Released: 17 June 2006
Director: Shūsuke Kaneko
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $20 million (estimated)
Stars: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Kenichi Matsuyama, Yuu Kashii, Asaka Seto, Takeshi Kaga, and Shidou Nakamura
A battle between the world’s two greatest minds begins when Light Yagami (Fujiwara) finds the Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill, and decides to rid the world of criminals. Advised by the Shinigami, Ryuk (Nakamura), Light’s crusade to bring his own brand of justice to the world soon brings him into a game of cat and mouse with an eccentric detective known as “L” (Matsuyama).
Death Note (or “DEATH NOTE” as it is stylised) began life as a manga created by author Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata; starting out as a very broad and basic concept regarding Shinigami and strict rules, Ohba and Obata developed a system whereby both of them would draft and storyboards alongside their editor. Ohba would visualise the panels during his downtime and Obata would incorporate pacing and action into them, and was afforded a great deal of creative license when it came to his artwork. Originally published in Weekly Shōnen Jump between 1 December 2003 and 15 May 2006, Death Note was incredibly successful and widely praised for its art, compelling characters, and elaborate twists and turns. So popular was Death Note that was adapted into an equally well-regarded thirty-seven episode anime between 3 October 2006 and 26 June 2007, which received two feature-length specials retelling the anime’s story with new footage in late-2007 and 2008, respectively. Considering how popular both the manga and the anime are, it was perhaps inevitable that a live-action adaptation would follow; director Shūsuke Kaneko didn’t take this task lightly and even gambled on filming two movies back-to-back just to try and do the source material justice. To bring the Shinigami Ryuk to life, Kaneko chose to utilise computer effects so that audiences would be into him being a fantastical and artificial character, though insisted that the animators at Digital Frontier create him as though he were a man in a suit. After topping the Japanese box office, Death Note received a brief cinema release overseas alongside both subtitled and dubbed versions of the film, and eventually made over $31 million at the box office. The film was relatively well regarded by critics, with reviews praising it as a tense thriller and faithful adaptation and placing specific emphasis on the interplay between Light and L. The film was followed by a sequel, just as Kaneko intended, that proved to be even more successful and spawned not only a somewhat divisive L-centric spin-off but also a miniseries and follow-up film in 2016 that also garnered mixed reactions.
So, I have to preface this review by saying that, as of this writing, I haven’t actually read the original Death Note manga or watched the anime series; I’ve been meaning to, but never seem to be able to find the time for either, which is a bit of a shame as I really dig the concept and the characters. Death Note (as in, this movie) was my introduction to the franchise; I remember it and its sequel randomly being on Film4, I believe it was, years and years ago when I was taking my undergraduate studies and I stayed up later then usual to watc h them purely on the strength of the brief screen time Ryuk received in the promos. I was intrigued and have been a big fan of the franchise since…and I hope to one day get around to checking out the original source material. The second thing to note is that I’m watching the original Japanese audio with English subtitles; apparently, there is a dubbed version out there (and, honestly, I would prefer that) but that’s not included in my box set. The film is initially framed as a bit of a mystery, and out of sequence, showing the names of the Death Note’s victims onscreen before they collapse from a fatal heart attack before a gaggle of stunned onlookers, including the police, the press, and everyday civilians.
