08 October 2008

Death Note

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, Screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi, Based on the bestselling Japanese comic by Tsugumi Ooba and Takeshi Obata

Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Kenichi Matsuyama, Yu Kashii, Asaka Seto, 126 mins.

*** (out of ****)

I work in a DVD store, and our best-selling titles are all anime titles. NARUTO, BLEACH, DRAGONBALL Z, and above all, a series called DEATH NOTE. Me, not being much for the Anime crowd, simply scoff at the people shelling out a good amount of cash for a DVD that contains four episodes maximum. However, out of all the Anime in our selection (and we have a lot), DEATH NOTE has intrigued me the most. Certainly, it has a bizarre premise that I can’t really believe has extended to 9 DVD volumes and countless mangas, but its dark tone and intriguing creature designs pulled me in. I finally succumbed to my curiosity when I picked up the live-action adaptation of the Anime series to watch because, frankly, everything I read about it, the images, the trailer, and that damn awesome cover captivated me. (though, perhaps it was due to my allegiance to director Shusuke Kaneko, who re-invented the giant monster genre with the 90’s GAMERA trilogy) Bracing myself for what could possibly be one of the most messed up movie experiences of my life, I am pleasantly surprised to say that DEATH NOTE is a phenomenal movie that leaves you wanting more.

The basic story of the movie (although I don’t know how closely it follows the manga) follows Light Yagami, a very bright, successful student who finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped from the sky (oddly enough, the title and its rules are written in English), with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in the pages. Turns out, the book is the property of a winged, giant Death God named Ryuk, who forms a bond with Light, who finds himself unsatisfied and aggravated by the so-called justice system. Thus, using the powers of the notebook, he vows to use it to rid the world of all evil. His plan christens the ‘serial killer’ as “Kira” by police and civilians who view his work as either a monstrosity or necessary, and agencies around the world are hot on Light’s trail. The mysterious “L” involves himself in the investigation, and Light must quickly cover his tracks, but “L” will not be defeated easily.

As I mentioned above, one of the prime motivations for picking up DEATH NOTE was the involvement of Shusuke Kaneko, the man responsible for granting the giant monster genre a bit of respect with the near-perfect GAMERA trilogy from the 90s. Most recently, he also corrected the giant filmmaking flaws of Ryuhei Kitamura (VERSUS, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) in AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE (2005), which was a vast improvement over Kitamura’s original. Kaneko knows how to frame a camera, where to position it to create the best amount of emotion; perhaps it is for this reason that these rather one-dimensional characters work so well.

The script, written by Tetsuya Oishi, evidently is quite successful in condensing the manga into a two-hour film while maintaining and acknowledging crucial plot points. Obviously, by me not reading or watching anything prior, I can’t comment on this, but I can say that Oishi’s script is tight, and very, very well written. It’s not DARK KNIGHT, but being based off a manga and Anime series, it has far greater strength than I would have given it credit for. Oishi brings up debates concerning justice, or whether this omnipresent killer known as “Kira” is justified in his actions. The movie touches upon complex questions, but never fully indulges in them – mainly because it is about our characters, and in that, the script excels as well.

Light is played by Tatsuya Fujiwara (BATTLE ROYALE), and his performance is quite haunting. At some points he’s your regular Everyday Joe, then on the tele he watches a criminal or suspect walk away free from justice, he turns into – well, the Punisher (minus the black skull shirt). Fujiwara was awesome – he played his character as determined, sorta off the rocker, but simultaneously sympathetic. Light’s nemesis, “L”, is played by Kenichi Matsuyama (NANA), and he is truly the freakiest thing about the entire movie. Forget the miscellaneous deaths or the winged God of Death, Matsuytama’s deadpan stare that seems to look right through you is friggin’ creepy. Matsuyama is also able to make him a man who is not to be reckoned with. The cat-and-mouse game between these two culminate in a ending scene that just reeks of tension, and the success of that tension can be attributed to the wonderful performances Fujiwara and Matsuyama deliver. These two alone make me anxious for DEATH NOTE II.
Yu Kashii (LORELEI) is Shiori Akano, Light’s girlfriend and an individual quite passionate about the law – believing that “Kira” must be stopped. Unfortunately, Kashii isn’t given much to work with, so she has quite the “Mary Jane factor” of merely being the girlfriend and damsel-in-distress. The other prominent female in the cast is Asaka Seto (ONE MISSED CALL 2), playing Naomi Misora, Raye’s fiance. Once a certain event occurs at the halfway point, Naomi becomes consumed with rage, and determined to find “Kira” at all costs. Seto sells this perfectly. Aside from changing clothes (looking very fetching, by the way), Seto’s whole mannerisms change from playful fiance to “I’m about to go Charlie’s Angels” on your teenage ass!” It is unfortunate her character will not be showing up in PART II, she was an interesting character and a pretty fine actress.

Finally, the film’s conclusion brings about the biggest surprise of them all: the familiar sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Initially, I thought it was going to be another strange Japanese pop song, but nay – the person is speaking English! And then the song continues, and it’s the bloody Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California”! Damn, smart move for international appeal, though I am curious if Japanese viewers were thinking, “what the f-?” in their seats.

Overall, DEATH NOTE was an intense and wholly enjoyable experience, and I find myself anxious for DEATH NOTE II: THE LAST NAME, which is coincidentally premiering at my local theater as part of a “Death Note” event October 16th and 17th. For those, like myself, who don’t particularly enjoy Anime but yet are intrigued by this particular title, I recommend you pick it up. It's dark and intriguing, while simultaneously fun to watch.

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