Adapting a long-running manga series into a live-action feature film is no small feat, and doing it well seems almost impossible. When I asked my friend Maki—who recently moved to the United States after living in Japan for the past decade—if she would like to watch Death Note Collection with me, she let out a sigh of disgust. Though she has read the manga, Maki told me she has absolutely no interest in seeing the Death Note movies because, in her opinion, Japanese feature films based on comics are noting but shells of their source material, featuring pretty boy actors whose ability to draw in legions of ticket-buying teenage girls far surpasses their talents as thespians.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I stayed up past 4:00 am to watch both Death Note movies contained in the collection. Sure, the films may feature attractive young actors with perfect hair, and much of the storyline from the original manga had to be streamlined or altered in order to work as feature-length movies, but the fact that I lost all track of time and remained wide awake until nearly the crack of dawn goes a long way to demonstrate how much I enjoyed Death Note Collection.
The plot centers on the titular Death Note, a book that allows its owner the ability to determine how and when anyone will die. Simply write someone’s name in its pages and follow the rules dictated in the front of the tome, and anyone can be killed. Light, a law student who just passed the bar exam and is intent on joining the police force, becomes disenchanted with the legal system and its inability to bring many criminals to justice. Luckily for him a god of death named Ryuk “accidentally” drops his Death Note, which Light finds and soon begins putting to heavy use.
Across the globe criminals who had previously escaped the reach of the law begin dropping dead one after another, which propels Light into cult fandom and captures the admiration of countless followers. Light’s actions also attract the attention of a high-level police force, who team up with an enigmatic and brilliant detective known only as “L” to investigate who is behind the series of murders. But Light proves to be one tough cookie to catch, and viewers will find themselves on the edge of their seats, mesmerized by the back-and-forth game of pursuit and elusion the Light and L engage in. It’s along the lines of a horror-themed version of Catch Me if You Can. The line between protagonist and antagonist is effectively blurred, and I found myself conflicted by whether I was rooting for Light or L.
The films contained in the set are actually two halves of a larger story, and they really should be considered one long movie, even if both parts can be watched as standalone features. Most audiences who have four hours to spare will watch the entire Death Note saga in succession, especially since the first movie sets up a number of plotlines that are further explored and developed in the second half. The films keep true to the core storyline of the original manga, even if a number of liberties are taken. For instance, in the manga Light is in high school, whereas in the movies he is a law student, which actually ties in well with the theme of dispensing justice to individuals who escape being found guilty in the legal system.
Death Note Collection is not without its imperfections, and a few specific issues stood out as I watched the movies. The pacing can be a little show and drawn out in an attempt to build tension, but it just tacks unnecessary minutes onto the running time. In addition, some of the computer graphics look downright cheesy. Ryuk, for instance, may look faithful to his original design in the manga, but his movements often look unrealistic and at times they even come across as unintentionally funny. And speaking of unintended humor, the numerous death scenes are some of the corniest I’ve seen in quite some time, usually involving someone grabbing their chest and suffering what appears to be the most excruciating heart attack in history. In fact, the death performances are so bad that at first I first I thought Death Note was supposed to be a comedy.
Thank goodness the lead actors manage to rise above the mediocre death scenes. I especially enjoyed the screen presence of the actor who portrayed L, Kenichi Matsuyama, who seems to have a special affinity for taking on roles of bizarre characters. Matsuyama, who audiences may recognize as Krauser from the live-action version of Detroit Metal City, is mesmerizing as the sweets-obsessed, socially-awkward detective who revels in matching wits with Light. Meanwhile, Tatsuya Fujiwara does an admirable job as Light, through every now and then he pushes the melodrama a little too far. Viewers who switch over to the English vocal option will not be disappointed, and in some ways the more subdued performances of the cast arguably fit the films’ dark tone more appropriately than the Japanese voices.
Despite the high volume of deaths throughout both movies, not to mention instances of profane language, the lack of graphic violence makes Death Note Collection appropriate for older teens, an audience that will have likely have the least amount of trouble looking past the weaker aspects of the movies so as to enjoy the overall presentation. My friend Maki may have an aversion to live-action adaptations of manga, but in the case of Death Note Collection, I think she should reconsider. It may lack the depth of the source material, but it stays true in spirit, and the suspenseful moments are effective and very engaging. Seeing as I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since becoming a father nearly five years ago, anything that keeps me up far past my bedtime has got to have something special going for it!