The film follows university student Light Yagama, a young prodigy wo dreams of joining Japan’s National Police Agency and working alongside his father, Detective Superintendent Souichirou Yagami (Kaga). A highly intelligent young man, Light is something of a brash youth who believes he’s smart enough to justify skipping years of on-the-job experience and intuition. Strongly opposed to criminals and in favour of swift, uncompromising justice, Light hacks into the police database and is disheartened to see criminals slip through what he perceives as a broken system, one that he can strengthen and make more efficient. The Death Note gives him the power to do that; initially afraid of Ryuk and sceptical, he tests the books’ power and is stunned at first but soon gets into the habit of offing known criminals. Light’s crusade doesn’t simply stop at murders and rapists; he judges anyone and everyone for their crimes and targets corrupt politicians and, eventually, anyone who threatens to get in his way or expose him. Once the deaths become a regular thing, the press and public have a field day; dubbing the one responsible “Kira” (a Japanese approximation of the word “killer”), cults and online followings start to crop up praising Kira for doing God’s work and punishing the wicked, seeing him as a saviour and begging him to punish more evildoers. This goes both ways, though, as there are also those who see Kira as being just as bad, if not worse, than those he targets but his impact is widespread; bullies stop harassing students and wrongdoers are scared shitless, but even those who “praise” Kira are stunned when the vigilante force strikes down those who dare speak up against him in public. Without a doubt, the power of the Death Note and the fanatical nature of Kira’s followers inflates Light’s ego to breaking point; he sees himself as the saviour of the world, the divine hand of God, and as the only one capable of brining peace, order, and justice to an increasingly unfair world. For all his lofty talk, however, Light has a selfish, vindictive side to him that skews much of good his killings may do; he hopes to use the crisis as a means to fast track his appointment to the National Police Agency and goes to any means necessary to ensure he’s positioned as the only one capable of stopping the mysterious Kira.
Light’s constant companion on his descent into madness is Ryuk, a demonic Shinigami with a taste of apples and a mischievous nature. Having grown bored in the Shinigami realm, he drops the Death Note into the human world in hopes of some entertainment; the book itself contains instructions, purposely written in English as that’s the most common language on Earth, and a series of rules that dictate how the book works. Any name written in it will suffer a fatal heart attack within forty seconds unless the writer states otherwise; the writer must picture their victim when writing their name so as not to target those that share the same name, and the book’s power is virtually unlimited. Light spends great deal of time testing the limits and rules of the book (and wasting entire pages on just a few names), witnessing its effects first-hand and eventually detailing more complicated instructions, essentially playing God and manipulating those who would root him out or opposing him into bending to his will. Ryuk is, for the most part, nonplussed by all of this. Invisible to anyone who hasn’t touched the book (unless Light wishes another to see them), Ryuk is similarly incorporeal and is driven only to find some amusement; he makes no effort to assist in any way Light, preferring to remain neutral and throwing temper tantrums when Light ignores him and stops giving him apples to avoid suspicion. ; he offers commentary and is curious about Light’s motives and intentions, but is content to simply let events play out as they do. However, Light is able to manipulate even Ryuk into assisting him by denying him attention and apples unless he helps him locate the surveillance devices placed in his room and spot when people are following him. Ryuk exists by taking the years the Death Note’s victims would have lived were it not for their untimely deaths. Furthermore, if requested, the holder of the Death Note can also dramatically cut their lifespan in order to receive the Shinigami eyes, which allow them to perceive the world as Ryuk does and thus see the real name and lifespan of those around them, and they can also choose to cast away the book, which will cause them to lose all memory of it, though the power and allure of the Death Note prove as enticing and irresistible to Light as apples are to Ryuk.
