Monday, February 15, 2016

Death Note (2006 Live-action Movie)

Before the animated series, before the animated movies, before Warner Bros picked up the rights to make an American movie, there were the live-action movies. I suppose I should have covered these before I dealt with the animated series, or the animated movies, but c'est la vie. I didn't actually find out that this movie was released before the animated series started until today, so that's kinda my fault for not looking this up. Oh well, we've come this far, we might as well keep going.
On June 17th of 2006, Warner Bros. Pictures Japan released Kaneko Shūsuke's live-action adaptation of  Ōba Tsugumi and Obata Takeshi's comic masterpiece, Death Note. For the uninitiated, Death Note is one of the greatest pieces of fiction in history, and easily one of the best comic-books ever created. See if you can find the trade-paperbacks at a bookstore or library near you, read all thirteen volumes, and then get back to me. Seriously, you will not regret it. You might want to space it out a bit though so it's not done all in a week. This is the kind of thing you don't want to rush through.
Now that everyone's finished reading the comics, let's talk about this film here. Strangely enough, for a movie based on a comic that was as critically acclaimed as Death Note, with over thirty million copies in circulation, scores of nominations and awards, millions of fans, and near-constant re-releases of literally everything related to the series, I can't actually find much about the films production. There's a little note about how this was the first movie to charter an underground rapid-transit line in all of Japanese cinematic history. Apparently, they also used over five-hundred extras in production too, which was definitely a good idea. It helped to populate background shots, and kept the movie from looking empty. Unfortunately, we're going to dig into some rather massive criticisms before the review is over, so sit tight. Spoilers for the comics, animated series, animated films, and of course this movie inbound. As this is a Japanese film, I watched it in Japanese with English subtitles. There's an English language track available, with most of the cast of the animated series English dub reprising their roles, but we'll get to that later on.
Chonologically speaking, this movie starts after Light Yagami (Played by Tatsuya Fujiwara) gets the Death Note, and after the Kira killings begin. In that regard, like many others, it's similar to Visions of a God. One could infer from that fact that the director of Visions of a God took some influence from Death Note, but I can't find any confirmation of that fact. You can tell however, that the Visions of a God director/editors stopped taking ideas from it almost immediately, since this movie starts out with a montage of Light killing criminals. From street-crime to murderers with connections, to corrupt politicians, we're shown their names being written down in the Death Note.
The Kira legend grows around the world, with some finding him a hero, and others considering him an outright criminal, no better than those he's killing. At this point, Kira is nothing more than an urban legend.
Meanwhile, at To-Oh University in Japan, Light is strolling through an incredibly chatty cafeteria with his girlfriend, Shiori Akino (Played by Kashii Yuu). Shiori serves all the same purposes as Yuri (I forgot her name and thought she was Takada originally) did in the comics and more. See, Shiori has a much larger role in this film than Yuri did. In fact, she has almost the same impact on the plot as Misa or Takada does.
Kaneko described Shiori as a character he created to contrast with Light. Her morals were intended to differ directly from both his, and L's. L has an almost amoral, ends justify the means attitude towards justice, while Light sees anyone who stands in his way as a target. Shiori is more of a means justify the ends kind of person (if that makes any sense), with a strict adherence to due process in mind at all times when it comes to justice.
She and Light discuss the urban legend of Kira, with him describing to her an encounter he had with a criminal, who bragged about murdering a kid to explain to her why he agrees with what Kira is doing. He leaves out the fact that he found the Death Note immediately afterwards.
He takes it home, and decides to test it out on a criminal involved in a hostage situation. Since the guy's already killed some hostages, I suppose he figures it won't hurt if he kills the guy.
Rather than following up on the instructions in the notebook, which say that the person whose name is written in the Death Note will die in forty seconds unless a time of death is written in, goes right to bed and finds out the guy died the next morning.
We then get to the train-crossing scene, which in the original was just Light crossing the railroad tracks, but here he sees the guy who was bragging about killing some kid earlier in the movie and he decides to pull out the Death Note, right then and there and write the guys name down.
He literally does that. In fact, he does it twice! Earlier in the film he pulled the notebook out of his bag and wrote down the name of someone else!
