By Emily Reuben
Netflix’s new Death Note movie has been receiving poor reviews (from top critics and Byte staff ) and a lot of negative feedback on social media; however it is unlikely that many are surprised at the negative reception. Fans of anime are used to live-action flops by now. With horrendous anime adaptions like the 2015 Attack on Titan movie in Japan and awful American examples like 2009’s Dragon Ball Evolution, the transition from an animated twenty minute episode to feature length live-action film has proven time and time again to result in failure. But why?
Japanese anime adaptions can be just as subpar (i.e. Attack on Titan) as American versions, but why do American film adaptations of anime series tend to be spectacularly bad? Case in point, Death Note. That’s right, Adam Wingard’s Death Note. I will understand if you leave the page now.
Based on the trailer alone, I think it is apparent that this version of Death Note is vastly different from the original featuring a different tone, character portrayal, and environment. So with the differences between Death Note and the anime series in mind, at what point do the Japanese customs, humor, ideologies, and culture found in anime become lost in translation when remaking a work for an American audience? Furthermore, can the cultural norms woven into Japanese narratives be effectively recrafted and reframed for western viewers? Furthermore, what about changes in filmmaking such as cinematography, music choice, and casting? Five films have been created in Japan that are based on the original manga and subsequent anime series that have been met with either positive or mixed reviews whereas the Netflix version has been received with overwhelmingly negative reviews. What makes these Japanese films less problematic than the American film?
How to adapt anime
We will get to all of that, but first it is imperative to discuss the various stages anime typically go through when being adapted. Usually a work starts as a manga, is given an anime adaption, and later at least one full-length movie if the anime is popular enough. This is complicated when other mediums are added to a franchise, but for now let’s narrow our focus on three forms anime franchises usually take: manga, anime, and film adaption.
I mentioned before that Japanese anime adaptations are typically nothing to write home about. This may be surprising considering that all of the cultural elements should remain intact in the Japanese movie, but other elements are important to consider other than underlying cultural norms. Rather than focusing on the issue of cultural elements in regards to the failure of Japanese anime movie adaptations, a more important focus is narrative and the medium of television versus film.
The televised anime format allows for both episodic (different, non-continuous plots episode after episode) and serial (a plot continuing episode after episode) styles of narrative, meaning that a story can either unfold gradually over the course of a series or feature characters that partake in new, relatively unrelated ventures on an episode-by-episode basis. While anime such as Detective Conan or Pokémon allow for viewers to jump in at any given time without much confusion, many popular anime feature a serial style of narrative with the exception of filler episodes occasionally scattered throughout the main story-arc. These narratives depend on the viewer watching each episode of a series in the order they were aired. For example, shows like Death Note, Naruto, Attack on Titan, and Tokyo Ghoul all exemplify serial formatting and require that the viewer watch from the beginning of the series.
The number of episodes in an anime or television show determine how quickly the plot must move forward. For example longer series like Monster (74 episodes) have plenty of time to develop characters, setting, and conflict in a way that shouldn’t feel too fast paced or complicated for viewers. Even the typical 10 to 20 episode anime are usually able to produce successful narratives within the series run-time. Why is this? Because of the time allotted by the television format. Instead of being confined to a one to two hour film, a television program is able to have multiple twenty-ish minute episodes. Even a short 12 episode anime adds up to approximately four hours of content. In contrast to the runtime of a typical feature film, television programming has the luxury of typically not having to cram in so much material in such a short time.
Does this mean that all anime are successful simply because they are largely made in a television format? Of course not. Even a successful 26 episode anime like Fruits Basket has been unable to take all of the content from the manga series and implement it into the anime. The original manga series consisted of 136 chapters. To make the show work, the anime creators had to end the series roughly around chapter 36 in the manga to keep the characters’ personalities intact and to refrain from rushing the story. What this tells us is that anime and television formats, while having a greater latitude with time in comparison to film, have limitations as well, especially when the added complexity of adapting a manga into anime. This means that the transition from manga to anime and anime to film is bound to result in a ton of cut content to match the format of the new media. On the flip side, trying to cram too little into too long of a series, as is the case with Blue Exorcist: Kyoto Saga which desperately tries to stretch 11 chapters of content into a 12 episode anime, slows the pacing to a near halt and is boring to watch. So in short, the medium of a work drastically impacts the narrative’s pacing. To adapt one work from one medium into another totally different medium, appropriate changes must be made to fit the needs of the new medium. Additionally, considering that animation allows for no real visual limits (except the animator’s own creativity and budgetary constraints), some anime scenes are less adaptable and simply impossible to recreate with a live-action cast. This is where rewrites and additions often come into play to make a scene more realistically adaptable for live action.
Now to be clear, being more adaptable does not translate to a good adaption; it simply means easier to recreate. To add another layer of complexity, anime adaptions made outside of Japan go through more difficulties in taking an Asian story and characters and making these concepts appealing to westerners unfamiliar with other cultures. So with this brief overview of narrative structures and switching mediums out of the way, we can begin looking more closely at why anime adaptations, specifically Death Note, simply don’t work.
Turner vs Yagami; West vs East
Finally I can move onto Netflix’s tragic release. To me, Death Note is a strange movie; it is more of a reimagining than an adaption of the original. In theory this should have allowed for more creative freedom, but there are a few crucial flaws that keeps Death Note from breaking free of the source material’s shadow: the inability to craft a more relatable narrative for western viewers around meaningful characters.