Souichirou and his team work tireless to solve the mystery of Kira; Souichirou is (somehow) convinced that a singular individual is behind all the killings and his team pledge their unfaltering support to his efforts to bring Kira to justice. However, after hitting a wall in their investigation, they have no alternative but to turn to the mysterious, world-renowned detective known only as “L”. Initially, L contacts them through his assistant and father-figure, Watari (Shunji Fujimura), and appears as little more than a distorted voice on a laptop but turns out to actually a highly intelligent, if socially inept and quirky, young man named Ryûzaki, L’s powers of deduction border on the supernatural; he correctly surmises that Kira’s killings are the result of some malicious intent rather than mere coincidences, though is unable to figure out the cause of the murders since even he has no reason to believe that the Shinigami are real. An eccentric figure always seen sitting in odd positions and snacking on desserts or drinking sugary drinks, never blinking, and his mind constantly pondering the mystery of Kira, L produces complex charts and data to prove his theories that Kira is a single individual rather than a virus, and narrow down that he’s likely to be a university student judging by the time of the unexplained deaths. L also brings in agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Light is annoyed to find agent Raye Iwamatsu (Shigeki Hosokawa) following him but this is where he really starts to get creative with the Death Note. Ralising that Raye can’t be the only FBI agent assigned to the Kira case, Light uses the Death Note to have him doom his colleagues by writing their name on pages of the book, thereby showing that his quest to usher in a new world now includes murdering even those who would uphold the law if they threaten his work. After witnessing his death, Raye’s fiancée, Naomi Misora (Seto), a former associate of L’s, is left devastated. She undertakes her own investigation and easily singles out and accuses Light using a false name as part of her quest for revenge against the man responsible for her beloved’s death. Kira’s impact on the world is staggering; far more people support his brutal methods than they do oppose them, but those that are against the wholesale murder of any and all criminals make valid points regarding due process and false accusations. One of the principal anti-Kira crowd is also Light’s girlfriend, Shiori Akino (Yuu Kashii), who dreams of being distract attorney and cannot sanction Kira’s particular brand of justice or Light’s support of him. Despite this, Light believes that she would understand that he was acting for the greater good and a higher cause and taking the action no one else could, so confident is he in his appeal and her love for him.
A principal theme in Death Note is that of obsession; once he sees the cult following building around Kira, Light becomes convinced that he’s at the forefront of a fundamental change in the history not just of Japan, but the entire world. Seeing himself as the God of Justice and fully believing that he’s the saviour the world needs, Light dreams of a world without crime, where the guilty and the evil are punished instantly and without compromise, and is so blinkered by his vision for this new world that he never even stops of consider the moral ramifications of his actions. Instead, he simply punishes those he deems guilty without hesitation but he more than meets his match in L; since L doesn’t know about the Death Note of the Shinigami, he’s somewhat on the backfoot when it comes t his adversary, but they’re actually on equal ground as Light is unable to simply strike L down because he doesn’t know the eccentric detective’s real name and doesn’t want to sacrifice his lifespan to learn it. L is able to use this to his advantage, sacrificing a death row convict, “Lind L. Taylor” (Matt Lagan), to learn more about Kira’s capabilities, a cold-blooded tactic that Souichirou cannot condone but he and his team are so baffled by Kira’s killings that they have no choice but to put their faith in the unorthodox L. Light’s reaction to L outsmarting him is outright insult; he’s clearly not used to being outsmarted or made a fool of, so he makes it his mission to figure out L’s true identity and prove his intellectual superiority, which thus becomes his new obsession throughout the film.
Thus, a cat-and-mouse game between the two ensues; since Souichirou refuses to allow Light to get in one the case, seeing it as both a personal challenge and too dangerous for his smart but headstrong son, and Light is forced to alter his methods after L figures out that his killings align with his class schedule. After the FBI agents are killed, Souichirou loses the vast majority of his investigation team as many leave to protect themselves and their families and he all-but demands that L reveal himself since, up until that point, he’s remained safely hidden. Watari takes the remaining group to L’s hotel room and the unusual stealth forbids them from openly revealing their names going forward and shares his deductions about Kira’s ability to manipulate life and death, which are so on the money that he may as well have read the script. Through sheer reasoning, L figures out that Kira is someone who doesn’t like to lose, is immature, and who can dictate the time, place, and way a person dies as well as needing to know that person’s name and face; indeed, he knows everything but the who and how, which continue to elude him throughout the film. In this regard, the two are very similar; L is also quite immature and persistent, and Light would very much like to put an end t his rival but cannot without getting close enough to him to learn his real name. after narrowing down his chief suspects to Souichirou’s team and family, L has them isolate in the hotel room and places bugs and camera sin their homes to monitor their families, but Light is shrewd enough to not only discover this but also continue to murder as Kira using a miniature television hidden in a big bag of crisps. Like Naomi, L is convinced that Light is Kira and insists on monitoring him to prove that theory, even after there’s no evidence to support it; it’s intriguing to see everyone so close to nailing their man and yet lacking the crucial proof to pin him to the wall, and Light delights in outsmarting them all, even his father, at every turn.