Let's think back to the comics, shall we? Yes, Light wrote down names in public, but he was never that brazen about it. He either used pages from the notebook, cuttings, or disguised the notebook with another book. He never took it out in public!
Then again, it's not like Light could easily hide something that freaking huge! Seriously, the Death Note in this movie is enormous! I'd reckon that it's more than twice the size it was in the comics and the animated series. I'd just like to remind everyone that Light hid the Death Note in a book that was about the size of the movie version in the comics with plenty of space to spare. You might notice other things in this screenshot worth noting, but we'll get to them later in the review.
Later on, Light meets Ryuk (Played by Nakamura Shidou), the Shinigami (Japanese for god of death) who dropped the Death Note in the human realm. Rather than asking him if he's here to take his soul, like he did in literally every other iteration of the franchise we've covered so far, Light asks him if he's here to take his life. I don't know if this was just some weirdo mistranslation for the movie or what. Could be the subtitles. Anyways, as any experienced fan would know, Ryuk says that he's just gonna follow him around for kicks. Sort of. Ryuk's motives aren't actually that well-explained in this film.
Interpol in general and the Japanese National Police Agency in particular are no closer to figuring out what's going on with the Kira killings, so they're about to toss it off to the public health agencies before the detective L (Played by Matsuyama Ken'ichi) steps in to point out that the killings absolutely cannot be natural causes, comparing it directly to death counts and patterns from actual diseases. This is rather anti-climactic, since they just tell us everything that happened at the ICPO rather than showing it to us. Here we're introduced to Watari (Played by Fujimura Shunji), L, and Soichiro Yagami. (Played by Kaga Takeshi)
L decides to confront Kira on television, using the Lind L. Tailor (Played by Matt Lagan) ruse. Light kills Tailor, and L brags about how easy it was for him to trace it down to Tokyo, and how that was literally the first place they tried. This would normally lead into what is possibly one of the most famous moments in the series, L and Light saying in unison that they are justice. Strangely enough, however, Light says he is justice after L does. That sort of takes the air out of the whole thing.
Light then figures out that he's being followed, and devises a way to figure out who's following him. This leads to him taking Shiori on a bus to... Somewhere. In the comics and animated series it was a place called Space-Land. In this it seems like Light is just taking Shiori on the bus to wherever they're going on a bus instead of walking.
For some reason, Light decides to confront the agent who's following him, even though that basically gives away the game ahead of time, and serves to undermine a point that Light makes later on in the same scene.
A criminal who escaped the police, Kiichiro Osoreda (Played by Miyagawa Sarutoki) earlier in the movie hijacks the bus, Light passes a note to Shiori saying he's about to jump the guy and take his gun, but Raye Iwamatsu (Not Penber for some reason) (Played by Hosokawa Shigeki) tells him to stay back and let him handle it. Light then objects to that, saying that he could be Osoreda's accomplice. Knowing what Light said earlier, how does that logic work? Knowing Iwamatsu was following him means that he'd have to believe that the bus-jackers were targeting him in order for those two statements to co-exist in one mind. Which would make Light one of the most paranoid people in the world. The qualifier here is that he's not paranoid since there actually are people out to get him. Plus, he's not exactly afraid of anything, he's always calm and collected, planning for every contingency, for every single possibility. I really don't know what the purpose of this was, since it's inconsistent with the character of Light Yagami, and doesn't make a lick of sense in the narrative. Light would never do this, because he would have calculated the effect it might have on the rest of his plan, and figured out that it doesn't work. I'll bet you that I'm probably not even as smart as Light is and I can figure out that saying that to Raye wouldn't have been a good idea.
Raye reveals to Light that he's an FBI agent to keep Light from doing anything stupid, and Light doesn't treat this as strange for some reason. I wasn't able to find out what an actual FBI ID looked like, since the nearest field office is in Jackson, Mississippi. If you want to know what kind of distance that is, look up a map of Mississippi, find Jackson, and then trace a straight line to the bottom-most section of the state. I also looked online, but I couldn't figure out which of the hundreds of ID formats I found were legit, and I'm already running behind on this article.
