DEATH NOTE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

(Japanese with English subtitles)

Directed by: Shusuke Kaneko

Written by: Tetsuya Oishi

(based on the manga DEATH NOTE by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata)

Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Kenichi Matsuyama, Erika Toda, Asaka Seto, Shidou Nakamura, Shigeki Hosokawa, Shunji Fujimura, Takeshi Kaga, Yuu Kashii & Hikari Mitsushima

Based on the manga of the same name, DEATH NOTE is a movie that first proved that anime can translate into a competently made, smartly written, and well-acted feature film. This fantasy-thriller has a creative premise that could serve as the entire plot by itself, but the material proceeds to up its stakes by bringing two very interesting characters and a tense cat-and-mouse mystery into the mix. For long-time fans of the DEATH NOTE saga and newcomers alike, this movie should serve as an entertaining ride that’s so fun you’ll likely overlook its few flaws.

College student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is fed up with Japan’s problematic justice system and is sickened by the sheer amount of criminals walking the street. Wishing to rid of the world of crime, Light happens to stumble across a “Death Note,” a notebook that possesses the power to kill anybody whose name is written on its pages. With a complex set of rules and death god Ryuk (Shidou Nakamura) hovering over his shoulder, Light begins using his newfound godlike power to rid the world of criminals. He commits these murders under the name of “Kira.” Unfortunately for Light, secretive detective L (Kenichi Matsuyama) is hot on Kira’s trail. This results in a battle of wits and wills, all while more names are put into Light’s deadly little notebook and more bodies pile up.

Besides that imaginative premise, DEATH NOTE’s script is loaded with twists and turns. If you aren’t paying attention to certain details and the notebook’s rules, it’s likely that an unexpected plot development will leave you scratching your head. DEATH NOTE’s atmosphere has a steadily rising sense of tension as the walls begin to close in around Light’s killing spree. The film presents some tough moral dilemmas and intriguing social commentary. Certain killings may seem totally justified (Light wipes out an entire prison’s death row block in a few minutes), but the film dives deeper into vigilante justice and the ethics behind playing god. I think there’s also something to be said about most of Kira’s fans being the younger generation, while older citizens are outraged by his unique form of justice.

DEATH NOTE also does a fantastic job of building Light up as a charming, slick anti-hero. You’ll likely find yourself rooting for him and Tatsuya Fujiwara (of BATTLE ROYALE fame) plays him to perfection. It’s also fascinating to watch Light’s slow-but-steady transformation from determined vigilante to supernatural serial killer (as innocents begin to find their names in his notebook). There’s something so assured about Fujiwara’s portrayal of Light that makes it seem like this character thinks he’s always a step ahead. This character quality makes Light’s brainy battle against Kenichi Matsuyama’s quirky detective L so fun to watch. As L, Matsuyama gets lots of laughs and serves as an unusual antagonist. L treats his investigation as a game, instead of an actual hunt for a serial killer.

Though it’s great for the most part, DEATH NOTE does falter in a few areas. The film’s problems arise from one-note supporting characters and a couple of technical flaws. Takeshi Kaga is bland as Soichiro Yagami, Light’s stereotypical police officer father who’s unwittingly investigating his own son’s crimes without knowing it. The same can be said about Light’s half-hearted girlfriend Shiori Akino, played by the enthusiastic Yuu Kashii who isn’t given a whole lot to do here. Shidou Nakamura seems to be having a blast as the voice of death god Ryuk, even if the animation on this floating, wide-eyed, gothed-out creature is cheesy and annoying. Luckily, Ryuk is merely a spectator to Light’s supernatural killing spree and enjoys watching the chaos unfolding between both sides.

DEATH NOTE was originally intended to be one giant epic-length movie, but was split down middle for the sake of time and so studios could milk the fans for extra cash. Unlike other two-part live-action adaptations of anime (cough, ATTACK ON TITAN), this first DEATH NOTE movie actually holds up pretty damn well as its own creation. The conclusion contains a few cliffhangers that would be resolved in mere months (a four-month gap in Japan during 2006 and a five-month gap in the USA during 2008) with DEATH NOTE II: THE LAST NAME. The film’s ballsy ending also leaves the viewer excited to see what will happen next, while serving as a satisfying wrap-up to this first chapter.

I cannot attest for how well this version of DEATH NOTE stacks up to its manga source material or the celebrated anime, but it’s pretty friggin’ great when taken on its own merits as a film. Ryuk’s animation is corny and the supporting characters merely serve as means to an end, but the film is a compelling cat-and-mouse supernatural thriller between two very different geniuses. The film has loads of smart twists and turns, dark humor, and a constant sense of entertainment. If this sounds up your alley in any way, shape, or form, you’ll likely enjoy DEATH NOTE!

Grade: A-

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