Before someone I know gets on here and starts shouting about how I’m not allowed to talk about this movie because I “hate anime,” I’ll just be up front and tell you a not-so-secret secret of mine: I hate anime (for the most part). It’s not going to stop me from ranting about whatever the hell Netflix is now streaming under the same name as the immensely popular anime series from the mid-2000s.
I think here, I ought to take a few moments to explain why I tend to passionately dislike anime. If you’ve read my reviews in the past, then you know I can be particularly picky. To make a long story short, I have some serious pet-peeves when it comes to stories, and, from my perspective, anime has gone out of its way to make those pet-peeves central. For clarification, I’m not saying that these things are true for all anime, but they are true for every anime that I’ve tried to watch. It all basically comes down to storytelling. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not that I always think the stories themselves are bad, it’s the way they are told that I can’t stand. So, here they are, my two biggest (yes, that means I have more than just two) issues with anime. WARNING: if you are a fan of anime in general and are just here for the part about Death Note, then I would advise you to skip over this portion of the review.
Issue #1: Rules Without Meaning
One thing I can’t stand is when a world has hundreds of rules that don’t serve any purpose other than to make things more contrived for the story’s characters. These rules seek to make the world more complex and “cool,” but are never explored or given meaning; they provide answers to “what” or “how” questions, but never bothered to ask themselves “why.” Death Note provides a great example of this because it’s a story whose rules create are central to the plot. At the risk of sounding picky, I’ll provide an example: one of the rules in Death Note is that a person will die of a heart-attack precisely 40 seconds after their name is written in the book if the exact time and cause is not specified by the writer. There is no significance to the 40 seconds or the cause, that’s just the way it works. To counter, we’ll take a look at a movie that follows a somewhat similar concept, The Ring. In this movie, the key rule is that a person will die by drowning (no matter their location) 7 days after watching a haunted video tape. However, in contrast to Death Note, the rule is given meaning when it is learned that the entity haunting the video tape survived for 7 days after being thrown down a well by her very kind and loving parents.
Okay, maybe I’m being a tad picky?… maybe. Would I be satisfied if the rule was simply “write someone’s name and *poof* they die?” Probably not. BUT, that doesn’t change the fact that the series goes out of its way to spell out rules that aren’t even used in the story! And I have proof! On the ninth page of the “How to Use It” rules, the only two rules that appear are as follows: “1. The Death Note will not affect those under 780 days old 2. The Death Note will be rendered useless if the victim’s name is misspelled four times.” There are precisely 0 characters under 780 days old in the entire series, and a character’s name is never misspelled (aliases don’t count). So what purpose do these two rules serve? You could BS me an answer like “that’s why no infants are ever killed in the show,” but the real answer is that there isn’t one. Also, I promise you that these are not the only two examples from this one show that I could find.
I do want to say that I understand why anime and other stories do this. It makes it easier for the viewer to put themselves in the situation if there are tons of rules without meaning. This way, the viewer’s attention is grabbed early on by being presented with a “what would you do if x” question. The central character is easy to replace with yourself when they’re still being shown the ropes and learning all the rules. This technique is everywhere if you look for it. Think about the The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry isn’t even a character for the first half of the movie (you could say this for the entire movie, but I’m being generous today) because he’s being introduced to this new world in the same way you are; he’s an empty vessel for the viewer to place his/herself into.
Issue #2: Freeze-Frames
Look, I know that expository and expositional dialogue/narration is inevitable when you’re world building, but Jesus does anime go overboard with this technique. I’ve never seen an anime where internal dialogue wasn’t one of the most important aspects of the series/film. If you watch it, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. There are so many other ways to imply internal conflict than showing a character in super close-up while they narrate their thoughts. To me, this just spells out lazy character development; I should be able to know a character’s thoughts just by seeing their reactions. One of the worst perpetrators of this pet-peeve of mine is Attack on Titan, which is just one of the many anime shows that I gave up on watching. In almost every episode, it seemed that there would be several scenes that play exactly like this: something important is stated or asked, the scene freezes, a close-up of the main character is shown, main character internally repeats to themselves whatever was just said/asked, main character mentally presents a 10-page essay on the pros and cons of each of their next potential actions while other characters’ faces are shown in super close-up as they await his response. OR, even worse, the main characters imply that they have a plan and begin to execute it before the viewers know what the plan is. Rather than letting the characters just do their thing and allow the audience to figure out the plan for themselves, HERE COMES ANOTHER GODDAMN FREEZE FRAME where the plan is explained to you by the character most impressed by the plan before it’s actually executed.