Light drops his note, and Osoreda finds it. Unlike in the comics, however, Light drops the note he wrote to Shiori instead of a substitute note with plans on it. This is incredibly stupid for a number of reasons. One of which is that while humans have a natural lifespan, free-will can still cut that lifespan short. For instance, if Osoreda had decided to pop a cap in Light's head because of that note, all of his plans would have ended right there. Fortunately, Ryuk was there to scare the hell out of Osoreda and save Light's bacon. Osoreda empties his gun at Ryuk, runs out of the bus, and gets hit by a car. Just like Light planned.
Light takes Shiori to the hospital for an IV of something for some reason. I'm... Not an expert by any means, but I do have a bit of informal paramedic training under my belt, along with a crapload of medical and anatomical research over the years, so I'd like to think I know enough to judge this scene from a scientific standpoint. Shiori wasn't hit by a bullet in that scene, and while she appeared to have suffered some sort of bruising and/or when the bus suddenly stopped, there's no real reason for her to have an IV. Speaking from experience, you don't need an IV to treat a mild bruise or whiplash. If this is some sort of cultural thing, then the Japanese triage system is seriously screwed up. Could it be for stress? Maybe, but I've always heard that stress is best handled with a good nights sleep and a bit of distraction, not drugs. I know this seems petty, but this scene literally makes no sense from a medical perspective. You know how this could be fixed? If Shiori had actually suffered some kind of visible injury. Maybe a concussion, or maybe she could have been shot. If they really needed to go to the hospital for some reason, that would be the best way to deal with it. Not like they really did though, since this whole scene could have been cut entirely without losing anything. Maybe we could have a bit more time dedicated to the rules of the Death Note instead.
Raye goes home to his girlfriend, Naomi Misora (Played by Seto Asaka [and yes, I thought Seto was a male given-name too]), and rather than discussing what went down, they just have coffee and cuddle while quoting random, inapplicable bible-verses. I don't mean from a them perspective, I mean a wider, movie kind of perspective.
One thing I feel the need to bring up right now is that while Naomi and Raye are both American FBI agents, they speak in Japanese even together. I know Naomi's parents are Japanese, and I know Raye is Japanese in this version, but they're still American FBI agents. A little, tiny bit of English between them would have made sense in-character. This is a bit of a logical issue throughout the whole film, which I'll bring up later.
Light then puts his plan to kill off the FBI into action. Since he can't just kill Raye without drawing immediate suspicion upon himself, he decides to kill all of them at once.
Raye cancels his plans for a day, Naomi follows him from the church to find out what he's up to. Raye goes to the train, where he finds an envelope left by Light. He opens it and finds a radio inside, along with a note from Light.
When Raye gets the radio hooked up, Light begins talking with him. Fortunately, he's using a voice-changer in this version, rather than just using his regular voice like he did in the animated series. Aside from a few changes here and there, this whole sequence is basically identical to the version in the comics and the animated series. I'd almost say the animated series copied it from this movie, but considering they both came out in the same year, and considering how long it takes to make an animated show, I highly doubt that.
Light kills a rapist to demonstrate his powers to Raye, but unlike in the comics or animated series, he does this in the train instead of on the street. In fact, their entire exchange takes place exclusively on the train. Light asks Raye if he can identify all of his co-workers in Japan. When Raye says he can't, Light tells him to write his bosses name down on one of the pages. Naturally, Light has written down the circumstances of death so Raye gets the names and faces of all of his co-workers. Raye then writes down their names on pages of the notebook, killing all of them.
Raye disembarks and dies, with Naomi exiting the train to check on him. Light retrieves the envelope, and leaves on the train.
This creates a cascade of events, with Naomi investigating Raye's death, and L placing video and audio surveillance on the Yagami family. Light finds out someone has been in his room through the pencil-lead technique, and from there assumes his room is now chock-full of surveillance, without asking Ryuk to map out all the cameras, although that's sort of implied. In her searching, Naomi stumbles across Shiori and Light. She then confronts Light about her suspecting him to be Kira. This is where the movie starts getting a bit stupid. In the comics, Light meeting Naomi was a coincidence, which made it even more tense. If Light hadn't gone to take his father fresh clothing, he never would have met her, and he might have been exposed. It was a work of pure art how Light figured his way around Naomi Misora in the comics, but the way this whole thing starts out is slightly, slightly freaking stupid.
