Monday, March 26, 2007


Based on the popular manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Shusuke (Azumi 2: Death or Love) Kaneko’s Death Note tells the story of college student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara, from Batoru Rowaiaru II: Chinkonka: Battle Royale II: Requiem, and Takashi Miike’s Sabu), who finds a mystical notebook belonging to the Death God Ryuk, a dodgy CGI construct appearing to be a very tall Marilyn Manson with wings and a fanged Joker’s grin.
Complete with handy, detailed instructions (I guess Ryuk wants to cover his bony a$$ against law suits from the afterlife), the notebook has the power to kill any person whose name in written on its pages, with the proviso that when you do write down a person’s name, you need to visualize that person’s face, so as to avoid all the people in the world named, say, “Adolf Hitler,” to drop dead at the very same moment from a heart attack (if you’re not particularly choosy about cause of death).
Light quickly gets into the spirit of things, using the notebook to execute criminals, alleged or otherwise, in the process becoming a cultural phenom known as “Kira,” judge, jury, and executioner of Japanese criminal scum.
With the police stumped, enter the mysterious “L” from stage left, who first appears as a laptop spouting a synthesized Chipmunk voice. “L” is apparently a specialized consultant for law enforcement agencies around the globe, who has helped solve any number of seemingly unsolvable cases.
Of course.
And when “L” throws down the gauntlet in a very public manner, the stage is set for the two self-styled geniuses to match wits in a deadly chess game of move and counter-move, while Light gleefully speeds down the road to Sociopath City.

With a premise and plot that fairly screams “Comic book!!!” (and I mean the juvenile, vaguely ludicrous and improbable sort), Death Note clears the starting gate with a hell of a handicap.
The production then isn’t helped any by performances that are frankly painful to watch. The only actors who manage to rise above bad and just squeak past mediocrity are Takeshi Kaga (Chairman Kaga from Ryori No Tetsujin—the original Iron Chef!), who plays the head of the police squad investigating the Kira case, and Asaka Seto (Chakushin Ari 2: One Missed Call 2, the “Dark Hole” segment of Hak Yae: Black Night, and Hideo Nakata’s upcoming Kaidan), as the fiancĂ© of an FBI agent.
Not only do we have bad acting from the humans, but the CGI is of the sort that isn’t 100% convincing either, thus, the scenes where Light interacts with Ryuk (invisible to everyone else who has not touched the Death Note) are distracting, bad actor bouncing off bad CGI. Not good. This is the sort of film where maintaining suspension of disbelief is like trying to break the law of gravity.

Things then get even stickier when “L” is introduced in flesh and blood form. I’ll refrain from saying who plays “L,” so there’s some mystery for those of you who plan on seeing Death Note. What I will say though, is that “L” is a character whose eccentricities feel monstrously contrived, and a large part of the fault lies in the performance, one of the most disastrous in the film. Watching “L” in action is like watching Ryuk; you just know what you’re seeing isn’t real, as there isn’t a speck of genuine honesty in the portrayal.
(Actually, I think watching Ryuk is easier. He’s CGI, so at least he’s got a valid excuse for being a great big fake.)

As events unfold, there’s a plot twist some 40 minutes into the proceedings that tantalizingly dangles the possibility that the narrative will go into some interesting, more provocative waters, but no. The twist is revealed, apparently without altering anything in the slightest. A golden opportunity to spike up tension and delve deeper into personalities and motivation is basically tossed out the window apparently without the slightest trace of regret.
One of the most bothersome aspects of all this is that we never really see why Light gets into the Death Note so intensely, he simply does. Other than a brief debate with his girlfriend Shiori (Yu Kashii) over whether Kira’s deadly vigilante actions are justified, Light just plows through the notebook’s pages like nobody’s business.
And there doesn’t even seem to be any discernable segue from his execution of criminals to his offing of the law enforcement types who are after him, no apparent remorse for his supernatural murder of the innocent. We see no reason for Light’s coldly sociopathic tendencies. You’d think we’d get to see why this particular human is apparently even more “evil” than Ryuk himself, but that simply isn’t the case.

Like the film adaptation of Devilman, Death Note leaves you with the feeling that there was just way too much material to adapt comfortably into a 2-hour long movie. In fact, Kaneko cheats by having the story split into two films, following up the tale in Death Note: The Last Name.
Thus, Death Note ends in a stupefying cliffhanger that makes a mockery of the frustratingly long 2 hours and 6 minutes that it took to get there. Those desperate for a final resolution so as to put the whole sorry mess behind them will be royally ticked off (or, at the very least, annoyed, as I was).

Parting shot: The fact that this film was so popular in Japan—so much so that it went head-to-head with one of last year’s global box office juggernauts, The Da Vinci Code, and actually came out on top for two weeks—is just one of the myriad mysteries of the movie world; “more things in heaven and earth and the multiplex,” and all that.

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