My test for any live-action adaptation of an anime or manga is simple: Can I walk into this cold and not feel like I came to a stranger’s family reunion, where I have no idea why people are fighting or embracing? That was the problem I had with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children — it wasn’t made for anyone who wasn’t a fan, and boy did the fans ever know it.
Thankfully, that hasn’t happened with the live-action adaptation of Death Note. I knew just enough about the series to get in the door but nothing beyond that, and in the end it scarcely mattered. By the one-third mark I was intrigued; by the halfway mark I was enthralled; and by the time it was over I was hankering for the follow-up. If you’ve been avoiding the series because it seems like a lot to swallow at once, the movie serves as a nice crash-course introduction to the goings-on.
The story’s a compressed version of the main plot strands from the show and comic, but also sports some judicious reorganization to make it work that much better as a film. All around the world, criminals of every imaginable type — rapists, murderers, embezzlers, social sleazes — are dropping dead in their tracks. In every case they’re dying of heart attacks, even those with no medical history of same. Word circulates that something or someone is responsible for all this, and before long, he/she/it has a nom de guerre: “Kira”. Angel or devil, savior or Satan, Kira attracts attention and controversy without ever showing his face or name.
It isn’t long before the audience learns his face and name, though. He’s Raito (“Light”) Yagami, a bright young law student with a doting mother and sister, a father devoted to his work, and a girlfriend who thinks the world of him. He’s also a case study in frustrated idealism: one day he hacked into the Japanese national police computer system and discovered far too many cases being closed or dismissed for the sake of political expediency. Bad people should be punished, and if the authorities shirk their duty, then someone else has to pick up where they left off.
One night while fuming over this, he comes across something lying in the street — a blank notebook with the words DEATH NOTE on the cover and a set of instructions. “The human whose name is written in this notebook will die,” read the instructions. Cute, Light thinks, and writes down the name of a local thug in the news. Next morning he learns the guy died of heart failure. Light is terrified, but also fascinated — and soon uses the notebook to kill again, and again, and again.
Something like that can’t be of this earth, and as Light quickly learns, it isn’t. It is the property of a shinigami, a Grim Reaper named Ryuk, who presents himself to Light one evening in all his grotesque glory. Ryuk isn’t looking to have the notebook back, though — he left it behind on purpose, to see what humanity would do with something like that if it fell (literally) into their laps. Only those who touch the notebook can see him. He isn’t taking sides, or so he tells Light, but it’s clear Ryuk gets a thrill out of watching someone as devious and cunning as Light use the Death Note. After a while the two of them are palling around, like misfit kids plotting revenge in a corner of the schoolyard.
While all this has been going on, the authorities have hit a dead end in their own investigation, and have turned to some outside help. Said help comes in the form of “L”, a reclusive genius who only communicates to the outside world through his computer. The police don’t think much of him at first, but he’s able to look at what few facts there are and see patterns that no one else does. Under his guidance, the police slowly tighten the circle of their search, and even stage an elaborate ruse (the details of which I will not reveal here) to further coax “Kira” into blowing his cover.
The police eventually demand to meet L in person, and what they find is a figure at least as distinctive as the other major fictional detectives of Japan (e.g., Kosuke Kindaichi or Kogoro Akechi). Rumpled, antisocial and hollow-eyed — he makes Gaara look positively well-rested — L perches on the edge of his chair like a bird on a wire and sucks down mind-boggling quantities of refined sugar in every imaginable form. His theory, alarmingly enough, is that someone in the family of the police team leading the investigation is Kira himself. And, indeed, Light’s own father is the one leading the search for Kira, but he balks at the idea of the trail leading back into his own house.
There is a great deal more, all handled with a sure-footed elegance that I was not expecting. Among the others hunting for Kira is an American FBI agent of Japanese descent. Light smokes him out, and in one of the very best scenes in the film, lures the agent onto a subway train and extorts him into giving up the names of his comrades. And then there is the whole problem of Light’s girlfriend, who refuses to accept the possibility that the man she loves is Kira. The irony is that Light himself does such a good job of concealing his true self from everyone around him, it comes as a shock to him when he realizes how far he’s willing to go with his crusade. The filmmakers understand the difference between a gimmick and a plot engine: what matters is not the Death Note itself, but the way Light chooses to employ it to not only kill but twist motives and ruin lives. The final revelation of the film — at least until the sequel hits English-speaking shores — is that it didn’t put anything into Light that wasn’t already there in some way.
Strange how the one thing I find most problematic about the movie is Ryuk — not the character himself, but the fact that he’s presented exactly like his anime/manga counterpart. So much so, in fact, that it’s initially distracting. The filmmakers make up for this in time, though, by integrating him fairly seamlessly with his environment and giving him a collection of little tics and mannerisms that make him more like acharacter instead of just a giant digital marionette. The same goes for the rest of the movie, where people’s behaviors are dictated by their personalities and not by the merciless gears of the plot. It’s frankly a lot more than I expected.