When it comes to landmarks in anime, there is no other series that gets remotely close to Death Note in the shounen genre. To me, Death Note signified a revolution in the type of content that was released at the time. It also pushed the limitations of what can be portrayed in a magazine with strict editorial lines.
Especially after the anime was released, we saw a shift in shonen anime, not the ones published from Jump but works from other magazines. Studios were pushing more works that relied on the cynical aspect of humanity while still maintaining that certain shounen flair. It could be very well the need to find their own Death Note, but again, nothing in the market has been able to provide what this story could.
Death Note is as timeless as it is relevant today for the portrayal of good and evil, the subtlety of its suspense, the introduction to philosophical pondering, esoteric imagery and portrayal of the villain as a main character. It is a series that studios can pick at any moment in time and still feels anew. It is also a pool where the authors can go back to when they need that extra cash.
As you may notice, I like Death Note for what it is and what it represented at the time. I think you might be sick of me bringing up the series many times in many of my posts when I talk about the anime revolution that started circa 2005… but I can’t help thinking that way, especially when the immediate aftermath are shounen series from other magazines trying to release works that combines hope and cynicism, or at least trying to portray the main character’s actions and philosophy in a gray spectrum.
When we take a step back and see the franchise in its totality, this series is quite an outlier because of the different reboots there are. To avoid confusion we will see each release as a standalone media. These are not “parts,” these are installments that will isolate each media released throughout the years.
In this installment we will see the two thirds of the trilogy released in 2006. Because in “The Case Of” we focused on adaptation we will not include, L Saves the World, the prequel-sequel released in 2008. Also, we are not going to touch the drama TV series or the anime as one will be released in a different installment and the latter it’s a different entity than the production we had in 2006.
With this, we start a new season of “The Case Of.” And with that being said let’s look at the context of Death Note (manga’s) initial release.
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What the authors wanted
As you may already know, Death Note was born from the minds of Tsugumi Ohba (story) and Takeshi Obata (art).
At that point in his career, Takeshi Obata had already a respectable following. He was the artist for many other authors including, Hikaru no Go. Despite having a big name and Hikaru no Go being an overlooked series in the West (I am unsure about Japan), he had yet to produce a hit.
That’s where Tsugumi Ohba comes into the picture. We don’t know much about him which is a fact that has always fascinated me of this franchise: the identity of the author Tsugumi Ohba.
There is very few information about him that I have made some conspiracy theories regarding his identity. Things get even more conspiratory in my mind when I take in consideration the timeline of releases.
The manga was created in early 2003 and it ran for three years in Shounen Jump’s Monthly Magazine. Since its release, people were begging for that anime adaptation. However at the author’s request, any type of production was held until the story reached its conclusion.
What no one expected is that once the story was close to its end we would see a saturation of Death Notes everywhere. No, I am not talking about the fans and merchandise released, I am talking about studios gathering like vultures trying to get a piece of what the series had achieved.
Just like that, we can see how fast the franchise moved in a span of five years. Now, I don’t want to undermine the storytelling because it was a huge part of what made the franchise so famous and loved across the board. However, even with the amazing acclaim some manga have, some titles take a long time to be appointed to animate due to many reasons: the manga is incomplete, the series has to build reputation, studios have tight spaces, studios can’t see the longevity or are simply not willing to touch them, etc.
Even with loved and acclaimed manga throughout the board, we can find some patterns: normally it takes two years from the initial manga release, for the studios to be interested to get the rights.
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Some works can take from three to even five years – and extreme cases, ten years – to see an animated version. In other unfortunate cases, even with an amazing manga with a decent following, (come on! Do Vagabond!) may not even be in the studios radar and we may never see anything else materialized.
Death Note’s manga took 3 years to end and when the last chapter was posted, on May 2006, the studios were ready to release the live action on June 17, the animated series on October 3, and the sequel of the live action in October the 28th that same year. It is important to notice that the animation didn’t cut the series in half (like 13+24 or something like that) to indicate two seasons. No, we saw the series from beginning to end in a bunch of 36 or 37 episodes with opening songs and ending songs changes halfway.
It did not stop there, the next year, was as busy as always: on February 2007 a game was released; the anime ended on June that year but on July, people already had a game sequel; on August the 31st , an anime film (a re-telling of the series); on August 22, an anime film sequel to the re-telling; on December, a novel; on February 2008, a side story with L at the center live action; and from then, we jump to 2013.
Then the authors strictly asked to wait for the manga to finish so the adaptations would not deviate from anything, actually the director of the live action was specifically asked not to change anything when it came to the main story.
In my eyes, this is the main reason why the market between 2006 and 2008 was saturated with everything Death Note and why it reached a level in popularity and box office records.
If that doesn’t make your conspiracy antenna to tingle, let me summarize: Death Note became big, but even big numbers doesn’t mean that a full franchise of it is secured. The authors had a lot of influence for the industry to fall on their knees waiting for adaptations to get green lit. That doesn’t mean the production of each media started when the manga was finished as these type of productions tend to be prepared for a long time.
There are many rumors that Ohba to be a veteran mangaka from Shounen Jump’s magazine, but I think he may be a traditional literature author. The reason I say this is because Death Note’s repeated criticism is the overwhelming blocks of text in each page and the inability to transform them into visual actions.
