Reviewed by Andrew Kasch
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Asaka Seto, Shigeki Hosokawa
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
Horror, first and foremost, deals with cautionary tales and with the current state of the world (thanks to the lunatic in the oval office) it’s high time we had a film deal with that age old theme: vulgar displays of power. Thankfully Death Note is here to fill the void courtesy of master filmmaker Shusuke (Gamera trilogy) Kaneko. Having stumbled with the disappointing Azumi 2, Kaneko-san jumps back on track with the first installment in his adaptation of the popular manga, which has been split into two volumes ala Kill Bill.
The story revolves around Light (Fujiwara), a young law student disgusted with society’s criminals and the lenient justice system. One evening, all his wishes are granted when he happens across a notebook dropped by the God of Death. The owner of this “Death Note” can kill someone simply by writing their name in the book and, through proper rules of conduct, even use it to manipulate the events surrounding that person’s demise. Viewing himself as a moral avenger, Light assumes the identity of “Kira” and begins to punish known criminals on a global scale.
Light/Kira eventually becomes the latest controversial media sensation, attracting an equal amount of supporters and critics. Teaming up with Ryuk, the God of Death himself (a winged vaudevillian demon that’s a cross between The Joker and Sid Vicious), Light is quickly corrupted by his newfound power and begins to use it against the opposition. As the body count rises, authorities are approached by the mysterious “L” (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) a bizarre hyper-intelligent detective with a task force hellbent on discovering Kira’s real identity.
Death Note is a total departure from the usual J-horror fare of recent years. Gone are all traces of long-haired spirits and curses as well as the traditional uber-serious dread tone. At the same time, Kaneko doesn’t take the easy route and resort to Final Destination level slice n’ dice (most of the deaths occur via heart attack, the book’s main method of dispatch). Rather the focus is on the tense cat-and-mouse game between two eccentric characters and the script packs in enough twists and intrigue to fill ten movies. This is an epic pulse-pounding mystery with dark fantasy overtones, and to be honest, there’s nothing else quite like it. Leave it to Japan to show us that horror can be used for something other than remakes and dead-teen flicks.
After taking the moral high road as Battle Royale’s doe-eyed protagonist, Fujiwara makes the perfect leap to cold-blooded killer in a dense multi-layered performance. The supporting cast is equally solid across the board, but it’s Matsuyama’s “L” who completely runs away with this movie. Acting almost entirely through his unusual looks and body language, he’s one of the most lovable oddballs to ever grace the screen. As for the demon Ryuk, he looks exactly like what he is: a low-grade CGI character. Thankfully, his performance is so animated it’s easy to forget that fact and embrace him as a vital part of the cast.
The only real problems lay in the pacing. As stated earlier, the first volume of Death Note is only half a film, and at well over two hours it’s a bit long in the tooth; there are a few scenes and subplots that drag on, resulting in momentary lapses in what is otherwise a tight story. These quibbles aside, Death Note is an engaging and stunningly original horror-fantasy with enough thrills and brains to make one salivate for the next installment.
Why wait? Click here to read my review of Death Note: The Last Name!
4 out of 5
Discuss Death Note in our forums!