Reviewby James Beckett,
Death Note Movie Double Feature
Light Yagami is a college student who has been gifted the Death Note, a magical notebook that allows him to bring his swift and deadly justice down on criminals and evil men all over the world just by writing their names. The ensuing carnage has earned him mythical status as the anonymous cult figure “Kira”, challenged the country's law enforcement authority enough that they enlist the help of the enigmatic and eccentric investigator known only as “L”. As the death god Ryuk looks on with gleeful curiosity, Light and L wage a mental war as more people fall into the deadly traps created by the one who wields the Death Note.
Death Note never caught on with me during its initial boom of popularity in the mid-2000s, and I only ever caught the full run of the show years later, while I was in college. While I appreciated the supernatural cat-and-mouse game played between Light and L, the series never managed to get its hooks in me the way it did for so many anime fans of my generation. That being said, I was cautiously optimistic when I got the opportunity to revisit the chronicles of Light Yagami in Funimation's double feature release of Shusuke Kaneko's Death Note movie duology, so that I might see how the story has held up since I last experienced it, what kinds of changes these adaptations made to the story, and whether it translated at all to the medium of live-action film.
The first Death Note film captured what I remembered from that initial arc of the story pretty well, though there were some more obvious changes that vary in the quality of their execution. For one, Light is now a college undergrad instead of a high school student, which is okay by me since I've always felt that most anime teens speak and behave like world-weary twenty-somethings anyway. The character generally feels more mellow compared to his very dramatic animated progenitor. In the beginning of the film at least, Tatsuya Fujiwara plays Light as a more levelheaded and relatable protagonist, a frustrated law student who seems genuinely concerned about the injustices of the world.
He's still using a magical death book to kill people all over the world, so he's not too far removed from the megalomaniac we all know and love, but it takes a lot longer for the “sociopathic mastermind” aspect of his personality to show itself. I'd say that the full-blown evil genius version of the character is what Fujiwara struggles with the most, especially in Death Note: The Last Name. Both Tsugumi Ohba's original manga and its anime dealt in very broad emotions, and those don't always translate well when actors try to replicate them in the real world. By the time The Last Name is running through its heavily altered conclusion to Light's story, some of his more dramatic moments feel overwrought and ineffective.
The first movie also has expanded roles for the female members of the cast, though the results are decidedly mixed. Asaka Seto has an expanded role as Naomi Misora, the fiancé of FBI Agent Raye Iwamatsu (who is named Raye Penber in the anime). Seto plays the part well, delivering easily one of the most interesting parts of the first film. Less successful is the inclusion of the original character Shiori, Light's girlfriend from college. Yuu Hashii does what she can, though it's a mostly thankless part, as the character exists to function as a plot device more than anything else.
L feels very much in keeping with the character from the anime, though that works both to the films' favor and detriment. Simply put, he feels more like a cartoon character than most of the cast members, except maybe for the literal CGI demons, Ryuk and Rem. The same could be said of Misa Amane, played by Erika Toda, who becomes a driving force for the second film. She's nowhere near as cartoonish as L, but she gets pretty close, managing to chew the scenery and project pure anime pulpiness even when she's strapped to a metal rack for a solid chunk of the film's runtime. These aren't necessarily criticisms, mind you. These expanded roles function perfectly well as fanservice, but I'm not sure how much these performances work on their own in live-action.
In general, Shusuke Kaneko is doing his best to give these films the edge of a detective thriller or police procedural, but both movies feel very flat and small-scale due to the stiff direction, plain set design, and uninspired cinematography. The music is also oddly bland – much of it sounds akin to the kind of filler stings used to fill air in cheap television dramas. Inexplicably, the Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks “Dani California” and “Snow, Hey Oh” are used as themes for the films. I can't account for why they would be chosen to accompany Death Note outside of some kind of obtuse marketing tie-in, but either way, they don't match the tone of these movies at all. Also, the CG elements of the movies, which were already pretty chintzy in 2006, have aged horribly over the past thirteen years. The death gods Ryuk and Rem look ripped straight out of a launch-day PlayStation 3 cutscene, and that may even be a little generous. The animation for the characters is fine, but they look positively goofy when placed next to live-action settings and characters, and never once did the movies sell the illusion that the shinigami exist in the same dimension as anything happening around them.
In the end, these Death Note movies felt like little more than streamlined summaries of a story that's a much better fit for animation. I appreciated how Death Note: The Last Name reconfigured the unwieldy ending of the anime into something that could reasonably wrap up the plot of the two films, but I missed the aesthetics and overall tone that the anime was able to convey. Funimation's Blu-Ray/DVD Combo release is also quite the bare-bones affair – the English dubs of the movies have not been included, and while the Blu-Ray disc curiously claims to contain both the two features and “extras”, there aren't any other bonuses to be found. That being the case, I'd only recommend this set for diehard fans of the franchise or those who are somehow unable to experience Death Note's story in any other fashion.
Overall : C
Story : B
Art : C-
Music : C
+ Light's characterization works well in the first movie, changes to the story's conclusion and bones of the plot hold up
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