While Ryuk can appear overly cartoony at times, he’s an otherworldly being designed to be out of proportion and extreme in his movements and appearance. With his wide, manic eyes, devilish smile, and gothic attire, he certainly cuts an iconic figure, especially when flying about on his bat wings, and a big part of Death Note’s appeal for me is his appearance and the allure behind him and his kind. The other appealing factor is the battle of wits between Light and L; both are morally skewed individuals, willing to put others at risk to prove a point and succeed in their game, but only Light is willing to manipulate and sacrifice those nearest to him to get what he wants. At first, it seems as though the grief-stricken Naomi has taken Shiori hostage in order to force a confession from Light; L watches, fixated on figuring out how Light has been killing people as Kira, but Light pleads with Naomi and is left distraught when Shiori is short and killed while trying to escape from Naomi! With the police closing in and seeing that she’s killed an innocent girl apparently for no reason, Naomi shoots herself in the head and the anguished Light, seen as a sympathetic and wrong young man, is gratefully accepted by L onto Souichirou’s investigation team. However, Light reveals to the audience (and Ryuk) that he found out Naomi’s true name ahead of time and manipulated everything, forcing her to take a hostage and commit suicide in order to clear him from all suspicion and get his police career on track. Even Ryuk expresses disgust at Light’s lack of empathy and inhumanity after learning that he purposely wrote a companion piece for Shiori, thereby sacrificing her for his own ends, and the film ends not only with Light having degenerated into a old-blooded monster and the hint that L still has his suspicions about him, but also with young celebrity Misa Amane (Erika Toda) being saved from an obsessive fan by the appearance of a second Death Note!
Death Note is quite the oddity; the premise itself is both alluring and ludicrous and the leaps in logic are almost laughable at times. The very idea that L could figure out some kind of connection to a single individual screams of convenience and it almost feels like the narrative would’ve been served slightly better by not revealing that Light was behind all the murders, or quite how he was going about it (maybe paint Ryuk as the killer) until halfway through. However, a great deal of the film’s appeal is seeing Light operate undetected, jotting down names without anyone noticing and amassing this huge following and controversial discussion regarding Kira’s morals and methods, often acting in plain sight. I love how he’s easily whittled down to the top suspect and then has to change his methods and go to extremes to avoid being exposed and give L the run-around, and it’s fun seeing these two infallible and super intelligence individuals clash as they try to one up each other. Ryuk, and the very idea of a killer notebook, is an extremely appealing and interesting anti-hero; more of mischievous sprite than a malicious demon, it’s interesting seeing him follow Light around and question him and watching Light become as monstrous on the inside as Ryuk is on the outside. Death Note’s main hook is the game of cat-and-mouse between Light and L, which here primarily revolves around L desperately trying to prove that Light is Kira and Light outsmarting his rival and manipulating events to get his career and his desire to be the God of the New World underway. In this way, the film really excels; it can be a bit daft and cartoony at times, but for the most part everyone plays it completely straight and it ends up being a pretty tense, fantasy-laced thriller.
What did you think to the live-action adaptation of Death Note? If you’re a fan of the anime or manga, how did it work as an adaptation for you? What did you think to the changes made to the source material? Were you a fan of Light’s and where do you fall on the debate about his actions as Kira? What did you think to Ryuk and the concept of a killer notebook? Would you take advantage of such power? What did you think to L and his massive leaps in deductive logic? Whatever your thoughts on Death Note, feel free to share them in the comments or on my social media.