REVIEW: Blu-ray Only Release: Death Note 1 & 2

Film: Death Note 1 & 2
Release date: 20th September 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 262 mins
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Asaka Seto, Shigeki Hosokawa, Erika Toda
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Studio: 4Digital
Format: Blu-ray
Country: Japan/USA

An epic cinematic adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba’s smash hit manga. A commercial and critical success on release, Death Note and its sequel Death Note: The Last Name were to prove that translating the energy and invention of manga to live action isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

A promising law student and son to the chief of police, Light Yagami feels that justice doesn’t’t reach the wicked as swiftly as he would like. When Light discovers the mysterious Death Note, a book that kills the owner of any name written in its pages, he seizes an opportunity to set the world right.

Befriending the Death Note’s previous owner, a death god named Ryuk, Light proceeds to take the lives of criminals that have slipped through the cracks of the justice system.

Given the name ‘Kira’ and revered by the public, Light soon lets the power of the Death Note corrupt him.

In an effort to catch the mysterious Kira, the police call on the help of L, a master detective who employs unorthodox but brilliant methods to flush Kira out.

Light and L lock wits and leave a trail of bodies in their wake, including Light’s girlfriend Shiori, who he sacrifices to escape suspicion and get closer to L.

Meanwhile, a famous popstar/TV personality named Misa receives her own Death Note and the companionship of death god Rem. Misa sacrifices half the years of her life for the death god’s eyesight, which allows her to see the name and remaining lifespan of any person. A devoted follower of Kira, Misa begins a killing spree to bring them together, hoping that they can cleanse the world of evil together.

Light, now on the Kira investigation team, seeks to find out L’s real name once and for all and defeat his nemesis, leading to a climactic showdown as Light and L confront each other in a battle of wits…

For many fans and critics, it would seem folly to try and translate the energy and visual splendour of a great manga into live action - there will inevitably be something lost in transition - which is why it so surprising that the Death Note films are such a success, capturing the spirit of the source material perfectly, and largely avoiding any dilution of that signature energy.

Although adapting Ohba’s work shouldn’t have been that daunting, given the technological capability of cinema these days, it’s still impressive that director Kaneko has not only managed to recreate faithfully the events of the manga, but also give his films their own distinct identities.

This unique feel is largely down to a great cast, particularly the central pairing of Fujiwara and Matsuyama, excellent in both films as the Machiavellian Light and his brilliant nemesis L. Fujiwara, so effective as a good guy in film’s like Battle Royale, manages to make Light’s quick decent into malevolent evil convincing and sympathetic.

Fujiwara is the perfect foil for Kira’s schemes, a modern day Sherlock who eats nothing but junk food and has a penchant for cruel and unorthodox investigation methods. L is the best thing about both films, frequently stealing entire scenes just by eating marshmallows on a stick.

Erika Toda also impresses as Misa Amane, the self-titled ‘Kira II’ and second Death Note recipient. Her role as Light’s biggest fan and eventual partner in crime is somewhat threadbare, but her tragic backstory, and the treatment she receives from both Light and L highlights Misa as one of the story’s’ only sympathetic characters.

Perhaps one of the biggest strengths of both films is translating successfully some of the more fantastical elements of the Death Note manga, specifically the death gods Ryuk and Rem. Ryuk, who is given a meaty role in both films, is a computer generated character of such accomplishment, he can be mentioned in the same breath as a certain ring hungry ex-hobbit. His appearance is faithfully recreated, and Shido Nakamura’s voicework gives him a manic energy - even more so than his exaggerated, anime-like mannerisms.

Less focus is placed on Rem, Misa’s death god, but equal attention to detail can be seen in translating his image directly from page to screen. Also, in one of the stories many depictions of light versus dark, Rem acts as a kinder counterpart to Ryuk, disinterested in the pain and suffering of others and bound to his honourable duty to Misa. Both shinigami are great value and fit comfortably in with the human characters. The films are so successful because they capably marry the story’s fantasy element with a hip, real world charm.

There are some gripes, and chief among them is the uneven pace of both films, steamrolling through some plot strands while ambling through others. Why, for instance, is Light’s descent into evil explained away with a brief flashback, while the investigation into ‘Kira’ is stretched across the entirety of the first film? Surely more focus should have been placed on the genesis of the story’s villain. Later on, Misa’s subplot appears sporadically throughout the second film, giving little chance to engage with her character - she goes from obsessive and deadly Kira fan to vulnerable torture victim in only a handful of scenes.

These minor pacing quibbles aside, both films steadily gather momentum leading to satisfying (if a little murky) conclusion. The Last Name’s final stretch suffers from some unnecessary plot convolution, throwing one too many Kira’s into the mix, which highlights the inability of the writers to cram every manga plot strand in competently. Overall, the story of Light Vs. L is one worth experiencing.

Essentially a trite observation of the true nature of justice, the story of Death Note has enough parallels with modern cultural climate to maintain a certain relevance. Shusuke Kaneko presents a faithful adaptation of Ohba Sugumi’s manga, and the accomplished ensemble cast inhabit their roles perfectly. KT

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