Manga Madness: Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

Poster for Death Note featuring Tatsuya Fujiwara.

Death Note: ***

Death Note: The Last Name: ***½

With a manga as world-conquering as Death Note (the series was banned in China, supposedly inspired a gruesome copycat murder in Belgium, and caused havoc in US schools, where students were disciplined for filling replica notebooks with the names of fellow students, teachers, and in one case then-President George W. Bush), it hardly comes as a surprise that the series would make the transition into live-action. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the sheer number of adaptations Death Note has inspired, with film versions from both sides of the Pacific, two television series and a stage musical. We’ll get to (some of) these later, but first, let’s venture back to June 2006, a mere month after the manga finished its serialisation in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, when the first live-action adaptation of the series hit Japanese cinemas.

The first Death Note covers approximately the first quarter of the manga series, showing Light’s discovery of the killer notebook, his quick decent into murderous vigilantism, and the beginnings of the Light-L cat-and-mouse chase that was the series’ main attraction. The sequel, Death Note: The Last Name, released only months later, concludes the story by adapting what was originally the second half of the pre-time-jump arc, following the NPA investigation through the introduction of the second and third Kiras. Broadly faithful, the divergences from the source material are for the most part well-executed attempts to streamline and restructure the story to fit into two features; Light’s first kills are shown in montage interspersed with ominous shots of his hand writing in the notebook, Naomi Misora’s role is expanded to create the new climax to part one, and part two condenses the Kira III storyline by replacing the profit-seeking businessmen with a promotion-hungry Sakura TV newsreader.  The canny way these changes are integrated into the story with all the same clever twists and turns the series is known for means that they rarely feel out-of-place, and instead create a new take on the story that retains, at its core, the same essence of the original.

The largest change is, naturally, the ending, which allows the story to conclude at what is only the midpoint of the manga. While this reviewer still longs for a faithful live-action retelling of the climactic Yellow Box Warehouse scene, the spiralling costs necessary to adapt an increasingly globalised narrative and the split amongst fans over L’s exit makes this change a shrewd business decision on the part of the filmmakers. And thanks to some deft writing, it is one that does not compromise the quality of the end product, as the new ending maintains key elements from the aforementioned original climax in addition to new and satisfying twists.

Unusually for manga adaptations, what lets the Death Note films down is not their scripts. In fact, with the exception of the rare piece of clunky exposition and/or dialogue (a scene in which Mogi lectures a rather hammy Kira-loving crowd is particularly grating), the scripts are actually rather strong. Unfortunately, the transition from page to screen doesn’t always do them justice; set pieces such as the bus hijacking and the FBI massacre that were thrilling in Obata’s ink lack their tension and potency, meaning that the films as a whole feel rather less engaging than they could have in the hands of a more skilled director.

Performances are largely unexceptional, with the main cast sticking close to the manga’s characterisations but not quite getting to the essence of their characters. The radically reduced roles of the individual task force members is another loss to the story character-wise, as the individual and endearing personalities of Matsuda, Aizawa, Mogi, and Ukita are replaced with an indistinct group of police officers who add little to the narrative. The OTT over-acting is generally left to the extras attempting to have a convincing heart attack, but L’s wide eyes and comical falling off chairs does not translate well to live-action. As for Light, his casual dress and manner seem a world away from the smart, well-groomed ‘perfect student’ of the source material, resulting in a protagonist that lacks the specificity of the original as well as a diminished thematic contrast between him and the notoriously scruffy L.

It is interesting, given the criticism of the manga’s female representation, that the filmmakers decided to gender-swap the originally male Kira III and one of the NPA officers, in addition to boosting the role of Light’s girlfriend Shiori. However, none of these characters are fleshed out or interesting enough to truly refute this criticism, or even match up to the few prominent female characters in the source material. As for the non-human characters, the Shinigami are well-designed, again sticking closely to the manga, but the CG is unconvincing – movements are jerky and unnatural, and their skin looks plastic.

Perfect they are not, but with strong scripts that take the story in a new direction while staying true to the tone, characters, and themes of the original, this duo of live-action Death Notes is nonetheless a worthwhile watch for fans of the franchise.

But seriously, Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name are available now on DVD.