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Death Note

VIZ // Unrated // September 16, 2008
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 7, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
Being a fan of the Death Note manga, and then the anime series, I was a little worried about the live action movie.  There's so much that happens in the manga, I just couldn't see how they could translate that into a film.  Especially with the poor quality that cartoon-to-live-action-film movies usually have (when released by Hollywood) it's safe to say that I was less than enthused.  I need not have worried.  While the Death Note film does change some things and goes faster than either the manga or the anime, it's a good film in its own right and well worth watching.

Light Yagami is a bright college student studying law.  He becomes disillusioned with the justice system after hearing about so many criminals that are allowed to go free and decides to check it out for himself.  Going to a seedy bar on the bad side of town, Light overhears a man bragging about how he killed a young boy but was acquitted of the crime.  He laughs as he describes the boy's mother crying as he was released and it's more than light can handle.  He runs out of the bar and is about to throw away his book on law when he notices something in the street:  a notebook.  It's a strange item, with the words "Death Note" written in English on its cover.  Inside the cover are the following instructions:

• The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
• This note will not take effect unless the writer has the subject's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
• If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the subject's name, it will happen.
• If the cause of death is not specified, the subject will simply die of a heart attack.
• After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

Light thinks it's a joke, but when the news announces that a wanted killer is holding people at an elementary school hostage, he can't help but try it out.  He writes the killer's name down, and a minute later the teachers and students starts running out of the school, the man who was holding them hostage inexplicably died.

After another test, where he kills the man he heard bragging earlier, Light is convinced that the Death Note is real and he comes up with a plan.  He'll craft the perfect world, one without crime.  To do that all he needs to do is let people come to the realization that all criminals will end up dying.  After all, who would rob a gas station if they knew they'd end up dead in a day or two.  

As he starts coming up with the details of his plan, a shinigami (a Japanese demon) appears.  His name is Ryuk, and he was the previous owner of the Death Note.  He dropped it in the human world because he was bored.  He's not about to stop Light though, he's encourage by the young man's impressive idea.  

With criminals in prison all over the world dropping dead of heart attacks everyday, it's not long before the governing bodies start to take notice.  Obviously outside of their league, they agree to let the mysterious figure "L" take over the investigation.  L communicates only through a laptop computer, and no one knows his real name or what he looks like.  With a razor sharp intellect, L soon starts to track Kira, as the general population have started to call him, down.  Its one genius pitted against the other.  Which ever one discovers the other identity first wins, and the stakes are incredibly high.

This film did a lot of things right.  Instead of starting from the beginning, when the movie opens everyone knows that Kira exists and the government is already looking into who the person or persons could be.  The origin of the note is filled in with flashbacks, and that makes the story telling a bit more concise and tight.

They also trimmed a lot from the manga and gave Light a girlfriend in order to speed things up.  The girlfriend, who is a law student who is against Kira, also serves as a nice way to show both sides of the Kira argument.  A short conversation serves to fill viewers in and it works quite effectively.

While the film does adapt the story pretty accurately and manages to capture the spirit of the source material very well, it does move a bit too fast.  One of the great things about the anime and manga is that people have time to wonder "what would I do in this situation?"  There's not that luxury in the movie.  Soon after Light realizes he's being followed by the police, for example, he figures out what he's going to do about it.  There really isn't that much time for viewers to worry about him.

One other interesting thing is that Light's more sympathetic in this movie than he is in the anime.   In the cartoon he acts like a power-mad maniac in just a couple of scenes.  That doesn't happen in the film, and it makes him seem like a nicer guy, for a cold-blooded killer that is.   

The main drawing force to the movie though is the cat and mouse game where both players are equally intelligent.  It seems impossible for the police to capture anyone using the Death Note, much less someone of Light's intelligence, yet L, using logic and well thought out plans, manages to get very close in an incredibly short amount of time.  Light, of course, has a lot of power at his disposal, but it is limited.  Light comes up with wonderfully intricate schemes to get around the obstacles that L puts in his way, and that is what makes this film so much fun to watch.

The DVD:


The movie comes with the original Japanese audio track and an English dub both available in DD 5.1 and stereo.  I preferred the original track a bit more, though the dub was very good.  Being a dialog-based film, there wasn't a lot of use made of the soundstage, though there were some cool effects like when Ryuk is off camera talking to Light and his voice comes from the rear speakers.  The audio on both tracks is very good with no hint of distortion or other common audio defects.  There are optional subtitles in English.


The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is pretty good.  The colors were bright and the blacks were solid.  The definition was good and the level of detail was adequate.  There was a little bit of aliasing when the camera would pan across a sky scraper for example, but it was minor.  Overall this was a nice looking film.


This disc has an odd extras menu.  The screen is filled with floating apples, and as you select them with the remote the title of each bonus pops up.  The weird part is that while the apples don't change over time, the bonus that they represent does.  One minute a particular apple might represent a trailer and the next part of an interview.  It's rather annoying for reviewers who are trying to make sure they've seen everything.  As it is there are several trailers, both for the anime and the film, as well as an interview with the director that has been broken into several parts.  I would have enjoyed the interview a bit more if I didn't have to go hunting for the next section, but Viz does get credit for trying something new.

Final Thoughts:

This was a good adaptation of a great manga.  While it did travel a bit fast the plot was basically in tact and the changes that were made didn't detract from the main story.  If you've never read the manga or seen the anime, this would be a great place to start.  The movie gets a strong recommendation.

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