I can’t even come up with an excuse for why this exists. Are there really people out there that want everything they see explained to them prior to the event actually happening? There must be, because this technique exists for reasons I know not.
Death Note: The Netflix Original
A few of my anime-watching friends have told me in the past that Death Note is a series that I should give a try because they thought it would be “right up my alley.” Externally, I would have probably smiled, nodded, and said something like, “okay, maybe I’ll give it a shot,” knowing full and well that I would not actually be going anywhere near it. Prior to the release of Netflix’s new original film, the only experience I had with Death Note were a handful of the aforementioned encounters and a few posts on social media about how hyped fans were for the live-action adaptation to come out.
Enter me browsing Netflix earlier this week because I was bored. I caught a glance of Willem Dafoe’s name as I browsed through the “Recently Added” section. Willem Dafoe voicing a demon that coaxes a guy into using a book that can kill people without ever connecting him to their death? Okay, now I’m interested. Surely, the company that produced Stranger Things can create something worth watching with a concept like this. It was like everything else I had seen Netflix produce up to that point had suddenly vanished from my mind. Those memories came flooding back not even five minutes after hitting the play button.
If I typically “hate” anime, then there isn’t a word to describe how I feel about this type of movie. I’d sooner watch The Emoji Movie (for free, of course) than subject myself to a story about an awkward high-schooler trying to win over the girl he stalks. But this isn’t just any high-school romance flick! Oh no, in this one, the guy decides that the best way to win the girl’s heart is by MURDERING PEOPLE. AND IT FUCKING WORKS. Yeah, Netflix, the best way to bounce back from the PR backlash you got for 13 Reasons Why was totally to put out a movie that encourages kids to start finding ways kill each other in ways that look like accidents.
“Hello, attractive girl I have never talked to because I don’t know how to interact with normal humans. I want to share my feelings for you, and I hope that presenting you with this list of all the people whose deaths I am personally responsible for will result in the reciprocation of said feelings. Isn’t that neat?” That quote might as well be a scene in this movie, I kid you not.
In short, the writing is worse than crap, it has no idea what tone it wants to set, the characters are cardboard cutouts of every high-school story ever, the acting is sub-par for the most part, and the visuals are decent but don’t come close to making up for the torture that the rest of the film puts you through. I couldn’t even finish the movie the first time I tried to watch it. I turned it off and I began the first episode of the original series for comparison. I’d give the Netflix original film a solid 4.3/10… really stellar job there, Netflix.
Death Note: The Original Animated Series
For the sake of time, I’ll make this part short and sweet. Without any doubt in my mind, Death Note was the most enjoyable experience I have ever had watching an anime series from start to finish (because it’s rare that I ever get to the end). My friends were right, it is right up my alley. While the main character is 18 at the start of the series, high-school is merely a location rather than a key setting in the story. The real backbone of this story comes from the clashing of its two primary characters: Light, the notebook wielding villain who aspires to be worshiped as a god in his “new world,” and L, the eccentric but genius detective that devotes his life to trying to find proof that Light is the one behind all of these mysterious deaths. While it is sometimes difficult to accept how young these two characters are, it doesn’t take away from how tense and exciting their “mind battles” are to watch. The series also pays careful attention to its themes, but won’t bash you over the head with them; they are there for you to dig up and explore, which is more thematically mature than I’ve ever seen from an animated series, anime or otherwise.
Yes, I do believe that the series suffers from a few “quirks” that seem to be unique to the world of anime, but those became easy for me to ignore as I got more involved in the series. I also want to applaud the series for its numerous “cinematic moments.” The art of this series is great to watch, and it will often flaunt itself. Many of these moments are my favorite from the series.
Overall, I’d actually recommend Death Note to anyone that won’t thumb their nose and scoff as soon as they hear the inevitable Japanese pop-rock intro. I honestly believe that a decent Fincher/Nolan styled film could be adapted from the series. Unfortunately, Netflix may have ruined those chances for everyone. I give the anime series a 7/10.