Hey everyone, this is a big ol' two-movie post! Tomorrow's my birthday, so I'll be otherwise indisposed, so I figured I'd write about two pretty crazy Japanese movies I watched recently. It works because it's really one big long movie that they split in half, so it works out well. The movies in question are Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name, two decently popular Japanese fantasy/horror movies released in 2006 directed by Shyuusuke Kaneko and starring Tatsuya Fujiwara as Light Yagami and Ken'ichi Fujiwara as "L." The films are based on the popular Shonen Jump Advanced manga series of the same name by Tsugumi Obha and Takeshi Obata.
Set in a Tokyo much like our own, law school honor student and all around bored genius Light Yagami finds a mysterious black notebook lying in the street, mysteriously untouched by rain. He picks it up, and discovers that it is a "Death Note," a notebook of a shinigami (a god of death). Anyone whose name is written inside the notebook will die, so long as you have their face in your mind. Light is intrigued by the implications, as he feels the world is rife with crime and corruption. He uses the notebook (with the help of its shinigami Ryuk) to eliminate criminals of all sorts. His actions bring the attention of L, the world's greatest detective. They find themselves face to face, L suspecting that Light is this new criminal "Kira" (a Japanese pronunciation of "Killer"), though he can't prove it. Light is determined to continue bringing criminals to justice, even when a "fake" Kira pops up with her own notebook and professes her undying love for Light. Light and L fight a life-and-death battle of wits for the sake of their own pride, and for their own personal value systems.
Because I am such a world-class nerdlinger, I had read the manga and watched the anime before seeing this film. Nobody really cares how the films and the original story differ, but there are some pretty major differences. Some of them make sense in terms of compressing the story to fit within the constraints of two movies, but others completely alter the outcome of the overall story, leaving characters out entirely and keeping some characters alive that otherwise died. It's still a good movie though, and for the most part, I can see why the changes were made. They also did a pretty stellar job in terms of casting and attention to some character details, especially for L. In the manga, he was a strange, slouchy, unusual young man, the opposite of what one would expect of the world's greatest detective. Ken'ichi Matsuyama pulled it off pretty well, mimicking the strange way L sat, ate, held objects, and interacted with other characters. This was the first film I'd seen him in, and I was thoroughly impressed. Tatsuya Fujiawara was impressive as Light Yagami as well, pulling off the cocky genius with ease, but still maintaining the intensity that drives his character to kill strangers over and over again to perfect the world. I had seen Fujiwara before in Battle Royale and its sequel, so I knew that he was a decent actor, and apparently quite popular in Japan.
While this is definitely not as crazy as some other Asian films I've talked about before, it's definitely one of the most darkly fantastical movies I'd seen in awhile. Also, upon closer inspection, it's the first Japanese film I've talked about so far. I have a few other waiting in the queue and in my own personal library (including some mega-craziness like Takeshi Miike), but I guess it's good that I'm starting out kind of small and then getting bigger.
One of the more interesting aspects of this film is the presence of the two shinigami, Ryuk and Rem. Ryuk owns the notebook that Light Yagami, the original Kira, finds, and Rem is the shinigami for the notebook that Misa Amane finds. Oh, right. Misa is a Japanese model and pop star whose family was murdered, but then Kira took care of their killer. She pledged her life to Kira, and when she finds (or is given) her notebook, she uses it to find Light and love/serve/honor/protect him. It's kind of a twisted and complex relationship that Light takes advantage of for his own gain (especially since she traded half of her remaining lifespan for "shinigami eyes," meaning she can see the name and remaining life of anyone she sees). Anyway. The shinigami are presented in the movie as computer generated, but something about them looks kind of ridiculous, and kind of awesome. They almost look like puppets in some ways, which makes them more "realistic" in that they seem to really be on set with the characters, but they also look computer generated (and kind of "fake," though they aren't supposed to be human, and are modeled exactly after the character drawings from the manga).
I may not be cultured enough in the life and times of the average Japanese youth, so I can't really tell if there is some general Japanese commentary being made in this story. There does seem to be an overarching global commentary being made, though. Even though Light is Japanese, and the crimes originate in Japan, his attention becomes global, drawing the attention of L, as well as the fear of the world's governments. L is portrayed as Japanese, but he didn't seem to live in Japan. The idea that he is of indeterminate origin is an interesting aspect to his character, and he doesn't seem to fit in with anyone, with the exception of Light. In Light, he finds an intellectual equal, though he is constantly in a crisis because he suspects Light of being Kira, the person he's sworn to bring to justice. Their relationship is in many ways closer than Light's relationship with every other female character (including his mother and sister), and L seems to have his only real friendship with Light.
What would you do if you had a notebook that allowed you to kill someone just by writing their name in? Of course, there are a million or so rules, like you have to picture their face while you write it, you have to spell it all correctly, you can't make them do something impossible before they die (but you can influence their actions to a limited degree), and so on. Would you experiment to stretch the limits of the Notebook? Would you be able to handle the responsibility of bringing justice and peace to the world as a god of death? Light sure tries his crazy genius ass off throughout the film. I won't give away the ending, though. Even if you have seen the anime or read the manga, don't worry. You won't see the ending coming anyway, and it's pretty much nothing like the other versions.
Overall, though, the movie isn't perfect, and could be better. There's something odd occasionally about the pacing and plot direction of Japanese films in general, which may be a cultural thing. The characters are pretty interesting, but they do have the rounded and developed characters already written up from the manga to go from. I give it three creepy, apple-eating gods of death out of five, or three creepy Japanese detectives out of five.