying to end on a bang. These are crucial elements to their respective mediums. Not all of these adaptations are perfect, hell none of them really are, because the original wasn’t either. No matter how much you love it, Death Note has flaws like any other piece of art, so when it is brought into different worlds to tell it’s story, things will change and not always for the better.
I would certainly say the anime is the best adaptation by a long shot. It clearly tried to stay as close as possible to the original, and lost none of the appeal that made Death Note a commercial success to begin with. The second best would be the Japanese Live Action films. While some of the changes(Evil fiancée attacking Light, Light trying to kill his dad, L winning) are fascinating to behold, there are others that don’t help the story at all. It definitely is as close as you can get right now outside of the anime though. The musical had some aspects that were notably close, but others that were far off base. I really think though, had the musical been longer it could have fleshed out its ending much better and not hampered the overall product as much. Although, a severe lack of Light really is the thing I felt lacked the most. And last but not least, the American adaptation just missed on all accounts. The actors felt wrong, the script was abysmal, and the feel of Death Note was all gone. The moment Light was peer pressured into using the Death Note and decided to decapitate a bully at his school, I knew this one wasn’t the same kind of story. All in all, none of these are the same, but they are all part of the same universe now. Death Note has shown how well it shines or fails depending on who is at the helm and how they tell the narrative.
Extra Thoughts about the Franchise
I just wanted to list a small bit of blurbs about things I have come to think about Death Note after rewatching the anime again for the first time in 7 years. Here are 13 more thoughts I’ve had over the past month.
- You know L really was cool. It’s sad he died right when we were getting to know him better. He was quickly becoming more and more interesting up to that point.
- The arc with the business men was absolutely boring until the climax. The same goes for the last third with Near and Mello.
- I hated Near before, and you know after rewatching it, I hate him even more. What a terribly unsatisfying nemesis for Light to go up against and lose to. I’m glad they cut him from all other adaptations.
- Misa Amane is not as dumb as the series or fans make her out to be. She thinks plenty of things through, and I’d say without the help of super detectives would have fooled the cops easily. Also she is super hot, am I right or am I right?
- Death Note deserves more of Matt. He is clearly the true hero that saved the day in the last part of the story.
- Honesty, I wish Light would have beaten Near. Despite how sloppily written the last 3rd of the series was, I thought it would have been the most interesting ending to see. How often do you get to see a sociopath win the day in the end? Don’t worry, Ryuk gets to kill him still at some point.
- Also while we are at it, the series needs more Ryuk too. He was one of the most intriguing players of the story, but once everyone could see him he became almost nonexistent.
- Anyone else wonder if Light might be asexual? So many attractive women want to bone this guy and he could care less. I know he is a busy God and all but wouldn’t you want to spend 30 minutes in bed with Misa every night?
- How much money does L have? That tower he built must have cost a fortune, and jesus it was built fast. Swanky place though let me tell you.
- You know Light has a lot of great plans that help him, but the number one reason he lost was because he was too confident. That cocky bastard got knocked down a peg or two when Matsuda shot his ass.
- I absolutely love the shot in the finale when Light is running in the sunset right past an alternate version of himself. It’s like in those final moments he was regretting the path he decided to go down. Nothing is ever said about it directly either which makes it all the more thought provoking.
- I wonder how old Misa would have been had she not offed herself in the end? After L dies she has the remaining lifespan of Rem plus however much she has left from halving it twice after Gelus’s span was added to hers.
- After so many years, I’d have to say I really appreciate the story of Death Note. It’s a ton of fun, and I will definitely be revisiting it more often in the future.
That ends another post, my lovely wanderers of the internet! I hope you enjoyed my ramblings about the franchise of Death note. It was a ton of fun dedicating most of my month of October to delving into all the different versions of the story. I definitely prefer the anime and manga the most still though. That’s a hard thing to beat since they were the ones that set the bar so high in the first place. I’m nostalgic for both, and just enjoy them the most. I would highly recommend checking out the Japanese films though if you can. They are a nice treat. The musical and any other adaptations are really your own prerogative. If you end up watching the drama series or reading one of the novels, tell me what you think somewhere on my social medias! I’ll be checking out the spin off L film sometime soon, and with much hype since that version of L is splendid to behold. Otherwise, until we meet again my fellow wanderers, please enjoy your time on the planet, be kind to one another, and try your best not to be deleted.
If you are on a daily search for the next god of the world, then these two anime might interest you just like Death Note did so many others!