Death Note (DVD)
Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Asaka Seto, Takeshi Kaga
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
Distributed by VIZ Pictures
Death Note is Part 1 of the 2006 live action version of an uber-popular manga and anime series from Japan created by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. With a screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi (writer of the original One Missed Call) and direction by Shusuke Kaneko (Gamera trilogy and GMK), the film offers a breath of fresh air to American audiences who are sick to death of the recycled J-horror conventions and clichés showing up in so many of the projects coming out of Hollywood nowadays.
No doubt most of you reading this review are already familiar with the storyline of Death Note, but in case one or two readers skipped over it thinking it was just another spoooooky tale of a young Asian girl with long black hair exacting revenge of some sort or another upon her tormentors, here's a quick synopsis. A brilliant but bored young student named Light (Fujiwara) has a plan: to rid the universe of evil by killing those who perpetuate it. A lofty goal, sure, but totally unrealistic, right? Not exactly thanks to a mystical notebook that falls squarely in his path one day. It seems that whoever's name Light writes in the notebook dies … in whatever manner that Light chooses for him or her to do so. In theory Light's idea is sound and his intentions are pure in that he only aims to take out the bad guys, but we all know what happens to anyone granted absolute power of this magnitude. More often than not, they are absolutely corrupted, and Light is no exception.
Further muddying the murky morality waters is the simultaneous appearance in Light's life of a Shinigami (aka death god) named Ryuk, who explains the Death Note protocol to him and keeps an eye on his activities. Ryuk is totally CG, and not since Gollum have I been so enamored of an imaginary character. His presence could have easily become an insurmountable distraction, but he grew on me so quickly that before long I almost forgot he wasn't real. In the media Light's vigilante serial killer persona is referred to as "Kira", and who should be heading up the police investigation to track down Kira but Light's own father (Kaga). Soon he's joined on the case by the FBI as well as the mysterious and eccentric "L" (Matsuyama), who is considered the world's best detective, and the archetypal cat and mouse game is on. But who is really the cat, and who is the mouse?
There's much that can be said about the great look and tone of Death Note and the fantastic performances in it, but honestly, Andrew summed it up best in his review of the film back when it first premiered: "This is an epic pulse-pounding mystery with dark fantasy overtones, and … there’s nothing else quite like it." Since my opinion tracks so closely with his, rather than indulge in redundancy, I'll simply point you in his direction and focus the rest of my energies on discussing the special features VIZ provides on the disc.
First let's get the language track issue out of the way. Both the original Japanese and the English dubbed versions are included, and while I will say that the latter isn't as bad as most, it still doesn't compare with the authentic dialogue spoken by the actors. I know there are people out there who don't like to "read" the movies they're watching, and to them I say, "Enjoy your dub; I'll stick with my subs." We also get multiple renditions of the trailer in an assortment of languages along with a preview of the adaptation done in anime. A sheet with instructions of "how to use this DVD" (so clever!) and a mini reproduction of Volume 1 of the manga entitled "Boredom" are integrated into the packaging and help raise Death Note's Special Features knife rating to just above average.
The back of the box mentions a "Director's Interview," but what we actually get are 13 one- to two-minute featurettes and a text-based "Director's Profile." These items are accessed via an extremely creative menu comprised of apple icons (Ryuk is a big fan of the pomaceous fruit) that switch from one thing to another depending on the order in which you hit the arrow keys on your remote. At first it was pretty cool, but ultimately it got more and more frustrating trying to maneuver from apple to apple. So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if some viewers simply give up after getting stuck in loop after loop of the same three or four objects. And, all in all, I wouldn't say they're missing a lot if they don't watch the extras since director Shusuke Kaneko appears in only a handful of the interviews and a large percentage of the rest are filler type segments that show scenes being filmed without commentary or explanation.
A few stand out, such as Kaneko discussing the challenge of fitting the multi-chapter Death Note narrative into two feature films, Norman "A White Guy" England explaining why he was cast in the role of an FBI agent, and a much too brief look at how the actors were matched up to the characters they portray. A little bit about Part 2 (Death Note: The Last Name (review)) is revealed in that we're promised an upping of Light's evil ante. Things wrap up with a final featurette entitled "What's Important" that I thought was going to be rather profound after it opened with Kaneko describing how Death Note expresses the issues we all wrestle with as citizens of the world, but alas, it cuts from there to some outtakes of the wrap party. It's disappointing when a meaningful story like this gets such short shrift in the features department with most of the cast and crew nowhere to be seen.
But it definitely beats the alternative of a lot of fluff on the DVD and a crappy movie, so I'll say thanks to VIZ for getting Death Note not just this nice DVD release but also its short theatrical run last May; and they're doing the same for Part 2 this October 15 and 16. Get out there and show your support, or risk seeing your name written on a death note!
4 out of 5
3 out of 5
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