Naturally, Light tells her he's going to sue her for defamation, while writing her (Fake) name down on a scrap of the Death Note. Shiori is taken aback by Naomi's confrontation, so she and Light leave. For absolutely no reason, Naomi tells Light she didn't give him her real name for absolutely no reason, telling him she was his fiance. If she suspects him to be Kira, why is she giving him all these details instead of letting him figure things out by himself like he did in the comics?
Light then decides to put on a show for L, and thus comes the famous "I'll take a potato-chip! And eat it!" scene. One thing I'd like to praise is the fact that they made the chip-bag large enough for Light to store a TV as well as a decent amount of chips. Something I didn't care for is the fact that the gravity of this scene, and of Light's actions have been significantly reduced, first by the lack of his inner-monologue, and secondly by the lack of music. This is another thing we'll have to come back to.
The next day, Light wakes up and the surveillance has been removed. The way this is set up, it implies the NPA did this while Light was asleep, which literally makes no sense. Ryuk asks Light what he would have done if someone else took the bag of chips, to which Light responds that he's the only one who likes Consomme chips.
Naomi calls up L and tells him that she's going to expose Light as Kira. She then kidnaps Shiori and takes her to the museum where Shiori and Light went earlier in the movie, telling Light to come and confess that he's Kira or she'll kill Shiori. Light goes to the museum and protests to Naomi that he's not Kira. She then tells him her whole name, telling him to kill her or she'll kill Shiori. As the cops arrive, Shiori runs away from Naomi, but Naomi shoots her. Shiori dies in Light's arms, and Naomi puts the gun to her head and kills herself. For some reason we don't see any blood from this, even though she was clearly holding a high-caliber pistol. It's not even like they were afraid to show visceral death-scenes in this movie, since they actually showed Osoreda bleeding from his head-wound onto the street. Seriously, how do you not splatter blood and brains all over the floor and walls from holding what appears to be a nine-millimeter pistol's barrel against your temple?
The police step in to clean up the mess, and attempt to give medical attention to Shiori, but to no avail. Light appears distraught over Shiori's death, but when Ryuk starts poking at him over that, he reveals his plans. Put Naomi into a situation where she would kill Shiori and then kill herself so he would then have ample motivation to join the Kira task-force, because if not for Kira, his girlfriend would still be alive. Funnily enough, that's actually 100% true. If not for his actions as Kira, Shiori would still be alive.
As the day begins to wrap up, Soichiro approaches Light to take him home, and Light tells him that he'd like to join the Kira tack-force. L steps out from the shadows to tell Light that he'd love to have him around, pulling out the same brand of Consomme chips Light was eating from earlier in the movie.
This was basically where the whole movie fell into place for me. Up until then, it seemed like they'd smashed all the life out of the comics, and while that's still somewhat true, seeing L step out of those shadows just taunting Light like he did with those heavy-metal chords playing in the background is still one of the most badass things I've ever seen.
The movie ends with Misa Amane (Played by Toda Erika) being attacked by her stalker, but he dies and a Death Note drops down in front of her. I don't really know when this is supposed to be set, since Ryuk takes an interest in her after seeing her cooking-show. Her incredibly stupid cooking show.
So, let's get back to what I said I was going to come back to earlier on. The first thing we'll cover is Ryuk. I won't say the CGI on him is award-winningly bad, but it's damn close. It would have been less off-putting if they'd used traditional animation. As it is, Ryuk looks like he stepped out of a Kingdom Hearts FMV. That's a consequence of having to insert a character with that bizarre kind of build into a live-action movie. You either go for CGI, CGI and a makeup job, or CGI, animatronics and a makeup job, and one of those is much more expensive and time-consuming than the other. At least if you want it to look good.
