DIRECTED BY: Shusuke Kaneko
FEATURING: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama
PLOT: A law student finds a notebook (deliberately dropped by the God of Death) that
allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it; soon, criminals across the world start dropping dead, while, with the aid of super-detective “L,” the police race to stop the mysterious vigilante.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Death Note has a unique premise and execution, particularly in the way it mixes the fantasy and detective genres, and has potential as a cult film even beyond its existing magna/anime fanbase. The presence of apple-munching Ryuuk, a lurking angel of death whose motives for making Light his emissary are never explained, gives this film a small tinge of weirdness, but other than that it abides by its own internal rules with such rigid consistency that it registers no more than an “offbeat” on the Weirdometer.
COMMENTS: Death Note begins with a potentially interesting premise, but spends most of its first reel setting up that premise in such a routine way that I feared it was going to be just another uninspiring Ringu variation. Studying the law with the intention of becoming a district attorney, young Light magically gets the power to dispense capital punishment. He targets only the vilest unrepentant criminals who have escaped justice. The anonymous vigilante who slays with a stroke of the pen is anointed “Kira” and is applauded by legions of Internet groupies. For a while it looks like we’re headed towards a depressingly obvious morality tale, with Light destined to fall from grace, abuse his power and accidentally execute an innocent man. The first twist comes when we meet Ryuuk, a god of death and the source of Light’s new-found power; his motives are unknown and he proclaims himself neutral as to whether Light uses the Death Note or not. Ryuuk constantly hangs around Light, apparently because he’s fallen hard for the earthly pleasure of the humble apple and Light has become his produce pusher. The angel of death is an interesting character, but his idiosyncrasies take a while to unfold, and he’s a disappointment on other terms: he looks like an artist’s black and white rendering of Heath Ledger’s joker with bat wings attached, badly animated for a cheap video game. He even moves like a game character, hovering slightly in the air with a stock expression until the game cursor hovers over him, at which point he jerks back his head and delivers his dialogue with a cartoonish cackle. It’s to the script’s credit that despite the cheap animation, Ryuuk’s role is interesting enough that we eventually get used to him and forget about his distracting appearance.
The second wrinkle comes with the arrival of another oddball character, the anonymous sleuth “L,” who first appears as nothing more than a voice on a laptop. Faced with a worldwide pandemic of accused murderers dropping dead from heart attacks after juries acquit them, the baffled police turn to the techno-detective, who cleverly narrows down the list of suspects from the entire population of the world to a small pool of Japanese students using pure deduction. But the story doesn’t really take off until the halfway point, when Light turns his attentions from criminals to those tracking him down and new rules are introduced for the Death Note allowing him to write out elaborate scenarios to cause his victim’s demise, rather than unceremoniously dropping dead of a heart attack as they had previously. Light needs his victim’s name in order to off him, and the anonymous L, driven by his own amoral sense of sport, seeks to discover Light’s identity as well. The cat-and-mouse games between the two masterminds turn complicated, clever and thrilling, with L playing the part of a high-tech Sherlock while Light becomes a mystical Moriarty. The story is spread over two feature films; this picture wraps up one story arc, but ends with Light and L at a stalemate to be broken in Death Note: The Last Name (2006).
Death Note has become a small franchise: based on a popular magna, it had previously been adapted as an anime series, it has spawned not only the of-a-piece sequel but a spin-off movie featuring L. It’s also destined for a horribly uninteresting Hollywood remake.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Light’s goaded into his kill spree by the God of Death; a lolloping CGI ghoul in rock star clothes, who appears out of nowhere and offers advice while munching on apples. Weird, huh?”–Jamie Russell, BBC (contemporaneous)