Death Note (3 Disc Edition) Review
Ohba Tsugumi and Obata Takeshi’s beautifully constructed thirteen volume epic, Death Note, is one of Japan’s best selling manga of recent times. Published in 2003 it ran until 2006 and amassed such a following that in 2005 production went underway for two live-action movies based on the property. Prior to the second film’s theatrical release in late 2006 an anime series also hit the airwaves; Death Note shows no sign of slowing down as it dominates various properties, including novels and probably lunch boxes.
At the time that Shusuke Kaneko began work on the first Death Note feature the manga had yet to be completed. Films one and two ultimately cover the first seven volumes, with still a fair portion excised, and the final act of part two being re-invented. I won’t pretend to know the inns and outs of the comic publication, although I have read several volumes now to get me up to speed on where the film takes off by itself. It’s entirely possible that fans of the manga may dislike the feature films; it’s heavily truncated, doing away with a lot of dialogue, character development and nuances which is littered throughout Tsugumi’s writings. That is perhaps to be expected, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable to a degree and it seems to pinpoint the intentions of the manga effectively enough.
Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a top of his class student; having recently passed his bar exam and with high hopes of becoming a superintendent, following in the footsteps of his officer father Souichiro (Takeshi Kaga). But Light is all too weary of the world of law and politics: he cannot abide the way in which criminals are treated far more lightly than they deserve to be, and these troubles begin to discourage him as he nears his goal. As luck would have it he stumbles across a book one rainy evening. Titled “Death Note”, the book informs the user that if a human’s name is written in the pages then that human will die accordingly. The instructions are as follows:
*The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
*This note will not take effect unless the writer has the subject’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
*If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the subject’s name, it will happen.
*If the cause of death is not specified, the subject will simply die of a heart attack.
After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
Of course Light puts all of this down to being some silly joke, but curiosity gets the better of him and he jots down the name of a known criminal who has just been reported on the TV. Within seconds the man dies and Light is confronted by a Shinigami (God of Death) known as Ryuk (voiced by Shido Nakamura [Neighbour No. 13]). When the reality of this sinks in Light realises that he could in fact change the world with such unimaginable powers, seeking to rid it of all criminals and letting it be known that any future negative actions held toward society will not go unpunished.
As murderers, rapists and corporate bigwigs are dying all over Japan the International Police Organisation becomes inundated with identical reports: that they’re succumbing to heart attacks. Stumped by this they employ the services of a mysterious detective who goes by the moniker of “L” (Ken’ichi Matsuyama). He quickly establishes the perpetrator as being “Kira”, a name brought on by media and the adoring public and informs the police of Kira’s intent to become a bigger than God. Soichiro is given the task of leading the investigation, while L looks forward to solving the crime and finding out the true identity of Kira, even if it’s just to prove that he’s better than him. As things heat up Light finds himself facing many obstacles: his family, the police and an unlikely pop-idol named Amane who likes to refer to herself as MisaMisa (Erika Toda).
It’s impossible to write about Death Note without touching upon its sheer cynicism toward how contemporary society is built up around us. Its clear objective is in scorning, even mocking the likes of governed laws and media consumption and how we perceive what we’re being fed via news channels every day. It takes the likes of the internet and shows it rightfully as a tool that ensures we’re no longer secluded from certain groups: where we can channel our voices without fear, under the guidance of anonymity and it ponders over whether or not we should ever take the law into our own hands, having exhausted all other options in seeing to it that justice is appropriately served.
These very themes naturally drive the tale via the unlikeliest of heroes. Here we have a character that is interesting based on the fact that he’s not a primary protagonist, nor antagonist; he’s a being who gradually distorts his own reality with delusions of grandeur by erasing the evil from our world in the bid for peace - and ultimately to afford him a god-like status amongst the masses. Light is a complexity, but one which highlights a common theme amidst such tales of morality, those which challenge human responsibility, and as seen in Death Note 1 & 2 extend to frighteningly accurate portrayals of people who become victims of their own desire to reach the number one position in their chosen field. Death Note challenges various ethical notions by demonstrating the rights and wrongs of our decisions, by taking an action too far, to the point that we might even forget why we pursued our own personal goals in the first place. Greed takes over from basic human principals and ensures that not only will Light be persecuted for his actions, but so too will the blind followers who we witness aiding him, willingly or not.