Second, Fujiwara Tatsuya has a chronic case of baby-face. At times, this actually takes away from him being able to play Light Yagami convincingly, but when he needs to he nails some of the finer aspects of the character. Another thing to mention is that they hardly ever have him wearing a shirt that isn't made of corduroy. I don't know why this bugs me, but it does. It might just be that in the comics and the animated series Light was always wearing either flat shirts or a suit of some kind. Also (and this is something to blame the stylists for) his hair in general looks nothing like Light's did in the comics.. It's too dark, for one thing. Light rather famously had light-brown hair. Plus, it's styled all wrong. Had he been given a better wardrobe, a hair-color and style which actually matches Light's and some more opportunities to flex as Light, however, I believe he would have been a great choice for the role. The problem is that this version of the character seems a bit too unprofessional, too laid-back for situation in both mannerisms and speech patterns, which I blame on the director more than anything. He's the one who decided to cut the characters inner-monologues out of the movie to add to the ambiguity. This also means we don't get any kind of visible shifts when the characters are doing things. I'm not asking for the full-tilt red tinges to Light's hair, but something would be nice.
One last thing about Light. He's shown playing basketball in the school-gym at one point, when it's been clearly established that tennis is his game. I can roll with it, but I wasn't really expecting him to be playing team-sports.
Next up is Matsuyama Ken'ichi as L, and I have to say he kills it in this role. He's got the look, the mannerisms, the speech-pattern, everything down. Matsuyama, like Alessandro Juliani, is perfect for this role. I don't think there's anyone else they could have gotten that played it as well as he did. There's an occasional issue with his make-up now and again, but other than that the production crew had L down pat for this film.
Before we move on to the rest of the cast, take a look at the right-hand side of this screenshot. You'll see a girl there, hooking up the televisions. One would naturally wonder who she is, given the fact that there weren't any female members of the Kira investigation until Wedy joined the team during the Yotsuba arc. She's an original character, named Sanami. (Played by Komatsu Miyuki) She literally serves no purpose. She doesn't do anything important, she doesn't say anything important, she's just sort of there every now and again. I don't even think they mention her name in the movie at all, and as far as I can tell, she doesn't have more than one name. Your guess is as good as mine if that's her family name or her given name, since I haven't gotten to names in my Japanese lessons yet.
Looking at the above screenshot, how many members of the Kira task-force can you name based on appearances alone? I'd wager two. L, and Touta Matsuda (Played by Aoyama Sota). I know there are only five people there, but I had a hard time identifying which actor was supposed to be playing which character. I still don't know which actors are which characters when it comes to the task-force beyond Soichiro, Matsuda, and L, mostly because none of the others have had any speaking-lines so far.
Since we can't cover anyone else yet, let's deal with the Chief. Kaga Takeshi would be perfect as Soichiro Yagami if he had the mustache and grey hair, but since he doesn't, he hardly looks like the character. Seriously, one of Soichiro's most famous defining characteristics is the mustache, and he doesn't have it! It's starting to look like Matsuda, Naomi and L are the only ones the production team put any effort into looking like they looked in the comics. If you look at Sayu (Played by Mitsushima Hikari) you'll notice her hair is the wrong color too. It's supposed to be a shade of chocolate brown. Their mother and Soichiro's wife, Sachiko isn't pictured here, but her hair is also black, while it's supposed to be dark brown. It sounds like I'm nit-picking, but all I'm asking for is a little consistency between mediums.
Speaking of inconsistency, Erika Toda, who plays Misa Amane doesn't have blonde-hair. Again, what is the single most obvious feature about her character? It's her yellow hair. While they got the styling and clothing down to a thread, the hair color is something that sticks out to me, especially since Death Note is an example of not only great artwork, but great designs as well. You're not likely to forget any of Obata's designs, but at first glance, if you didn't know this was a Death Note movie, most scenes would seem like they were from some random Japanese drama. Hell, the shots of Ryuk with Light look like they've been photoshopped, badly.
So, while the designs and styling leave quite a bit to be desired, the acting is exceptional. The dialogue isn't always great, but the acting works very well. Makes me wish that the Japanese casting directors for the animated series hired the cast of this movie instead of the people they did. Funnily enough, Matsuyama actually played Gelus in the Japanese version of the animated series.
