I am not kidding you, that’s actually the Japanese for Death Note. Sometimes I wonder what’s the point of different languages. Then I remember how hot French girls can sound. Really helps take the edge off the armpit hair… and the being French. Anyway, Death Note is a real life film based on a popular Manga comic and Anime series of the same name. It features Japanese actors that are gonna mess with my spell checker and premise that was likely thought up after drinking too much Sake. Click the link for my review!
Death Note tells the story of Light Yagami (yup, his name’s actually Light), played by Tatsuya Fujiwara, who at some point before the film starts, and before he learns what exposition is, finds a note book that allows him to kill anyone who’s name is written within it. He plans to use his powers for good by killing off criminals around the world but before too long the police and the FBI are after him and he begins to be pushed towards using the book for less ethical reasons. Pretty decent concept to be fair. The idea of being able to kill someone with a pen stroke is quite a good one. It boils down the act of taking a life to something anyone can do with ease. This could lead to a character that could be at odds with the idea of taking a life so easily, or at least he could struggle with the potential addiction of being able to kill so easily. Those topics are barely touched on here. Shame.
Now before I go on I’m sure someone will probably feel like saying something along the lines of “but the Anime deals with those issues much better!”. I don’t care, this is the film, not the anime. All that matters is what happens here. We see no gradual build to Light using this new power at all. The film opens with half a dozen actors performing some of the most amateurishly acted heart attacks seen outside of a daytime soap opera and then the man behind it and his method. So within 10 minutes we’ve seen people killed by a teen with little regard for the morals involved. Now I don’t expect the film to go all heavy with the morals in the first 10 minutes but you can’t just have the main character killing loads of people before you realise he’s the protagonist. The film then spends about 10 minutes on flashbacks telling us how he got the book and how quickly he decided to use it and the motives behind using it. This should have been at the start. Light is a law student and we find out that he has discovered just how many criminals go unpunished in Japan. One day he takes a stroll to a local thug bar and comes face to face with murderer who got off free. Light then literally finds the Death Note on the floor outside and meets the God Of Death Ryuk, a mid 90s CGI effect that probably should have been abandoned mid production. The rules of the Death Note are explained, well a few of them are, and then Light uses it.
I have so many issues with this flashback. For a start it happens while he is talking to his girlfriend Shiori (Yuu Kashii), who he can’t tell his secret too. So he’s telling us. For quite a few minutes. So does she just sit there this whole time? Plus it shows how he got where he is but because it’s an abridged flashback we’re not there for his journey to his murdering spree and so we’ve lost any empathy we could have had. He doesn’t appear to struggle with the idea of killing after that first victim and he has already been shown to be quite trigg… inker happy…with the Death Note that we really don’t have a character arc. Sure as the film progresses he starts to be loose with the idea of who he kills but we’ve already gone past the step where he’s using it for good because he’s clearly already addicted. This isn’t a journey we take with him.
What would have been smarter would have been if he was a victim of crime himself, he’s a law student so he’s aware of law practices already, and after being a victim justice fails to be served. That’s when he finds the Death Note of the title. Like in the final product he would not believe it’s powers but tests it anyway but here on the person that got away with his crime. Then he meets Ryuk who explains what the book is capable of. Then he decides to take up a noble cause with the ideal of using it only on the worst the world has to offer, then he bends those rules gradually for the next hour or so until, as the police have started to close in on him, he now feels the need to go to further lengths to protect himself. Every kill needs to weigh on him early on and just as it gets easier he kills an innocent and turns a corner to being the thing he was fighting against. That’s a character arc for a three act film. Here light kills a load of people, doesn’t seem phased by it, never questions killing innocent people to survive and then the film ends. In fact Ryuk, a claimer of souls, is the only one to raise a concern about who Light kills and it’s a single throwaway line.
Don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t terrible. It’s competently shot, though it does look made for TV, and the gradual closing in of the police and their secret, and idiosyncratic, investigator L (Kenichi Matsuyama) does manage to deliver a fair amount of tension and moments where you wonder how Light will react next. But it’s all acted out in a very basic manner with no performance commanding any actual weight with some performances being notably weak. On some level the film can be fairly enjoyable but it’s total lack of a well defined and emotionally engaging character arc means what you’re seeing doesn’t mean much at all. The stakes are constantly undermined by new rules being added to the Death Note’s parameters ever 30 minutes or so which just serves to act as a get out clause for whatever hurdle has been placed in Light’s way. You drip feed information to viewers so that they can gradually see how a character can escape a situation. You don’t just create a new rule so he can jump those hurdles. The films final scenes even pull the whole “protagonist was doing this secretly” thing that never comes across as anything but a cop out in any film. For example, every Saw film.
I can totally understand how people can enjoy this film, but like a lot of modern teen dramas, it’s poorly constructed and relies on a gimmick that is never handled to its fullest potential. It entirely relies on you being enthralled by the unique concept and the inability to tell when a potentially intelligent idea is being misused. The character of L, who we finally meet towards the end of the second act, is at least an bizarre individual, a sort of quirky Yoda of sorts, but he’s not really an engaging character either because we know nothing about him. He starts off as a secret and when we meet him all we learn is what he looks like and that he likes sweets.
Overall this is, and yes I’m going there, Twilight for the Anime fans. It’s basic, poorly conceived and uses dollops of surface level teen angst to make young audiences feel like they’re connecting with a character just like them. Except a lot of teenagers are idiots who wouldn’t know character if it shat on their chest. There’s good ideas at play but nothing gels. I should be getting the follow up film before too long. Hopefully that fares better.