When Light Yagami, an idealistic young law student, discovers a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in its pages, he uses it to embark on a secret quest to rid the world of criminals. But when the world’s greatest detective, L, starts closing in on him, Light’s definition of those who “deserve” to die starts to change, transforming him from being a self-proclaimed God of Justice to the most malevolent serial killer the world has ever known.
Japanese live-action cinema has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. Don’t get me wrong. Some of the story ideas are fantastic. However, more often than not, these great plots are destroyed by the fact that the film-makers lack the budget necessary to do them justice. Thankfully, this is not the case with Death Note, the two movie, live-action adaptation of Tsugami Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga of the same name, which actually manages to surpass its source material and ranks as my favourite Japanese movie(s) of all time.
Death Note is a serial killer story with a difference, in that the murders are committed using nothing more sinister than pen and paper. In an interview, manga creator Ohba explained that he made this choice because he “didn’t think he could create a normal fight-style manga” and thought “it might be good to have a suspense-type fighting manga”, which were very rare at the time. There is virtually no violence in Death Note (generally, if someone is killed using the Death Note, the cause of death is a heart attack); instead, the battle between good and evil is fought on a purely psychological basis.
The first of the two Death Note movies (which were made back-to-back and were intended to be watched together) focusses on Light’s descent into darkness. Through his relationship with his girlfriend Shiori, Light is initially shown to be an intrinsically good person with a strong sense of justice, but with each decision he makes, he becomes more and more corrupt, until the shocking finale where we realise he has become every bit as evil as the criminals he is trying to stop.
Although his presence is felt for most of the film, L, who is the Sherlock Holmes to Light’s Moriarty, and who is hilarious to watch with his bizarre array of idiosyncrasies (such as creating kebabs made of cakes and then eating them), only actually appears for the first time at the 72 minute mark and doesn’t come face to face with Light until the film’s end. This is very much Light’s film.
The second film, Death Note: The Last Name, picks up immediately where the first film left off and expands the first film’s universe to include two more Death Notes and two additional killers. Light becomes a part of the police task force assigned to track down the Death Note killers and the focus of the film shifts to the psychological battle between Light and L, who are simultaneously working together and fighting to the death. When Light first arrives at the taskforce headquarters, he and L play a game of chess. This is the perfect metaphor for the film as a whole. Both Tatsuya Fujiwara (who also starred in Battle Royale – my next favourite Japanese movie) and Kenichi Matsuya are excellent in their roles as Light and L respectively (Kenichi Matsuya was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards), and the scenes with them together are a highlight of the film.
The original manga upon which Death Note was based was serialized in a weekly magazine and ran for 108 chapters. The story spans seven years and has a number of phases to it, with various people obtaining the Death Note and various detectives trying to track it down at different stages in the plot. The movies, however, deal only with the first half of the manga and new material is added in order to create an exciting mid-point (at the end of the first film) and a satisfying conclusion. Although I enjoyed the manga, after about the half-way point it became repetitive and started to drag, so the decision to delete the later portion of it is extremely welcome. It also focus the story more tightly on Light and L, who are undoubtedly the best and most compelling characters in the manga.
Given that Hollywood seems to love remaking successful foreign movies, ever since I first saw Death Note I’ve been wondering why there isn’t an American version of it. Recently, however, there’s been talk of just that, with Shane Black attached as director. While I don’t necessarily believe that all American remakes of foreign films are intrinsically bad (The Ring and Let Me In, for example, were excellent), I struggle to imagine how Hollywood could possibly out-do the Japanese when it comes to Death Note. If you want to know just how good Japanese live-action cinema can be, Death Note is the film to watch.
Verdict: A sprawling two-film epic that does justice to one of the most successful manga series of all time.