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  • 12
  • Adventure, Crime
  • 2006
  • 126 mins

Death Note

Death Note


Shusuke Kaneko's live-action manga adaptation gives the politics of vigilante justice a diabolically human face


As a cultural phenomenon, Death Note is the very definition of 'big in Japan'. Starting life in 2003 as a serialised comic by Tsugumi Oba and Takeshi Obata for 'Weekly Shonen Jump' magazine, it has subsequently been collected into a 12-volume edition that has sold over 21 million copies, as well as inspiring its own anime series, video games, a novel and three (so far) live-action features.

Of these, Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name were both broadly based on the original mangas and were directed back-to-back in 2006 by Shusuke Kaneko (best known for revitalising the monster movie genre with his 1990s Gamera trilogy), who used the same cast and crew for each; while L: Change The World (2008) is essentially a spin-off, directed by none other than Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water).

Death Note the movie topped the Japanese box office in the first fortnight of its release (even beating The Da Vinci Code and went on to achieve similar success in Taiwan and Hong Kong. An American remake seems inevitable. So what is all the fuss about? Well, the first thing to observe is that, unlike so many films falling into the 'based on a manga' category, Death Note is refreshingly free of fighting or gore, keeping its high body count largely off screen; and while its two principal characters are most certainly male adolescents, their immaturity is both thematised and criticised within the film itself. In short, even if it features an otherworldly, apple-addicted CG demon (lifted directly from Takeshi Obata's original illustrations), Kaneko's film bears little resemblance to the manga adaptation as we know it.

As mysterious (and fatal) heart attacks begin to afflict the world's criminals, be they convicts, fugitives or merely suspects, the Japanese media are abuzz with talk of 'Kira' (the Japanese pronunciation of 'killer'), an unknown dispenser of justice whom some regard as a messianic saviour, others as a murderous devil.

In fact, Kira is Light Yagami (Fujiwara), a talented and intelligent young law student who, just as he was becoming disillusioned with the power of the law to rid the world of crime, had stumbled upon the Death Note - a supernatural book that brings about the death of anyone whose name is written into it. So now Light is radically reducing the criminal population, under the watchful eye of a Shinigami (or death god) named Ryuk (voiced by Nakamura) whom only the holder of the Death Note is able to see.

The police effort to identify and arrest Kira, led by Light's own father (Kaga), is soon joined by the self-styled 'L' (Matsuyama), a secretive international detective with a sweet tooth and a very high success rate. As the trap inexorably closes on Light, he must twist every rule in the Death Note to his own advantage, and must abandon every value that he once held dear, in order to escape being judged as he so readily judges others - and L, it turns out, is not only implacably opposed to Light, but also remarkably similar to him.

What Light and L really have in common, apart from their youth and floppy-haired epicene looks, is a narcissistic brand of sociopathy that reduces everything - even the deaths of others - to a manipulative, self-serving game. Both make arrogant claims to 'be' justice itself, but stop at nothing to use other human beings as pawns. In other words, they embody the very worst perceived attributes of Japan's disaffected, disengaged under-thirties, making them not just figures of rebellious fantasy, but of horrified anxiety as well.

It is not exactly easy to root for either of them, or to care much which one will come out on top - which is, paradoxically, one of the film's real plus points, as the moral questions that it raises about crime and punishment receive the most uncomfortable of answers. "You're far worse than the god of death," Light ends up being told by Ryuk - and he, as a bona fide god of death himself, is in a better position than most to know.

Still, while Death Note may boast what is in every sense a killer concept, it's rather blandly directed, repetitive, over-explained and overlong, and perhaps the best thing about it arises out of a mere accident. For while, at least to the uninitiated, the final scenes may suggest both that Light has grown up enough to relinquish the Death Note of his own accord, and that L may himself have done the same previously, unfortunately anyone who is familiar with the original manga, or who watches the film's sequel, will know that the ending of Death Note is in fact rather less interesting, merely holding viewers in suspense for more of the same to follow.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Shido Nakamura, Shunji Fujimura, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Yu Kashii, Erika Toda, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Asaka Seto, Shigeki Hosokawa, Takeshi Kaga
  • Director: Shusuke Kaneko
  • Screen Writer: Tetsuya Oishi
  • Writer (Comic book): Takeshi Obata, Tsugumi Oba
  • Producer: Takahiro Kobashi, Takahiro Sato, Toyoharu Fukuda
  • Photographer: Hiroshi Takase
  • Composer: Kenji Kawai

In a nutshell

This morality fantasy is a great idea, imperfectly executed.

by Anton Bitel

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