But while all of this takes such precedence it serves to underline an intriguing detective thriller. The very fact that it is such a condensed version of the original manga means that it has to forgo certain characters and situations, but by doing so it often suffers from a bit of lag. The first film for example is practically all set up and zero tension, which makes it difficult to review as an individual piece, hence my decision here to simply talk about Death Note as a whole. To its favour it’s not entirely conventional; sure enough it relies on twists, curious banter and cat and mouse routines to get it through its exhausting four and a half hour run time, but it’s a unique experience which crosses genres with relative ease and gets by with the help of some rather eccentric characters.
Obviously Light and L are the primary players in this battle of wits, carrying the first film by themselves until the arrival of Amane who then threatens to shake things up a little. Joining them of course are the Shinigami, Ryuk and Rem and these add to the films’ overall fantastical nature. Once all of our major players are brought together Death Note takes a considerable turn for the better in The Last Name as it sets up various pitfalls for each. Alliances are formed and broken and there’s often a cog being twisted in the works to prevent anyone from enjoying a smooth ride along their path of self-righteousness or investigative perusal. Death Note pieces together its mystery well; although it readily presents us the facts and we’re all too privy as to who done it, it’s more about the attempts to close the case in the face of treachery and wicked games. But if I’m to present any immediate problem it’s that the war of words waged between Light and L is just so rudimentary. There’s no real effort being made in providing a highly tense rivalry. There’s a lot of glossing over and arguments are cut short relatively quickly. The sheer sense of emergency that should dominate both films is largely missing, with scatterings here and there, and criminally the Shinigami’s screen time is far too brief to have us enjoy the way in which they interact with their human counterparts, with the relationship between Rem and his collaborators coming off the worst.
And so Death Note doesn’t feel as grand as it should, both aesthetically and in terms of its otherwise burgeoning narrative. The entire look of the films echoes your typical Japanese TV show, and that itself is probably down to it being a Nippon Television production, which probably gave it a budget no greater than a standard thirteen episode drama. Its sterile nature and conventional camerawork leaves little to be desired, with not much in the way of a tense atmosphere, certainly for the first part, which is quite a shame coming from Shusuke Kaneko, who has made a few enjoyable films in the past: strictly noting Gamera and discarding Azumi poo - I mean 2. As for the big draws Ryuk and Rem, we’re naturally looking at CG creations and as far as the Shinigami go in inhabiting the human world they’re hit and miss throughout. There are times when we’re given very impressive shots and others which show up the characters as being just that little bit too plastic-y. Thankfully the solid voice work from Shido Nakamura and Peter(?) makes them livelier, with their facial expressions and movements enjoyable to watch all the same. But for a film based upon a manga with such a rich imagination it feels like the makers here are being far too skimpy, possibly afraid, or perhaps too skint to dig a whole lot deeper in conjuring up the striking imagery it rightfully deserves.
In terms of characterisation it’s a case of the performers adjusting themselves well into the second film. Tatsuya Fujiwara is tolerable for the most part, but as usual there’s a certain amount of restraint coming from him. He never takes his character beyond a certain point (until he incredibly hams it up during his final moments on screen) and as such lacks a more maniacal personality. His scenes are rarely interesting apart from when he’s alongside Ryuk and his adversary L, who is played far more effectively by Ken’ichi Matsuyama. Matsuyama practically nails his character’s mannerisms, revelling in every one of his little eccentricities and comes away as being one of the more memorable additions to the cast, even if, as with Light, his material doesn’t flesh him out quite so appropriately. Arguably Erika Toda is the weakest addition to the cast. Initially annoying in the first film she ends up fleeting in and out of the second picture, but she never rises above being merely cutesy and doughy-eyed, when her character by the half way point should be totally bonkers as well. Her relationship with Light is played half-heartedly and we never gain the impression that she’s truly in love with him and equally as mad. Toda does what she can, but she clearly doesn’t have the chops or fire within to play such an integral role.
Death Note has been awarded a 3-disc collector’s edition in Hong Kong, courtesy of Panasia. Two amaray cases come housed within a sturdy card slip-case.
Presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio, Death Note has been given a remarkably good DVD transfer here. To get the most problematic stuff out of the way first, black levels appear quite flat, no doubt brought on by the digital production, and contrast levels are a little high, which leaves shadow detail also troublesome. Just check out the first screen shot I’ve provided which shows very little detail on Ryuk for example. But it often varies, depending on location: outdoor scenes can often look great, while low-lit interiors tend to show up the flaws more evidently. But otherwise we have a rich colour palette and detail isn’t too shabby overall. Technically the disc is well produced; aliasing isn’t a major factor and it doesn’t have any unsightly compression artefacts to speak of.
