Review: Death Note: the Movie (2006)

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The problem with the really, really cool manga is that sooner or later, someone is going to turn it into an anime series.

Actually, this isn’t the problem. The problem is that sooner or later, the anime is going to be turned into a live action movie. Why the problem? Well, let’s just say the track record for good screen adaptations of brilliant manga are pretty few and far between and not only because very few manga can make a claim on and live up to the ‘brilliant’ label.

Not so with Death Note.

For those uninitiated into the How to Read book of books, Death Note, by writer/illustrator team Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, is one of the most gripping, most affecting manga works to come out of Japan in years. It takes some of the most visible concepts of the last decade of horror – the insidiously impersonal nature of new technology, the removed violence and isolation and the desensitisation of today’s consumers, the seemingly out of control downward spiral of our slick, modern society – and presents a charismatic face in the form of antihero poster child, genius student Light Yagami, who finds a notebook that can kill and takes it upon himself to use it to rid the world of evil. Opposing him, naturally, are a handful of dedicated police and one mysterious detective known only as L.

Maybe it sounds like a Miike plot gone slightly wrong (if that’s even possible), but Death Note is right, right, right through to its red apple core. In fact, it really cannot be overstated how extremely good this story is. A classic good versus evil drama, where neither the good guy nor the bad guy are completely right or wrong and where the tension of a clever cat and mouse game with the characters lives literally at stake has you hoping both opponents will win, somehow. And this brings us back to our problem. It’s theoretically an easy thing to translate from manga to anime, for the simple reason that you have potentially as many episodes as you have pages and as little care for the restrictions of reality as you have algorithms and ink. But celluloid is a different story. And here’s the problem: with a manga series that sets expectations for others to follow, an attempt at a live action incarnation is almost certain death.

Except someone at Nippon TV was either a fan, or had their head screwed on right, because trying to be a frame-for-frame silver screen version of the manga is not what Death Note the movie is. Instead, the movie takes the main thread of the first seven volumes of the manga and owns it, with confidence, changing the details of the original story in ways both necessary and sensible, so that the alterations lead with surprising seamlessness into the critical scenes retained. Most of the drastic changes happen oddly enough in the first film, setting up the second to follow the manga’s developments a little more closely, but some of the changes are clearly compensatory. Light Yagami in the manga is the indisputable star, his perfect public face merely a mask for the cold megalomaniac lurking underneath, but it would have been an impossible task for any real person to achieve the same level of sociopathic allure. Tatsuya Fujiwara instead brings a slightly less aloof, more human face to the character’s flawed arrogance and by the second film it’s difficult not to completely warm to his performance and the way he relishes the character’s growing sense of righteous power.

By contrast, his co-star Keniichi Matsuyama is instantly likable as the genius detective L. Perhaps it’s more due to the strength of the original character or excellent casting, but he is pitch perfect in this role; so perfect in fact he’ll be soon starring in a spin-off film, L: Change the World, directed by Hideo ‘The Ring’ Nakata. Matsuyama is perhaps a little less naïve-seeming and a little more mature-looking than the original L, but he still possesses all the bizarrely adorable quirks of his manga counterpart (stirring his tea with Chuppa-chups and carefully constructing diabetes-attack snacks with small cakes and a skewer) and his ‘White King’ balances out Fujiwara’s ‘Black Queen’ with only a little less generated tension than in the manga.

And it seems impossible, but this balance is a strength of the film overall. So much has in actuality changed from the source, and yet it doesn’t seem to have changed for the worse. There’s a little less impact thematically, but on the whole the film has all the right hallmarks of a decent mystery thriller – and as an added bonus features a living breathing CG Ryuk, the coolest God of Death you’ll ever hope not to meet! – to make the viewing of it, whether you’re a Death Note fan from way back or entirely new to the phenomenon, not really that much of a problem after all.

8 Shinigami diet regimes out of 10.
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