Sometimes, the panels are secondary, over-explanatory or simply there for establishing locations. Many times it doesn’t say much about the character or it reserves pages to get a cool pose while not really meaning anything else than that. It may very well be the tendency when there are two authors in manga that sometimes the “pen” or draft doesn’t translate very well. It could be that the artist was asked not to change the text, or it could be because they wanted to save space and contain the story so it would not transform into a long series.
Whatever the reasoning was, it is undeniable that Death Note has issues in that aspect that, unfortunately, makes the manga a bit daunting to read in one sit, on a Sunday or pick it up for a second read. Maybe the author didn’t know how to organize a draft for manga, or it is very possible that he only handed the script with very few indications and that is why we see these issues. It is also very possible that while that the writer didn’t have enough imagination to cut dialogues or didn’t have the vision to see how it would become a visual thing. Whichever case was, these little things make me think of the identity of Tsugumi Ohba.
I know it may look a little intrusive when he has specifically asked for anonymity, but still, I think it’s fun to think about; also it’s because this franchise is an odd case.
Before we get to the meat and beef, of the films we have to clear out a few things in the dorama industry. As a disclaimer: I will use a lot of conjecture in this section, meaning that is not factual information but just what I have gathered by observation.
Death Note as an adaptation
What Death Note 2006 Represented
If you are a teenager reading this, I don’t think you understand, and I don’t think people my age even remember how hard was for studios to even release a live action.
Don’t twist it, please. Live action was a casual occurrence in Japan since the 80s. Adaptations of manga and anime existed even that far back; the difference was that live action was always thought of being a complementary to a franchise’s revenue… like one big, and cheap, TV ad. We still see few cases where this is the mentality, but it is a mentality that studios are still trying to get out of.
The point is that the works were so few and far apart and all of them were not even in the same category. Most of the live action TV doramas that were adapted, were coming from Josei manga and it has always had the same reasoning: to appeal that young housewife.
Occasionally, we would see that vague adaptation from shojo (reverse harem) dorama, to appeal that high school girl who loved their favorite Kat-Tun member, or that obscure Exile guy, or someone from SMAP, or the Kinki Kids or even Arashi. If you see the patterns you will notice it was difficult to predict what could be adapted.
The only thing that was clear was that live action had two spectrums of predictability: comedy or romance. Maybe studios thought that those were the ones who could attract a decent viewership, since they are the only categories that did not fail, if your name wasn’t Takashi Miike.
However, mid 2000s, things were starting to change. In 2005 we saw the release of Nana and Cromartie High School. And that’s where the thread started: 200 Pounds of Beauty (Korean movie adapted from manga), Honey and Clover, Lovely Complex, Mushishi, The Prince of Tennis, Romance of the Darkness, Nana 2, Death Note and Nodame Cantabile were all released in 2006.
While many of these adaptations were able to have decent positions in the box office and/or ratings, I firmly believe that Nana, Death Note and Nodame Cantabile changed the game forever. They were a testament that a manga adaptation could be more than just a quirky little project with low budget, especially the last two.
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While Nana (2005-2006) made its mark with not being afraid with costuming as well as not being afraid to make changes that elevated the melodrama, it was still a niche market as many other live actions had been. I firmly believe that it was Death Note who made its mark with cost of production vs. revenue.
From the fashion, to the money spent at many locations, to the backgrounds, the CGI, the extras, Death Note felt like it was really trying hard to come across as genuine attempt at making things right (and that’s where Nodame Cantabile threw everything out the park.)
There was one tiny detail for Death Note 2006: the time of release was way, way off.
Death Note 2006: Patience was the Key.
It is unclear when the production for the films began, but taking in account the contracts, dealings, recording and post-production phase, we could assume that it started a year prior to its release, maybe even earlier. At that time, the manga was halfway finished, so it’s clear that the director went to the original source to make the movies.
From there, we could assume that because it was taken from the original source, the two films were going to be decent to amazing. Well, we all assumed wrong.
Between weird changes that didn’t add anything to the conversation in an attempt to be over explanatory with Light’s profiling, to the dull pacing, the first installment was neither awful nor good: it was just boring.
In animation, pacing and some shots can be manipulated so well because we are not dealing with real people. This is where animators and anime directors have huge advantages over film directors due to their understanding of epic dialogues and hyping them up with awesome visuals. Also, animators have a deep understanding, in a freakishly manner, on how to translate a static scene into a dynamic one making use of impossible angles, dramatic cuts, weird close ups or subtle effects.
Because anime needs to rely on the series composition director to determine what goes in each episode, we can see the most important things being highlighted in each section. Because of this, many times, the anime can cement iconic passages by changing/adding details that can help the flow of a scene better for the sake of going from point A to point B.
As an example: “Raito writes names as he takes care of the cameras in the room, reaches for the bag, takes a potato chip AND EAT IT!” is one of the most iconic passages of the series for its intensity, constant monologuing and exaltation of how the lines are acted; accompanied by the weird angles, the chaotic free camera movement and the special effects in Light’s eye, the scene was so over the top, that it became a meme when memes were still in its “trollface” phase.
It is indeed an iconic sequence, a sequence that got completely overlooked by the live action production. I was not asking for the scene to be replicated completely, because it could come across as tacky, but there were ways indicate to the audience that: “This is it! This is the scene and it is so satisfying to watch.”
