On paper, the Death Note concept seems like just another J-horror retread of the viral killing machine. It was a videotape in the Ring, a cellphone in One Missed Call and now – a notepad where anyone whose name is written in it…dies. However, Death Note goes in a very different direction, spinning its supernatural premise into a tense plot-driven thriller.
Based on the popular manga of the same name, Death Note tells the story of genius college student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara from Battle Royale and Takashi Miike’s Sabu) who discovers a Death Note, the notebook used by supernatural spirits known as Shinigami to write down the names of humans due to die. Light, however, decides to use the killer piece of stationery as a way to rid the world of evil and wipe out crime. His actions quickly draw the attention of the authorities, led by the eccentric genius detective known only as ‘L’ (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), and proceedings turn into a cat and mouse game as the police try to uncover who is behind the killings while Light seeks to find the real name of ‘L’ so he can eliminate his enemy.
The adaptation is as good as could reasonably be expected. The cast is solid (particularly Ken’ichi Matsuyama, who exemplifies the look and mannerisms of the manga L with perfection), the realization onscreen of the Shinigami is excellent (if a little cartoony) and the plotting is well thought out with a couple of intelligent modifications to ensure a climax of sorts. The problem is that it is simply too accurate to the source material.
As a manga, Death Note rattles along as L and Light hatch scheme after scheme to outwit each other and try desperately to catch the other out in a lie. However, endless talking and inner monologues simply are not very cinematic and the translation to the screen cannot help but be turgid. Mired in constant dialogue sequences with virtually no action or visual passages, the film Death Note may work as an adaptation but as entertainment in its own right, it can only be viewed as a noble failure.
However, the sequel is a different story. Death Note: The Last Name picks up right where the first film ends, but willingly diverges more from the manga with successful results. A select few action sequences mix things up and the twisting, turning plot maintains interest throughout as Light finds there is a second Death Note in existence and its owner may accidentally lead to his own reveal.
A sequel in the purest sense in that it simply continues the story, The Last Name has a number of things in its favor including not needing to set up the situation and being able to put in an actual finale. Indeed, the plot throws in a twist at the climax to throw those familiar with the manga and sheds a large amount of story padding.
It is still not perfect, though. The demands of the Light character – particularly in the heightened emotion of the climax – seems beyond Fujiwara, who veers into amateur dramatics when he needs to evoke deep empathy and philosophical discussion in the audience. Rather than becoming a clash in ideologies between extreme conservative and liberal, things become more of a petulant battle of egos.
Nevertheless, viewed together as an unusual twist on the usual detective/serial killer genre, the Death Note movies (both by Shusuke Kaneko, best known in the West for the likes of Azumi 2 and Pyrokinesis) are certainly diverting and entertaining, although rarely rise above that status. They have proven popular in Japan and hence it is unsurprising that an ‘L’ spin-off film has already been announced, to be helmed by none other than Ring/Dark Water man Hideo Nakata.