Obviously Death Note is brilliant. That's not even up for discussion. In case you've forgotten, we're talking about the manga in which Light Yagami finds a notebook that lets you kill anyone you like at no risk to yourself, which needless to say gets put to extreme use. However when I call it brilliant, I'm talking about the story in its purest form, the anime and manga, in both of which the plot gets all the time in the world to unfold. The TV series
lasted 37 episodes. The main question in my head was how the dickens was this storyline going to get condensed down into two live-action movies? (The third one is a spin-off rather than a sequel.) To be honest, I wasn't expecting much.
Surprisingly though, the first film's far more faithful than I'd expected. They change things a bit for the finale and they're going to have to hack the rest of the storyline to shreds to cram it into Death Note: The Last Name
, but for the time being we have quite a good adaptation on our hands.
This first film's secret is that it's only covering the first eight episodes of the anime. If you think about it, their running times aren't that dissimilar. If we assume that an anime episode is about 20 minutes long, ignoring opening/closing credits and recaps, then eight such episodes contain 160 minutes' worth of content. This film's running time is 126 minutes. That's not such a big difference. Of course this means the poor long-suffering sequel's going to be tackling a ten-hour storyline in about 140 minutes, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. My crystal ball tells me that we'll soon be diverging quite a bit from the manga storyline.
Here the similarities are strong. Episodes 1-6 and 8 are pretty much as in the originals. They've rearranged the beginning so that we start with a bunch of Death Note killings and then go into flashback mode, but that's fine. I liked that. Episode 7 has been entirely rewritten, but that's partly because they want something more dramatic for the finale. What they've come up with instead is good. It looks as if the next film will have to ignore episode 9 and jump straight to 10, but I'm sure we'll survive that. The main difference between this Death Note film and the manga is that the movie's doing everything it can to provide more involvement for the women. The original story never really bothered with all that. However here we have a much bigger role for Light's girlfriend Shiori, a completely different angle of attack from Naomi Misora and even an early introduction for Misa-Misa. They've even added a woman into Souichiro Yagami's police investigation team, although she doesn't do much. I'll admit that I'm not completely sold on all of those changes, with the movie's version of one particular twist being less of a thunderbolt than the anime's, but I suppose it's ending the film on a double cliffhanger.
The casualty of all these changes is L. The "Light vs. L" duel is what most people will imagine as being at the heart of Death Note, yet here he's being downplayed to the extent that you'll have to wait for Part Two. He's still an important character, but he doesn't really do much here.
As for the visuals, that side of things is great unless you're unhappy about actors not being able to look like anime characters, in which case I can't help you. Again it's much more faithful than you'd expect. The Death Note itself and Ryuk look exactly the same as the versions I knew, so much so that it gave me a little chill on seeing them. I'd never expected them to do Ryuk quite so faithfully, since he's a gigantic winged monster with a face like something that lives at the bottom of the ocean. Nope, here he is. He's very obviously CGI, looking at first as if he's escaped from a computer game, but in time I warmed to him. He's cool on the bus and he's funny when being told that he can't have any more apples.
To be honest, the biggest difference between the two versions is simply the fact that it's live-action. You're looking at actors. Sometimes this is a clear advantage. The original Watari was pretty much walking scenery, an Alfred to L's Batman, but here he's being played by Shunji Fujimura and I found him adorable. His plot role is just as small as before, but Fujimura brings him alive. I also quite liked this Matsuda. However the main roles are perhaps more of a point of contention, with Light, L and Souichiro Yagami all being perhaps a little less vivid than their animated counterparts. To take those in reverse order of importance, Souichiro seems like a real person, but not quite the immovable object I'd been expecting. L is a freak, as he should be, but the anime's L managed to find a little more charisma in his anti-charisma. Well, it's probably unfair to judge L on just the evidence of Part One.
Most important, of course, is Light. I liked him, but he's more human. The anime version was more startling, with his ferocious intellect and sociopathic arrogance. He had a few flourishes we don't get here, with the biggest being the anime's Light deliberately killing people in a manner that's drawing attention to himself, for the sake of making everyone realise that they're living under his reign of terror. This Light on the other hand is seen to go through different stages of nastiness as he slowly turns himself into a monster, rather than pretty much being evil from the beginning. For a live-action adaptation, this makes a lot of sense. The actor is Tatsuya Fujiwara, by the way, who'd also been the hero in Battle Royale. His work here is solid and respectable, but it's worth mentioning that my little brother didn't find him scary and cool enough. Personally my main objection was that I wasn't convinced that Fujiwara was as intelligent as the character he was playing.
That said, though, I believe some of that is the anime's Light being beefed up from the manga's, so it's possible that what we have here is in some ways more faithful to the original. Furthermore it's still also only Part One, so we can't judge the whole thing yet. I find this Light less iconic, though.
One curiosity for American audiences is that they tried to use the anime's dub actors for the film. Personally I think that's cool.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I'd been expecting a hatchet job, but in fact it's almost reverential. The director has said he had reservations while making the film, since it "uses death to entertain the audience" and feels "morally unsettling". Good. Any Death Note adaptation which isn't morally unsettling can be dismissed as a failure. I'd strongly recommend this movie series so far, although obviously Part Two is going to be the make-or-break instalment. Just make sure you don't watch its trailer. Spoilers, people! Spoilers! Do you want to give away your whole movie?