Perhaps the simple use of the monologue when Light is making calculations in his head and replicating everything ala Guy Richie style (Sherlock), or something like that, could have been more than enough to let us know how important this scene was.
But because they didn’t know the reference was popular and didn’t know that it’s what made that scene special in anime form, they didn’t know how to potentiate that scene – as well as many others – and instead we got awkward silences with a few interjections from L and the police.
So, yes, I am saying that maybe they had to wait for a release a little longer, to arrange something in post-production, at very least.
I must admit that playing the waiting game for live action is a risk in terms of hype. If they let the opportunity of doing the live action there and then, the risk was that no one would be interested in watching it later. The irony is that Death Note’s adaptations needed to wait a long time to be released, and that it’s the only thing the live action didn’t do.
So, we have directors going to the manga and directly copying certain panels and that is a big no-no in my eyes. I maintain that manga can’t replace a storyboard.
This is where this production confuses me to no end, because there are many things that they included without any changes at all, treating the manga like a storyboard; while other details were changed so much that you can see the effort of accommodating the story to their advantage, even if they overlooked iconic scenes or were not able to portray that same energy that the manga had.
Even if many iconic scenes went over everybody’s head, the movie shouldn’t be too boring because we are dealing with a generally exciting story, right? Well, here is where we find the fundamental error in Death Note 2006.
Although in the Same Family: Pears are not Apples.
Where would you box Death Note as a genre or which category does it belong to? Aside from shounen, aside from crime, aside from psychological or drama, Death Note’s main category is suspense.
I know you know this, but before we continue, lets split hairs for the purpose of reminding ourselves what is suspense and what is mystery in cinematography/storytelling. For this, I will take Alfred Hitchcock’s definitions of it so we can tie it to Death Note.
Mystery: is a thought process.
Suspense: is an emotional process.
Hitchcock went further and mentioned that mystery relies in keeping the audience in the dark hiding information in plain sight to make them puzzle the pieces alongside the main character. The genre distinguishes itself for being cryptic and discovering the perpetrator, outcome, motive and the meaning keeping that element of surprise.
Suspense provides information to the audience because you don’t want to make them think, you want to make them feel that adrenaline rush. In suspense, sometimes we know the outcome, sometimes we don’t, it all depends of what the director/screenwriter wants to communicate. The perpetrator, motive and meaning of a situation usually is presented to the audience openly. The genre distinguishes itself for being a chess game between two characters or more. The audience gets to see who is doing what and what will the counterpart do to fight it against (many action movies go hand in hand with suspense but it’s not exclusive of it).
The fact that these two genres are different doesn’t mean that they can’t share elements but usually they are simple: like showing the bad guy doing something that is not explained until later, or showing a shadow in the distance, or establishing that the bad guy is someone close to the main character but we don’t know who it is.
If Death Note was a mystery, the whole series would be about Light trying to find who L is – or in a traditional sense, L trying to find out who Light is. We would have looked at the data, his thought process about how he came to a conclusion accompanying him every step of the way. The story would end by the time we get to see L and how he outwitted Light.
No matter how you look at it, the description doesn’t really fit Death Note. That doesn’t mean that the series doesn’t have mysteries, but usually these mysteries are secondary to what is really important: keeping you at the edge of your sit by watching how the main players try to overcome one another. It wants you to feel trapped the way Light feels cornered and sorry for L when anyone tells him go against his gut; it wants you to root for L or Light, knowing that a happy ending for the main character is not possible.
In the genre, it is important to keep feeding your audience with information. On L’s side, the story treats it like it is a mystery – as in we get to see them wondering who Kira is – but there is a reason for showing L’s context by showing us his thought process. In that aspect, nothing is hidden from us and we can compare Light’s plan to L’s deduction.
Yes, even if you try to see Death Note as a mystery, everything in the story tells you its main genre it’s suspense. So, needless to say, I don’t really understand both of the movies.
The set up for both movies flipped the structure. Although I don’t know if this was done intentionally or not: Death Note 2006 and its sequel are set up as mix and mash between mystery with elements of suspense, and at times a suspense with elements of mystery.
The main reason I think this is the case it’s because although we stay a long time with Light, the movie sure goes out of its way to keep his plans under wraps. But it is not only his plans that are hidden, most of the execution of his plans takes the police by storm and tries to captivate the audience with that forced “element of surprise”… only to fail.
When we change perspective to the police, it becomes a suspense story with elements of mystery. We linger with them for too long trying to decipher what Kira has in mind, like the audience doesn’t know that Light is the culprit. Am I making any sense? I hope so. I think the sequence that is most representative of this is when the police is trying to figure out the suicide notes left by the prisoners. We stay with the police, a group of seven people on cluttered L’s desk trying to decipher the oldest trick for a code as if it was Da Vinci’s Code.
At this point, I have made clear I am not fond of monologues or first person narration when there’s no enough weight to use this technique. The keyword is weight, and Death Note had enough reasons to include monologues. Without them, all of what makes Death Note exciting is swept under the rug.
This is particularly what is missing in the hidden cameras sequence (yes, again that one but it’s not the only one, only the most obvious one to pick on): we linger with the police too long with no notable remarks more than a few faces of dissatisfaction and one or two allusions that L knows Kira is Light. Something the audience already knows.
