I'm a bit of a latecomer to the whole Death Note phenomenon, but in the last few weeks I've read several volumes of the manga, caught a few episodes of the anime TV series and now, for the purposes of this review, I've had a chance to screen the 2006 live action film.
Melding the elements of both horror and detective stories, Death Note is the tale of Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) a brilliant law student who has grown disillusioned with the legal system because of a widespread conspiracy concealing just how many criminals are going free. Light finds a notebook that says whoever's name is written in the book will die. On a lark, he jots down the name of a murderer who has escaped justice, and Light watches as the killer dies in exactly the way he described in the notebook. Light is soon visited by Ryuk, a shinigami or death god, a CGI construct that looks like a shaggy goth circus clown. Ryuk explains the notebook was originally his, but is now Light's to do with as he pleases. Whoever possesses the notebook can kill anyone by writing his or her name while picturing his or her face. If no cause of death is written the victim will die of a heart attack.
A human who uses the death note can enter neither heaven nor hell upon his death, but Light looks past that little glitch, planning to use the book to make the world a better place by eliminating violent criminals. As murderers, rapists and snotty convenience store clerks around the world start dropping dead in droves, people start to take notice. The media gives the name "Kira" to whoever is striking down these criminals and Light becomes a hero to many. To the National Police Association, however, Kira is the greatest serial killer of all time and a task force is formed to capture him under the direction the mysterious L (Ken'ichi Matsuyama). At first L only communicates with the task force via digitally scrambled audio, but he is finally revealed to be a young androgynous sugar junkie with a genius level talent for deduction. Light and L are cut from the same cloth, it seems, making for an interesting cat and mouse game.
In a bent sort of way the premise reminds me of Harry Potter. Both stories spring from an adolescent form of wish fulfillment. Harry is a put upon orphan who learns he is in fact something special — not just a wizard, but one of the greatest wizards of all time. Death Note rings of a darker adolescent desire in which the victimized youth starts keeping a list of peers who have done him wrong and deserve to die, representing the seamier fantasies of the post-Columbine generation.
Light is more humanized here, at least at the beginning of the film, which makes it difficult to account for some of his actions. In the comic Light starts out as a remorseless sociopath, so when he ends up using the Death Note to kill innocent people to prevent his own arrest it's not that big a stretch. In this version, the decision to murder innocents seems jarring, making me wonder if posession of the Death Note is supposed to have some side effect on human personalities.
With a few exceptions, the film is quite faithful to the manga. Director Shusuke Kaneko (the man behind the marvelously titled Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) does a decent job of packing a lot of the comic's elements into just over two hours. The comics are quite detailed, giving every nuance of Light's reasoning and L's deduction process, so streamlining the story for film was a necessity. Unfortunately, just as we're getting into the thick of the L/Light sparring match, the movie comes to a somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. The sequel Death Note: The Last Name was released in Japan in 2006 and was presumably shot back to back with the first film, so I imagine that one picks up where this one leaves off. Still, Death Note has an intriguing premise and some interesting characters. Definitely worth a look.