Sunday, August 24, 2014

DEATH NOTE (2006) - A Review
So, you're walking down the street and you find a black notebook laying on the ground. Even though it's raining, the notebook is resting inside a mysteriously dry circle. You pick up the notebook and take it home. Later, upon opening the notebook, you find instructions explaining that this is the Death Note, and if you write a person's name in the notebook, they will die within ten seconds of a heart attack.
That's the fantastic but believably presented scenario for Death Note, and this is the situation the main character, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a college student, finds himself in. Not surprisingly, he doesn't believe what he's reading, but, when he sees a news report about a vile criminal on TV, he impulsively writes the man's name in the notebook before going to bed. In the morning, the newspaper reports the sudden death - by an apparent heart attack - of the criminal whose name Light wrote in the Death Note.
In case that's not enough to convince Light that he's in possession of the real deal, he's soon visited by Ryuk, the God of Death, who dropped the notebook and explains that it's Light's to keep - and use - for as long as he likes. Ryuk quickly becomes a regular presence in Light's life, seeming to take a deep interest in how this human wields his new death dealing power. Generally, Ryuk neither advocates for use of the Death Note, nor argues against the use of it, though he does ask Light the occasional probing question as the young man's life becomes more and more centered around the lethal notebook.

At first, Light does what he sees as a public good, by targeting and eliminating criminals who seem to have escaped being punished by the legal system. He reasons that ridding the world of these despicable individuals is an inherent good, and, hopefully, will send a message to other would-be criminals that just because they escape the law doesn't mean they will escape justice.
Soon enough, dozens of rapists and murderers around the world are dead, and the authorities are both interested in how this is happening, and concerned that it will continue. As the investigation into the deaths grows, it becomes clear that the person or persons behind them are in or near Tokyo. So, in order to try to get the authorities to back off, Light begins targeting various law enforcement investigators, hoping their deaths will frighten those who remain away from continuing with their efforts to find him.
And this sets up the central dilemma in the film: How much bad can you do in the pursuit of doing good, while still being able to convince yourself that you're still doing good? It's watching Light try to navigate this moral quandary that seems to engage Ryuk. Even though he's the God of Death, and literally takes his life force from those who die, he appears to be genuinely surprised at the lengths to which Light goes (killing numerous members of the law enforcement community) in order to continue with his supposedly righteous crusade (killing numerous members of the criminal underground). So, sure, this is a fantasy film with teen appeal, but that doesn't mean it couldn't spark some interesting conversations about the nature of good and evil.

In the end, the film offers some nice twists and surprises, and there are a lot more details about the Death Note itself offered, all of which I've avoided talking about here, and this film certainly seems perfectly calibrated to appeal to the youth market. So perfectly, in fact, that as we were watching this, I found myself marveling that it hasn't been remade by an American filmmaker. Well, oops! As soon as I looked this up online, I discovered that a remake is indeed in the works, directed by Gus Van Zant, of all people. Sounds like Mr. Van Zant knows he needs a more commercial property on his resume right about now.
Though, unlike my wife, I was less than taken with the character of "L," a young, brilliant super sleuth (played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama), he made perfect sense from a commercial angle. Personally, I found Ryuk to be more believable and engaging, even though he is an over-the-top CGI creation. It took me a few minutes to buy into his super stylized and cartoonish appearance, but once I did, the humor and observations he brought to the story worked well. As Light becomes more and more of a one-note(book) character, bent on enacting his personal justice, Ryuk comes to be the more thoughtful and nuanced personality of the two. What's more, despite Ryuk's monstrous appearance, he doesn't behave in any of the ways that a typical (American) CGI creature would be expected to. He doesn't growl or threaten, or act aggressive in any way, really. He just hangs out talking with Light and eating apples.
It is perhaps needless to say that this film ends with a perfect set up for a sequel - and one did indeed come out later the same year, one of the three films that director Shusuke Kaneko helmed in 2006. (He's also directed projects with characters that should already be familiar to American audiences: three Gamera movies, one Godzilla movie, and multiple episodes of an Ultraman TV show from the 2000s.) We certainly enjoyed this enough to seek out the sequel, and I'll be curious to learn a bit more about the American remake as well. In the meantime, if you're looking for something that mixes fantasy, humor and the moral issues surrounding the power of life and death, well then, I'd say this is the film for you.
Just be sure to have plenty of apples on hand when you're watching it - just in case.

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