Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dead Note

Mini-review time!

This last week I got to see the live-action version of Death Note at Oakridge Theater. I'm glad I got to go - it was interesting to see another take on it from the anime version - but I have to admit I walked out of the theater feeling a little disappointed. I'll try and capture the reasons why here.

Everything in this post counts as a


First and perhaps most importantly, I disliked almost every change they made to Yagami Light's character. The anime was amazing and subversive because it made him so very likeable. Even after you realize he's a monster, it's hard not to cheer for him. He comes across as a man of pure motives and iron will who follows a logical path that leads to evil.

By contrast, the Light of the movie just seems like a punk. The anime Light was clean-cut, hard-studying, and serious; the movie Light comes off as smarmy and a little aimless. Both of them are bright, but I get the feeling that if the anime Light had never found the book, he would have gone on to an amazing career, while if the movie Light had never found the book, he would have dithered his life away.

There is an interesting side-story that they added to the movie: Light starts the movie as a college student who is studying law. Early on there are some ham-handed attempts to use this as an explanation for his connection to the notebook: he becomes aware that many criminals escape just punishment, victims don't receive satisfaction, this one mean guy pulls a knife on him, blah blah blah... and the notebook arrives like a savior, coming in the middle of a dark night after he has lost his faith in The System, providing a seductive alternative answer.

Which is all well and good, but it feels much more safe and conventional than the anime's backstory. I mean, we've all seen the movie before where the lawman learns that he needs to go outside the law to achieve justice. Heck, there are hundreds of those movies out there. It doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Probably the most important effect of this diminishment of Light's character is that the first half of the movie feels anemic. He goes through all the steps, largely following the plot of the anime, but even though he's the main character the audience just doesn't identify with him. The theater I was in was full of Death Note fans, a good chunk of them cosplaying, and it was eerily quiet for the first hour or so.

However, once L appears, everything changes for the better. There was a loud cheer in the theater, and some people actually got out of their seats to run a victory lap. Granted, L is the favorite character for most viewers, but beyond that, the director did a far better job of translating him to the screen than he did Light. Perhaps coincidentally, the movie L is almost identical in appearence, manner, and speech to the anime L. In other words, he is a fascinating character who grips your attention.

While I'm talking about actors, almost everyone else in the movie was pretty good. I don't understand why they made Ray Japanese, but I don't mind either. Light's girlfriend has an expanded role from the anime, and does a fine job. I liked all of his family members; the father in particular is solid and capable. Even with Light, it isn't really that his acting as such is bad; my issue is much more with the script and direction.

Now, the most important part: the ending! (If you didn't believe me about Mega Spoilers before, you REALLY should stop reading now.) The scene with Light and Ray's widow is still my favorite episode from the entire anime, which I should emphasize is full of great episodes. What it did was utterly masterful: have a long, extended sequence that only shows two people chatting while they walk down a sidewalk, yet contain a subtext so dire and painful that I could feel my heart racing wildly as I watched, horrified and mesmerized by the travesty unfolding before me. They completely ditch that whole scene in the movie, instead coming up with a totally alternate plot line in which Naomi discovers Light's identity, investigates him, contacts L, and tries to draw him out.

While the plot unfolded, I was replaying my earlier complaints: basically, "This is different from the show! Waaaaah!" Now that I think back on it, even if they had wanted to recreate that episode, it would have been death on film. The episode relies on use of interior monologue and frozen frames to explain both levels of what's happening. This would have seemed like pure cheese if they had shot it the same way with live actors. Without the interior monologue, it wouldn't have the same tension and would have fallen flat.

That said, after the revised scene completely played out, I had to confess my admiration. They pulled off what seemed like an impossible task: recreated the shock and admiration I had felt when first watching the anime. Granted, the story is completely different, but if it had been the same I would not have been surprised. So, a grudging "congratulations!" to the filmakers on their accomplishment.

It comes at a price, though. This is only the first movie, and heading into the second movie, it is impossible to view Light as anything other than a venal, despicable villain. There isn't anything particularly wrong with this, other than it makes for a far less interesting movie.

Enough for content. A few brief technical thoughts before signing off:

It is pretty fun to see Ryuk in the movie. At the same time - wow. I know Japanese technology is top of the line, but they seriously are years behind us in the CGI department.

We saw the dubbed version, which is HORRIBLE. I probably would have enjoyed the movie quite a bit more if it had been subtitled. I tend to be prejudiced against foreign movie dubs anyways, but this was a particularly egregrious violation because of how many significant written elements there are in the film, NONE of which were translated. Newspaper clippings, suicide notes, secret communication during a bus hijacking... all of these things were clearly important and highlighted with musical stings, and 95% of us had no idea what any of it meant.

We stayed after the movie for a "special" on the making of the movie. It was unintentionally hilarious. The whole thing felt like it had been produced by a ten-year-old on his Mac Mini... every single section had the exact same animated logo with the exact same chuckle from Ryuk. The content was repetitive as well; did we really need to see every actor's closing?

A few things did catch my interest. First, the highlight was definitely one talking head who got the title "Actor and Director's Friend." Now THAT is a job I aspire to hold one day! Second, the director seemed to have thought very thoroughly about a lot of the decisions to make in the movie, leaving me even more confused about how he ended up with what he did.

My final conclusion: this movie is for completists only. If you love Death Note and crave more, grab this, but be sure to get a subtitled version. If you've been meaning to try it, first of all, you shouldn't have been reading this! Mega spoilers! But try the anime. And if you hated the anime, you won't like the movie any more. That said, I will be watching the sequel. If it's markedly better than the first, I'll be sure to let you know!

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