Deathnote Signs Its Own Name


A bit like Malkovich entering his own brain…

It may sound morbid, but “Death Note” is one of my favorite stories. I’ve experienced it in every form: the manga, the anime series, and the Japanese live action movie. I was excited to see the American movie version, a Netflix production, so I watched as soon as it was available. I was gravely disappointed within the first five minutes.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Deathnote is based on a manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. Shortly before his high school graduation, Light Yagami finds a magical notebook labeled “Death Note.” It’s a supernatural prank by a shinigami (Japanese “death god”) named Ryuk. The book’s instructions say that anyone whose name is written within will die, at the time and by the method specified. Ryuk (a Joker-like winged demon in Goth attire) appears and encourages Light to try it out. Light tests the notebook by writing the name of a hostage-taker from the evening news. The criminal drops dead. Light decides he’s been chosen to rid the world of evil-doers.

This power, even in the hands of an upstanding young genius like Light is an insidious thing. It takes him down a dark path much like Walter White in Breaking Bad. Eventually, the media notices the mysterious deaths and dubs the anonymous executioner “Kira” for “killer.” To the public, he’s a vigilante hero while the authorities view him as an existential threat.

This theme of hubris and corruption plays out through 12 volumes of manga and 37 episodes in the anime adaptation by Madhouse. One of its most popular aspects was the game of wits between Light and “L,” the autistic savant teenage detective the authorities hire to stop Light’s reign of terror. Some viewers felt the show drags in the final season as Light eliminates the investigators one by one, sparing only the police chief, who happens to be his own father. I disagree. The latter episodes are as intense as the early ones. You can feel the desperation of the police as they face down Kira’s supernatural power.

Just as the smash-hit anime series was drawing to a close, Japanese director Shūsuke Kaneko converted Death Note into a pair of live-action movies. Because of the time limitation, he shortened and rearranged the story. Though purists hated these changes, I felt that the movies stayed true to the spirit of the original. Casting was superb, especially with Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama as Light and the eccentric candy-devouring L, respectively. (By the way, Matsuyama appears in an alleged sequel, L– Change the World, with Matsuyama as L in one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.)

Death Note characters Light and L

Three Versions of Light versus L

Not so for the Netflix remake directed by Adam Wingard, which makes far more significant changes. Rather than being a “goody two shoes” from an upper-class family, Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff) is a rebel with a tragic backstory. His mother was killed by a criminal who escaped justice, predisposing him to a vigilante mindset. Though he’s smart, he’s already dishonest and gets caught selling homework to his classmates. Apparently, the American script writers thought it needed “girl power.” In this new version, Light’s girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), a clueless pawn in the original, becomes Light’s co-conspirator right from the start. She’s the one who insists on killing the FBI agents who threaten Kira, while the American Light (unlike his ruthless Japanese counterpart) refuses to do so. These changes confuse and muddle Death Note’s message. Worse yet, there’s no time for the famous sparring between Light and L. Early in the movie, L confronts Light at a coffee shop, saying, “I know you’re Kira.” How? What investigation has he done? Even the ending has major changes. I won’t spoil it, except to say there’s a lot less death in this Death Note.

That said, there are some good points. I enjoyed Willem Dafoe as the voice of Ryuk, though the new CGI rendering makes him more of a demon than the trickster he was in the original. Lakeith Stanfield was also excellent as the eccentric “L,” though the script has him acting out of character at the end. I also must admit that the final plot twist surprised me, perhaps because my expectations had dropped so low.

To summarize, if you’ve seen the original Death Note, you might want to skip this train wreck of a remake. If not, you might not necessarily hate this version, but please don’t judge the rest of the franchise by it.

Note: While researching this article I became aware of a second Japanese live-action Death Note sequel called Death Note: Light Up the New World, directed by Shinsuke Sato. With some trepidation, I plan to see this one as soon as I can.

Vaughn & Arlys’ Top Ten Anime Picks

Above, the SOS Brigade with Haruhi Suzumiya.

