'Death Note': 5 Things to Know About the Netflix Adaptation and the Original Manga

The reimagining of the cult-favorite Japanese franchise from the global streaming giant is the latest Hollywood stab at a manga adaptation, none of which has yet hit the mark.
Courtesy of Netflix
'Death Note'

The Adam Wingard-directed Death Note movie hits Netflix on Friday. The adaptation of the hit Japanese franchise based on a manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata that began its run in 2003 stars Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield and Willem Dafoe.

The story has been relocated from Japan to Seattle and the project faced the almost obligatory "whitewashing" criticism when the casting was announced.

Netflix though will likely be more concerned with whether Death Note is a hit with its subscribers or suffers the fate of other unsuccessful manga/anime adaptations such as Ghost in the Shell and Dragon Ball Z.

Early critical reaction has largely not been favorable.

Here are five things to know about the manga re-imagining:


1. What is a "Death Note"?

A Death Note is a notebook owned by a "shinigami" (Japanese death god) that causes anyone whose name is written in it — and a picture of their face to avoid mistaken identity — to die. The lifespan of the human victim is added to that of the death god, maintaining their immortality.

In the Netflix version, the book is found by Wolff's character Light Turner and summons death god Ryuk, voiced by Willem Defoe. Light and his girlfriend, played by Qualley (The Leftovers), use the book to rid the world of baddies, with Stanfield's mysterious L trying to uncover the source behind the mayhem. Although transported stateside, the main thrust of the story stays mostly faithful to the original.

2. A "whitewashing" controversy was all but guaranteed, though the original manga creators are cool with it

With the new version set in the U.S., a non-Japanese cast was all but inevitable, as was the accompanying online "whitewashing" outrage. While Ghost in the Shell could have more easily gone with a more diverse cast, a group of Japanese characters in a Seattle high school would have required some serious storyline gymnastics. As with Ghost in the Shell, fans in the U.S. seem far more concerned about the issue than those in Japan.

Both original manga writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Obata have given their blessing.

"Thanks to the beautiful imagery and the thrilling direction by Adam Wingard, the movie is a magnificent A-level thriller masterpiece. The characters are all faithful to satisfying their desires. I've always wanted to write a Death Note like this, as well," said Ohba.

"There was a high level of quality, sophistication, and attention to every detail. This is what a Hollywood Death Note movie should be. Personally, I was engrossed with the ending. In a good way, it both followed and diverged from the original work so the film can be enjoyed, of course by not only the fans, but also by a much larger and wider audience," added Obata.

The extra royalty checks from what has already been a very lucrative franchise for the two artists may have played a part in their satisfaction.

3. The director wanted to cast Bowie and Prince as the death god

The project has been in the pipeline for years, after attracting attention from multiple studios. Wingard took the project from Warner Bros. to Netflix, and while he was thinking about casting, two of the stars he wanted for death god Ryuk died, a somewhat spooky occurrence given the nature of the storyline.

"Well, as a matter of fact, David Bowie was actually originally who I wanted [to be the voice of] Ryuk — but then David Bowie died. And then the second person on my list was Prince, weirdly enough — and then he died. And I was like, we got to stop, we're literally killing them off. Which is really morbid, but it was true," Wingard told Gizmodo.

4. The manga was banned in China and linked to "copycat" crimes

School authorities in Shenyang, China, banned the manga in 2005 after students were found with imitation Death Note books in which they had written the names of classmates, enemies and teachers. The ban was later widened to major cities including Beijing and Shanghai.

Bans were also attempted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Russia, though they ultimately failed. Students from South Carolina to Sydney, Australia, found themselves in hot water after being discovered with Death Note books containing the names of students and teachers.

In Belgium in 2007, notes referencing Death Note were found near the body of a slain man; four people were arrested for his murder in 2010.

5. It’s already a massive multimedia franchise, but will Netflix develop its own?

The stand-alone editions of the original manga sold more than 30 million copies in Japan. The franchise also spawned an acclaimed 37-episode anime series, illustrated novels, a live-action TV series, video games and even a musical that played in Japan and South Korea. A series of live-action films took more than $120 million at the Japanese box office.

Wingard's film deals with the first part of the story, and the manga ran to more than 100 chapters, so there is more than enough material for further Netflix movies and/or a series. However, with Netflix seemingly more ready to can unpopular original shows recently, any further productions will probably be dependent on the success of the first movie.

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