The exciting part is not the fact that the police is watching, the exciting part is how Light and L have transformed a simple wiretapping mission into a full blown internal battle.
What was important to show is not how he did it, but to see Light’s calculating nature, the vileness of his intent, how low he can stoop to win and how pressure and success made him drunk with power. On L’s side we see how his theory was proven wrong with occasional insight of his thought process, wondering if his full-proof theory was incorrect. That’s what the scene represented and that’s what the movie lacked.
As I mentioned, the films, especially the first installment, is so concerned to make you feel that rush of finding out pieces of the puzzle as if it was a murder-mystery, while giving you more information than what you actually need. At times it is more concerned lingering with Light without giving you the information that you must know.
It is as if the movies don’t know what to be or tries to negate its main genre; a mystery where you already know the outcome to, not because you have seen the series or manga beforehand, but because the movie has told you that forefront.
I think it can all be traced back to the lack of monologues. However, aside from that, there was something else that was removed that was important to keep and that it’s related to suspense and emotions.
Tension as Relationships and the Potential for Disaster
It is not the same making a theory and going after it, when the reward is a simple yes or no, than making a theory, getting involved in an organization, knowing people who have the same theory and sharing the same point of view to later come to a conclusion of yes or no.
In the first case the reward could work for a mystery; in the latter, it is more a psychological outcome: what are the consequences of knowing yes or no and what it does to the audience?
Case number one wants to shock you. The second case wants you to feel a determined way. In Death Note, this is translated as sympathy for L, the hero. As a lonely, orphan, intelligent kid, he was able to connect to someone who was as smart and loved the thrill of that chess session. He saw the case more as a fun game than a mission to be completed.
As we progress in the story and get to see Light and L getting close with the same purpose: both wanted to keep their enemies close. Near L’s demise, with suspicions and all, he considers Light something similar to a friend. By the end of it, we get that feeling that he wished Light was not Kira – although he made his preparations in case he was.
L comes off as cautious but not obsessive. Light comes off as narcissist, but there are glimpses where we see he enjoys L’s witty approach to the cases, as if they are both proud to be working together. I do believe that their exchanges were not fabricated; it’s just that the circumstances got in the way.
The fact that Kira and L developed a kinship made everything even more heartbreaking for L and the audience in the end, leaving everyone wondering what could’ve been if they met under normal conditions. The root of the tension is not the question “Is Light going to betray L” but “When is Light going to betray L and how?”
At this point there are a lot of implications determined by this relationship and what it meant to Light: if he would choose the right way of doing things or if he would continue to taint his soul. At least that is what made it exciting for me.
As you probably already guessed, both movies completely overlook the type of relationship they had and it is more concerned of making L the relentless brilliant hero who outsmarts his overconfident enemy. It doesn’t care if it portrays him a bit obsessive after repeatedly being told Light was not Kira.
The complete removal of this bond it is what made both of the films dull. Reiterating Kira’s punishment is not enough to make the film interesting, especially when Light’s delusions of grandeur are not voiced in any shape or form until it’s too late.
We see glimpses of his overconfident persona and having a bigger ego. But the original Light, halfway through, considered himself to be an untouchable god. Holding a capital punishment over his head didn’t mean anything to him more than defeat. What was important to him, was to show how smart he was at the expense of his personal relationships… at the expense of the only bond he respected outside of his family.
Light and L represented the battle between darkness and light on so many levels (at a personal level for the main character and at a general level), it is the center and the argument of the story as a whole. Death Note’s forte was not the portrayal of the villain as a main character but the potential of disaster that lurked behind every decision the main characters made and what “betrayal” meant for each of them.
What was interesting to me was the disaster that could come from L finding out Light was Kira for. One side of me rooted for him not being found out, and the other was telling me that L had to be victorious. The underlying implication was that L represented the last link Light had with his humanity.
It is a shame both of the films puts the main dish aside. That’s how we get a boring movie filled with unimportant characters that were completely unnecessary instead of focusing on the relationship that kept people holding their pillows tightly.
It is also what highlighted my issues with the franchise to begin with, and it is not that I have many issues with Death Note. I just have nitpicks. But because the film was not able to distract me from those issues with the important bond, I focused only on my negative nitpicks of the franchise.
The nitpicks that the film was able to remind me of, made me write a long rant about everything wrong with Death Note’s original story and from the length of that rant, it might seem like I hate Death Note, when I clearly don’t. The only thing I was able to rescue from that rant, was something that we need to talk about, is how the changes made on Light’s life didn’t do much for the film.
There are very few nitpicks I have with the manga regarding the structure of each chapter and the presentation of the panels, as I mentioned above. However, my nitpicks go as far as the storytelling and the philosophy behind Light for the purpose of saving time, lets focus on the introductions.
On the first chapter, there were a few things that were established in an underwhelming manner. The reach of Light’s intelligence and the establishment of his personality are two things that always bothered me.
We don’t know about Light’s life prior to the Death Note aside from being an A student and that he was popular. However, his interests, his relationships outside his family, his intelligence and his philosophy, prior to finding the Death Note are pretty much non-existent; then again, his intelligence and the life he lead up until that turning point was something that the anime corrected.
I tend to overlook my own criticism of the manga because it serves a purpose. It tells us that Light found the Death Note with no divine reasoning and that he is a normal guy who gets entangled in something greater than him.
