The trailer for Netflix’s adaptation of the classic manga and anime series Death Note has everything you want (except for Asian actors, but that’s another story.) It’s dark. It’s weird. It’s unsettling in the best ways.
If you’re not familiar with the series, the basic vibe is that a high school student named Light gets his hands on a magic notebook where you can write the name of any person you want dead. The conduit for death is named Ryuk, and he’s a weird, fucked up demon known as a shinigami.
What the hell is a shinigami and where did the idea originate?
That's hard to pin down specifically. Some scholars attribute the Mrtyu-mara, a demon that appears in certain Buddhist texts that makes people want to commit suicide, to being the inspiration. Others point toward Izanami-no-Mikoto, the goddess of creation and death in the Shinto religion, as being the origins of this demon. The word “shinigami” doesn’t really appear in any Japanese classical texts until the Edo period in a work titled Ehon Hyaku Monogatari from Tenpō 12, published in 1814. It’s all a bit nebulous, but the deeper you dig, the more interesting the origin story gets.
Whatever the roots may truly be, Death Note serves as a fascinating modern take on this ancient conduit for reconciling the idea of death and provides audiences with a unique perspective on death in Japanese culture, speaking to its affect on the human experience.
For those of you not familiar with Death Note, the property is an excellent entry point into manga or anime. It highlights unique aspects of Japanese culture without the viewer needing much of a knowledge base to understand it. The anime is a little heavier on the action than the manga, with plenty of twists and turns to keep a casual viewer enthralled in a storyline that often deals with complicated contemplations on morality and justice. It’s fast-paced and tons of fun.
Will the upcoming Netflix feature film adaptation achieve the same sort of balance, or will it become yet another footnote in a tiresome conversation about whitewashing another Japanese pop-culture sensation for western audiences? We hope it’s the former.
Death Note premiers August 25th, 2017 on Netflix.