Monday, February 1, 2016

Death Note Relight: Visions of a God

It's been a while since my review of the Death Note animated series, and I know I've been trying to cover as many games, series and movies from 2015 as possible before the end of January, but I seem to have failed in that regard. Since I still plan to review the live-action Death Note series, I figured I should go back and tackle the two animated television movies first. Maybe I'll be done with 2015 by June of this year, who knows?
Anyways, for the uninitiated Death Note Relight is a two-part series of animated movies put out on Nippon Television in Japan, in 2007 and 2008 respectively. They present an abridged look at the plot of the animated series, utilizing stock footage and dialogue in conjunction with new dialogue and original footage to bridge the gaps. The immediate reaction one would likely have to this is "Whaa? Death Note was perfect as it is, you can't cut anything out and have it work as well as it did!" possibly followed by "Well, they might surprise me, let's give it a shot!" Unfortunately, for those of us who've seen the films, we know that our first instincts were correct. Let's dig into the first of the two movies, Visions of a God. Spoiler warning for the special and for Death Note as a whole, so go watch the show if you haven't. It's on Netflix. Just be sure to choose the English audio track, the voice-direction in the Japanese version is terrible.
This particular movie is set after the events of the animated series, and starts out with a few minutes of original animation. An unnamed Shinigami finds Ryuk, and asks him to tell him about his trip to the human world. Ryuk appears to have aged quite a bit since the events of the animated series, and agrees to tell this Shinigami about his adventures.
Right off the bat, we've got an interesting setup for the story to come. Ryuk is telling a story to a fellow Shinigami about his adventures.
Unfortunately, this is when things start to fall apart, since the following scene is a montage of Light writing things down in the Death Note, which isn't supposed to be the first thing you see in Death Note. The first thing you need to see in Death Note is either Ryuk being bored in the Shinigami realm or Light deciding that the world is rotten and needs to change. A montage of violent crime would have worked much better without giving away any massive plot details the way this montage did.
The movie gets better from there, but the montage literally didn't need to be there. The screentime it took up could have been dedicated to a few more seconds of plot. When you're adapting around eighteen and a half twenty minute episodes into a two hour, forty minute film, you can't afford to spend any screentime on something that you're going to reiterate later on in the movie. This is similar to an issue we'll see later on in the second movie, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
So, what's been changed?
First off, as one would naturally presume from the shortened run-time, most of the story has been fast-tracked to the highlights of the first half of the series, cutting down on time for character development, but hitting all the right beats for the most part. At least, until we get to around the midpoint of the film. I'm going to try and cover everything in order as much as possible, without jumping around too much.
The first victim of the cut runtime was the "How to use it" notations between scene transitions. This basically means that if you don't already know what the Death Note can do, the movie isn't going to bother explaining. Most of Light's experimentation with the Death Note has either been cut down, or removed entirely, which all but destroys the few rules-related plot-points they left in the film. All of Light's precautions about protecting the Death Note have been removed as well, at least until L starts his surveillance. They skip Light's first two kills entirely, even though those were part of Light's character development. The second one is flashed back to as part of a montage later on in both this film and the next, but it's not really given any kind of context that would give it any kind of weight. We don't see any of Light's transformation, he just goes from regular schoolboy with a warped sense of justice to mass murderer without any real inquiry into his motivations.
After Kira becomes known to the world, they skip through a lot of the ICPO conference straight to L's first confrontation with Light, which is itself sped through at a breakneck pace. Speaking of which, L reveals himself to the NPA with hardly any build-up. They just cut to the remaining NPA members showing up at the hotel with L.
The FBI sub-plot has been almost entirely excised, except for one scene where Ryuk notices Ray Penber and points him out to Light. The bus gambit was removed, which means Light would have no idea what his name would be to look up him or his commander back in the States. This is one of the only plot-holes I could find in the movie, the rest of the issues were entirely based in the breakneck pacing and the lack of decent character development. You know, all the problems the animated series didn't have.
After that, they run straight into Naomi Misora, kill her off, and then speed straight into L's surveillance of Light. You'll be happy to know that the potato-chip scene has been left mostly intact. They then cut almost immediately to the Sakura TV sequence, having cut out the scenes where Light meets L entirely, and thus erasing Soichiro's heart-attack from existence. I'd also like to point out that the reveal of him being Light's father has also been cut. It doesn't exactly induce any plot-holes, but it certainly makes things a little more puzzling until they drop some hints later on in the movie.
The removal of Soichiro's heart-attack makes his intervention in the Sakura TV incident a lot less bad-ass. Plus, since they had to compress the story, the whole situation is a lot less bad-ass in general.
