J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Rules of Death Note

Death Note
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
VIZ Media


Lord Acton’s words are often worth visiting: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That axiom is well born out in Death Note, the first of two enormously popular Japanese films based on the manga series of the same name, now available on DVD.

Killing can be strenuous, messy work, but if a potential sociopath discovered a way to safely and effortlessly commit murder, it might be hard to stop once they started. The Death Note notebook allows one to do just that. Brought to Earth by the death god Ryuk, anyone whose name is inscribed within will die in the manner set forth by the writer. Certain rules do apply. The user must have both the victim’s name and their face in mind while writing, preventing the possibility of hundreds of thousands of John Smiths dying simultaneously from the mere stroke of a pen.

The Death Note has fallen into the hands of Light Yagami, a brilliant law student disillusioned by the rampant crime and injustice plaguing society. At first, he uses the note book to dispense vigilante justice, with the hearty encouragement of Ryuk, visible to him alone as the owner of the Death Note. Referred to as Kira by a clueless media, Yagami’s rough justice drastically reduces crime around the globe, proving quite popular with the general populace. However, the police are not amused, reluctantly accepting the aid of “L,” a nameless, faceless detective who communicates via laptop with the help of his elderly majordomo. Eventually L reveals himself to be a reclusive teenaged genius, but keeps his name a well guarded secret, which of course is highly significant to the rules of the Death Note game.

It is the strict observance of its rules that makes Death Note a surprisingly effective thriller. Those rules are clearly defined from the beginning and film never cheats. As a result, it sets up some very clever cat-and-mouse sequences, steadily raising the stakes as the story unfolds. It is also at times a chilling examination of evil, dramatically illustrating Acton’s dictum. Certainly Yagami begins his reign of terror with the intent to dispense justice, but he very quickly demonstrates his readiness to kill law enforcement officers, guilty only of trying to stop his madness. By the time Death Note reaches its climax, Yagami ranks with Hannibal Lecter for sheer manipulative evil.

Tatsuya Fujiwara is creepily effective as the seemingly innocent Yagami and Shusuke Kaneko’s direction is crisp and tight. This is a smart, intense film that pulls viewers through at a brisk pace (even with Ryuk’s cartoony CGI). However, the ending is a bit unsatisfying, resolving nothing except that the sequel is sure to follow. It works though, solidly planting the hook for the next film, Death Note II: the Last Name, which will play a special two night theatrical run through Fathom Events (the Opera simulcast company) on October 15th and 16th.

(Death Note images © 2006 “Death Note” Film Partners/courtesy VIZ Media)

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