Another issue of that first chapter comes from the abrupt switch right in the middle.
What starts as curiosity and guilt, becomes a bargain to keep using the Death Note because he thinks it was not a coincidence. From normal guy with average logic, suddenly he is so smart that he is able to make a fool out of the police. But it’s fine, in the end I don’t think the point was to develop Light as a character, but as a landmark for the downward spiral that was yet to come.
The film, since it is the adaptation taken directly from the manga, it follows the same patterns and criticism, however, the film did some things better and some things worse in the introduction: it is established that the center of attention was not Light, but the Death Note. After all, it is the silent main character, trigger and reason for the franchise to exist. It also removed the fact that there is an overworld with more Shinigami so that aspect of worldbuilding was hacked off.
Right after the establishing shot of Light coming across the Death Note, we see is how Light is already Kira. Immediately after two or three minutes of a montage, we have a flashback to how Light became to write the first name down and the subsequent names.
There is absolutely no reason for this structure, other than screaming opening scene. If anything, it’s redundant.
Montages are, usually, used to create a sense of passage of time to avoid giving details and save time. Flashbacks are particularly known to highlight details that happened in the past to summarize. Again, there is absolutely no reason to add a montage to indicate time/cases progression (a technique used in mystery movies, btw,) if immediately after the film will go out of its way to show us a flashback of what happened.
So, not only the first ten minutes are redundant and interrupting, but it highlights a problem that was already in the manga. There is no enough information about Light? Take some sequences that say even less about him!
The thing is that, at the beginning, it is important to know how Light started to change not for his characterization, but to chain his progression from normal student to a killer; from seeing Light as paragon for righteousness that transforms in entitlement, until his entitlement becomes delusion and it ultimately becomes his downfall.
I don’t need to puzzle my brain on how to fix this, because we already have an example: the anime was able to achieve a structure that is both simple and a learning curve. Adding Light’s life with some scenes before he encounters the Death Note and what he thought of his own life with two or three lines of monologuing.
Of course, the production realized that they needed a way to frame Light’s background, and normally the easy way to do it is to answer a few questions in a concise way without getting in the way of the story.
The answer was: make Light a law college student and emphasize on his relationships.
Light’s Age is not an Issue, It’s a Problem
There are a few reasons why I think the production needed to make Light a college student: they needed to connect to the audience interested in live action; they needed to summarize events without giving much explanation; for the production to feel fresh, etc.
One reason that stood out for me was to put the main character in settings that could allow an origin story and to rationalize why he would be out at night. I kid you not, I could see the bar scene from the moment it was established that he was a college student.
Establishing him as a law student explains a few other things: that his family is able to pay for education, that he doesn’t owe anyone explanation of where he goes and does in his free time, that his romantic relationship is a formal thing, that he has a strong set of principles and a deep rooted moral code. So with this change, the film was able to cut corners… a lot of them.
However, as great as this change sounds in paper and could help any other production, for Death Note 2006, it doesn’t really work. At scripting level, being a law student it doesn’t transform the perspective of the events and it doesn’t add or take anything to the film either. It doesn’t modify anything in the story, but it does change the implications of Light’s characterization and what it implies goes against what was intended for his character.
First, let me point out that the correlation between Light and law school, is not there. Assuming the first classes law students have is ethics, morality and laws, Light doesn’t use the knowledge he has to battle the police or add a rebuttal to L’s claims regarding capital punishment.
If he is a grade A student, if he works hard to become a lawyer, if he was as smart as the film wants you to believe he was, he should’ve at least known how to defend his case. Finding loopholes in laws and police proceedings was the only way for him to do that. But of course, that meant the script needed even more modifications.
Take in consideration what I just laid out and now try to puzzle the reasoning of Light’s actions in the movie. On the surface, it makes sense: being a lawyer is not enough to get justice so his frustration becomes his excuse to believe he was doing something good.
However, when you see what is hiding beneath the superficial implications, you will see something that it might not be that gracious. So lets ask a couple of questions:
Why didn’t Light become a mere killer of killers, Dexter style?
Why does Light have such a simplistic philosophy of “eye for eye”?
Why did he make poor choices if he was so smart?
Is your answer cowardice and arrogance? Or was he being overconfident and prideful?
To me, there are many factors to answer to each and one of these questions, but at the center of it most Light’s lapses in judgment came from the fact that he was a 17 year old kid clinging onto his righteousness.
Light was born in a privileged family who was able to provide him with studies, opportunities as well as helping him to build his reputation. The reason he was able to make a name of himself at such a young age, was because of his father’s job as a detective. In his free time, or by request, he would help the police to resolve some cases with them.
Because of the relationship he had with his family, and more important the influence his father’s job had in him, his moral code and righteous thoughts were instilled ever since he was young. Due to his easygoing life and incredible power of deduction, Light became a teenager who had become bored with everything else in his life, more so with his normal, uneventful high school life.
It was the Death Note what brought him a sense of purpose and ultimately what made him settle more seriously in the thought of a career in the police force as an investigator. He had found a place in the world doing a noble thing that was in line with his upbringing… in his head.
Even when he had problems with his ego, it’s his entitlement potentiated by those problematic teen years that gives him leverage to act in certain ways that do not correspond with someone being smart, mature and cautious. That’s where we need to understand that age and maturity don’t go hand in hand.
