DEATH NOTE - Viz Media 2008 USA Pre-Screen with Sub-titles.
Death Note starts off with a beautiful aerial shot of Tokyo as the camera moves downwards we soon realize we are in fact following the Note Book referenced in the title.
Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a talented, Nietzsche reading, Law Student and the son of established Inspector Soichiro Yagami (Takeshi Kaga). He is frustrated by the inefficiency of Japan’s legal system and is given the opportunity to make changes, on a global scale, when a magical diary falls from the sky and into his possession. The setup is simple: Any human whose name is written in this book dies in 40 seconds. Light decides that he’s going to write the names of criminals in it and enact ultimate justice to rid the world of crime.
Pretty simple, right?
Except that it’s not.
I was completely expecting a Grudge rip off, but right away the film starts bringing up concepts such as the morality vigilantism, family loyalties, the cult of celebrity, and then of course the Angel of Death himself. But by the time the CGI-Angel of Death chomps down his second apple, the film settles into its most unexpected and yet satisfying path.
Looking like a cross between one of Oz’s flying monkeys and an Insane Clown Posse reject Ryuk (voiced by Shidō Nakamura) drops in and becomes the film’s chorus. Sometimes egging our hero on and sometimes questioning his actions.
Early on Light, asks him “What’s your name?” and the response is, “You can call me Ryuk”. Because in this film, playing with identity is the key to everything.
We get to watch Light’s ego grow as the popularity of his alter ego grows. The media has made “Kira” (the Japanese pronunciation of “Killer”) a national hero, much to the chagrin of the police department as well as human rights activists.
Eventually the police department enlist the aid of the mysterious private detective “L/Ryuzaki” (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) and we realize that, despite all of its trappings as a horror and/or monster movie, the core of the film revolves around the cat and mouse game between this Super Cop and this Super Villain.
Soon after L’s introduction, Light is forced to kill an “innocent person” in an effort to throw the super detective off his trail. After that the spiral of deceit and corruption both individuals engage in to one up the other escalates. With neither willing to lose, the line between Hero and Villain is blurred until just two homicidal maniacs remain. Even the police back off their support as they learn how far “L” is willing to go, not to catch the criminal, but “to win”. Part of the fun of the film is watching Light succumb to his dark side and push his “powers” more and more (this is done much more convincingly than say “Spidy 3” or “Revenge of the Sith” both of which contained similar character arcs)
The cast sells the conflict wonderfully; the film literally lives and dies by the performances of Light and L. Both are able to fully flesh out their quirky characters and yet remain believable. Matsuyama as L specifically turns a wonderfully physical performance, playing “L” as some sort of reclusive idiot-savant with a sweet tooth. In one scene he watches a wall of surveillance monitors while perched precariously on a couch and stirring sugar cubes into his tea with a lollipop.
Meanwhile Ryuk the Death Angel is fun and entertaining while never upstaging his Live Action costars.
The film has a fun clean style and reminds me of why I have been enjoying Asian cinema is so much more than American film as of late: Color. The palette is fully saturated and the colors look and feel like they were chosen intentionally for each scene.
There is some violence, some language but nothing that would push it past a PG-13 rating here in the states. Although it touches upon some weighty and potentially controversial topics, it never dwells on them, thus allowing the film to remain fresh and fun.
The film is based off of a popular Manga Series of the same name and has spawned two sequels. I have not seen or read any of these but if they are half as fun as this film was, then I absolutely want to.
Death Note is not a great film, but for what it is, it has some good suspense, interesting characters, and over all, is a lot of fun.