Ryuk Note

A while back, Infinite Rainy Day published two articles on the same day about the Netflix adaptation of Death Note. One of these articles was a lukewarm defence of it. The other article was a scathing deconstruction of why it was doomed to fail. Guess which one I wrote? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s the one with a title pun.)

Anyway, ever since the initial trailer, we’ve gotten some interesting bits of news regarding this Netflix original. For one, despite the protagonist being a white, blonde-haired emo-teen, the protagonist’s main foil, L, is to be portrayed by Straight Outta Compton’s Keith Stanfield. This isn’t a bad idea, because although L in the original show, and subsequent Manga, was Japanese, having a black actor in a Westernized adaptation, i.e. where it’d make sense, is a smart move, and one that could potentially make a nobody into a mainstay star. This didn’t stop people from complaining about “racism” with his casting, but that’s for another day.

But the biggest bombshell came from an announcement courtesy of ANN. In an article titled “Netflix's Live-Action Death Note Film Poster Shows Ryuk”, they covered exactly that, Ryuk’s look in the film; in fact, the picture shows Willem Dafoe’s character bathed in shadows, staring back at the viewer with his piercing eyes. It’s not the most “inspired” pose, side-glance framing isn’t original, but Ryuk’s design makes an impact: he’s hunched over, covered in feathers, has spiked hair and appears to be juggling a partially-eaten apple. This is in-character for him, but the design itself is noticeable for resembling a certain other role Dafoe has played before. That’s right, he looks like The Green Goblin!

I know what you’re thinking, and no, I don’t think this is a bad look…in theory. For as much as The Green Goblin’s costume in that film gets a lot of flak from comic purists, The Green Goblin being a suit of armour pisses me off no more than Spider-Man having organic web-shooters. As in, it doesn’t piss me off at all. There was a lot that comic book films couldn’t get away with in 2002, so Raimi had to improvise and compromise. Besides, it made sense in the context of the world the film had established, so…

What actually bothers me is less that Ryuk looks bad, and more that he looks too similar to Dafoe’s character. On one hand, like the creative choices in Spider-Man, this design makes sense: it’s a live-action adaptation of a comic, and one where the original design doesn’t translate between mediums. And on the other hand, anime adaptations have yet to prove themselves in live-action, so there’s a lot they can’t do. However, that Ryuk looks so similar to The Green Goblin is a little lazy. I mean, Dafoe’s face is pretty expressive, so why not work with that instead of copying a design where you can’t see his face?

And this, right here, is what bothers me. Yes, Willem Dafoe's more iconic role as a comic book villain is one where you can’t see his face. Yes, I enjoyed his take as The Green Goblin a lot. But no, that doesn’t mean every future comic book character Dafoe plays has to be modelled off of that role. I know that Dafoe pretty much plays some version of himself in every film he’s in, but typecasting doesn’t help matters.

I’ll use an example from another anime performance to illustrate my point: remember Tales from Earthsea? It’s terrible, you don’t need me to tell you that, but one of its most-memorable aspects was its dub. All of the casting, save Blaire Restaneo, was incredibly-inspired, but if I had a personal gripe, it’d be Dafoe as Cob. All of his lines were spoken in a soft whisper akin to a more controlled version of The Green Goblin, yet it was impossible not to see that character bleed through. Because everything about him, right down to his look, suggested that Disney only cast him as Cob because of The Green Goblin, and it was distracting.

Which is why I think that giving Ryuk The Green Goblin treatment is annoying. I’m sure it’ll work out somehow, I hope. Adam Wingard’s a talented director of horror and suspense, and Death Note seems right up his alley. I even like that the Netflix adaptation is going with the “if it’s taking place in the US, we might as well Westernize it!” angle that it could’ve easily missed the boat on in the hands of a lesser-talent, and the casting of Keith Stanfield as L is, like I said earlier, especially inspired. But I’m not convinced that this character design was the best choice. I could end up being wrong, but for now consider me skeptical.

When all that is said and done, Death Note debuts on August 25th on Netflix, so it’s not like my complaints hold much weight anymore.


  1. Why do people keep saying L was Japanese? He was white.

    "When asked about L's ethnicity, creator of the series Tsugumi Ohba responded, 'I think of him as a quarter Japanese, a quarter English, a quarter Russian, a quarter French or Italian, like that.'"

    1. It could be the grander context of the story's universe. Either way, the point's about cultural context...


Post a Comment

Popular Posts