It’s this profiling which doesn’t make it hard to believe that he could actually believe he was chosen by gods to become the juror of humanity. Again, more than ego, more than praise, more than arrogance, it’s mostly entitlement given by his pampered life that was Light’s problem.
With age, you come to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around you. You have to learn the hard way that things happen to good people because no one is exempt of the harsh reality of life. You begin to understand that laws are there for a reason and that every law has its own way to proceed.
Light, doesn’t understand this, and it’s normal. Based on my experience, the experience of my classmates and friends, as well as going online and seeing teens comments in social media, it’s normal to think that there is a simple way to make the world a better place.
Righteousness may never leave you if you were raised particularly with a steel moral code. What’s different is that now we have the responsibility to think further than just “a simple way” to resolve the world’s problems.
The death penalty, for example, it is a controversial and scary topic. Leaving aside religious implications, and the frustration that sparks the conversation, people who are not against the law have to ask eventually: could there be any cases where it’s a framing job? Could there be any cases where people sentenced are innocent? And, is death penalty really the ultimate punishment? Which cases could be considered to be death penalty and how do you ensure a case has decisive evidence?
Light never thought of these possibilities as he judged based on what he saw on the police records. While the argumentation of the series is the right to a fair trial, the implication is that there is a huge problem with it in Japan regarding fair trials, and it is an indirect way to criticize the system as a childish one, yet effective.
To me, it is undeniable that Light’s behavior is excused and protected by his age as well. As he grows older, he becomes even more cautious, but his entitlement never left him, because the way of the Death Note is all he knew at that point.
Do you see the problem now? By making Light older, it may be still credible, but there is clearly a dichotomy that cant reconcile between the smart/mature persona and the entitled child who firmly believe he was doing the world a service. It is not the same having found the Death Note at a young age and growing up, than finding the Death Note when he was already an adult with his life made up.
It was a great idea to make him older for the sake of locations and giving him more alleyway for his alibis, but making him older did mean that more things needed to be changed in the script. Not only to give Light the right impulse to think the way he did, but also to give a well-rounded narrative regarding his profile. In short: it needed more than a vague encounter with a killer who was bragging in a bar.
And I get that the overall encounter served the purpose of showing his frustration and what ultimately pushed him to use the Death Note. But the way the sequence is set up, it seems that he did it more out of spite for humiliating him publicly than any other reason… which again, comes across as a child who doesn’t know how to keep his emotions in check.
So, in the end, it wasn’t that much of a great idea, but a lapse of judgment for the sake of not changing anything else in the story.
What could’ve been better? Maybe a close encounter with that unfairness, and if the production was so keen on not letting “Light the law student” idea go: I imagine Light as an understudy for a famous lawyer. After days of investigation and proudly securing a win, the court lets the dangerous culprit walk free because of a technicality/error of the police. Frustrated with the case and after his constant nagging for another hearing, he starts to believe that maybe law is not the way to go, that maybe the answer was to become a detective himself or that maybe, the Death Note was the solution. And after that… the rest is history.
It differs a lot from the original story, it may not be even good in your eyes, but it is functional. To me, it fixes the problem of making Light a 22-24 year old with the mentality of a teen; it also fixes the problem that the film doesn’t use his studies to the story’s advantage and it gives Light the sense of purpose he needed. We could see the entitlement, arrogance and overconfidence coming to play later when he feels cornered, after all, Light represents a devolution in his sense of humanity at the expense of his own sanity.
But enough with the age. I think these are most of the problems in adaptation for the first and part of the second movie. Now the question remains: are these films good enough as standalone films?
As a standalone Franchise
Death Note (2006)
Death Note 2006 is an introductory piece that tried its hardest to adapt a suspense story and transforms it into a mystery when it doesn’t need to. It tried its hardest to say a lot with minimal changes to give the movie its own flair.
Because of this battle between mystery and suspense, the first movie lacked the punch it needed to be either or, leaving us with a prologue and an introduction of all the characters that takes 40 minutes just to buy a bit of time.
When we hit the first hour mark and the movie introduces L in laptop form. We go from a boring movie about Light stalling and trying to overcome the police’s efforts, to unending sequences of retconning and expository dialogue just to hammer in that L is the smartest cookie in the room. From there, it takes us an additional 20 minutes to meet L in person to start with the real game.
By the time we hit the hour and 40 minutes we have the feeling that we have watched a lot of nothing. We glide over iconic scenes with a lot of effort to make Ryuk look the dumbest shinigami there is. After a few deaths, we reach the 2 hours and we meet Misa. Now all the players have entered the chat. Just like that, the movie ends.
Being a lawyer didn’t help in anything whatsoever. Establishing the mother and sister when they are not the main players didn’t do anything for the movie either. Actually, let me scratch that: adding a sister doesn’t provide anything to the table more than being someone who rejects Kira’s philosophy; but why was it necessary to make that point? I thought the girlfriend whose name I don’t remember, was filling that role already? If it was an attempt at sympathy for Light, I don’t think showing their happy family life together was the way to go unless one of them was going to push Light to the edge.
For a film who tries to be generally grounded in reality and trying to be a mystery-suspense, the tense moments are completely removed when Light starts talking in public to Ryuk.
