Thursday, 21 December 2006

Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

Don't bite into the wrong fruit, Chairman Kaga!

There are some movies that are meant to be watched back to back, that are conceived as one long film divided into two halves, like Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2. The Death Note movies are the same as well. Death Note: The Last Name continues without a skipping a beat from the finishing moments of Death Note, with the almost pianissimo cat and mouse game between Light and his pursuer L erupting into a full-scale battle. In the cliffhanger ending, Light Yagami demonstrated his mastery of the supernatural killing device, the death note, while the eccentric genius detective narrows in to finger Light as the mysterious mass killer Kira.

With Light joining L’s police task force investigating Kira, the impetus driving Death Note 2 becomes: will Light learn the name of L, or will L devise a plan to unmask Light first? It should be a straightforward contest of wits and wills, but all plans are thrown awry when more people start dying of mysterious causes, and their names aren’t in Light’s notebook. It’s not a copycat Kira for sure, but a bona fide second Kira, empowered by a similar death note and a shinigami. Both L and Light need to locate and identify the second Kira before things get wildly out of hand, while the second Kira, a perky pop idol who doesn’t seem to be too bright, seems to be intent on identifying and working with the original, whom she hero-worships. The stakes are higher this time as well, with more and more people gradually supporting Kira and adopting his strange philosophy of justice.

Watching the first movie, one felt that despite its fast pacing, the director was basically speeding through the sign posts of the manga in order to get through the initial setup of the story, introduce viewers to the workings of the death note, so that he could get on with his favourite bits of the story in Death Note 2. My expectations were fulfilled, luckily, because the second movie is far superior than the first, mainly because Shusuke Kaneko directs Death Note 2 with far more urgency than its predecessor, focusing on the heightened intensity and complexity of the struggle between L and Light.

While the original manga suffered from a poor second act that was and concluded in a mediocre fashion after a desultory plot, the director takes ownership of the screenplay, condensing the sometimes meandering and episodic manga plot to a perfect economy. Less than half way through the movie, you will realise that you’re not watching the manga on film anymore – Shusuke Kaneko actually rewrites 2 major subplots entirely. One wishes he did more of this in the first Death Note movie, because he does end up improving on the original manga story, making the struggle between Light and L sharper, smarter, and more urgent. The identity of the third Kira (oh yes, there’s more than one copycat and hero-worshipper empowered by Death Notes and shinigamis) is completely different from the manga, for instance, and the director’s choice heightens a much-neglected subplot in the manga about the public war between L and Light, as well as Kira’s struggle for hearts and minds through the media.

One of the signs of good writing is when all loose ends are tied up in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying manner. In a masterstroke, the director gives us a totally unexpected conclusion that is cleverer, more poignant and thought-provoking than the original – all while preserving the spirit of the Death Note manga. You also begin to wish that he’d written the manga instead, but will have to settle for the fact that he’s making a spin-off movie about the detective L.

As adaptations of a somewhat cerebral fantasy manga, both Death Note movies (as directed by Shusuke and written by Tetsuya Oishi) do better than expected: instead of functioning as just frothy entertainment and merchandising, they have become an exploration of the darker side of human nature, the danger of ideals, and the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Sometimes, it just takes a fantasy to point us to the darkness in the heart of reality, and to illuminate Plato’s parable of the ring of Gyges, which begins: Let us imagine this: granting the just man license to do as he wishes, where will his desire will lead him? Those who practice justice, practice it constrained by want of power to act unjustly.

First published at incinemas on 28 December 2006

No comments: