Sunday, December 20, 2015

Death Note: The Animated Series

Way back in 2013 I reviewed the original Death Note comics if you'll recall. I meant to get around to reviewing the animated series, but I either forgot, or never really had the time. Either way, I didn't get around to it, or any of the five Death Note movies. Then, straight out of nowhere, there was a Death Note Live-Action series that aired earlier this year. I'm not anywhere near being done with The Consuming Shadow or any of the other twenty games I'm trying to get reviewed before the end of the year, and I'd finally finished up all thirty-seven episodes of the animated series, so I figured I'd just sit down and type out a review of the animated series before possibly getting around to watching the five movies and the TV show in between all of my deaths in The Consuming Shadow. Then maybe I'll get around to reviewing the biggest film of the year if I can find the cash, who knows.
So, what is Death Note about? Well, I'm glad I asked that question! Death Note is a story that asks a question. How would good people handle being given the power to kill bad people, and how far would they go when faced with the possibility of being caught?
Death Note is quite possibly one of the greatest drama stories of all time, which is backed up by some amazing artwork. Since I've already covered everything that makes Death Note good in my review of the comics, but I'll try and give a quick rundown.
The characters are incredibly well-written, interesting, and well-developed. The story is paced perfectly, and all of the plots come together perfectly in the end. The art was great, the writing was utterly superb, and Death Note is still one of my favorite series of comics to this very day.
Fortunately all of that carries over into the animated series and more. Among many positives, there's the obvious addition of color, motion and music. The use of color in this show is just astounding, and the general quality of the artwork is leaps and bounds above that of most animated products, either from Japan itself or other places in the world. It's a quality of animation I've rarely seen, and it looks amazing. I'm always irritated by the tendency in certain pieces of animation to make hair almost transparent, leaving eyes, eyeglasses and eyebrows visible beneath what would in real life be totally obscured by locks of hair. Fortunately, Death Note doesn't have that issue. Nor does it have many of the typical issues that tend to affect a lot of animated series. You're not likely to see any re-used animation, miscolored characters or clothing, or sloppy artwork in this show. This is pretty much the series that the term "precision animation" was coined to describe. And as I said before, the use of color is absolutely astounding. The way they shift colors occasionally in some scenes to display contrast is just masterful, and it gets even better towards the end of the series, when the contrast of colors becomes even more vibrant, and somewhat demented to match the tone of the show.
Speaking of tone, the sound design is amazing. The sound-effects, the voice-acting, and the music especially sets the scene to make some of the most awesome moments in the series even better. I cannot give enough praise to the music team, and the music supervisor Fumiko Harada. The other composers listed on IMDd are the bands Nightmare and Maximum The Hormone, who wrote the opening and ending songs for the first and second seasons respectively. Personally, I prefer Nightmare's music as opposed to Maximum The Hormone's. If we can get over Maximum The Hormone's incredibly stupid name for a second, I'll break down the difference. The two opening songs are called "The World" and "What's Up, People?!" composed by Nightmare and Maximum The Hormone respectively. "The World" is made up of intricate metaphors, some awesome guitar riffs, and accompanies some awesome visuals in the opening, which act as visual metaphor for the entire series. It's a really good song accompanying an amazing opening sequence, and it only gets better when you listen to the full-length version, which I still have. Then we come to "What's Up, People?!", which is loud, obnoxious, and seems to be comprised entirely of nonsense lyrics intended to confuse and assault the senses. Then there's the accompanying animation, which doesn't really make any sense. Gone are the subtle depictions of things that are actually from the show with the intricate color direction from the show itself, the second intro just assaults you with splashes of color which don't seem to have much logic to their placement. Sure, the color shifting in the show itself got crazier as time went on, but they were still extremely careful with how they used it. Personally, I just skipped the intros after watching them all the way through once anyways.
That brings us to the ending songs, "Alumina" and "Desperate Billy", by the same bands as before respectively. While "The World" sounds like the song that plays in Light Yagami's head while writing down names, "Alumina" sounds like the kind of song that you expect to play during the decay of a persons soul. It's sad, it's great to listen to, and I freaking loved it.
"Desperate Billy" seems to be yet another nonsense song, but fortunately it's tolerable and coherent, as opposed to "What's Up People?!" which was just a big ball of noise. It's got some good guitar pieces, and when the clean vocals are playing, but the speed-vocals are playing I can't pick out a single word, and they just seem out of place. As I've said before, I don't know a whole lot of Japanese, but it doesn't matter what language the vocalist is speaking in when they're talking that fast, and when they're growling like that. This song is pretty good, but it's brought down by the growling vocals. It's pretty good, but it could be better.
As for the rest of the soundtrack, it's great. It enhances the atmosphere of the show, and it's possibly one of the most memorable soundtracks of all time.
Then we come to the voice-acting, and I'd like to get this out of the way right off the bat. The Japanese voice-acting sucks. I tried watching a few key episodes in Japanese and I couldn't get into it. Mamoru Miyano, the Japanese voice-actor for Light Yagami sounds like he's bored out of his mind throughout his entire performance, even when he's supposed to be sounding demented and crazy, whereas Brad Swaile, the English voice-actor manages to rock the role for all it's worth. He brings across all of Light's demented passion, his wide-eyed innocent persona, and all of the vibrant, disturbing aspects of Light's personality.
Then we get to the voices of Ryuk. Shidô Nakamura is the Japanese voice of Ryuk, and he's got essentially the same problem as Miyano does, he just doesn't seem at all interested in his performance. I get that both of the characters were bored, but neither of them seem to be able to come up with anything else. Nakamura's performance in this show is mostly defined by him sounding slightly confused and attempting to be intimidating. I don't know much about his career outside of Death Note, but I hope this just comes down to an issue of direction, because he sounds like he'd be right for the role otherwise. Fortunately, Brian Drummond nails the role. There's not mush about the English acting which doesn't trump the Japanese acting. If it's not boring, bored, or outright bad, it's usually just bland, and that's when the actors aren't completely mis-cast. That brings us to Noriko Hidaka's performance as Near. Noriko played Akane in Ranma 1/2, which I haven't seen. Kikyo in InuYasha, a franchise that I really like, but have never watched. Reiko Hinamoto in Metal Gear Solid 3, which I've never played in Japanese. Masumi Sera in Case Closed, which I've never seen in Japanese. She also apparently had a recurring role in Ressha Sentai ToQger, a series I've been meaning to watch, but haven't gotten around to yet due to my insane work schedule and the fact that I haven't been able to get into Super Sentai as much as I have Kamen Rider.
It tends to be common practice to cast women in the roles of young boys so that their voices don't change over the course of filming. Under most circumstances, this works perfectly fine, but under some circumstances they either wind up sounding too feminine, too much like little girls, or too much like grown women. An obvious example of the last one would be Masako Nozawa, the Japanese voice of Goku. Noriko seems to fall into fall into the first category, bleeding over into the third a bit. I don't know if she's just not cut out for the role, or if this is yet again another failing of the Japanese voice direction.
Then we get to the Cathy Weseluck, the English voice of Near. She starts out a little shaky, and her voice for Near wasn't one I would have expected, but she just nails it. At first I thought they could have done slightly better, but at the end of the series I wouldn't have replaced her with anyone else. Cathy's other voice credits include Mirai Yashima from Mobile Suit Gundam, Shampoo in Ranma, Chiaotzu, Piiza and Puar in the Ocean and Canadian versions of Dragon Ball Z (Which are really the same version since Ocean never stopped producing the series in Canada, just in America when Funimation wrangled the American rights away) Ayumi and Kagome's mother in InuYasha, and a crapload of voices in My Little Pony over the years.
Wait, Brian Drummond? Cathy Weseluck? Both of them were involved with the Ocean/Canadian dub of Dragon Ball Z. And guess what company produced the English version of Death Note? That's right, Ocean Studios! It's funny how Ocean is mostly known for producing underacted shows these days. I think their current biggest show is probably Cardfight!! Vanguard, a sub-par Yu-Gi-Oh! ripoff with some of the blandest character design I've ever seen. It could just be the material they were working with, since it is admittedly a pretty weak show, but everyone sounds uninvested in their actions. Every. Single. One.
I bring this up because I was genuinely surprised when I saw Ocean Studios listed in the credits, since this show has legitimately some of the best voice-acting I've ever heard.
Unfortunately this brings us to a fairly major issue with the show. It might just be that I was watching this on my massive computer monitor, or the amount of Dragon Ball Z Abridged I watch, but the characters lips almost never match up with their voices. I know what you're thinking, and it doesn't matter which audio track you're listening to, the lip-movements only match up part of the time, if at all. It definitely could have done with someone cueing up the lips to the actual voices in post-production. This seems to be an issue all around in animation, no matter where it comes from, and one that Death Note unfortunately doesn't subvert, which is a shame, since it subverts so many other animation issues. But that doesn't really take away from the experience, since it's usually something only visual-effects and animation nerds like myself would notice.
There's literally only one scene in the show that was actually lesser than its counterpart in the comics, mostly due to the fact that they cut down one of the pivotal scenes of the show. Fans of Death Note (And people who have read the comics) will know what scene I'm talking about. Otherwise, I don't really have any complaints, except for the fact that the last episode ends too quickly, rather than showing the fallout of what happened at the end like the comics did. I liked how the comics showed what effect the actions of the characters had on the world itself. However! I can see why they ended the show where they did, because it's very emotional, and quite possibly one of the greatest moments in any television series. Ever. No, I'm not kidding. Death Note is to animated television what The Godfather is to cinema, and it deserves a 10.1*. I'm hoping to see you next week with a review of The Consuming Shadow, and maybe a midweek review or two of the two Death Note animated films. I'm also tempted to drop a midweek, midseason review of Supergirl at some point, but I'm not sure I want to relive the last eight, miserable Mondays.