Warning: Some spoilers ahead for Netflix’s Death Note movie
Netflix has been pretty busy this summer. Last week, the streaming giant premiered superhero super team-up Marvel’s The Defenders. Before that, was Atypical and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. Next week will welcome Narcos season 3. But, even Netflix can’t drop a massive, sprawling new season of digital television every single week. So, instead of gifting subscribers with more cape-free crusaders or weird, perfect sex jokes, Netflix is giving us Death Note, a live-action movie adaptation of the famed anime and manga of the same name.
Like the Japanese source material before it, the streaming service’s version of Death Note follows an intelligent high schooler named Light (Nat Wolff). The disaffected young man comes upon a supernatural notebook of mysterious origins, and a death spirit named Ryuk (a having-way-too-much-fun Willem Dafoe) explains the keeper of the Death Note book can kill anyone, in any way that’s physically possible, by writing their name in the journal and holding that person’s face in their mind. This power leads to lots of violent deaths, including decapitation, knife gore, and group suicide. Yet, the most haunting moment of Death Note doesn’t include any blood. No, it comes from a very creepy rendition of a song — and it’s one you probably heard before.
Viewers first hear the song soon after the introduction of “L” (Lakeith Stanfield). The detective is trying to figure out the identity of "Kira," the godlike persona Light creates to punish perceived "bad guys" by using the book. L’s handler Watari (Paul Nakauchi) requests the investigator get an hour of sleep. L is unsure he’ll be able to quiet his mind and asks Watari, "Would you mind singing a song for me?" Watari instantly agrees, knowing the exact song L wants to hear.
"You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night," he creepily sings. "Step into sun, step into the light. Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place on the face of the Earth and the sky. Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart, hold onto your hope. Walk up to the gate and let it open." And like that, it’s implied L has fallen asleep.
Interestingly, the lyrics come from a seriously unexpected source: 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her newfound Oz friends sing the song, titled "Optimistic Voices," as they march down the Yellow Brick Road on their way to Emerald City. The entire scene is quite different from anything in Death Note, since it’s literally supposed to be optimistic. Here, the entire world is ahead of Dorothy, the Tin Man (Jack Haley), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) as they’re surrounded by technicolor magic. In Death Note, the tune is a dark lullaby for a clearly tortured man.
Knowing what we now know about the origins of "Optimistic Voices" makes the second time we hear it in Death Note even more chilling. In a very convoluted scheme, Light uses the Death Note book to control Watari, forcing him to become obsessed with uncovering L’s actual, legal name. That way Light can write L’s name in the book, killing him and ending the detective’s investigation. While Watari is driving towards L’s original home in Montauk, Long Island, where he was trained to become a super investigator, the man sings himself the lyrics again; completely alone. Watari also happens to be driving to his death in the scene.
Since the original Death Note has no apparent official connection to The Wizard Of Oz, there has to be some reason the movie’s team chose "Optimistic Voices" as the song that continuously pops up throughout the project. It’s possible Light can be seen as a dark version of Oz’s The Wizard (Frank Morgan) through the young man's creation of Kira, a persona people the world over begin believing is an omniscient god. While the aging, balding Wizard hides behind the towering, powerful image of himself, Light similarly hides behind Kira. In reality, the high schooler is a hurt teenage boy, still mourning the murder of his mother. But, the world sees him as Kira, all-knowing punisher of the most debauched evildoers. In fact, at one point, after L tells a random person Light is actually Kira, the man calls the teen "Lord Kira."
It’s also possible Death Note is trying to make comparisons between St. Martin’s orphanage and the Emerald City. In both instances, the people singing "Optimistic Voices" go down long swaths of road — pavement and yellow brick, respectively — in search of something. Watari is looking for L’s real name, while the Oz gang hopes to have their wishes comes true. Neither journey goes to plan, as Watari is viciously killed, and the Yellow Brick Road gang finds out the Wizard’s power is lie. In both stories, the gigantic endpoints even loom in the distance, minimizing our characters.
So, it's definitely plausible Death Note wanted to use grand metaphors between the streaming adaptation and Dorothy's naïveté-ending trip down the Yellow Brick road. Or, maybe, someone over at Netflix simply realized just how creepy "Optimistic Voices" really sounds. Either way, I'll never look at The Wizard Of Oz the same way again.
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