Thursday, 12 October 2006

Death Note デスノート (2006)

The Japanese have something about black leather-bound notebooks. My favourite J-drama from a couple of years back, Kurokawa no techou, (黒革の手帖) featured a black notebook that had the names of several corrupt directors and politicians who collaborated with a bank to cheat the government of back taxes, and whoever possessed the notebook could either finish off the careers of these people, or extort millions of yen from these no-gooders. Helmed by the mature and seductive Yonekura Ryoko, one never knows whether the current possessor of the notebook would succumb completely to her own ambition and greed while pursuing her unique brand of justice.

In Death Note, the black notebook is a supernatural item that comes with its own user manual. To wit: anyone whose name is written in the notebook will die. In any manner and situation stipulated by the writer, provided a complicated set of conditions are adhered to. Helmed by charismatic Fujiwara Tatsuya, the vigilante hero/terrorist of Battle Royale 1 and 2 and owner of the notebook in this movie, one never knows whether Light Yagami would succumb completely to his own ambition and greed while pursuing his brand of justice, which consists of murdering violent convicts, notorious criminals and suspects through the Death Note.

It’s a fair enough conceit for a supernatural movie: let a mostly-good character come into possession of an unparalleled power, and see what they do with it. How will they use it, and how will it change them? It might be just as well that Light is the current possessor of the Death Note; as a young genius who has helped his father’s Tokyo Metropolitan Police unit solve several crimes, he should be able to put it to good use. Except using it means killing people (bad people), and the police soon feel pressured to investigate the mysterious deaths occurring around the world.

From the larger picture, Death Note is a whodunit in reverse – the audience knows the identity of the murderer and how he does it, but the question becomes: Who is L, the investigator? How will he manage to identify the murderer and his method of killing? Whereas in typical mysteries, the audience are privy to the thoughts and plans of the detective while the murderer strikes from the unknown, in Death Note, the situation is reversed entirely. The twist may not be entirely original, but it makes for a more thrilling cat and mouse game, a battle of wits between two geniuses who will not hesitate to use questionable tactics to attain their goals or protect themselves. It’s also a battle for time, since the mysterious death-at-a-distance vigilante becomes ever more popular amongst media-savvy, trend-starved teens, and he has an additional weapon hidden: a 12-foot shinigami “death god”, an indifferent supernatural monster who handed him the Death Note.

Death Note is based on the (deservedly) popular manga series, and covers the first 3 volumes of the 12-volume series. Death Note comes off better than most manga to film adaptations, and sticks quite faithfully to the original material without losing too much feeling too cluttered or losing focus. This is an imminent danger for straight adaptations, since the early volumes of most manga series tend to be quite episodic, consisting of very fast and short plots that establish the mechanics and lay the groundwork for later story arcs that are considered the meat of the story.

While the movie does end with a cliffhanger before the major fireworks begin, the director and scriptwriter have come up with a well-paced plot that zips through the many major key points without ending up in a tangle. Some plots have been rewritten to enable the film to come to the cliffhanger ending fast enough. The movie might actually move too fast for its good, and certainly gave me the feeling that the director was in a rush to touch all the necessary goal posts before sprinting to the meat that is Death Note 2 – sacrificing much psychological depth of the story, and eliminating the psychological study of Light, whose fall from grace is much more subtle and slow in the manga.

The CGI is on par with the budgets for manga to film adaptations, meaning that the shinigami Ryuk is a competently-animated monster figure with realistic and life-like movements, but not exactly scary or menacing.

My reservations aside, Death Note does end on a high note that promises the sequel (debuting in Japan in November) will be much better, exciting, and thrilling.

First published at incinemas on 18 October 2006

No comments: