“With great power comes great responsibility.” You’ve probably heard this phrase bandied about a couple of times, what with it being the cornerstone to about 90% of all comic books ever made. But instead of powers of flight or super-strength, what if the ability to instantly take a life was on the line? This is the situation faced by the young protagonist of the Japanese thriller Death Note. The film aims not only to freak out audiences but to make them think as well, bringing a number of philosophical overtones to the table you’re not likely to find in the average horror flick. I can’t say Death Note always uses these elements to their full advantage, but at least it puts forth a decent effort to give viewers the heebie-jeebies on a different sort of level.
Tatsuya Fujiwara plays Light Yagami, a budding law student growing sick and tired with how much evil is allowed to exist in the world. On one fateful night, Light comes into possession of the Death Note, a special notebook belonging to death god Ryuk (voice of Shido Nakamura). A list of rules explains that if the name of a specific person is written in the book, that person will die shortly thereafter. Sure enough, Light’s act of jotting down the name of a scumbag results in said creep’s swift demise. But after a month of using the Death Note, Light’s newfound powers have gone to his head in a big way, with the all-too coincidental mass deaths of criminals all across the country raising the ire of the authorities. Light soon finds himself being pursued by L (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), an eccentric detective determined to track him down, forcing Light to decide whether to give up the Death Note or use it against those trying to put an end to his rampage.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Death Note is a bad movie. It is, however, a film in which viewers watch as director Shusuke Kaneko puzzlingly passes on one opportunity to better the picture after the other. I’ll admit that the idea behind Death Note is a real corker, but a clever premise can only a carry a film for so long if it’s left to its own devices. The one thing I took issue most with is the absence of true conflict. The flick goes out of its way to highlight the importance of choice in the story, promising to hinge the crux of the plot on whether or not Light will be fully corrupted by the Death Note. The trouble is that Light is pretty much a bastard from frame one, and it doesn’t help when he starts killing anyone who comes close to stopping his murderous activities. If there was a scene where Light wrestles with himself and contemplates the consequences of his actions, it must’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Also, the film’s visual scheme is a little flat, with Kaneko opting for a fairly traditional set-up of atmosphere and cinematography for a story that’s begging to be told with oodles of dark style.
But what’s especially curious about Death Note is how restrained the violence is. Considering Asian cinema’s tendency to go crazy-go-nuts with violence from time to time, it’s surprising to see a story like Death Note, ripe with the potential for all sorts of gonzo death scenes, settle mostly for notebook-induced heart attacks. There are a few moments when Light uses the Death Note to manipulate the time and nature of certain deaths, but aside from a cool scene or two, it ends up feeling like a contrived twist the plot whips out whenever it damn well pleases. Yet while all of these aspects are definitely disappointing, Death Note isn’t completely sunk because of them. The film does get a lot of mileage from its great story, which provides viewers with the thought-provoking question of whether Light is right to rid Japan of its criminal ilk or allow the justice system to do its work. Fujiwara does well despite being shafted by his material, Matsuyama is great as the oddball L, and I sort of liked how Ryuk was presented; he’s not meant to be the creation of cutting-edge CG effects but rather inspired by the manga style the character was born in.
Death Note has its share of scuffs and sporadically creaking plotting, but I’d still recommend to anyone bored by America’s recent crop of horror flicks. The flick may not be perfect, but while the Saw series is starting to repeat its meditations on life and death, Death Note finds a rather interesting way of expressing what’s on its mind.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Death Note review here.