Death NoteReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/15/07 10:17:54
SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: It's almost pointless to write a review of "Death Note" alone; its Japanese release was similar to that of "Kill Bill", with what is arguably one five-hour epic split in half and the two parts released several months apart. Still, as I write this particular paragraph during an intermission between the two parts, I will say that the first movie ends with one of the nemeses seeming to gain a huge advantage, and it has certainly left me stoked for "The Last Name".Across Japan and around the world, criminals are dying on their feet, victims of heart attacks despite no medical reason for it to happen. One falls in the middle of a hostage situation, and that's when we find out that the deaths are caused by law student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) writing their names in a magical notebook - the "Death Note" of the title. It was given to him by death god Ryuk (a CGI creation only Light can see), and Light has vowed to use it to rid the world of evil. Popular sentiment is with Light (code-named "Kira" by the police and news media), although Light's girlfriend and fellow law student Shiori (Yu Kashii) doesn't share that opinion. Neither do the police, who have assigned a high-ranking detective (Takeshi Kaga) to the investigation, and are also consulting with a mysterious investigator known only as "L". Fearing (rightly) that Tokyo's MPD has a leak, he has also called on the American FBI, notably Ray Iwatari (Shigeki Hosokawa) and his fiancée, Naomi Misora (Asako Seto).
Death Note doesn't go in for moral ambiguity as much as complete amorality. Light seldom if ever discusses the idea of whether or not writing someone's name in the book is simply wrong, and it doesn't come up much in the debates we see among students and in flashes of newspaper clippings and text messages. The point is made several times that "Kira" is having a powerful deterrant effect, both by noting that violent crime statistics are down and a simple text message from an unknown teen saying "no-one bullies me any more". Ryuk flat-out says he's on neither Light's nor L's side, and more to the point, Light doesn't even blink when he first attempts to kill L, nor attempt to justify the action in terms of how many more lives he'd be able to save. Of course, L does something pretty lacking in conscience to fight back.
Tatsuya Fujiwara does a fine job as Light. The film is working an "absolute power corrupts absolutely" vibe with his character, and while we only briefly see light as genuinely innocent in flashback, we believe his relatively quick descent into complete egotism and megalomania. It takes a certain amount of panache for a college student to pull off lines like "I am the God of a new world!", but Fujiwara manages. It's also easy to see why he becomes obsessed with L - not only to avoid arrest, but because he just can't stand the idea of there being someone smarter than him out there.
With one exception - and I'll get to that in the review of The Last Name, because the reveals involved were too much fun - it's Fujiwara's show and everyone else is supporting him. They fill important roles, though - Takeshi Kaga as the detective assigned to find Kira is not the formidable adversary that L is, but he does make a good argument for a criminal justice system versus an omnipotent vigilante. Yu Kashii's Shiori represents the best chance of Light developing a conscience, and Asako Seto's Noami gives us a glimpse of how maybe a passionate approach may counter Light's intellectual one. Shido Nakamura gives a fun vocal performance as Ryuk, ably co-realized with the CGI team.
Ryuk's presense is a great example of what director Shusuke Kaneko has made a career out of doing well - taking something fantastical and maybe a little silly and making it seem genuinely real. The design for Ryuk is almost laughable, including his insanely toothy mouth, but we buy into him being a part of Light's world. Shusuke and screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi have extracted a solid game of cat and mouse from the first few volumes of the popular manga series, and they pepper the movie with reminders of the ethical question the Death Note poses without ever making the proceedings feel dry."Death Note" ends on a heck of a cliffhanger, so you'll want to see "The Last Name" at least once if you liked this, but the way it gets to a new status quo is pretty satisfying in its own right.
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