To address the obvious criticism first, this isn't a sequel. Nikkatsu and Nippon TV had always planned to adapt Death Note as two movies, which is impressive in itself even without considering their combined running time of four and a half hours. Admittedly this doesn't compare with the screen time available to a television series, but then again we've got one of those too.
What's good about these movies is that they're doing it properly and refusing to rush through the material. These are solid mainstream movies that know they've got a first-rate story on their hands, not just Cliff's Notes for the manga. You don't need to be a nerd to watch these films. On the contrary, this second one shot to the top of the Japanese box office and stayed there for a month. Despite only being released in November, by the end of the year it taken 5.5 billion yen and become one of 2006's highest grossing Japanese films. You shouldn't go thinking that such an outcome had been inevitable either, since the Japanese are perfectly capable of turning manga into horrendously bad films (e.g. Devilman
Unfortunately for fans of the original manga, this means that they're having to pick and choose here what plotlines to keep. This is particularly true since the first movie had (surprisingly) stayed in step with episodes #1-8 of the anime. If we're still taking one anime episode to have twenty minutes of story time, this would suggest that this film can cover seven of the remaining episodes #9-37.
I was expecting the results to be unrecognisable. They're not. In fact they're thoroughly respectable and the outcome is once again a far more faithful Death Note movie than I'd expected. It feels edited, not butchered. There's no Yotsuba Group, Near or Mello, but you don't miss them. In anime terms, the film is covering about a dozen episodes and adding a few more of its own to fill in the gaps they've skipped over, which means that they're doing it a bit less thoroughly but still recognisably telling the same story. The last third of the anime is missing, although they've more or less kept the finale, but that's okay. I don't think anyone thinks those are the best bits anyway.
So it's a pretty faithful Death Note adaptation. Thumbs up there. Unfortunately my niggles from the first film
have grown into objections.
Firstly, I'm not a fan of the performances. No one's bad, but equally I don't think any of the youngsters have anywhere near the screen presence of the originals. Tatsuya Fujiwara is just too damn nice to play Light Yagami. He never struck me as either scary or intelligent, whereas the original is both absolutely terrifying and a genius. Instead Fujiwara's cute! Personally I'd describe his Light as an ordinary person who happens to have been given extraordinary powers, which is a perfectly valid take on the story but one that I personally find less compelling.
Ken'ichi Matsuyama is forgettable as L. He's doing all the obvious things, but I don't think he's doing enough to project past L's mannerisms. Finally Erika Toda gives us a realistic and hence low-key Amane Misa, superficially the same as the anime version but also more of a strong, independent woman's woman for the movies today. In other words she's not retarded. Personally I found the original Misa funnier, but I suppose this change was probably inevitable since the movie's Light vs. L duel has dropped about a hundred IQ points and so you wouldn't get the same dramatic contrast by making her a bimbo who's liable to wreck everyone's plans just by walking into the room.
I liked the older actors, though. Takeshi Kaga has grown on me as Soichiro Yagami, while Magy is a clear improvement on the anime's rather cartoonish sleazy Sakura TV producer.
Then you've got the script's choices. Just like last time, they're making the female characters more prominent wherever possible. In theory that's laudable, but in practice it means less screen time for Light vs. L. Technically they're hitting all the story beats, but one doesn't get the same sense of a battle of wits and the big shock twists aren't even being built up as surprises. Again L isn't having to work for his information. There's even the odd moment of stupidity, for instance when Soichiro turns up in a motorcycle helmet so that his face can't be seen, but then removes it so quickly that it hardly seemed worth wearing in the first place. There's now no point in L coming to school, although he does. Finally I'm sceptical of the validity of Light's analysis of death patterns, since the movie didn't make it look as if enough time had passed for such results to be statistically significant.
They also don't have the budget to do the Sakura TV station siege. They try to do something similar with a TV festival instead, but it's all a bit low-key and the dramatic bit with a van crashing through the doors in this version looks almost meaningless.
I really liked the conclusion, though. You can save a bad film with a great ending, while this film isn't actually bad at all. It's merely a second-best adaptation of a terrific original story. They've thought up a clever twist, making anyone expecting a mere retread of the manga's events in for a surprise. That was a bit brilliant, actually, whereupon the film hits its stride and we're into a genuinely cool climax. There are even some gentler post-finale scenes, which I'd never expected them to make time for in a film with such a crowded schedule but they're rather nice anyway.
Is this a good film? Definitely. Is it perfect? No. It has to be said that the anime would occasionally get slightly boring, whereas the movie's never in any danger of that. It's attacking its story at a healthy clip. However on the other hand, I think the anime's clearly superior. It's scarier and it's going for its shock twists, not to mention being both more intellectual and more visceral. If anyone else is planning to compare the live-action and animated versions of Death Note, watch the anime first for the sake of the surprises. Nevertheless I'd still recommend this film and I'm sure it'll blow away people who've never heard anything about this story. There's a lot of exposition in the first fifteen minutes, though.