Death Note (Desu noto)


It's a bishop. No, it's a rook...

It’s a bishop. No, it’s a rook…

(2006) Horror (Viz) Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Asaka Seto, Shigeki Hosokawa, Erika Toda, Shunji Fujimura, Takeshi Kaga, Yu Kashii, Shido Nakamura (voice), Sota Aoyama, Ikuji Nakamura, Norman England, Shin Shimuzu, Masahiko Tsugawa, Miyuki Komatsu, Hikari Mitsushima, Tatsuhito Okuda, Yoji Tanaka, Michiko Godai. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, what would the power of life and death do? How long would you be able to retain your humanity if you could kill with the stroke of a pen?

That’s what law student Light Yagami (Fujiwara) receives when he finds a notebook. Disgusted after overhearing a criminal in a bar brag about having gotten away with murder, he has lost faith in the justice system of Japan. However, when he discovers the notebook, he discovers it has a specific power; that anyone whose name he writes in the notebook and whose face he can picture will die in the method and at the time he specifies; if he fails to specify a time and method the person whose name is written will die of a heart attack within minutes.

After a couple of tests prove the notebook is genuine, Light is visited by the book’s previous owner, a Shinigami (a Japanese god of death) named Ryuk. Ryuk is 9-feet-tall, eats apples and has a dry sense of humor. He resembles a Peter Max drawing of a Blue Meanie, only he’s more of  White Gothie.

Light resolves to rid Japan of her criminal element and begins killing off criminals. As the police notice the epidemic of criminal deaths, Light’s own father (Kaga) heads up the investigation of the deaths which they believe are the work of a mastermind named Kira. Light is at first amused by this but as his father brings in the world’s most brilliant detective, a mysterious figure known only as L (Matsuyama) who turns out to be even younger than Light. Now the two will go head to head, each trying to discover the other’s identity. The closer L gets, the more Light begins to change and lose more and more of his humanity. Which one will win out in the end?

This is based on one of Japan’s most successful manga (the Japanese comic book) which in turn became a hit anime (animated feature). This, a live-action movie (which came out the same year as the anime as well as a live-action sequel to this movie) was a massive hit, showing just how popular this particular manga was.

The premise is a bit complicated but once you get it, it’s wickedly clever. I also found the acting to be pretty good, considering that the movie is the equivalent of a Swamp Thing movie. Ryuk is essentially a digital creation, and quite frankly although the character itself is interesting and brings quite a bit of comic relief, there are unintentional laughs because it simply looks and moves in a ludicrous manner. Even the apple-eating gag gets old after awhile.

Now, I understand that realism isn’t going to be a strong point in a movie about  a death god giving a death dealing notebook to a law student, it simply stretched believability beyond the breaking point in making “L”, the smartest most successful detective on Earth, a teenager. Of course, the movie is meant pretty much for teenagers but for the rest of us, a big fat raspberry for that move. It just brings the movie to a grinding halt.

Despite its faults, this is a wildly entertaining and fun couple of hours. Kaneko does an excellent job of keeping the tension at a high level throughout. While there are supernatural horror elements to the movie, the truth is that this is more of a tragedy as we watch Light with the best of intentions and best of hearts slowly and inexorably slide down the path of corruption and arrogance as his God-like powers of life and death begin to erode his soul. It’s a fascinating and sad process that kept my interest high from beginning to end. How do you like them apples?

WHY RENT THIS: Ingenious premise. Well-acted. Very suspenseful.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ryuk effect is a bit cheesy. An older actor for “L” would have worked better.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is a bit on the adult side. Some of the deaths are violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers got permission to reserve a subway train and line to film a crucial scene, something that the Tokyo government hadn’t ever done before.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a director’s interview split over several parts. The extras menu is graphically designed as a group of apples floating on the screen. While the apples remain in the same position, the extra feature that each apple represents changes randomly so that one minute it might be a trailer for the anime version, the next part three of the director interview. It’s different but annoying after awhile..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.9M on an unknown production budget; while nearly all of the box office was from Asia, the movie was undoubtedly a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drop Dead Fred

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mother’s Day

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Top 5 Animated Features


While Planet 51 is something of a disappointment, animated features have been a major part of the Hollywood landscape since 1939 and with the advent of computer animation have become even more of a dominant force at the box office. While Pixar Studios has dominated both in terms of quality and box office, nearly every major studio has an animated division and the quality of some of these studios has been growing both in terms of animation and storytelling, with DreamWorks animation leading the way. Still, Disney and Pixar are the 400 pound gorillas of the genre, and when most aficionados come together to discuss their favorites, those two studios are going to receive the lion’s share of attention.

