Japanese Drama Review: Death Note

written by Laurie Tom

death note live actionDeath Note is the story about Light Yagami, who discovers a notebook (the titular Death Note) that allows him to kill anyone just by writing their name inside it. It originated as a popular manga series that has been translated thus far into an anime, a series of live-action movies, and even a stage musical.

Most recently, it has become a live action TV drama series, and because the story of Death Note is known fairly well by the target audience at this point, the drama made a point to promote that it would feature a new ending.

Though Death Note the live action series is certainly watchable by those who have never experienced the original material, I think those who have either watched the anime or read the manga will get more of a charge out of it, as there are some changes made specifically to sway the expectations of those who think they know what’s coming only to throw them a curveball.

To go along with that, they make some fundamental changes to some of the characters. Light is now an easy-going college student of no notable skill level instead of the genius high schooler he is in the original. He works part-time at a restaurant and is hoping to get a decent job in civil service after graduation. Nothing crazy. Living a contented life is one of his biggest desires.

Unfortunately, he discovers the Death Note dropped by the shinigami (death god), Ryuk, which comes with instructions on how he can use it to kill people. Unlike the original Light, who takes to murder like a duck to water, the drama Light is horrified by the realization that the Death Note is no joke. It really works.

It’s only when his police detective father is taken hostage by a killer that Light intentionally uses the Death Note for the first time, to save his father’s life.

This results in a differently motivated Light than before, and while the story hits many of the same beats as the original, this Light is much more sympathetic because we can see why he chose to use the Death Note to punish the criminals the police could not stop themselves. At the same time, there are moments where making drama Light follow the manga plot doesn’t work as well because he’s a different person. You can see the show strain to justify why this nicer, more compassionate Light would justify murdering people and becoming the supernatural serial killer known as Kira.

As we know, power corrupts, and though Light is a more sympathetic character, he still slides down the slippery slope. This adds an element of tragedy that wasn’t in the original, because we can see how far Light has fallen, and that he had started down this path out of a sincere wish to make a better world.

One of the best changes from the original is the dynamic between Light and his father. Soichiro Yagami is one of the best middle-aged characters in manga. He’s devoted to both his family and his job as a police investigator, and though a supporting character, he does some pretty smart things to save the day. So I was surprised by his drama incarnation, who is much more distant and has a strained relationship with Light to the point where they are no longer close.

But even if they have difficulty talking, it’s clear that drama Soichiro still loves Light, and it makes their relationship that much more tragic as Soichiro is duty-bound to stop Kira while realizing that Kira is probably his son.

Overall, the drama condenses a lot of the manga plot, often running through a volume or two in a single hour long episode, which makes for breathless viewing, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as a filler episode. Something is always happening.

Despite all the stabs at upending the expectations of viewers already familiar with Death Note, the drama always manages to get back to the main plot, without ever completely breaking the backbone set by the manga. It might be kinder to some characters, who survive the story when they did not in the original, but even the ending was not as different as I expected.

The ending might actually be the weakest episode of the run. After the breakneck pace of the previous episodes, the last one hits the brakes with the last two-thirds happening in a single location, with a lot of ranting and talking that could have been done in half the time. While it might have been interesting if the show had ultimately gone in a different direction, the deviations from the original were not strong enough to put up with all the verbal recap of how things came to be. With some edits the final episode probably would have been fine.

I’m not sure that I would recommend Death Note the drama to people who haven’t read the manga or seen the anime since it can be a bit uneven, but for those who have it’s a strong alternate take on the story.

Number of Episodes: 11

Pluses: sympathetic protagonist, Light’s dynamic with his dad, fresh takes on same situations

Minuses: overly drawn out last episode, some plot changes seem arbitrarily done just to yank the chain of experienced viewers, can’t seem to decide how original it wants to be

Death Note is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and is available subtitled.


laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published inGalaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, andCrossed Genres.

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