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Death Note (Live Action Movie - Kaneko Shusuke 2006)


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Death Note
[Desu Noto]

Genre: Supernaturally-Fueled Crime Thriller

review in one breath

When a young man stumbles across and touches a mysterious notebook, his eyes are opened to the supernatural forces of Death Gods or "Shinigami" who work behind the scenes of human mortality. When an individual's name is merely written in this Death Note, that soul dies within mere seconds. Possessing such a flawless weapon immediately requires decisions regarding murder, the Law, an ideal society and above all, Justice. This is a face-paced and highly strategic crime thriller based on the popular manga series.


intro

Death Note is based on the popular manga by writer Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata which ran from 2003 to 2006 in Weekly Shonen Jump. In 2006 it was adapted into a two part live-action movie (the first of which we are reviewing here) and soon thereafter into a 37 episode anime series. A third live-action film is on its way, depicting a sequel of sorts to the current two-part live-action storyline.

The tale revolves around a "Death Note(book)" which a traditional Shinto Shinigamii> ("Death God") misplaces and which ends up in the hands of a contemplative and socially-minded college student named Yagami Light. Anyone's whose name is written in the Death Note, whether by the Death God or a human, dies of natural causes after a mere 40 seconds. If a specific time, day and circumstance are also written beside the name, that individual is fated to such a precise demise. This tale belongs only ever-so-slightly in the horror genre, solely due to the frequent role and appearance of the Death Gods. It is predominantly a Crime Thriller which raises questions about Ultimate Justice and the classic ethical question of whether an idealistic End can possibly justify a murderous Means.

The live-action adaptation consists of:

Death Note (director: Shusuke Kaneko 2006)
Death Note 2: The Last Name (director: Shusuke Kaneko 2006)

Both films are directed by Kaneko Shusuke whose other many films include Gamera 1, 2 & 3 (1995, 1996, 1999), Gakkou no Kaidan 3 (1997), Cross Fire (2000) , and Azumi 2 (2005). His direction here is quite polished, allowing audiences to become unconscientiously absorbed in the rather complex nature of the tale. The overall running time of this pair of films is nearly 4.5 hours (120 minutes and 140 minutes respectively) which proves barely enough to cover the outline of the intricate tale laid out in the original manga series, which itself contained 108 chapters. By comparison, the anime series, with a running time of over 12 hours, still found itself having to omit major (secondary) elements of the original story.

Despite such time constraints, director Kaneko's Death Note films prove to be a very engaging adaptation. After having seen the entire 12+ hour anime series which adheres more strictly to the original manga, I can tell you that the few decisive and time-saving shortcuts Kaneko was forced to make result in a very rounded and digestible experience, turning several of the more overly-complicated and sometimes belabored elements of the original story into a more consistent and easily followed alternative. (And kudos to Kaneko for successfully accomplishing that!)

The cast here is rather good. The principal antagonist Yagami Light is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara whom you will undoubtedly recognize from Battle Royale. His nemesis "L" (aka Ryuzaki) is played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama (Bright Future 2003, , Shibuya Kaidan 2 2004) whose introvert, goth-like appearance here has propelled him to idol status among Japanese youth. Also appearing in central roles are Asaka Seto (Chakushin Ari 2 2005, Kaidan 2007) and Takeshi Kaga (Chairman Kaga!!).

This tale in all its manifestations (manga, live-action & anime) proved very popular with japanese audiences, and the same seems to hold true to Western viewers. The anime version has been available for some time in Region 1 format and has even had its appearance on U.S. (TV) anime venues. Though undoubtedly aimed toward the younger, latest-generation audience, the wide-spread appeal here is undoubtedly due to the intellectual and often strategic engagement it requires of viewers. It raises questions and offers competing solutions to the highly relevant contemporary question of the criminal justice system and capital punishment:

  • Does society's criminal justice Law deal adequately with vicious criminals?
  • Is social Law, with its layers and layers of lawyers and appeals, truly capable of achieving Justice for victims of heinous crimes?
  • Is a crime less society even possible? And if so, would it amount to totalitarianism?
  • How might society, or even the globe, respond if an invisible force suddenly killed all of its criminals?

This is indeed cool, pertinent stuff to think about and Death Note delivers heavily on this issue.

plot

Yagami Light, top of the class in his university Law exams and son of a high-ranking Tokyo Police force detective stumbles across a strange notebook which claims to hold the power of eradicating anyone whose name is written therein. Laughingly skeptical, Yagami jokingly writes the name of a prominent violent criminal in it and promptly forgets about the Notebook, until his memory is jarred by the morning newspaper's declaration that the very same person was found dead in his cell.

This provides rather clear proof that the Notebook may be authentic. And once Yagami is visited by the massive Shinigami (Death God) associated with the notebook, all doubts are laid to rest. Yagami then speedily sets out to rid the world of its most notorious criminals including both the incarcerated and those still at large.

Of course the news media is quick to report the sudden explained deaths of the world's prominent low-life, creating a nightmare for the police force who have NO explanation as to what is happening and a near rapturous religious response from portions of the public, who nickname this invisible hand of justice "Kira" (which in Japanese pronunciation can (coincidentally!) mean both "Light" and "Killer").

In his visions of grandeur, Yagami Light sees himself as the "God" of a new world, free from crime and social sin, and metes out his fatal justice to anyone transgressing his notion of Law. In the meantime, a collaborative international effort is made to track down the "world's most heinous serial killer", enlisting the help of the globally renowned "L" whose crime-solving genius has proved repeatedly in international crises.

From this (rather early) narrative point onwards, a clashing of minds and strategies, buttressed by the unimaginable existence of a supernatural Death Notebook stoke this tale of social vengeance, idealitstc revenge and Ultimate Justice to high heaven (or Hell, in this instance).

verdict

This is indeed a uniquely intelligent and engaging crime thriller offering plenty above and beyond the normal formulas. I encourage you to see this if/when possible.

There's currently a lot of Western buzz surrounding this film. The first film (reviewed here) had a VERY limited two-day-only release in the U.S. on May 20-21, 2008, appearing in only 300 theaters nationwide. The formal Region 1 DVD release is scheduled for September 16, 2008.

I strongly recommend you check this out.

Version reviewed: Region 0 Subtitled DVD (with English subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Based on the long-running, popular manga, this tale explores in new ways the question of social Law and Ultimate Justice. No graphic gore or violence, but "Murder by Script" is a predominant theme. Current rumors suggest the upcoming U.S. release will receive and "R" rating for its death theme,. No brooding bOObies here.. This is indeed a unique storyline involving Shinto Death Gods and social ideals of a crimeless society. Well worth seeing!!

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