Overall, the plot is solid. Moreso than that of Visions of a God, I think. While they compressed and skipped quite a few things, at least they weren't trying to cram half a series worth of content into a three-hour time-slot. In that regard, it's significantly better than Visions of a God. However, it's still got plenty of issues with presentation. The film relies a little too much on telling rather than showing, especially when it comes to public opinions of Kira, and there are a handful of small gripes I've brought up previously that bugged me. Overall, however, I think this was a story worth telling, it just needed to have a slightly tighter grip on the reigns when it came to pacing and planning out certain events. There are liberties taken with the plot that I like and ones that I don't, but overall it's not a bad way to tell the story.
Unfortunately that brings me to my biggest issue with the film. Most scenes are sorely lacking in appropriate musical accompaniment, with the few that do have music backing them up having very little. What's worse is that there are a pair of licensed songs inserted into the soundtrack. The xxxHolic theme-song, Manatsu no yoru no yume shows up in a romantic scene between Light and Shiori, and the film closes with a song from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dani California. In that regard the animated series gets a ton of points, since they really seem to have skimped on the soundtrack for this film. What original music they have, however, is pretty sweet. Like I said before, some sweet heavy-metal chords playing at the end before they start tuning up the Chili Peppers. Just to get this out of the way, unless you're doing a period-piece or are going for a very specific feel to a movie or TV show, I despise the use of licensed music. Shows like Death Note, Kamen Rider Drive, Dragon Ball Z and Ressha Sentai ToQger have pretty much ruined licensed soundtracks for me, not that I cared for them to begin with. It's always better to make your own music for something like this, and if they'd leaned a little heavier onto their heavy-metal composers and composed character-themes, action-themes, etc, I think they could have had an incredible soundtrack. I will admit that in some scenes, the lack of a soundtrack made everything a bit more visceral. As it is, however, I was yearning for the soundtrack of the animated series throughout.
One last thing. I didn't watch the entire movie dubbed in English, since I wanted to judge it based on how it was made originally, but I did go back and watch snippets when I was done, and I have to say, the English dub is pretty bad. Ocean came back with almost all of the English cast to dub this movie, and while the performances of Brian Drummond, Brad Swaile, Alessandro Juliani, Christopher Britton and the other leads were perfectly fine, most of the criminals, extras and bit-parts are acted terribly. The DA at the very beginning of the movie is a major offender too. The whole movie might not be that bad in English, but this movie is better watched subbed, since it lets you appreciate the cast the filmmakers have chosen. Honestly, as far as the cast goes in this movie, there's not a whole lot of room for improvement. Except in one regard.
Something I notice in a lot of Japanese media is that no matter where a character is supposed to be from, they're usually played by someone from Japan. The Attack on Titan movies did this, and this movie does it as well. The one main complaint I have would be Fujimura Shunji as Watari. Watari is a British inventor, yet he's played by a Japanese man who doesn't even speak with a British accent. I actually wonder how that would sound, come to think of it. Anyways, it's not really a huge complaint, since he gets the look down pretty well, but it's still something I felt I should bring up, since this is something that bugs me all the time. It bugged me when the Russian soldiers in Snake Eater were all speaking with American accents, it bugged me when Christian Bale was putting on a phony Cockney accent in The Prestige, and it will continue to bug me when things like this happen. While he didn't have much of a British accent per-se in the animated series, he at least had some of the upper-class English inflections to his voice.
This actually brings up a much bigger issue with the language of the film, and the non-english versions of Death Note. Namely, why a British-based detective and his mentor/handler would be speaking in perfect Japanese. I think it actually makes more sense for all the characters to be speaking English, since from what I understand it's taught as a second-language in Japan, but that then brings up more issues that continue to make less sense the more you think of them. In the end, it's best to just shut up and roll with it at some point.
All in all though, I think this movie is well worth watching. It's a unique interpretation of the Death Note story, and it's by far a more enjoyable movie than either Visions of a God or L's Successors were.
In the end, I give it a 7.1* rating. Next week we'll be tackling Death Note II: The Last Name. I'm going to try and get the review done by Wednesday, but it might be a regularly scheduled Sunday release, who knows? I just need to remember to watch the movie before the day I'm supposed to review it so my review doesn't wind up going out at five in the morning next time.

Cover image from, screenshots taken by myself.