They say television is a wasteland, and although things have improved with cable series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, it’s no secret that America’s entertainment industry gets much of its inspiration from foreign sources. TV executives in America are risk-averse and will always back a proven money maker over an untested concept. Not so in Japan, where a burgeoning animation industry produces dozens of new quality series per year, a significant portion of which are aimed at adults. My son Lowell, who is now in college, got us hooked in Japanese animation, popularly called anime, and over the last five years we’ve watched at least 40 complete series. Below I’ve listed some of our favorites, with brief summaries for the benefit of the uninitiated.

None of the shows in our list are “kid’s” cartoons, and nothing in our list would be appropriate for young children but most would be fine for teenagers. I’ve deliberately omitted any feature-length movies, and we avoid the super-popular teen series such as Bleach or Fruits Basket. Nonetheless, most of our picks are relatively popular within anime fandom. All ten of them happen to be science fiction or fantasy, though there is quality content in every genre.

Most of these shows were derived from manga (the Japanese term for a graphic novel) though neither us have read many of those. We prefer to watch these shows (and, for that matter, all foreign films) with subtitles. After watching a few episodes with English-language dubbing, we decided that the subtitles seem to be better capture the writer’s original meanings, as well as the subtleties of Japanese culture. This glimpse into Japanese life, as well as their view of Western society, is fascinating as well as entertaining.

Here they are, listed in Letterman-style reverse order.

10. Black Butler (2008-2009) – Set in Victorian London, this show’s protagonists are the wealthy orphan Ciel Phantomhive and his guardian/butler Sebastian, who is secretly a demon in human form. My son derides this as a “teenage girl” series but nonetheless it fits our preference for the dark and quirky. The show mixes elements of horror and the supernatural with the slapstick comedy of the manor’s bumbling servants. The intense devotion of Sebastian (his favorite tag-line: “I’m one hell of a butler”) for the angry, brooding Ciel borders on creepiness. Perhaps reading the manga would clarify their relationship.

9. Steins;Gate [sic] (2011) – A sci-fi series based on a visual novel/game that was later made into a manga. It involves a group of teenagers/young adults who stumble upon an ingenious way to alter the past, by inventing a device that let them to send text messages to their previous selves. Much of the story arc revolves around the tragic death of innocent young Mayushii and her friend Okarin’s dogged determination to undo that event. With every attempt he makes, his interventions in the time line have further unintended consequences.

8. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) – This seems at first like the typical “slice of life” high school comedy until we realize that the title character, a bright but domineering teenage girl, unknowingly possesses godlike powers over time and space. Upon arriving at her new school, she forms a social club called (for no particular reason) the “SOS Brigade.” Unknown to her, the other club members have been tasked by mysterious entities to keep her happy, so that she won’t accidentally destroy the universe in a fit of temper. The protagonist, the long-suffering Kyon, complains constantly but secretly enjoys his newly interesting life. He is the only member of the club without an extraordinary power of some sort. The show combines adventure, interpersonal drama and humor in a very entertaining mix . The writers make some very interesting choices with the story arc.

7. Bakemonogatari (Ghost Story) (2009) – Translated literally, the name means “monster story.” This is the first of a collection of anime series starring a high school boy named Koyomi Araragi, who was recently turned into a vampire and then “cured,” though her retains some supernatural abilities. The story line revolves around Araragi’s relationships with the many females in his life, including his two sisters, several classmates, the ghost of a middle schooler, and a blonde vampire woman who ages in reverse. All have some mysterious curse to overcome, though some of these maladies don’t come to light until the later series. It’s visually superb, very quirky, and occasionally erotic, though at times the pace bogs down under excessive dialog. The sequels (all with names ending in -gatarai) are also interesting but unfortunately the talkiness increases. This first one is definitely the best.

6. XXXHolic (2006) – Though the name represents a generic term for addiction (alcoholic, shopaholic) such obsessive behavior is not the primary focus of the show. The protagonist is Watanuki, a teenage boy who lives alone, having lost his parents. His curse is his ability to see the invisible spirits (nature spirits, not ghosts) that populate the modern world. While searching for a cure, he comes into the service of Yuko, a mysterious, sultry “witch” who helps clients with psychological problems. When not dishing out advice, Yuko lounges around the house in a kimono, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and constantly ordering Watanuki around. The characters (which include Yuko’s familiars, two creepy “spirit” girls and a talking rabbit-like creature) have many amusing and sometimes harrowing interactions with the supernatural world of Japanese folklore.

