Directed by: Shūsuke Kaneko
Death Note is a film that I’ve been meaning to watch for some time. I think it once was on Film Four one night, a few years back, in a time when I actually owned a television, and I think I had missed the opening half an hour, so it perplexed me when I saw some Japanese kid chatting to a CGI animated ugly looking winged creature. I changed the channel and probably settled down to a shitty reality show like ‘Beauty and the Geek’.
The film opens with a series of mysterious deaths, as an assortment of petty criminals, crooked businessmen and hardened murderers suffer sudden heart attacks. Over time the people of Tokyo believe to begin this is God’s work, and praise “Kira” (loosely translated as killer), the angel of the underworld who is striking down those who’ve committed crimes against society.
We learn that it is not some metaphysical being that is striking down the evil doers. No, it’s a teenager called Light Yagami who is writing the world’s harshest shit list in a notebook he found in the street. At first glance Light is a clean cut, above average student with a pretty girlfriend, the kind of cat who is able to hustle other kids on the basketball court like an Asian mutation of Snipes and Harrelson, whilst simultaneously getting solid grades in the classroom. He’s also the son of a Police detective, and regularly hacks into the Tokyo Police’s database to get information on criminals that he believes need to be appropriately punished.
The notebook works in a certain way, you can’t for example if you were a disgruntled benefit scrounger just write ‘George Osborne’, because that might kill Mr George Osborne, the eighty year old harmless fruitcake who lives down the road, you need to picture the person’s face as you write down their name, and then they die. Light is visited by a shinigami (death God) named Ryuk, the animated creature, who looks like Ganondorf from Zelda mixed with a cyberpunk Gargoyle. Ryuk previously owned the Death Note and follows Light around, acting in some ways as his conscience. Light intends to use the Death Note to rid Japan of crime. His intentions appear noble.
The Police are baffled by the sudden deaths, and it is not until an enigmatic detective named ‘L’ joins the investigation that it is established that the deaths are perpetrated by a single individual using supernatural powers. The people of Japan are less concerned about who’s killing all the wrong-uns, because they feel that since Kira came along, justice exists. The bad guys are being eliminated, and they might end up living in a crime free cities.
Without spoiling the film any further, the rest of the film continues as L searches for the true identity of Kira. Light struggles to keep the Police off his scent, dealing with FBI agents, the fact that his own Father is one of the investigating officers, and his new nemesis L, this genius, unorthodox detective. Light also learns the hard way about the responsibilities which come from owning the Death Note.
The film has dated quite a bit in only six short years, with its mentions of the Internet, and particularly when Ryuk is introduced, this reminds me oddly of the mix of live action and animation that occurred in arguably the greatest basketball film of all time Hoop Dre… sorry, I mean Space Jam, when Bill Murray and Michael Jordan found themselves in a game of life and death, fighting evil alongside Bugs Bunny.
Kenichi Matsuyama’s performance of L is splendid. His brooding angsty demeanour recalls one of those dour Hikikomori kids who masturbate to Hentai all day in a darkened room as delirious J-Pop soundtrack their self-flagellation. L’s penchant for sweet snacks means that he is able to stay constantly alert, although his laconic, methodical approach seems to suggest that he is impervious to the effects of sugar.
I wonder if the message behind the film, and this is without having read the manga comic books, could have been better carried had Light used the Death Note to wrongly kill people who were innocent before being proven guilty. The criminals that die are all generically described, and there is little complexity in their cases. Obviously, and again this heads into spoiler territory but later in the film, it isn’t only the crooks that get bumped off, but I’d like to have seen more moral ambiguity.
There is a bizarre aspect to Death Note which I haven’t managed to figure out, and that is the use of ‘Dani California’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the closing credits. It appears to be a complete mystery as to why the song was used. Was one of the band members a fan of the original manga comic? Who knows? Can anyone explain why?