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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film reviews – Death Note (Desu nôto) (2006), Death Note The Last Name (2006), L Change the World (2008)

My notes on the Japanese live-action Death Note franchise

Death Note (Desu nôto)

Criminals are mysteriously dropping dead of heart attacks, mostly after escaping official punishment – but some while behind bars. The Tokyo police, led by Souichoro Yagami (Takeshi Kaga), theorise that the deaths are unnatural, the work of a mystery man nick-named Kira (Killer?) who has an unsurprisingly high popularity rating with the man in the street. ‘L’, an equally mysterious master-detective who communicates with other law enforcement types only via computer link, is called in to work on the case as a consultant. Flashbacks reveal that Kira is actually Light (Tatsuya Fujiwara), Yagami’s law student son, who has come into possession of a magic notebook which is associated with Ryuuk, a giant floating death god who retains the cartoony look of the manga/anime version of the character. If Light writes a person’s name in the book while thinking of his face, they will instantly die – if he elaborates on the circumstances of their death, he can delay it and puppeteer complex scenarios. As Yagami’s task force, directed by L, works the case, Light is tracked by Watari (Shunji Fujimara), a determined, decent detective who comes close to catching him after a bus hijack Kira has engineered. Light uses the notebook to eliminate Watari, crossing a moral line by targeting a non-criminal for his own benefit, which earns him another nemesis in Watari’s persistent, leather-clad fiancée Naomi (Asaka Seto).

When Kira casually wipes out an entire FBI team, Yagami’s task force is diminished to a hard core as most of the officers simply get up and leave the room– and Yagami insists on meeting L (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), who turns out in a marvellous reveal to be another pouting, floppy-haired emo student genius. L recognises that Kira is immature and hates to lose, because he is just like him – and also deduces he must be in the immediate family of one of the investigating officers. The second half of the film finds Light under surveillance and trying to carry on as Kira without being exposed while Naomi, who withholds her true name, exerts blunter pressure, even kidnapping Light’s innocent girlfriend Shiori (Yu Kashii), to catch her fiancé’s murderer. In its concept, Death Note is merely the latest iteration of the Ring-style cyclical curse/supernatural death series, but the film takes the trouble to work it out in detail – the apple-chomping, shark-mawed Ryuuk is a neutral if jolly figure, who almost shows concern as Light sours from his high-handed, arrogant vigilante crusade (his first victims are truly horrible people) into a cold-souled megalomaniac whose schemes extend to an exceptionally callous sacrifice of a loved one which puts him in a position to join the anti-Kira task force and covertly pursue a duel with an archenemy who knows exactly what he’s done. All this, along with a subplot about a manically cheery TV chef (Erika Toda), is saved for a Part Two shot back-to-back by writer-director Shusuke Kaneko – though the first film is satisfying, it ends with the story poised to take a different direction and a sense that it will all play better when seen as one long film.

Fujiwara and Matsuyama, who might otherwise be in a boy band, make splendidly strange antagonists, credibly eccentric and petty teens with variant super-powers, but the supporting cast (especially Seto) all do interesting work as the characters caught up in this duel of the bedroom-sulking titans. The use of an a manga figure in a real-world setting, inherited from an anime version of a story which began as a comic, is blackly humorous, and takes some getting used to – it’s only when we realise that the so-called Death God is less the monster of the story than his human master that their relationship takes fire, and the cartoon creature from invented mythology becomes almost the wry commentator on the action.

Death Note The Last Name

Less a sequel than a Part Two. This story has previously been done as a manga and an anime series, and the two live-action movies feel like a two-part miniseries done for the cinema – Death Note had a fairly self-contained story, but ended by taking the central conflict between Light/Kira (Tatsuya Fujiwara), student vigilante master of the Death God Ryuuk, and L (Ken’ichi Matsumaya), louche eccentric emo detective, up to a new level as Light cruelly sacrifices his own girlfriend to shift suspicion away and signs with the anti-Kira task force commanded by his policeman father (Takeshi Kaga) in order to be close enough to his enemy to kill him (though by keeping his real name secret, L prevents Light from using his Death Note on him). Meanwhile, a sub-plot about a peppy young TV chef Misa Amane (Erika Toda) comes to the fore, as she is given another Death Note and becomes mistress of the white-hued Death God Rem, trading half her future years for the additional glowing-eyes ability to discern a person’s true name so that she can kill on sight. Declaring herself Kira II, Misa sends a tape to a television station and announces her support for the original Kira’s anti-crime crusade by felling a TV critic, a protestor and several cops – also, incidentally, endangering Light’s sister (Michiko Godai). Misa knows that Light is Kira and attaches herself to him as his new clingy girlfriend, which complicates his life still further – there’s a comic streak to this in that Misa is a joke celebrity who brings attention to Light as he is trying to plot against L.

