Launching a daring and often heated debate over how to best present a controversial subject publicly is often one of the most compelling ways to draw attention to that important cause. Netflix is bringing attention to the deliberation over how to best adapt a beloved series into a different culture with its intriguing new supernatural horror film, ‘Death Note,’ which is now streaming. The new mesmerizing film is sure to raise discussions amongst fans of the original ‘Death Note’ franchise.
The latest live-action adaptation of the ‘Death Note‘ franchise is based on writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata’s Japanese manga series of the same name. The new movie was directed by horror movie genre veteran, Adam Wingard, and produced in party by Masi Oka, who also appears in a cameo role. Actor Nat Wolff skillfully emphasizes the signature complexities of the franchise’s protagonist that appear in the previous entries, while also embracing the new material that the helmer envisioned for the updated film. As a result, the story’s seeming hero is stunningly presented as though he’s become completely intoxicated with his new godlike abilities, which allows him to kill those people he feels are unworthy of life.
‘Death Note’ follows the radical transformation of Light Turner (Wolff), a smart high school student who avoids forming close bonds with his classmates and his widowed father, James (Shea Whigham), who works as a Seattle police detective. Following his mother’s tragic death, the adolescent has become increasingly defensive towards everyone in his life. After he’s once again targeted by one of the bullies at his school, Light seemingly finds the perfect way to avenge the tragedies that have fallen upon him.
As he sits in the courtyard at his school, a leather-bound antique notebook, which is titled Death Note, mysteriously falls at Light’s feet. Passages reveal that if the owner of the book writes a person’s full name and cause of death on the ancient parchment pages, and imagines their face while doing son, the target will die almost immediately in the way that’s described. The book’s power is also provided by the 8-foot-tall death spirit, Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), who only appears to whoever’s in current possession of the Death Note.
Light, who’s encouraged by Ryuk to utilize the Death Note’s power to his advantage, decides to use the book to help rid the world of evil. He begins killing international terrorists, for the greater good of humanity. He decides to adapt the pseudonym Kira, which stands for killer in Japanese, to conceal his identity, but he still attracts the attention of his fellow student, Mia (Margaret Qualley). After Light confides in the popular cheerleader, she encourages him to target more criminals.
As the number of Kira’s victims continues to climb, and he becomes a worldwide phenomenon, not everyone appreciates the fact that he’s taking justice into his own hands. He soon becomes one of the most-wanted individuals by law enforcement, including James and his department, which begins working with a spy who’s only known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield).
The mysterious L, who’s tasked to track down Kira and bring him to justice, almost immediately realizes that the person behind the vigilantism is in Seattle. When James is recruited to work for L’s investigative team, and Ryuk and Mia begin to encourage the seemingly courageous hero to truly embrace his vigilante campaign, Light suddenly realizes that his anonymity, as well as his life and freedom, are now in jeopardy.
Oka generously took the time recently to talk about producing, and starring in, ‘Death Note’ during an exclusive interview at the Essex House Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the producer-actor discussed that he was interested in taking part in making the live-action American movie adaptation of ‘Death Note’ because he enjoyed reading the manga series as it was initially being released. He also shared that he cherished collaborating on the film with Wingard, who he described as being a visionary director who possesses a distinct and unique style.
ShockYa (SY): You served as one of the producers on the new supernatural horror movie, ‘Death Note.’ Why were interested in serving as a producer on the movie, and how did you become involved in the drama?
Masi Oka (MO): Well, I was born in Japan, and was then raised in the U.S. I moved here to America when I was six, but I grew up with Japanese culture, and read manga. So I was reading ‘Death Note’ in Japanese in real time. So I was very aware of the property, probably even before the rest of these guys who worked on this film.
I became interested this this movie because I actually worked on a different property with Shueisha, the publisher of ‘Death Note,’ before this movie went into production. When production on that property was coming to a close, they said, “‘Death Note’ may be coming back to us. Do you want to produce it for us with Jason Hoffs,” who’s my producing partner. I said, “Yes, we love it…we’d love to collaborate with you.” We were very fortunate to join in.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the drama is based on the manga series of the same name by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, how familiar were you with the manga before you began shooting the film? Was having the reference material influence your portrayal of Light?
