Who wouldn’t want consequence-free power of life and death? I don’t see a lot of you raising your hands. But, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, is there?
No, my friends, there isn’t. Everything has consequences.
In the 2017 Netflix live action remake of the Manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Light Turner finds a supernatural notebook that gives him control over the death god Ryuk. With it, he can kill anyone whose name and face he knows. For reasons that can only be understood by those who’ve been a teenaged male, he uses it to impress a girl, and they set out to cleanse the world of evil, meting out justice to evildoers who are beyond the reach of the law. Naturally, things spiral out of control, and he winds up matching wits with L, a detective on a par with Sherlock Holmes or maybe Batman, who’s dedicated to bringing him to justice. L joins forces with Light’s father, James, a police detective, and hi-jinx ensue.
Overall, it’s a great movie. The storytelling is tight, and the acting is wonderful. I especially enjoyed the quirky and brilliant L, played by Lakeith Stanfield, and Willem Dafoe is a fantastic choice for the role of Ryuk. I often had a problem with the slower pace and often incomprehensible behavior of 2006 anime version, but in this 100 minute movie, things moved along at a decent clip and the people behaved in a way I could relate to. Netflix nailed it with this one.
The overarching theme is the consequences of playing God. At first glance, having the ability to impose justice on an unjust world seems like a wonderful idea. Pick your villain and do away with him. I’ve got a nice, long list, and I’m sure you do, too. But, what if you get it wrong? You probably only know that person based on what other people have told you (I examine this idea here). Is that enough to condemn someone to death? Light’s father, doesn’t think so, and makes a pretty compelling case for his point of view.
There’s also the theme of government control. Once Light starts killing people all over the world, under the name of “Kira”, interesting things start to happen. People start worshiping this new god, and the people in power start getting nervous. Their monopoly on the use of deadly force is swept away, and they bring their resources to bear on the problem of getting it back. There’s a bit of hand-waving here. For instance, what makes everyone think Kira is an American? The FBI is fully engaged in the investigation, as is James Turner, a Seattle detective. Are similar investigations going on all over the world? Perhaps, but we’re never shown this.
There’s also the matter of L, billed as the world’s greatest detective. By the time he joins the story, he’s already figured out a lot about the rules under which Kira operates (Hint: there are a lot of them, and they’re not all intuitive). None of this is explained. Whereas in a Sherlock Holmes story, these deductive leaps are explained, we never find out how L does what he does. I don’t know if this is explained in the original version, but it’s sorely missing here.
At any rate, if you can get past the skipped steps of the investigation, it’s a hell of a thought-provoking story, and a well-told one at that.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go write Kim Jong Il’s name in every notebook in the house, just in case.