That’s what really gets on my nerves in movies in general, when the characters try to explain their plans in open areas with a dialogue. I mean, it really depends of what type of plans, and really depends of how secretive they are, but I am talking about plans that are evil or secretive enough that are discussed in a place where anyone could stretch their ears or read their lips.
The worst scene for me is when Raito talks openly about his plan to kill his girlfriend in the museum with that clear echo and immediately after the police goes away…
Like, stop. Find Jesus!
It’s like people haven’t heard about the saying: walls have ears.
If the series was clear of what it wanted to be, I think the sense of paranoia could’ve been communicated in an effective manner. If they didn’t want to use monologues, fine, but don’t let the main character talk in public spaces when anyone could see him talking to thin air.
If only Ryuk served the purpose it served in the manga: shaping Light’s actions and labeling them while trying to rationalize his humanity with monologues and thoughts. There, fixed your dummy Ryuk who has to ask Light what he is doing as if he was a 5 year old trying to understand why the sky is blue.
Other than that, the movie is not about much and unfortunately half of the exciting things that happen in the series were relegated to the second film. However…
Death Note: The Last Name (2006)
What in the world happened with this movie?
There is a reason I haven’t even touched the second film. The second film plows through the other half of the series in such a hurry that mistakes were made. Not bloopers, just mistakes. Due to these mistakes, Death Note: The Last Name can be a lot of things but boring is not one of them.
According to the director, they had two months of preparation for the second film. He hasn’t made public what they did exactly on those two months, but I don’t think the entirety of the movie was filmed there and then.
Even then, the amount of ridiculous in the film makes up for the continuity errors and everything else. The movie is bad not because it lacks argument and story, but there are some directorial decisions that made me outright cackle. I came to a point of trying to see more of these sequences than caring for the plot.
At this point I just think that the production was just having fun and I had fun too nitpicking these shots and sequences. So I present a collection of those sequences, scenes and shots that made me laugh:
The Cap’n’s Office
It is to be noted that the captain is actually the director. In the first movie there is a scene that is so funny to me about Watari standing creepily in the background doing nothing… just looking at the wall, only to turn around and greet Detective Yagami. However, there is a scene where it randomly cuts away to see the captain screaming angrily while the detectives have a poker face. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know why it made me laugh, I think it was too random because we haven’t seen him all movie not even to ask for the reports and suddenly there he is screaming away.
Outside the Police Headquarters
I will give you time stamps so you can see the following scenes with your own eyes.
Raito’s sister nags her friend because she supports Kira as the chanting increases. Mogi, a detective runs into the cheering crowd of what it seems to be a hundred people. It is an excited crowd who is even able to overwhelm the police line standing between the public TV screen and the uncontrollable crowd. Mogi makes his way out of the crowd to the front. Then he lectures the crowd about why they have to stop supporting Kira. Aside from the fact that he doesn’t say anything compelling, he is able to quiet down the crowed with his broken speech.
He collapses in front of a screaming crowd and the only one getting close is Light’s sister.
There is a random cutaway to a woman getting surprised. It is so random that I thought it was the journalist, only to later find out she was not. Who the f**k was that? Who knows, but that cutaway, aside from being off-timing, the shot is not quite natural. Light’s repeating the detective’s name with different angles each line while after not getting a responsealso made me chuckle
The oddity of Light’s Room
After a decent amount of angles and shots, we have this:
Long shots, like that one, serve a few purposes especially in a tense situation: it can establish what is happening behind the actors’ plain; it can serve as a metaphor, as an aesthetic shot or it can be used to establish the distance between the characters. Other times is used to force the audience to sit or stand with the characters, to get other effects: making them feel uncomfortable or just part of the tension.
When long shots are cut in half by framing in the background, it is often to signify opposite ideologies, enemies, rivals or distance between the character’s feelings. However, what hits home to signify that something else is being communicated the background is needed and is relevant to the shot.
If it was to signify the disparaging influence of Misa and Raito the shot still has a lot of issues (Light occupies more than half of the screen and misa approximately more than a third and the camera is too high, the difference in height is not too noticeable.
After thinking about this shot, I thought that it was to signify the betrayal of Light’s ideals and goals. The bookshelf would be an icon of his moral codes – as it is shown later-, and Light is outside of them. The problem is when you are trying puzzle the pieces for the rest of the image, nothing fits unless you are seeing Misa as the representation of justice. However, at this point it should be clear that her intentions – while pure and naïve – she is not the best symbol to depict a strong moral code even if her arc focuses of her meaning of justice. But okay, lets say that this is the meaning of the shot and it wasn’t meant to be a pretty one.
The shot is still in three planes vertically and three planes horizontally meaning that there is a lot of distance between the bookshelf and the actors. Raito is positioned in front of the empty, uninteresting white wall where the only thing that distracted me was the actor’s shadow and the globe map. There are many conflicting lines taking away the attention from the actors and the bookshelf overwhelming the scene.
Lets say that the shot was meant to break with some rules. That would be fine and I don’t think the shot was the problem. Even if it has such a messy composition, the shot is still functional as an establishing one. The issue was that it lingers for too long, so long indeed for me to notice.
So I only have a few assumptions:
- They planned to include Ryuk somewhere in the scene.
- They soon realized that the camera was too close to the actors and too high.