After that, Light meets L for the first time. This whole sequence is original animation, and it's almost five solid minutes of exposition. They spend five minutes connecting the first half of the movie to the last half of the movie, possibly because they couldn't figure out how to adapt the college sub-plot without it taking up the entire last half of the film. It did, after all, take up at least four episodes, possibly more if you expand your scope to everything the arc affected, which is basically everything that follows it, up to and including the entire last half of the series. This removes some more of Light's brilliant gambits from the movie, since it removes his direct influence from the Second Kira case.
Rem then explains to Misa about how she got the second Death Note that Misa now owns, as well as explaining how she knows how to kill a Shinigami. This scene in the animated series was very touching and very very sad. It actually brought me to tears when I saw it, and I had already read the manga. I knew what was going to happen, and it was still sad. Due to all of the things they cut out of the scene, however, the impact of the scene was reduced significantly. They basically just pared it down to the guy trying to kill Misa and the Shinigami saving her. They also failed to explain the fact that when a Shinigami dies saving a human, that Shinigami gives the human their remaining life-span to extend that of the human. You know, one of the most critical plot-points in the entire show? Not like removing that raises any questions based on how she lived on beyond what was supposed to be her natural life-span. Based on the rules of the Death Note, she should have collapsed from a heart-attack unless she was given some kind of extension to that life-span.
Misa then shows up at Light's house (A flashback shows that Light and Misa crossed paths by complete accident at one time. As opposed to her planning to find out who Kira was through a complex manipulation of the rules of the Death Note and the police.
L then shows up at Light's school for no reason to talk to him and Misa for a bit before arresting Misa under suspicion of being the second Kira. Light then sets a plan into motion, with the movie showing us even less of the gambit than either the comics or the animated series did, with him getting locked up and erasing his memory. The scenes where he told Ryuk what to do under what circumstances are gone, as are the scenes of him burying the Death Note. This was literally one of the most important moments in the series, and it was definitely one they needed to leave uncut. Honestly, at most they would have added five or ten minutes to the film. Then again, they cut out a bunch of other critical plot-points, so who knows what the editor on this project was thinking.
Light gets locked up along with Misa for a while (Soichiro's imprisonment has been edited out), the Kira killings stop for a while, and after a little while (The timespan is cut down by a lot) the Kira killings restart. After an unexplained period of time (the sequel, L's Successors reuses the original line from the show, but based solely on this movie it could have just been two weeks later) Light and Misa are released, but kept under surveillance. There's also no explanation as to why Light and L are handcuffed to each other.
A good question to ask right now would be why L wants Light to help him with the case now? He wasn't helping him with it before in this continuity, and basically all he did was show that he's a viable suspect for the Kira investigation. It's not like he helped L put the reigns on the second Kira in this universe. It's not like they went to school together, or solved puzzles over coffee, or even really spoke to each other much in this version of Death Note.
Light and L have their little fight-scene, Matsuda feels useless, so he breaks into the offices of the Yotsuba group (because they actually bother explaining that they've linked a lot of Kira killings to Yotsuba) gets caught, and the task-force sets up a rescue mission for him. This all takes about three minutes. Since they cut out the breakup of the official task-force, they also removed the explanation as to why L and Light had to be the ambulance attendants when they picked up Aiber in the Matsuda wig from the street.
I'd also like to mention that Aiber and Wedy are introduced without much ceremony. Their names aren't even mentioned initially.
Rem then touches Misa with a piece of the Death Note when she overhears Kyosuke Higuchi, the third Kira talking about how he wants to marry Misa and possibly kill her for life insurance money. Rem then reveals to Misa who the third Kira is.
This is where their usage of stock-footage from the animated series begins breaking down. In the animated series, Misa disguises herself to get away from her police bodyguard so she can nab Higuchi with a confession. To do so, she disguises herself in a nurses outfit she borrowed from a friend of hers. But in this movie, they just cut from Misa's interview to her being in Higuchi's car, and as such, Misa's outfit changes from scene to scene. Why they didn't just use a bit of original footage for Misa's confrontation with Higuchi is beyond me.
In the upcoming scenes we can tell that the scenes where Light and L manipulate the rest of the Yotsuba murder group into cooperating with the Kira investigation have been left on the cutting-room floor. They set up the Sakura TV thing with Matsuda, and Higuchi goes off on his little quest to kill Matsuda. Long story short, they capture him and grab the Death Note, the team sees Rem, Light gets his memories back, and kills Higuchi. The difference between the animated series and this movie, however, is that the Kira task-force was never officially disbanded by the NPA, the members didn't subsequently quit, and Aizawa never left the Task Force, so it turns what was a Big Damn Heroes moment in the animated series into basically a standard police operation.
