Anime Reporter took some very tentative steps to watch and review Death Note, the first of two live-action film adaptations of the Death Note manga made in 2006.
While the plots do certainly differ to a certain extent, many vital scenes and plot points are shared between the film and its manga and anime source materials. While this review will go into further detail, I feel that I really should take the opportunity to say right now that anyone who hasn’t seen the anime or read the manga should absolutely not go to the live action films first. First and foremost, it has to be said, these films are not superior to the anime, though they could certainly spoil some of the great twists that are the series’ trademark.
While readers have no doubt figured out that I’m a pretty major fan of the Death Note series, I’ll be trying to judge this film on its own merits for most of my review. You can skip down towards the end of the article for a more direct comparison with the anime series.
Light Yagami, (played by Battle Royale and Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler’s Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a bright young law student, who’s not too happy with the poor state of the justice system in the world. When he learns that violent, remorseless criminals often escape punishment through technicalities or the shortcomings of police, Light’s world is shaken. By quite a piece of coincidence, this is also when Light comes across the Death Note. The Death Note, a notebook used by shinigami, the gods of death, to take the lives of humans. By writing someone’s name in the Death Note, Light can make that person die in any way he sees fit, and so the hunt is on. Light begins killing criminals across the world, making them fear his justice and inspiring the people of the world to worship this unknown saviour, whom they call Kira, as a god. The Death Note’s owner, the shinigami Ryuk, makes an appearance and tags along to watch Light’s deeds, with very little in the way of explanation for why he’s there or why he let his notebook fall to Earth.
Unfortunately for Light, not everyone is thrilled with his idea of justice and police forces across the world soon realise that someone must be pulling the strings behind the many hundreds of dead criminals popping up worldwide. When all of their investigation brings up nothing, it’s time to call in the biggest gun there is, L.
L, (played by Kaiji’s Kenichi Matsuyama), is a figure as mysterious to the world as Kira as. A master detective and an incredibly eccentric recluse, his unusual methods have never failed to solve a mystery. When L comes looking for Kira, he’ll have to face a supernatural force he’s never encountered nor dreamed of before.
The plot of this first film follows relatively closely to some events from the source material and is largely comprised of Light’s efforts to avoid being caught. Both Fujiwara and Matsuyama perform well in their roles, though they ultimately fail to live up to their larger than life characters. Fujiwara can’t quite seem to capture the ruthless and vicious side to Light’s character, only occasionally managing to remind the audience that he’s a killer, while Matsuyama does an impeccable job at capturing L’s peculiar body language and movement, but can’t quite hope to achieve his level of calm, intellectual intensity. Death Note is the tale of Light versus L, two forces clashing in the name of justice and this is sadly something which both the script and the cast fail to live up to.
Comparison with the Anime
The main attraction of the anime is the sheer sense of awe and suspense that its characters capture. The anime was like a high stakes games of chess, if the players were blindfolded and some of the chess pieces were actually knives. Every move, every thought was carefully calculated and every misstep by either character was a moment of tension and anticipation. This aspect is almost entirely removed from the film, with no accounts of Light’s demonic inner monologue, or even his particularly violent manner of writing names into the Death Note. Equally unforgiveable is the lack of operatic scenes. The score of the anime made the action of writing names down on paper into the act of God that Light sees it as. In the film, these pivotal moments rest entirely on the live action cast who just can’t carry such a weight. The film has also aged Light and L by a few years, turning Light from a high school student to a university student and it suits Light’s character less to have such an idealistic view at an older age. Ryuk is well represented, with a CGI form keeping his appearance very faithful to the original and allowing him to perform some impressive aerial manoeuvres in the process. Unfortunately, this CGI isn’t always up to scratch and it can feel a little too obvious that Ryuk isn’t really in the room a lot of the time.
Ultimately, the first Death Note film lacks a lot of the elements of character and tone that were the original series’ triumph and also removes or changes enough plot points to make the narrative feel flat and weightless.
Death Note, the live action film, is currently available on DVD and Bluray from VIZ Media and Warner Bros.
52% – “Doesn’t Measure Up”. Death Note, the first live action adaptation of the series, doesn’t manage to capture the chemistry, power or adrenaline of its source material and feels fairly amateur in comparison. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not exactly Death Note either.