Our sound options consist of Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Japanese DTS ES and Cantonese Dolby Digital stereo. Surprisingly, Death Note doesn’t make as much use of its soundtrack as I had expected it to. For all intents this is mainly a hugely talkative piece and only ever comes to life during particular moments. Ambient effects are well channelled and dialogue is of course well steered across the front speakers. Listening to the DTS ES track I found that even the subwoofer is given very little of a workout. The only thing really worth elaborating on is the voices of Ryuk and Rem, which are steered across front and rear channels, resulting in a reverberated sound, which works considerably well, even if it’s not entirely necessary.
Discs one and two are bare-bones, with the third carrying the supplemental material, which is found in the amaray case for the second film.
All bonus features have optional English subtitles.
The meaty extras come in the form of two Making Of features both running for fifty minutes each. The first covers shooting between February and March 2006 and begins with the first day of shooting, with the actors being introduced and trying to settle in to their roles. The shoot was dogged by poor weather, from torrential rain to snow storms, which tended to halt proceedings, but we see everyone get through it ok. We soon learn from Fujiwara and Yu Kashii that nerves are at play and that they have quite the challenge ahead of them. From here it’s simply a collection a short pieces that show off various aspects of shooting and several set pieces, with some very brief interviews and clips from the movie chucked in. We’re given some good insight into production, from the cast acting against life-sized models of Rem and Ryuk, as well as a look behind the motion capture process and voice dubbing. The most interesting part is learning that Ken’ichi Matsuyama pretty much stayed in character the whole time, preferring not to connect with any of his co-stars. The main cast members talk about their desire in playing their given roles and admit that it’s a heavy task and weren’t entirely sure if they could pull it off. The piece finishes with the shooting coming to a wrap, where the first feature is then ready to go straight into post.
The second Making Of picks up a few months later and takes us through the June to July shoot. With the weather having picked up it’s quite sunny and humid and the cast and crew now have to work under more tiring conditions, but spirits are high due to the news that the first film performed well during its pre-screening run. This feature runs in basically the same fashion as the first one, but introduces additional cast members and focuses a little more on Erika Toda. It also looks at shooting in several different locations, with production also moving to Osaka for example. Again there’s a short look at the motion capture process and CG involvement, with a few interviews and farewells wrapping up the piece.
The only thing about these two features is that we don’t learn a great deal; there’s no talk about adapting the hugely popular manga, other than cast and crew mentioning that they loved it. No input from the creators or screenwriters. Nobody is particularly forthcoming about anything, particularly the director himself who gives half-arsed comments when asked questions: for example the script, which he says was much longer and a problem to develop, merely finishing every time with “That is all”, and he does this often it seems. There’s no why and how whatsoever. Moments like this suggest a total lack of passion for the project and in hindsight it’s no wonder that the film isn’t as great as it could have or should have been, regardless of how well it performed at the Japanese box office.
Moving on then, the bonus features get considerably fluffier. Production Diary runs for approximately thirteen minutes and includes a collection of very short clips covering various elements of production, from original hair and make-up/general wardrobe tests, to green screen shooting and model work. The length of each makes it difficult to gain anything really worthwhile. Press Conference lasts for just seven minutes. Being held at Roppongi Park it’s your typical gathering, with cast members introducing themselves and expressing their wishes for the film to be a success, which is then followed up by some silly media questions, such as “What would you do if you had a Death Note?” But the actors take it in their stride and Fujiwara has a bit of fun in pretending to mediate for Ryuk. Death Note: The Last Name - Special Japan Preview clocks in at just two minutes and sees the cast and director visit fans at the Tokyo International Forum, minus Fujiwara who is committed to another shoot. Finally we have the three minute piece Death Note: The Last Name - Meeting the Audience in Japan. Here, Tatsuya Fujiwara and Ken’ichi Matsuyama visit the Shibuya Cine Palace in front of screaming girl fans and present media. It’s actually quite fun, with the pair trying to upstage one another, causing a fair few laughs in the process and Matsuyama yelling at Fujiwara because he’s starting to piss him off. I’d like to think that he probably was really beginning to piss him off.
The Death Note films are certainly not without merit. The storyline is an intriguing one and there’s enough here to please fans of good old mystery dramas. The special effects are acceptable as are the performances, but overall it feels like the production is awfully sedated, having had the potential to become so much more. A fairly routine effort, which manages to make its intent clear, however, Death Note is a curious double-bill worth investigating, but not one that has longevity on its side.