Death Note lives!

I still can’t say with certainty, “I liked the Death Note anime,” yet when I heard that the film based on the manga and animated series would be shown in Canada on September 15, I couldn’t wait to see it. And I fretted over whether the filmmakers had done a good job of translating it to live action.

Death Note is about a young man who finds a notebook from the Shinigami, Japanese death gods. It can be used to kill someone by writing their name while following certain rules. At first, Light Yagami kills only criminals whom the law hasn’t satisfactorily punished, but soon he kills as many justice officials as criminals, when the police go after Light himself. They know him only as “Kira,” a serial killer, while he proclaims himself “the god of this world.”

Heading the search for Kira is another young adult, known as “L.” What makes the story so fascinating, despite its macabre subject matter, is the back-and-forth intellectual game between these two brilliant young men. What riveted me for each anime episode was the intense chess game of move and counter-move played by the two main characters.

So I fretted: how could a live action film possibly capture the intellectual plotting of these two? For most Death Note fans, this battle of intellects is the main story. Then there was the question of whether all the characters could be captured properly by live actors. There was a lot to be anxious about.

But they did it, when I wasn’t sure they could. The producers, Nippon Television, and the director, Shusuke Kaneko, pulled it off brilliantly. Sometimes I laughed happily to myself as the film smoothly portrayed another pivotal moment in the story, staying true to the spirit even if a few details were changed or condensed.

The intellectual battle was all there, even if it featured less internal monologue than in the anime. The filmmakers managed to portray it, either in brief conversational hints or through visual cues. (The best cue of all being an object L holds in the final scene.)

I admit to a purely North American disorientation as I saw Japanese actors in roles where those characters don’t look Japanese in the anime. (For example, Light himself, who has red hair in the shows.) That’s an automatic byproduct of how anime series portray many of their characters. But it lasted only briefly.

However, when it came to L – he of the idiosyncratic posture, bare feet, sloppy dress, devouring of sweets – he of the wide eyes rimmed in black and the weird delicate gestures – as Ken’ichi Matsuyama portrays this character, he is L, pure and simple. This is literally the manga and anime character come to life. Even if the rest of the film hadn’t been done well, Matsuyama’s portrayal of L would have been worth the cost of the ticket.

The film was dubbed rather than subtitled in English. Normally I’d have preferred subtitles since it bothers me if spoken words don’t match the movements of actors’ mouths. I’m less of a purist for anime, because animated characters’ mouths don’t usually match the voices anyway. With this Death Note film, the dubbing went down more easily for me since it was done by the Ocean Group in Vancouver, who also did the anime. That helped me adjust to characters who didn’t resemble their counterparts: Light Yagami had the voice of Brad Swaile, as he did in the TV series, so I could see Tatsuya Fujiwara as Light much more easily. (Though Fujiwara didn’t portray Light nearly as smoothly or confidently as he seemed in the anime.)

The theatre was almost full, and I was pleased to see some older people as well as fan-kids. This series, more than most others, potentially appeals to a wide range of people. The fans seemed happy with the film, though there was some laughter in inappropriate places, as North American audiences responded to unfamiliar Japanese acting conventions. At those moments, you could tell most of the crowd was rather young and inexperienced.

Still, it was a great evening, and my fears about translating the story to live action were blessedly allayed. Of course, we now know that Hollywood is planning its own Death Note movie, so those fears will easily resurrect. But however that film turns out, we will always have this Japanese version, which is as true to the manga and anime as it’s probably possible to come.

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