Now available on DVD
Tatsuya Fujiwara as Light Yagami
Ken’ichi Matsuyama as L
Asaka Seto as Naomi Misora
Shigeki Hosokawa as FBI Agent Ray
Shido Nakamura as Ryuuk (voice)
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
Not being an avid manga reader or anime buff, the Death Note phenomenon was unknown to me when I sat down to watch this 2006 live-action adaptation of the popular series (new to Region 1 DVD). To a prior fan of the Death Note manga, I expect there may be points to nitpick in this film but as a novice to this world, I found myself easily drawn in to its intriguing premise and complex characters. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who revived the Gamera series in the mid-’90s, Death Note is a brisk fantasy piece that’s low on special effects but equipped with a novel concept that allows for some unexpected thematic darkness.
Death Note involves the unconventional vigilante crusade of high school student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara, previously known to genre fans from Battle Royale), the son of a high-ranking police inspector, who becomes the surprise owner of a notebook misplaced by Ryuk, the God of Death. Light has discovered that whenever he writes a name in this mystical notebook, that person will perish of a heart attack. Light is using this power for what he believes is good, striking out at criminals who have eluded the punishment of the law. No one knows how these killings are accomplished or Light’s true identity. To the world, he is a faceless avenger known only as âKiraâ. Given the nature of his crusade, Light’s actions have made him a hero to many who share his lust for justice. But to others, Light’s black and white approach and his self-appointed status as judge, jury, and executioner make him a criminal himself.
But who can stop a killer whose murder weapon is a magic notebook? When someone can assassinate a person just by writing their name, there’s no way to track their actions. And yet, ironically it’s Light’s own father who is heading the investigation into Kira’s identity, making Light privy to updates on the investigation over the family dinner table. But Light’s real threat isn’t from his father or even from the F.B.I., it’s from an anonymous master detective known only as ‘L’. His identity kept hidden through most of the movie, ‘L’ is Holmes to Light’s Moriarty. The cat and mouse game between these too hyper-intelligent opponents is played out perfectly.
When events eventually force ‘L’ to reveal himself to a select group of authorities, his identity proved underwhelming to this viewer. Well-played by Ken’ichi Matsuyama as a brilliant but aloof teen with a perennial sweet tooth, I got the feeling that this character is a major fan favorite among the Death Note faithful but I wasn’t personally bowled over. Despite Matsuyama’s memorable mannerisms, I’m a little too old to be a fan of disaffected teens with quirky habits. On the other hand, I was impressed with Fujiwara’s performance as Light. ‘L’ is the more outwardly ‘cool’ role, but Light is the deeper character. In playing Light, Fujiwara has to offer a complex portrayal of someone who is young but yet preternaturally intelligent, someone who is appearing to do the right thing even as the power he wields is corrupting his soul, and someone who is so outwardly decent that we don’t immediately see the cold-blooded person he is transforming into. Impressively, Fujiwara is able to pull all this off and make his performance look effortless.
Another major character in Death Note is the all-CG creation of Ryuk, the God of Death whose notebook Light possesses. With a Joker-like grin plastered on his face and mannerisms that reminded me of T. Ryder Smith portrayal of ‘The Trickster’ in 1993’s Brainscan, Ryuk is an ongoing presence throughout the film â seen only by Light and offering his own brand of instruction and advice. At first glance, I expected the character’s cartoonish appearance would be an impediment to Death Note’s drama but it never was the distraction that I feared it would be.
As the game between Light and ‘L’ escalates, the stakes get more personal and the battle lines draw closer. What’s compelling about Death Note is the subtle blurring between good and evil and how director Shusuke Kaneko plays our sympathies â and even our sense of morality â against us. The idea of a notebook that could annihilate the evils of the world is a tempting slice of wish fulfillment and it’s our natural inclination to see that Light evades the efforts to stop him. After all, isn’t it right to rid the world of evil? But as Kaneko shows Light reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in one scene, the underlying message of Death Note is clear â absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But Death Note is never heavy handed at the expense of being entertaining. Its pace could’ve been tightened a bit but despite that, this is an involving fantasy that takes the time to engage larger philosophical issues about justice and power. Having felt burned out by J-Horror in recent years, I found Death Note to be a welcome antidote to a parade of long-haired ghost girls.
The Death Note story continued to its conclusion in Death Note: The Last Name (2006), also directed by Kaneko, and the open-ended conclusion to this first installment marks the rare modern occasion where I felt there was still a story left to tell. Even for non-fans of anime and manga, this twisted fable should strike a satisfying note.