This needs to reestablish (and slightly rewrite) the rules of the Death Note to set up a series of clever plot twists as the antagonists work against each other, and Kira II is batted between them, with an ambitious TV journo Kiyomi (Nana Katase) roped in to become Kira III as Light shows even more ruthlessness – like Guy Pearce in Memento, he is even prepared to exploit himself and suffer temporary amnesia to let his better instincts take over for a while to bring L closer to ruin in the knowledge that touching the book again will bring his evil self back on track – while L counters with a series of intelligent moves which extend to the sacrifice of his own life by writing his own true name in the book. The good guys catch on to the Death God business, and even get to see the big CGI anime-look creatures floating around after the various Kiras – all of whom become monstrous, after their initial noble intentions (no one else seems to notice this side of the curse, though). Shusuke Kaneko skilfully handles a large cast of characters and a complicated tangle of storylines, maintaining suspense over a long running time with a series of slow-builds to climaxes – Light keeps prematurely gasping ‘I’ve won’, only to find that L has thought round the trap, and again we see folks gifted with great power turning away from simply executing criminals to advancing their own causes, with Light distinguished from the traumatised Misa and the ambitious Kiyomi mainly by the subtlety and ruthlessness of his schemes.

L Change the World

This takes one of the characters from the Death Note series off into his own potential (if limited) franchise.  L (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), the slouching, floppy-haired, junkfood epicure emo genius detective who defeated Kira (the DN menace, glimpsed here) at the cost of his own life, is a strong enough character to merit a change-of-pace film, and Matsuyama’s glum, hangdog performance remains perversely endearing.  This takes place mostly between the scenes of the closing moments of Death Note: The Last Name, after L has willingly inscribed his own true name in the demon’s book and thus ensures his enemy can’t kill him before his three weeks are up, but before his ultimate, quiet demise.  Though there’s a cameo from the CGI Death God and a few more details about the magic notebook (which L burns), this is less a fantasy-horror item than a thriller with science fiction touches about a small group of doomsday cultists who have possession of a genocidal virus but need the antidote before it can be sold or used.

It now turns out that L was only one of a whole alphabet of operatives (all orphans?) working under the dignified, dead-in-Death Note: The Last Name Watari (Shunji Fujimura), and he is passing the time he has allotted himself to live by solving as many cold cases as possible when he’s called in to deal with this crisis, which also means he has to become an awkward father or older brother figure to a couple of orphaned geniuses who might well be the next generation of letter-kids.  It’s a long film and its tone wavers from low-rent action (a fiery air strike against a plague-ridden Thai village where the satan bug has been tested) through twisty conspiracy stuff (all the villains have slightly differing agendas and are prone to turn on each other, while L exploits a devoted FBI agent fan as a regular diversion) to underplayed but affecting business as the neurodivergent idealist hero cracks and shows some feeling for the kids in his charge, even heroically trying to stand up straight when a little girl asks him to.

There’s also a nice irony in that L knows when and how he’ll die, and so is theoretically unkillable during this caper – partnered with an immune boy (Narushi Fukuma) and a girl infected with both the bug and its antidote (Mayuko Fukuda), he is more an action hero than he was in the cerebral games of Death Note (there’s a vague relationship with the modern version of Sherlock Holmes Bill Pullman played in The Zero Effect).  The villains are stern pantomime crazies, led by a dragon lady (Youki Kudoh), but also have a geeky streak that makes them fitting opponents for L.  There are still two days unaccounted for in L’s brief span, so a further film would be possible.

Discussion

One thought on “Film reviews – Death Note (Desu nôto) (2006), Death Note The Last Name (2006), L Change the World (2008)

  1. Robert M Fenner
    I thought the mangas were kind of cute for awhile. Nothing amazing, but better than 90% of everything else that’s currently being churned out. Light and L were both pretty interesting characters.
    I didn’t like the films at all, though. I felt that the film used and the way it was shot were both particularly ugly. Not only that, these kinds of storylines don’t really work with real actors.

    Posted by kimnewman | March 9, 2022, 11:52 am

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