Japan is what is known as a collectivist society. In a collectivist society, the needs to the society come before the needs of the individual. Basically, Japan prioritizes the needs faced by Japan collectively (healthcare, economics, Japan’s appearance to foreign countries, education) over the needs of the individual (wants or desires). Individuals in a collectivist society that value their individualism over the needs of the society are often met with negative reception. In regards to Death Note, the presence of a killer that wants to rid the world of evil for the betterment of society is a collectivist ideal; the individuals causing the problems for the collective society are punished. However, by placing himself above everyone else in an attempt at reaching godhood, Light shows that those who break from society, even with good intentions, end up making themselves worse off in the end.
America, by contrast, is an individualistic society. American ideals value the liberties and freedoms of individuals to live the way their lives see fit. Because of this difference from Japanese culture, Light (and by extension Kira) does not align with typical American ideals. To remedy this, the Netflix iteration changed Light from a self-proclaimed martyr for Japanese society to a rebellious vigilante who wants to circumvent the rules, because the rules are dumb. The American Light values his individual needs first and foremost representing an American narrative.
This change would be commendable if the resultant focus on the individual didn’t come off as an accident relying on the trope of the bullied kid out for revenge. There are virtually no other elements present in the story that point to a conscious change in theme to better represent the American setting of the film. In an attempt to keep audiences from being alienated by Japanese views, Netflix’s Death Note, unintentionally, becomes relatable to no one.
Let’s talk about whitewashing
When changing the target audience and narrative structure from the original Death Note, it would make sense to craft new characters, based loosely around those from the manga and anime, to match the new narrative structure. Instead director Adam Wingard Americanized the existing characters by erasing the Japanese character traits and substituting them with more western attributes, but this was a poor decision and a massive oversight. By changing these characters of Japanese nationality to white Americans, the show creators have made the implicit statement that American representation is whiteness. Instead of giving Japanese Americans these roles, they were simply crafted into white stereotypes. The character L is a more complicated issue, seeing as his actor is black whereas the original character of L was not. This, while not exactly whitewashing, still deprives Japanese Americans being cast as Asian characters. The PBS Idea Channel’s video “Why Doesn’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?” further explains the operant issue here known as Asian Erasure.
In this video, CGQ Editor Kevin Nguyen asserts that in American media “…Asian Americans just haven’t really been present. There still aren’t a lot of Asian movie stars. You still don’t really see a lot of Asian men and women in tv and music. You know some are there, but the reality is that you know, we’ve largely been cut out of the picture.”
So Asian Americans are not only underrepresented, they are denied representation in works that depict their own culture.
“But wait!” You might declare. “A lot of people in Japan like the American portrayals of Japanese characters.”
Well you wouldn’t be wrong. Japanese response to Scarlett Johansson’s character in Ghost in the Shell seemed relatively positive. However, Kevin Nguyen addresses the complexity of this issue:
“You know, there was a great Youtube video where someone asked when Scar Jo was announced…a bunch of people in Japan if they cared about it, and they don’t because Asian representation is not a problem in Japanese films because they’re predominately cast with Japanese people. I think whitewashing is particular to America in a lot of ways where the Asian American experience is not represented in any major media…so it’s always funny where they try and get like ‘oh the real Asians over there have given us their blessing’. And that’s an extremely disingenuous and, at worst, insidious way of diminishing charges of whitewashing.”
Japanese Americans are not able to see themselves reflected in most American media; Japanese people in Japan see themselves reflected constantly. Japanese people living in Japan are far less likely to feel as if their culture is being covered up when they live in a culturally homogenous society that portray the dominant group of people constantly. When roles are taken away from Japanese Americans, a group already given extremely few opportunities for portrayal, the issue becomes extremely problematic. By failing to create both legitimately original characters (not just changing last names) and hiring a more diverse Japanese cast, Death Note adds to the problem of Asian erasure.
With these concepts in mind, let’s answer one of the initial questions posed above: why do the Japanese Death Note appear more favorable to viewers?
Putting aside cinematography and writing, the Japanese Death Note films not only follow the original narrative more closely; they were derived from a Japanese story made by Japanese filmmakers for a Japanese audience. Because of this, many of the narrative devices and character traits were allowed to remain intact. There was less of a concern regarding if Japanese audiences would resonate with the characters.
In the end, not all western anime adaptions have to fail, but they often do due to poor execution and judgement. Often what makes a series so beloved are the elements that American directors try to do away with to appeal to the western crowd. We can only hope that one day Hollywood will learn that there is a reason anime is popular and not feel the need to add an American fingerprint on everything that comes to our shore from Japan.
But don’t hold your breath; Death Note may be getting a sequel.
Emily is a Telecommunications (Film and Media Studies) major minoring in Japanese and Professional Writing in Emerging Media. Her review Netflix’s ‘Death Note’ grossly misunderstands why the original was a success and her feature article Studying Abroad in Japan: The weebs are wrong won honorable mentions in the CSPA journalism awards categories for Entertainment Reviews and First Person Experiences. She is the 2018-2019 host for the Input 2 podcast. In the past, Emily has interned at WFYI Indianapolis as a Production Intern and studied abroad in Japan.