- Even if the depth of the shot was very airy with only the two actors, fitting Ryuk was an impossible task without overwhelming the scene.
- Or maybe they didn’t have the time.
Why? That’s all I have to say, why?
A fanservice scene with undertones of a determined fetish… I could say I am disappointed but it actually made me laugh for a different reason: for being in there for two days Misa surely is wearing rags. For being rags, they surely are clean; for being a high tech police headquarter, they surely use a multipurpose, hand-held, vlogger Sony camera to film her. For being placed in isolation she surely can speak to people and have normal conversations with the detectives. For being tortured, The scene is just absurd.
There are not visuals but a dialogue:
Light’s father: “Light, happy birthday. This is a rulebook which was based on human wisdom which still struggles to answer what justice is.”
Light: “Thanks, dad, I want to study and know what justice is.”
Do I need to say more?
The pulse is always measured to know that the heart is pumping, however, the only way to determine someone is dead by pulse is using medical equipment. No freakout, no CPR, no screaming of help, just jumping from zero to “She is dead!” in a sterile backdrop made me laugh out loud.
I could also make a collection of all the funny faces there are throughout the films that made me laugh and wonder why are they even there. But I think this is enough.
But, Are They Good?
Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name, may not have been installments that anime fans and manga erudite may like, but you can feel the passion put into both films.
Both Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama gave themselves away entirely to their roles, but it was to be expected since they are already niche actors that have always been appointed for manga adaptations. Having known Erika Toda since Nobuta wo Produce a year prior, after Death Note, she went onto be part of productions of the same type (Most notably, Liar Game, Goemon, Blade of the Immortal and Hana Yori Dango).
I have no criticism aside from little acting decisions where you can clearly see it was the director’s, screenwriter and storyboard artist’s idea. But I am getting ahead of myself.
It is the behind the curtains contracts and decisions that were made in the initial stages where we pinpoint where all did go wrong that perplex me.
One of them was Tetsuya Oishi, the screenwriter. He is most known for being the writer for CSI, One Missed Call, Blade of the Immortal and Beck. Out of all of his work, Blade of the Immortal has always been an outlier because he did a good job; however, as writer for mystery-horror or even an inspiring series like Beck was, he likes to play it safe, and it’s this safeness that reassured the authors to not to change anything important in the movies, but it also took away that pizzaz the original story had.
It was the same problem One Missed Call and Beck had. I don’t want to say he lacks insight of what he wants to write, but it does feel like he doesn’t want to offend anyone. That leads him to scrap the most unbelievable parts. If I am being honest, sometimes he writes in a manner that feels forgettable.
I don’t remember anything notable in One Missed Call, I remembered it bored me halfway, though. The same can be said for Beck, I just remember it being a mix and mash of being faithful to the original work and at the same time not being, always making changes that didn’t help the story in any way.
For a story so ingrained in criticism of the judicial system or a commentary of the state of the Japanese society like Death Note, I do not think Oishi was the writer to go with, especially when he is well versed in mystery… not suspense.
Then, we have the director. Shusuke Kaneko is best known for making Kaiju films (Godzilla type of movies). Yes, you read right. This is the first time I was exposed to his work, and I must say that he knows what he is doing, he is a good director and he used the budget given to do his best… but some of his decisions do come from his experience in directing Kaiju Battles, and it shows. Some of the performances are a bit… cartoonish in the wrong instances, especially when instructing the actors what to do in certain scenes (Light’s death was too much for me. It made me cackle in a way I didn’t know I was able to.) This is particularly noticeable in the weird faces I was able to find throughout the films.
This was also my first exposure to Hiroshi Takase, the cinematographer (backdrops and effects). Throughout the film there are some places that are great, although too saturated with information that was not necessary, and other places were too minimalistic. It’s like he didn’t know what he wanted to do in terms of style.
For the music they appointed Kenji Kawai.
You can make a thread with all the people involved and how their encounters were not coincidental in subsequent works. Even though all of them focused on different things there is always that something that ties them together. Not only that, there is a reason for each of these decisions:
Tetsuya Oishi, the mystery-horror writer is paired up with Shusuke Kaneko the Kaiju filmmaker who was appointed for his FX; the actors casted had the ability to say their ridiculous lines with conviction; Kenji Kawai, the composer, has an impressive resume working with anime, games and movies of the same type: dark, cynical and thought provoking. I don’t know the work of Hiroshi Takase… but I assume his resume also spoke about his relevant work.
It seemed like the perfect formula to create something incredible, for an incredibly loved series; even if the timing of release was wrong and although it appeared like it was the perfect time to.
No matter how I try to spin it I always come back to the same conclusion: the production had to wait. It had to wait for the series to be adapted into an animated one, and based on the reception – and memes- begin to make plans on how to make it even better, flashier with a real unlimited budget and time to spare.
They needed to wait until the story was really done to plan ahead for the next film, because it does feel like they didn’t know how to split the two films. That is why we see an uneventful movie in the first installment and a rushed mess in the second one that led them to a confusing and illogical ending.
To recommend these films I must be a bit harsh: watch the first movie up until L’s reveal, then watch the second one for the laughs and giggles. Aside from being a big and expensive ad for the manga, the movies have nothing of value in terms of cinematography… and they are too long for their own good. (five hours in both… five hours!)