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Death Note (2006)
Director: Shusuke Kineko

review by Richard Bowden

Death Note is the first of a two-part movie adaptation of the manga and anime series of the same name, one highly regarded by fans. It tells the story of Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a high school law student, recipient of the eponymous fatal document, courtesy of a playful god of death. He or she who owns such a notebook has power over life or death, following processes controlled by a strict protocol of rules. By writing the name of a person who is to die within its pages, together with a description of how and when the events come to pass, the owner of the notebook can become something of a god him or herself.

Meanwhile a shinigami (god of death) called Ryuk watches over the human owner of the death notebook, as an ironic observer of murderous events: an entity only visible either to the book's possessor or those who touch it. Soon, Light starts a reign of merciless justice, killing criminals across Japan, his ruthless persona named 'Kira' - derived from the Japanese word for murder - becomes a popular and media sensation. Unable to discover the reason behind these disturbing events by regular means, the authorities bring in 'L' (Kenichi Matsuyama), a super detective who shortly pits himself against Kira in a battle of intellectual wits...

A cursory glance over this outline - and of the complications which ensue - makes clear that Death Note promises to be more morally complex and narratively involved than many other adaptations from the manga and anime market. That's both the series' strength and weakness, as we shall discover. Death Note is an intriguing and thought-provoking diversion, but ultimately it all gets as much out of hand as does the predations of the egomaniac Kira, unable to judge when enough is enough, confusing increased complication for enhanced speculation. Part of this is the result of boiling down a relatively long anime series into two films (still over four hours in total) but also part arguably the fault of a narrative tempted to reflect back its main concerns into its drama, but one eventually as confusing as a hall of mirrors.

This is less true of this first part, being largely focused more exclusively on the cat 'n' mouse relationship between Kira and L. There's an interesting balance between the two which works well: Light/ Kira is morally immature, killing criminals without due process to make his 'revolution' of a better world with no crime; by contrast L is youthful, despite his reputation as the world's top sleuth; in most shots he's seen eating sweets and cakes, examining his foodstuffs like a child at a tea party or crouched, monkey-like, on chairs as if unused to grown-up furniture.

Similarly, his lack of real name suggests one yet to take on an adult estate in life. For the first part of the film we don't see L at all, as he's just heard over a computer link, and the belated revelation of his peculiarities is effective even if, eventually, creepy brilliance comes to replace a rounded characterisation. Much is made of the intellectual and chess-like competition between the two and, until the storyline becomes more diffuse, this is quite effective.

By a process of inspired deduction, L narrows down his search for Kira until he has Light on his short list of suspects; matters are complicated when we learn that it is Light's father who is in charge of the overall investigation. Meanwhile, Kira's moral callousness if shown up even further when Light's girlfriend is implicated in the terror... Kira's very visible form of justice is one viewed with mixed feelings by the Japanese populace, notably in vox pop speculations as to his real identity and the value of his actions; this all the while the two films make much of the role of communications in spreading the killer's mythos wider.

In one sense the speed and accuracy of Kira's murders are meat to systems such as television or the Internet, where impressions can be shallow and critical decisions near instantaneous - a very modern and public form of 'despatch' if you like, both of language - and of lives. Of course there is a more specific critique at play too: that of youth culture, It is noticeable that the only 'wise-older' character in the movie is Watari - L's manservant (one presumes) - a minor role. Elsewhere the young or immature predominate: in the media, as the detectives (with one, especially, incompetent cop Matsuda highlighted as lacking experience), while even the presumably ageless gods of death look reasonably fresh-faced.

Eventually, Kira and his methods - which grow more extreme as he seeks to avoid justice - are judged as "far worse than a god of death... a devil in disguise," more than any shinigami, who's merely content to set the rules then sit back and let a human do the worst, at a cost of life-years. Of course, Death Note has a lot to suggest about predestination and freewill too, all of which adds potentially fascinating dimensions: for instance, if one must do and die exactly as it is written, does one become less human than the murderer? Or, can one be held responsible for one's actions if the end is already known and decided? And so on.

Both Death Note films suffer from less than impressive CGI work, perhaps the fault of transferring the shinigami so literally from comic to big screen, but this is not a major issue. More of a problem is the pacing of events - relentlessly sombre and rarely changing tempo. The inherent ironies of the piece, and a generally glum and stolid supporting cast, cry out for a little comic relief by way of contrast but they are very few - the most notable exception being when L confronts Light and his new girlfriend in public. After over two hours watching scenes which move so deliberately, with so little light and shade in characterisation, by the end one is almost ready to write a few names in a notebook of one's own. Death Note is not a bad film, but one senses it could have been a better one.

The blu-ray disc has little going for it other than marginally better picture quality than a regular DVD, with no real extras - but the final release may contain more.

Read a review of -
Death Note 2: The Last Name

Death Note 1 and 2

Death Note

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