Your Brain on Toons- Death Note: Live Action TV Series V.S. Manga

So needless to say, I’m a pretty big Death Note fan. The manga was one of the first I ever really got into during middle school and its ability to deliver increasingly complex schemes appealed to me. Over the years though, there have been various retellings and side-stories about it, with everything from an anime, two-live action movies and multiple novels. The live-action series that just recently wrapped up its run is the latest incarnation, and while it’s narrative-wise pretty similar to the original series, thematically it’s quite different. So much so in fact, that I thought just doing a straight up review wouldn’t be enough so instead I thought it would be better to do a more direct comparison between it and the manga storyline.

Drama v.s. Thriller

Alright so let’s make this clear right off the bat: this version isn’t really a thriller like the original was. It certainly portrays the appearance of one and manages to be genuinely suspenseful every now and then (though it’s internal logic isn’t quite as polished as the original’s), but for the most part that’s not its real objective. In fact, it’s typically at its weakest whenever it’s playing the manga material straight, both because most viewers likely already know the end result, and because it doesn’t mesh too well with what this adaption’s trying to do.

Instead (in case the title Death Note: Drama didn’t didn’t make it obvious enough) this version goes more for well…straight-up drama. Particularly in that it’s much more interested in the moral implications of Light’s self-proclaimed crusade than anything else. In a lot of ways, I actually prefer this angle. The original manga story could be genuinely dramatic at times and occasionally insightful, but for the most part it was never seriously aspiring to be anything more than a well-written thriller. There’s nothing really wrong with that of course, but the amount of things that can be done with a more dramatic version of the story are pretty boundless, so it’s nice to see a version that seriously attempts to take on that. Now let’s get to the other obvious difference here: character portrayals. Though since Light’s is obviously the most significant, I’ll save talking about him for last.

Father and Son

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One of the most immediate notable differences in this version as compared to the manga is its usage of Light’s father, Soichiro. In the manga, Soichiro more or less existed as a convenient way to realistically tie Light to the police department and thus make it  easier for him to play them from within. Due to that, the relationship between him and Light was never really touched on much, and whenever it did come up, he, much as any parent would, steadfastly believed in his son’s innocence throughout the entire story. Thanks to that, he was one of the few characters to die somewhat happily, as he remained blissfully unaware of the truth even in his final moments. The version of Soichiro in the drama however, isn’t quite so fortunate.

In this version, the two have a much more…complicated relationship to say the least. Growing up, Light admired his dad for his police work and wanted to be like him, but at the same time resents him for not being there when his mother passed away, causing a strain between them. Thus when this incarnation of Light becomes Kira, not only does Soichiro harbor more serious doubts about his son’s innocence, but he feels that he might have been responsible for Light’s transformation in the first place. Partially because he literally is (we’ll get into that later) and also because Light feels his brand of “justice” isn’t so different from Soichiro’s. This ultimately ends in tragedy as once he knows the truth for certain, Soichiro is unable to live with the guilt of causing his son to become a monster, and tries to use his death as a means to convince Light to turn away from the path he’s headed down. Though unfortunately for him, not only does he fail, but he actually ends up driving Light even further over the edge. The new take on this relationship is one of the strongest highlights of this adaption and it plays really well towards it’s more tragic perspective.

The Minions of Evil

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Light’s relationship with his followers is also fairly different here, though it’s not quite as significant a change as you might expect. Like with a lot of things from the manga, Misa and Mikami’s backstories more or less just existed to give them a reasonable excuse to follow Light and didn’t really serve much to their characterization beyond that. It’s not a whole lot different here, but the connection at least feels a bit more personal.

This is especially so in Misa’s case as Light is much more directly involved in her path to becoming the second Kira in this version. Mikami less so, but by having him interact face-to-face with Light as opposed to their relationship in the manga where they only met at the end, his insane sense of loyalty feels a bit more believable and it’s partially thanks to it that his part in Light’s downfall is less of the deciding factor for it. On the downside though, this version of Misa is somehow even dumber than her manga counterpart if you can believe it, and it’s weird because this take on the story doesn’t really seem to carry anything similar to the authors’ transparent spite towards women otherwise (the other major female character is actually quite proactive in the last few episodes). Maybe they felt people would complain if she was too different? I don’t know, but this is one aspect where I definitely feel the drama could have done better differentiating itself.

L’s Successor(s)

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Going back to big changes, another of the larger ones is in the characterization of Near and Mello. Well saying Near AND Mello isn’t exactly being accurate in this instance since they’re one in the same here. Quite literally so in fact as Mello is nothing more than Near’s split personality in this version, with the most you ever see of his original character design being Near’s actual puppet (the meta-jokes you could make here are endless). In the original story they were introduced as last minute stand-ins for L after his death, (though exactly how last minute is rather debatable since I’ve never really believed that whole thing you hear in forums about the editors pushing those characters on the authors) which was something that was met with a lot of…backlash to say the least.

Thankfully this incarnation avoids that issue by introducing them right off the bat weaving them into L’s endgame relatively quickly. The core basics of their personalities remain the same with Near being calm and rational v.s. Mello being impulsive and brash, though by combining them into one entity, it makes their actions a bit harder to predict, and most notably so during the show’s final gambit. Sadly though, for as much as it’s built up the show never really does too much with the split personality thing aside from suspense, but what it does do well is the one thing the manga couldn’t: giving Near an actual relationship with L. It makes his investment in avenging L’s death feel way more genuine because we actually get to see first hand how much he respects him and thus his defeat of Light feels a lot more satisfying as far as his character’s concerned, even if it’s more L’s victory than his

The Two Faces of L

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Speaking of L, it’s time to start digging into our two poster boys for this franchise (well three if you count Ryuk). When I first came into this adaption, I was pretty intrigued about the interpretation of L it decided to take. In the manga, L generally comes off as something of an enigma. He’s very good at analyzing people on a rational level, but it’s difficult to ever get a read on how he ever truly feels about anything because he keeps up almost as much of a facade about them as Light does. Even his supposed “friendship” with Light was as much a deception on his part as it was on the latter as he was always scheming to have him exposed  and thus made for an interesting parallel between the two.