MO: Yes, it was absolutely helpful. Like I said, I grew up reading, and I’m a fan of, this series. I would think, if I were to make this, who would I want to include from, and what’s really important to, the story?
Since we had so many producers on this movie, and since I’m part of this culture, my job was to make sure the sensei’s voices were heard. I was always in contact with the creators and publishers, and made sure that they were aware of any creative decisions that were being made on the film. If they had any issues, they would let me know. I made sure that whatever concerns they had were heard over here, and we addressed them. I had my opinions, as well. But at the end of the day, as a fan, I wanted to make sure that the senseis were proud of the movie, and the content we created. Since they know the fanbase so well, if the senseis are proud of this film, then we know can make the fans happy, too.
SY: Like you mentioned, ‘Death Note’ was directed by Adam Wingard, who’s known for helming such horror movies as ‘Blair Witch,’ ‘You’re Next’ and segments in the ‘V/H/S’ anthology series. What was your experience of working with Adam on creating the character of Light, and the film’s overall story?
MO: Adam’s great. His relationship was really with (one of the movie’s other producers,) Roy (Lee), who brought Adam onto the project. Adam’s such a great filmmaker, and is such a visionary. He had such a distinct and unique style. He comes from the horror genre, so this movie became a lot scarier than I initially imagined. But that’s what’s great about it.
We’ve already had a lot of live-action adaptations of the manga series in Japan; there are both movies and television series that have been release. So we wanted a unique filmmaker who could create something absolutely different.
Adam’s also a fan of the franchise, and was readily really respectful of staying true to it, but he still had his own strong vision. That was great, because he’d be open to the collaboration with the sensei. But he’d also let them know what he wanted, and would ask if it was okay. The sensei would say, “Okay, we trust you.” Adam would bring his uniqueness to it, especially with his sense of humor. Since the story is so dark and heavy, it was also important to us to also include the lightness. I think Adam did a fantastic job, and made such a stylish film.
SY: Speaking of the fact that there is some humor that’s featured in this movie, how important do you feel it is to have that comic relief interwoven into the darker and more tense moments?
MO: It absolutely is important to have that comedy. This story features a relatively dark subject; it’s a wishful film, but it’s still dark, as we deal with death. So it’s important to include that humor and the lighter moments that accentuate the weight of the situation. If the entire movie was heavy and dark, you would get exhausted watching it. So there are moments of humor that relieve the tension, and allows you to have a thrilling ride. I think the music also attributed to that ride.
SY: Also speaking of the music, in addition to the visuals, do you feel the score is an important aspect in creating the emotions and mood for genre movies like this adaptation of ‘Death Note?’
MO: Music is definitely important to this medium. Films are a visceral experience, so you have to use all five senses to fully embrace them. Your senses definitely make you feel as though you’re fully in the movie’s world. Music definitely enhances this experience. In order to allow yourself to become fully immersed in the story, the music helps you experience what we want you to feel. If you watch this film without the music, it would be a totally different experience.
SY: In addition to the music, what was the process of creating the visual effects for the horror movie?
MO: Well, I wasn’t on the set for ‘Death Note’s entire production, because I was working on ‘Hawaii Five-0’ during the film’s shoot. So I unfortunately didn’t get to see how everything was shot for the movie. But I think Adam did an amazing job on creating the visuals, and we had an amazing effects and stunts team.
Everything was very gory, but none of the gore was glorified. It actually helped, and was imperative to, the story. We wanted people to be scared, because we’re talking about death. So the visuals have to have a visceral impact on people. I think seeing that imagery helps the audience immerse themselves in the story, and see the consequences of writing a name in the death note. I think the effects and stunts team did a great job in showing that.
SY: Did the film remain strictly true to the story that’s featured in the manga series, or does it also incorporate its own elements?
MO: It was definitely both. There are things that stayed true to the source material, which the hardcore fans will recognize, and think, that’s from the manga. Even the sensei realize that the film’s baseline is ‘Death Note.’
But there are things that we definitely changed. I think the characters changed a lot, mainly because of the change in the cultural setting.
The manga has 12 volumes, so there’s a long time to explore the journey. Light starts out heeding the call, and being the anti-hero, in volume one. But in a movie, viewers are used to seeing the hero’s entire journey. Our film is meant to be an origin story, so where Light ends up where he is in the beginning of the manga. So if he already accepts the fact that he’s going to be Kira in the beginning of the movie, it wouldn’t be as interesting, because we won’t see that journey. We want to be able to empathize with him and follow his journey, and the same thing can be said about L. So I think those are the big changes in the characters.