5. Uchouten Kazoku (2013) Translated as “Eccentric Family,” this is probably the most obscure entry in our list. This show is a gem that combines comedy and tragedy in a story line that is surprisingly moving. The primary characters are the Shimogamo family, a dysfunctional clan of tanuki, or “raccoon dogs,” animals who according to Japanese folklore have the ability to shape-shift and live in human society posing as people. The show focuses on Yasaburou, the family’s third-eldest son. His father, formerly head of all the tanuki clans in Kyoto, has died tragically, having been made into hot pot and eaten by humans in a New Years’ celebration. Other magical characters include the Shimogamos’ tutor, a tengu (bird man) called Professor Akadama, and his selfish, manipulative human girlfriend Benten. The show features some interesting gender-bending as the fun-loving Yasaburou, when in human form, likes to switch between male and female identities.

4. Attack on Titan (2009) In Japanese it’s called Shingeki no Kyojin, which means “Advancing Giants,” which is far more appropriate than the English title. Set in the distant future, the last remnants of humanity live in a multi-walled city. Here they take refuge from the Titans, giant mindless humanoid monsters who roam the earth, gobbling humans whole. In the initial episode, an extra-titanic titan breaches the outer wall, allowing the monsters to pour in. The city’s military mobilizes to drive back the creatures and save the human race. The show’s heroes are three teenagers – Eren, Mikasa, and Armin – who enlist in the Survey Corps, the first line of defense against the titans. Having no heavy artillery, the humans must kill these monsters by stabbing them in the back of the neck. Each corpsman wears a harness connected to a series of tethers and pulleys, which allows them to swing from trees and rooftops and maneuver high enough to make the kill. Some anime conventions have rated it 18+ due to violence, though I feel that in its fantasy setting it’s really no worse than Lord of the Rings. Attack has spawned a booming costume business. The tan and white Survey Corps uniforms are very popular at anime conventions. Though we fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel, its release date keeps getting pushed back.

3. Psycho-Pass (2012-2013) – This is set in a futuristic dystopian Japan ruled by an all-powerful networked computer system called Sybil. The rule of law has been replaced by a police state which constantly monitors the mental health of all citizens. The “psycho-pass” is an identification document which changes color to reflect the bearer’s mental state. The show features a unit of the police agency charged with apprehending (and in extreme cases, terminating) anyone whose “psycho pass” shows mental distress exceeding the legal limits. The heroine is the rookie cop Akane Tsunemori, a strong and complex female character who, contrary to anime convention, is not overly sexified.

2. Death Note (2006-2007) – Here’s another mega-popular show that’s been a long-time favorite for conventions and cosplayers. If one disregards the supernatural premise, it’s a crime drama that pits an eccentric detective against a brilliant villain. Death Note considers the question of what happens when a good person acquires absolute power. “Light” Yagami, Japan’s top honor student, finds a mystical notebook (intentionally abandoned by a shinigami, or “death god”) that grants him the power to kill anyone he wishes. All he needs to do is write the name in the notebook along with the cause of death, while keeping the person’s face in his mind (to eliminate the issue of duplicate names.) Light begins with the goal of ridding the world of violent criminals, but at this power goes to his head, his criteria for execution grow ever less stringent. As the police close in on him, he abandons all his former principles, using the notebook to eliminate anyone who threatens to apprehend him.

1. Cowboy Be-bop (1997-1998) – The oldest show in our list is a consistent favorite with anime fans. It’s a space opera series in which the “cowboys” (bounty hunters) Spike Spiegel and Jet Black pursue interplanetary fugitives to a classic jazz soundtrack. During their travels they accumulate a crew of oddballs and misfits, including Faye, a gypsy woman who’s awakened from 50 years in cryo-sleep, Ein, a corgi fitted with electronic implants for smuggling information, and Edward, a genius-hacker kid who has made her escape from the devastated planet Earth. Be-bop endured for just one season, but it has held its fans’ attention for far longer than that.

