Shiny Shelf

Death Note

By Mark Clapham on 29 April 2008

As in the manga and the anime, the live action movie ‘Death Note’ starts with a simple, if outlandish, premise. Brilliant student Light Yagami finds a death note, dropped by a shinigami (a god of death) into the human world, which allows him to kill from afar by writing the name of anyone whose face he can visualise into the note. Light has a strong, albeit unbending, sense of justice – can a weapon like the death note be used for good?

And that’s all the plot detail you’re getting. Because ‘Death Note’ is a great story, and whichever version you decide to go with first, it’s worth seeing the story unfold for yourself rather than having some online gimp like myself waffle through it in a review. So, I’m going to be willfully opaque in any references in the rest of the review.

The original manga of ‘Death Note’ isn’t just one of the best comic book stories I’ve read, it’s one of the best stories I’ve read, full stop. Over 108 chapters, available in twelve paperback volumes, the story of the people who use the death note, and the law enforcers who try and stop the killings, twists and turns in a brilliantly logical series of intellectual battles between killers and detectives, plays and counterplays. It’s fantastic, ingeniously scripted by Tsugami Ohba, with precisely controlled, character-rich line art from Takeshi Obata. If you haven’t read it, go and get the first volume tomorrow – it’s only about a fiver on most online booksellers, and is well worth a spin.

‘Death Note’ is massive business in Japan, but while the manga have been available for a while here the wider franchise is only now beginning to make inroads into the UK. The first volume of the anime is out now on DVD, and the first live action movie is on limited release at the ICA in London and ’selected cinemas’ across the country. The short cinema run is a precursor to a DVD release in July, with the second and third movies to follow later in the year.

If the first movie is any indication, then the live action adaptations deserve the success they’ve had in Japan. This first film wisely doesn’t even try to cram a condensed version of the entire ‘Death Note’ saga into a single movie, instead consciously presenting the first half of a two-movie adaptation. In spite of the second film being guaranteed upfront, the movie doesn’t just stop or end on a cliffhanger. Instead, one phase of the story comes to a very dramatic climax and sets the stage for the next. The characters have, through their actions, set themselves on courses of action that will lead to conflict.

With the manga a big hit, the filmmakers are faithful to the material without being insanely reverential. The characters all look and act as they should, including the shinigami, who simply are Obata’s character designs come to CG life. With adjustments for the pacing of the different media – the film intercuts more between plot threads, whereas the manga often has long, very talky scenes – for most of the movie the essential beats of the plot are point-by-point the same, and all the ingenious set-pieces are present and correct. Where changes have been made, they are clever and appropriate, and most importantly get the plot to the same place as it did in the manga, albeit by a more visual and incendiary route. Even if you’ve read the books (in my case, very recently) there are surprises here, especially towards the end, but none of these feel like a betrayal of the material.

‘Death Note’ in live action form retains the virtues of the original material. It’s a great suspense story, taking a fantasy premise and then working within a set of logical rules in a smart, thrilling way. The acting is great, especially from the two young leads, and the direction and production values are very strong. It’s scary, clever and in places very funny. It isn’t the most visually expansive film, so if you can’t find one of the mysterious selected cinemas, it’ll play very well on DVD when that comes out. Get your pre-orders in when you can, supporting more of this kind of thing getting a UK release, and in the meantime try ‘Death Note’ in the original manga.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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