SY: The film adaptation is unique in the fact that there isn’t a true hero or villain, as the characters are all motivated by what they believe is to be the right thing. Was making both Light and Lo anti-heroes, like you just mentioned, an important aspect to the story that you felt should be left to the audience to decide?
MO: We definitely wanted the characters to balance the line of morality, and have the audience question if the lead characters are good or evil. I always say that in the minds of the people who are evil, the things that they’re doing are good. That’s true for Light, who feels that what he’s doing is good. He’s choosing who’s good and evil, as he believes in certain things.
Everyone has a different interpretation of that, and you may not agree with their views. So you have to decide which character to side with, as both characters are trying to make the world a better place. But they’re approaching that desire to improve the world in a completely different way. We want people to question what’s right and wrong, and who determines that. I think that helps the movie interesting to watch.
SY: The ‘Death Note’ story in the manga series is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. So why was it decided to change the story’s setting to Seattle for the film?
MO: I think it was always meant to be set in America. I think filmmakers should make things that they’re comfortable with. Having Adam make a film that’s set in Japan probably wouldn’t be right for him, because he didn’t grow up there, and there are all of these cultural nuances in the manga. So he was more comfortable setting the movie in the U.S., and particular Seattle, so the story can fit the city’s grittier environment.
SY: The drama was shot in both Seattle and Vancouver. What was the experience of deciding the locations where the movie was going to be shot, and then filming at those location?
MO: We did shoot in both Seattle and Vancouver, but most of the movie was shot on both sets and in real location in Vancouver. But there is a scene that’s set at the Ferris wheel in Seattle (the Seattle Great Wheel), so we actually shot that scene there.
SY: Besides producing ‘Death Note,’ you also make a cameo appearance as a detective in a Japanese dance club. What can you discuss about your character’s role in the story?
MO: My role kind of happened by accident. I was going to be in Vancouver when we were shooting the Japanese scene, because I had a few weeks off from shooting my own production. So the film’s team said, “We need someone who speaks Japanese. Do you want to do it?” I was like, “Okay, sure!” Since I’m an actor, it was a service I could provide to the movie. Now I’m thinking that every time I produce something, it would be fun to also have a cameo role; I could be the Stan Lee of my films!
SY: The crime thriller features a diverse cast, including Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, Paul Nakauchi and Shea Whigham. How involved were you in the casting process for the film?
MO: The process was sort of collaborative. Adam had his initial choices of who he wanted to be in the movie, and the casting directors (Laray Mayfield and Julie Schubert) really helped us in narrowing down the list. We looked at the final list, and decided who we all liked from who was left. But in the end, it was really Adam’s choice, and the actors who were cast fit his vision.
It was also important to me to diversify our cast. I wanted to bring in Asian actors, in particular, since the film’s based on the Japanese manga. So I made it a personal mission to go to Japan and audition a lot of actors there. So it was a collaborative process, and I think the cast we have knocked it out of the park.
SY: The drama is (now streaming) on Netflix. Was it always the plan to debut the movie on the streaming service? Why do you feel Netflix is a beneficial platform for films like this one?
MO: Actually, the movie was originally developed at Warner Bros., but then things changed, in terms of direction. So Netflix then said, “We’ll come in and make it,” and they saved the day for us. I think it’s great that we ended up at Netflix, but I do still love Warner Bros. as a studio, and I have a bunch of projects with them.
But what Netflix allowed us to do was be creatively free, and push the envelope. I think there’s a lot of gore and sensitive material in this film that can be hard to handle in a major studio release. But since we partnered with Netflix, Adam was able to push his vision further, in terms of the imagery. So at the end of the day, we were able to land in the right place, and we were grateful that things worked out.
SY: The ending of ‘Death Note’ sets up for a potential sequel. Would you be interested in making a follow-up to the movie?
MO: I think we’re all interested, because there are so many stories to tell. We do consider this to be an origins story for Light. So we left it open-ended, and are hoping there’s enough love from the fans and studio to make a sequel, because we’re definitely interested in making more stories about Light.