Bonus: one we’ve barely started:

Arly’s son David recently turned us on to Paranoia Agent (2004), another dark and quirky series that we’ve only just begun watching. A pre-teen boy known as “Lil’ Slugger” skates around on Rollerblades and attacks random people with an aluminum bat. The series appears to focus not on Slugger but his victims and how the “blow to the head” changes their lives. (And no, this isn’t a Will Smith “Concussion” drama.)


Attack on Titan

At the 2013 Saboten Con, which was held here in the Phoenix area, we all heard a lot of buzz about a new anime called Attack on Titan. The show’s popularity was obvious from the full conference room for the panel discussion on the upcoming season. There were also showings of the actual episodes, which were restricted to 18+, supposedly due to graphic violence, so I was unable to attend with my son. Intrigued by all the fuss, I vowed to check it out.

The first thing I realized was that the title is a mistranslation. There’s no place called Titan (certainly not the famous moon of Saturn) being attacked. Instead, there are beings called titans which attack humans, and are attacked in return. So it should either be Attack of the Titans or Attack on the Titans. Like a lot of anime, this show was based on a manga, which was also released as a light novel.

Secondly, the claim of graphic violence was a gross exaggeration; I would rate it a PG-13. True, people get eaten by titans, but this is typically shown from a distance. As such, it’s no more violent than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in which people were eaten by giants and monsters all the time. The one possible exception was a flashback scene in which the main protagonist, at the age of 9, uses deadly force to rescue a friend from murderous human traffickers. Yet surely this episode, bloody as it is, provides valuable lessons in “stranger danger” and the importance of self-defense.

My third observation is that the show’s immense popularity is at least partially deserved. The action is gripping, the characters engaging, and the art style is interesting, especially when portraying the titans. The opening and closing themes are much better than average, and surprisingly relevant to the show – though not all the lyrics are subtitled. Having said that, I’ve seen many science fiction animations that were better done and less hyped.

One of the strangest things about Attack is its backstory – though admittedly, many anime have strange premises; if you’ve even seen Speed Grapher you know what I’m talking about. In an unspecified future, humans fall prey to a race of giant humanoids called Titans, who seemingly come out of nowhere. Perpetually hungry, they devour almost the entire human race, except for the inhabitants of one city, which judging by the character names, seems to be somewhere in German-speaking Europe. The surviving city has three concentric 50-meter-high walls to protect its inhabitants against the predators. This enclosed area has just enough agricultural land to feed its people, and there the human race survives for a hundred years.

As the series begins, a “colossal titan,” larger than any ever seen, arrives to kick a hole in the outer wall. Dozens of hungry titans pour in to devour the population of the outer ring. Our unfortunate protagonist, a teenage boy named Eren Jaeger, escapes with his two best friends, but not before witnessing his mother being gobbled up by one of the marauding giants. He then swears to exterminate the entire titan race.

The weird thing about the Titans, which makes the whole plot line a bit difficult to swallow, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that they’re both slow and stupid. They don’t speak or wear clothing. They vary in size from 3 to 15 meters in height, and mostly look like giant naked men without genitalia (probably omitted more for reasons of censorship than plot.) Yet they are surprisingly difficult to kill, and never lose their appetites for human flesh. They are perfect “eating machines,” like two-legged land sharks.

What’s more, human technology has at this point devolved to something like a steampunk level. The only way a person can kill a a titan is to don a special jet pack which allows him or her (it’s an equal opportunity army) to fly close enough to stab the Titan in its only vulnerable spot, the base of its neck. Often as not, this maneuver results in the demise of the soldier rather than the Titan.

Though I won’t give any spoilers in this column, I will say that my guess about the Titans’ origin, which I made about 4 episodes in, was substantially correct. Another aspect of the show I greatly appreciated was its stealth libertarian message: the city government is portrayed as being incompetent to defend the people and callously indifferent to their fate.

On a scale of 1-5, I would give the show a 4. I recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction action and doesn’t mind a little blood. You also need to have the capacity for a Harry Potter-esque suspension of disbelief. Be advised that the tragic events of the first 2 or 3 shows are really disheartening. Keep watching; it gets better.

Episodes of Attack on Titan are available for streaming on and