In comparison, this version is a lot more flamboyant and brutally honest about his thoughts, which ironically enough, actually makes him seem more villainous. He’s much more openly manipulative of others than his manga counterpart, and a better planner to the point where he ends up being the actual mastermind of the show (I don’t think manga-L would have literally had things worked out from beyond the grave). However it’s that same bluntness that makes his relationship with Light more interesting since there actually is some genuine sentiment behind that friendship proposal.

While he still pretty clearly suspects Light and tries to apprehend him, he also really wants to believe that Light is as good a guy as he seems to be. It makes both their final scene together and the actual final scene of the series particularly poignant, as he carried that wish right through to the end in spite of its unlikelihood and the fact that it literally destroys him. Unfortunately while I like the idea, I can’t say the execution behind this perspective is as smooth as I’d have liked, as making L’s less noble traits more transparent also means that its a little harder to feel like he means it when he says he respects Light, even if the narrative is seriously pointing things that way. In truth, I’d almost have an easier time believing manga-L on it since he was a lot better about giving off that image even when you knew he was lying through his teeth. Can certainly give this a few points for trying though since it mostly does the job, and if nothing else, L trolling from beyond the grave at least makes for some good entertainment.

The Tragedy of Light Yagami

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At last we arrive at our protagonist, and to no one’s surprise, his changes are definitely the biggest attraction of this adaption. You see, for years I’ve heard the argument that “Light Yagami is a tragic character” as a way to somehow sympathize with his madness and frankly its always been  a load of baloney to me. While there’s no disputing he was corrupted by the Death Note, Light never really came off as anything more than an unrepentant monster in the original story. From the moment we first meet the guy, he’s something of a sociopath, and what little good intentions he started out gave way to his ego and insatiable desire for godhood almost immediately. As such, by the time we get to Light’s downfall at the end of the manga, it’s extremely satisfying because we’ve spent so much time seeing what monstrous lengths he’ll go to in order to ensure his reign and it’s so downright karmic that any ambiguity as to if you should be rooting for him to meet a horrible end or not is pretty much non-existent. The Light of this story however, may in fact be the best attempt at making that tragedy argument actually work.

Unlike the manga where he’s Kira almost right off the bat, we spend quite a bit of time with Light in the live-action series before he begins his mission. His actual start in this version is also notably different as he doesn’t just test the notebook on a couple of people before deciding to go right off the deep end and start a worldwide crusade. Instead he’s put in a few situations where he actually has to use the notebook to save people, and most notably his father. Thanks to that, despite his initial turmoil over the moral implications of becoming a murderer, he has a much more steadfast belief in his cause than his manga counterpart and that’s fueled further the more he continues doing it. To be honest, this more “heroic” portrayal of his character had me as worried as it did intrigued at first, since I was afraid this version might back out of actually condemning Light for his crimes in favor of a more traditional anti-hero angle. Thankfully though, it turns out to be quite the opposite.

While his start is different, it doesn’t take too long for live-action Light to “evolve”  into his original characterization, and when he does it makes for a much starker contrast between who he started out as v.s. what he eventually became (though admittedly not as smoothly a transition as I would have liked). When we revisit Light’s “normal” persona in this version’s Yotsuba arc, there actually is a notable difference in personality between that and his Kira one (as opposed to the manga where aside from not being overtly sexist and openly willing to act on mass murder, he was pretty much the same) and it makes his return to the Kira persona all the more horrifying because the Death Note’s corruption of his soul is much clearer.

As time goes on, Light abandons his morality more and more in order to achieve his goals, eventually culminating in him causing his father’s death, despite his initial motivation being to prevent that in first place. While manga-Light reached the point of no return extremely early on in the story, for him in this version, this is the point where any sense of heroism he might have had is completely thrown out the window, and it makes his eventual fate(which coincidentally is even more brutal in this adaption) actually somewhat sad, because we get a much stronger sense of just how far he’s fallen. In this story, Light doesn’t start as a monster, he becomes one(which Ryuk is kind enough to highlight in case anyone somehow misses the message), and that for me makes a much stronger argument of the tragedy angle while also making it fairly clear that it was, in fact, the primary goal of this version all along.

Final Thoughts

So which version works better overall? Well it’s kind of hard to compare a tightly scripted thriller, to a solid, if relatively flawed, tragedy so it partially depends on how forgiving you’re willing to be about said flaws for the latter. Especially since while it certainly takes several opportunities to address some of the manga’s occasional leaps in logic (sorry Light, no FBI agents dumb enough to give you a real ID this time) it also makes a few of it’s own that are hard to ignore and doesn’t quite have the genuine level of camp the original does to give them an easier pass. Still, if you’re willing to overlook that in favor of getting a more emotionally insightful story then it’s certainly worth a look. I’m not sure how much I can outright recommend this version on it’s own since I’m too intimately familiar with the manga not to have some sense of bias towards it, but at the very least this makes for an interesting companion piece to the original story, and one that offers a take I think the franchise ultimately needed.

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