HONORABLE MENTION

While cartoon shorts had been a part of the landscape since the silent era, it wasn’t until Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) that Walt Disney thought to make a full-length movie of a cartoon. Even now, nearly 75 years later, the movie holds up. The hand-drawn artwork is simply astonishing in its beauty; Disney made sure that the first animated feature, a calculated gamble, had no expense spared. It remains one of the most beautiful animated features ever drawn. Shrek (2001) established DreamWorks Animation as a major player in the field and would inspire three sequels, paving the way for movies like Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. Peppered with pop culture references and sly satire, the fairy tale gone hideously wrong sported an all-star cast and impressive animation in becoming the most successful feature animated franchise of all time. Akira (1988), based on one of Japan’s most honored comic books (manga) of all time would set the standards for anime, the uniquely Japanese form of animation. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the original manga, the finely-detailed world of Neo-Tokyo would become a hallmark of the kind of animation that would come out of Japan for the next two decades. A live action version of the movie has been in the works for decades but so far nothing has come of it. Finally, Bambi (1942) bears a personal place on this list – it is the first movie I ever saw in a theater, way back in 1964 when I was just four. Even today, I find myself entranced by the lush, verdant forest scenes and feel the tears welling up when Bambi’s mother is shot.

5. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)

 

Animated features had always been somewhat looked down upon by critics and the Hollywood mainstream as “kids stuff” and ghettoized in that fashion – until this movie became the first animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It was the last movie to be worked on by composer Howard Ashman who passed away before the film was released, and features beautiful music and a timeless story. This was a movie to truly recapture Disney magic and is as good if not better than their classic animations, most of which could easily be on this list but this one was special. It also was a precursor to things to come with extensive digital animated sequences, including the ballroom scene depicted here, as well as hand-drawn animation. This is the favorite of many families, including ours.

4. THE PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

 

There are other works of Hayao Miyazaki that are better known and quite frankly, better respected than this one but it is this fantasy film that brought me into his world and has kept me there ever since. Miyazaki is perhaps the most respected animator working today and certainly one of the best ever to come out of Japan. In this allegory that depicts the conflict between nature and technology, he brings fantastic characters to life in an almost fable-like setting with hints of science fiction and high fantasy throughout. It’s a masterful work not only of animation but of storytelling as well, and while it never received the acclaim his other works (such as Spirited Away and Ponyo) got, it nonetheless is my favorite of his both sentimentally and critically.

3. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

 

 It’s no secret that I’m a comic book junkie, particularly of the superhero variety. Yes, I love all those spandex wearing characters from DC to Marvel and when Pixar decided to make a feature length film about a superhero team that was also a family, I was over the moon to say the least. The final product didn’t disappoint. My initial fears that the genre would be disrespected and dumbed down (as other films like Zoom and Sky High had done) were groundless; this was clearly a labor of love that not only poked gentle fun at the genre but also told a compelling story about family dynamics changed by the advent of great powers. Something like the Fantastic Four done for the Family Channel with a villain straight out of a hip James Bond movie, I was enchanted by every moment of this movie which remains one of my all time superhero favorites.

2. FANTASIA (1940)

 

The idea of animation as a work of art had never really been as explored quite as completely as it did on this film, which was one of Walt Disney’s pet projects and clearly something close to his heart. Vignettes set to classical music pieces (such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain) used whimsical Disney imagery to create a breathtaking work that elevates as it entertains. In many ways, Fantasia is a cultural landmark although it was never a commercial success; today it is best remembered for the one vignette featuring Mickey Mouse – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which was spun off into its own movie that had very little to do with the original. A sequel, Fantasia 2000 came out just in time for the new Millennium; while it captured the spirit of the original, it wasn’t quite as impressive.

1. UP (2009)

 

Only the second animated feature to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, this movie has clearly elevated the bar for animated features. Very few movies can walk the fine line between appealing to children and telling a sophisticated story that will stimulate adults, but this one does, creating timeless entertainment in the process. The opening montage telling the story of balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen and his wife Ellie is both charming and poignant and was one of the most memorable moments in the movies last year. It cements Pixar’s position as the most innovative studio of any sort out there, churning out high quality films year after year. Whether they can ever produce a movie this good again is almost irrelevant; the fact that they proved that it can be done has changed the standards for animated movies from disposable kids stuff to important cinema for everyone.