Misa gets her memories and her notebook back, but not her Shinigami eyes. This wasn't particularly well explained in either the comics or the animated series, it's just sort of assumed that you lose all of your Death Note related powers when you give up the notebook. Honestly, it didn't really have much of a purpose and could have been totally dropped without losing much. I mean, it contributed to Rem wanting to save Misa's life, but there were enough reasons for her to do that anyways that you literally could have removed it entirely without losing anything. This was pretty much the only thing which bugged me about the original Death Note comics and the animated series. Unfortunately, this isn't that kind of movie.
Misa reveals to Light that she can't remember L's real name (You see, this is why you repeat things in your head until you can't forget it.) and Light puts Misa in a position where Rem must kill L for them in order for Misa to not be caught as Kira potentially.
The people constructing this movie completely botched L's death scene, as it doesn't have nearly the same impact as it did in the animated series. It could be that we haven't had enough time to get to know L for his death to have much meaningful impact on us, or it could be how the editors constructed the scenario. For one thing, all of the scenes of L being kind to Light before his death have been completely removed. Not to mention all of the scenes from earlier in the series that were either shortened or skipped entirely of them working together. The consequence of skipping most of the Yotsuba arc is that we missed out on seeing enough of non-Kira Light becoming friends with L. That removes a lot of the shock of L's death, since you almost didn't expect Light to have him killed in both the comics and the animated series. Here, since you don't really get more than a glimpse of the differences between Light without his Kira memories and Light with them, nor do you get to see how Kira-Light and L consider each other worthy opponents, it basically removes all meaning from this scene.
Fortunately, the ending is much better, with them actually covering L's funeral, and Light gloating over L's grave, before they cut to Ryuk, staring at Light's name in his Death Note, with the Shinigami walking off to the Human world. The sound fades out, as (the first ending) begins to play.
For the most part, I'd say that the original animation in this episode was pointless. Aside from the intro and ending, there's nothing new here worth watching. While I liked L's funeral, I think they should have held off on completing the framing narrative until the end of the second movie, especially considering how weak the framing-device for L's Successors is.
In order to patch the gaps between stock footage, new dialogue has been recorded, and the English casts performance is on par with their performances in the animated series. Unfortunately, the quality of the narrative has taken a bit of a nosedive, and sometimes characters are forced to talk in scenes when they didn't talk before. For the most part they do a good job of abridging the stock footage from the animated series into a cohesive whole, but there are enough continuity errors that you wonder why they didn't use a bit more original footage. There are also times when I question why the editors left certain scenes in. For instance, Misa's singing is left pretty much untouched from how it was in the animated series, but they cut out Ryuk explaining certain things about the Death Note to Light. Plus, Light's experimentation with the notebook has been reduced to a footnote basically, which leaves certain questions up in the air which were otherwise answered in the animated series and the comics alike.
The new animation is at least as good quality as that of the original series. I didn't see any massive issues, such as transparent hair or ridiculously off-model animation. Mad House, as always, delivers on precision animation. However, for some strange reason, Misa's cross jewelry has been changed to misshapen fleur de li's. I don't know why, but they did. It's bizarre, and it looks incredibly out of place.
Then we come to the sound-design. In my review of the animated series I praised the care taken with sound cues and music, since it added to the atmosphere of the show. Unfortunately, for the most part, that hasn't carried over into the film. Track placement is haphazard, and there's not silence or light score music to give the audience much breathing-room.
All in all, I wouldn't recommend Visions of a God to a first-time Death Note viewer, or to a fan, for that matter. It's much better to just watch the animated series, as it's actually a complete story as opposed to just a highlights reel. Hell, the animated series had a ten minute recap in the middle of the series right after L died which was more complete than this movie is. The good thing about that was that it actually served a purpose in the plot. What little original animation there is is few and far between. The exposition scene towards the middle just raises a bunch of questions, with the funeral scene at the end of the movie leaving me to wonder why they didn't just include that in the animated series instead of leaving it to languish in this Frankenstein's monster of a film.
In the end, I give this film a 3.7* rating. It's well below par, especially considering how high the bar was set by the animated series and comics alike. You wanna know what the worst part is though? Out of the two Relight films, this is the good one! Tune in around Wednesday, when I'll be reviewing Death Note Relight 2: L's Successors!

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