Reviewby Theron Martin, May 26th 2008
When he learns that some criminals are not getting properly punished by the system, brilliant college law student Light Yagami becomes despondent, only to stumble across an item that will change both his life and, in his hands, the world: the Death Note, a book which purports to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. Upon discovering that it actually works, Light gradually figures out how to exploit it to maximum effect as he constructs a master plan to make the world a better place by ridding it of criminals. Some naturally take issue will the actions of the vigilante who soon becomes both loved and feared as Kira, chief among them L, a mysterious but brilliant detective who sets out on a personal quest to capture Kira at all costs. Thus does the battle of wits begin, with the shinigami Ryuuk hanging around to watch the show.
When dealing with a live-action adaptation of an anime or manga (especially one as popular as Death Note), the first and foremost consideration is always how well the movie represents the story and essence of its source material. In this case there's no need for concern, as this first of two Death Note movies delivers quite a fair approximation of the content and general sentiment of the original manga. Naturally some things had to be adjusted to make the transition into live action practical, but only the most ardent of purists are likely to have much of an issue with the changes that have been made, and in many cases what has been changed either eliminates or reduces the impact of the most frequently criticized aspects of the anime. It is also worth noting that, with an original Japanese release date of 6/17/2006, its production and release (as well as that of its second part) preceded the anime version by a few months.
The story told by the Death Note manga and anime is much too broad to be adequately told in just a single two-hour movie, so director Shusuke Kaneko, who was best-known for directing Godzilla and Gamera flicks prior to this project, took the Kill Bill approach and split it into two separate movies. The first part, which aired in select theaters around the country in late May of 2008 prior to an upcoming fall DVD release, chronicles the events from Light's introduction to the Death Note up to his first face-to-face meeting with L and Misa Misa's introduction to the second Death Note; in other words, it roughly equates to the first nine episodes of the anime and a flashback scene from one of the later episodes. One need not be at all familiar with either the anime or the source manga to fully appreciate this production, however, as its storytelling stands perfectly well on its own. This is an alternate version rather than a continuation or side story.
Those familiar with the anime will note some significant differences. The movie starts with Light already in college and with a steady girlfriend named Shiori, a movie-exclusive character who also fills the role of the girl Light takes on a date during the early bus scene. The FBI agent who tails Light is named Ray but has been given a Japanese surname in the movie rather than the more American-sounding “Penber” used in the anime. Some events involving Naomi Misora also play out quite differently in the movie compared to the anime, including going off on a tangent not reflected at all in the anime. Misa also makes prominent appearances much earlier in the story in the movie than she does in the anime, although those scenes are clearly more of a set-up for her much more prominent role in the second movie rather than intrinsic elements of the story in this one. The circumstances under which Light first encounters and tests the Death Note, and how he ultimately meets L in person, are also quite different. In general, though, the story so closely mirrors what is seen in the anime that it will offer no surprises for those familiar with the anime.
The live-action version also has a slight difference in tone. Whereas the anime is essentially a shonen series with action elements replaced by thriller elements and violent conflict replaced by the warring mind games of Light and L, the movie plays things straighter and a bit more mature. Mostly absent are the dramatic flourishes often a source of complaint in the anime series, as Kaneko opts for a subtler approach; this is most evident in the infamous potato chips scenes, but can also be seen elsewhere. The movie also plays up the immaturity of both Light and L a bit more, and (thankfully) does not portray the police like incompetent idiots like the anime does; here they are simply people in over their heads against an intimidating opponent. While the movie does include a bit more humor (Misa's “get your romantic rival fat”-themed TV show is a hoot, and L certainly has some interesting notions on crafting shish kebobs), it hardly concentrates on that path, instead focusing more on its dramatics. It also speaks more obviously and directly to the questionable morality of what both Light and L are doing, something that, according to the director's comments shown afterwards, was deliberate. Kaneko was concerned that the coolness of being able to execute criminals so easily, and thus do away with the seeming dregs of society, might outweigh the heinous nature of what Light is doing and the lack of ethics L displays in his counter-schemes, so he provides more emphasis to scenes which question the rightness or wrongness of their actions and to scenes showing the more deplorable side of each character. After seeing its last few minutes, anyone who walks away from this film not thinking Light is a sick bastard with a God complex is probably someone to be concerned about.
For the most part the casting fits the respective characters well. Shunji Fujimura looks exactly like what you'd expect a real-life version of Wataru to look like, and Ken'ichi Matsuyama (the voice of Jealous in the anime) does a masterful job of getting the look and peculiar mannerisms of L exactly right. Takeshi Kaga, who is perhaps best-known to American audiences as the host of the original Iron Chef, lacks a moustache but otherwise has an excellent look and demeanor for serving as Soichiro Yagami, Light's father. The lack of blond hair and a pop idol rather than Goth dressing style makes Erika Toda harder to buy as Misa Amane, although she has the attitude and behavior right. The most questionable casting choice is actually Tatsuya Fujiwara as Light. Some anime fans might recognize Fujiwara as one of the main characters from Battle Royale, and while he shined in that role, he turns in only a barely passable effort here. The acting in general is better than the typical live-action version of an anime or manga, though still a small step below an average Hollywood film and rather pathetic in any given “dying of a heart attack” scene.
And Ryuk? He's completely computer-animated, with the voice of one actor and body movements modeled off another using a technique similar to the one used to create Gollum for the Lord of the Rings movies. This project obviously does not have a budget even remotely close to that of LoTR, so Ryuk looks more awkward by comparison, but recognizing that he is a shinigami rather than a living creature allows the audience to accept him more easily.
The movie soundtrack uses far less, and generally less dramatic, musical backing than the anime version. Curiously, the closing credits roll to the song “Dani California” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, though what, exactly, that has to do with the movie requires keener insight than mine.
Viz Media's theatrical tour with this movie put it into theaters with a dubbed version. Thankfully they used the exact same English dub cast that voices the anime, which provides a nice bit of continuity for anime fans, although the voice acting seems just a little rougher here. This version does not, however, subtitle any of the plentiful on-screen text, a massive negative that will hopefully be corrected for the DVD release. Accompanying the movie at the end was an approximately 20-minute “making of” featurette which includes both English and Japanese behind-the-scenes footage as well as brief clips of the second movie. Presumably this will be included on the eventual DVD releases. Although originally announced as a PG-13 release, it carried an R rating at the theater where I saw it, partly for some graphic content but primarily because of a few choice four-letter words and the dark nature of its content.
The movie ends with a strong sense of anticipation for the concluding second movie, titled Death Note: The Last Name, which will apparently greatly summarize most of the rest of the series. (Think of the way the first Kill Bill movie ended; this one has a similar feel.) As of this writing Viz has yet to announce any plans for a theatrical release of the second movie, but given the size of the crowd present in the theater where I saw it, this one may do well enough to warrant similar treatment for the follow-up.
Overall (dub) : B
Story : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Remains faithful to the original story, captures the essence of the subject matter.
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