Judge Adam Arseneau needs to know the spelling of your name. It's very important.
If looks could kill…
Based on the bestselling Japanese manga and anime series, Death Note gets a second live-action sequel in the form of Death Note II: The Last Name. As adaptations go, this is a faithful continuation of the franchise, picking up moments after the credits rolled on the first film.
Admit it: you've wanted to be able to kill people just by looking at them. Come on. Hey, don't look at me like that.
Facts of the Case
After the unfortunate, but totally premeditated, death of his girlfriend, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara, Battle Royale) has finally convinced his father and the Tokyo police to allow him to assist in the capture of Kira, notorious mass murderer who strikes down the guilty and criminal elements with furious vengeance. The mysterious Kira possesses the ability to kill anyone they wish—all they need is their name.
Light, of course, is Kira. For a college student, he has some pretty ambitious goals, like ridding the world of evil and becoming its ruler. After finding a notebook on the ground entitled "Death Note," he found he could kill anyone by writing their name in the book. He also found the book comes with a death god companion called Ryuk, who dropped the notebook on Earth out of boredom.
Having had no luck solving the crimes, the enigmatic and brilliant L (Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Bright Future) is called in to crack the case. To the surprise of the Tokyo police, L is just a teenager who fancies eating sweets and walking around barefoot. As Light gets more involved in the investigation of his own alter-ego, L grows ever closer to finding the truth.
Things complicate when Kira II, a copycat killer emerges, who has the ability to kill anyone on sight, without their name. Light is alarmed, realizing that there is a second "Death Note" out there. To his surprise, the owner of the book turns out to be a J-pop star, Misa Amane (Erika Toda), who worships Kira as her own personal savior.
First things first: if you haven't seen Death Note, don't even bother picking this one up. It is a sequel in the most literal sense of the word, in that it picks up exactly where the last film left off. Without prior knowledge of the first Death Note film (which had some fairly substantial changes in story and character development compared to the manga and anime) you will be completely lost.
For the uninitiated, trying to explain the cultural phenomenon that is Death Note is tricky. In Japan, it's about as popular as "Twilight" is on our side of the world. Books, comics, movies—you name the object; you can buy it with a picture of Light or L on the front. It is serious business to say the least, and freakishly popular with the pre-teen and teenagers in Japan. I guess there's something about the ability to kill everyone who looks at you crosswise and teenage angst that go together. Who knew? Jokes aside, I'm a fan of the franchise, but unfortunately, much of what I like about the series gets omitted in the jump to live action.
It's a tricky business, adapting a manga into a live action film under the most ideal of conditions, to say nothing about one as fantastical as Death Note featuring killer stationary and death gods. There are elements of the series that translate both very well and very poorly to live action. On the plus, they've absolutely nailed the design elements down. This is as close to a live-action anime as you'll ever see. Actors have been perfectly cast to match their drawn counterparts, and through some clever CGI work, the death gods Ryuk and Rem interact with their fleshy counterparts. Both Matsuyama and Fujiwara are perfect in their roles—Matsuyama bug-eyed, melancholic, and lanky; Fujiwara handsome, cocky, and ruthless. And Chairman Kaga from Iron Chef (Takeshi Kaga) is just cake icing, man.
On the negative, the abridged cinematic treatment of a franchise that went on for numerous issues means much character development and detail has been scrubbed for the feature films. What I miss is the subtle development of Light's descent into being a world-class asshole through misguided political ideology and concepts of justice. In the first Death Note film, he's just kind of a jerk from the get-go. Here, in Death Note II we get even less in the way of character development, because there's just way too much plot to cover. That doesn't mean the film is bad per se, only intellectually thin.
The story itself adheres to the plot of the manga, for the most part, as L tightens the net around Light and his new associate Misa. Even for a thriller, the story is impossibly complex and twisting, like an Alfred Hitchcock film drunk and confused after a night of binge drinking, but still delightful in its sheer improbability. Most cat-and-mouse games see the protagonists two or three steps ahead of the audience—for L and Light, these two are about seventeen steps ahead. The film is really just a delivery device for watching their plans unwrap themselves in incredible fashion. Like the previous live-action film, Death Note II does make a few key diversions from the anime and manga storylines, but these are detours only. The film ends, more or less, in the same spot—it just takes the scenic route getting there. Doesn't mean it makes any more sense, though.
As the film accelerates towards its finale, the pacing dramatically increases, so much so that even those familiar with the story may have to stop and review. Because so many elements of the film are literal adaptations of manga story events, Death Note II rarely stops to explain to audiences what is going on, assuming audiences are familiar already. It's hard to appreciate the film on its own merits, being so intrinsically tied to the previous Death Note film, but when taken as the bookend in a two-film series, this is a fun little romp, crazy ideas and all. You've got murders, divine justice, deceptions, killer notebooks, and massive CGI-crafted characters—how can you lose?
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is very strong, featuring a soft, natural-looking transfer. Flesh tones are well-saturated, black levels are reasonable, edges are clean and no compression artifacts are noticeable. Certain sequences seem softer and less crisp, and the color palate occasionally feels too washed out, but still a very nice transfer all told. The CGI sequences of adding Ryuk and other assorted characters into the film look about as good as one could expect from a moderate Japanese film budget—they look like gigantic anime characters come to life and digitally added to a film. Not exactly realistic, but hey, that's anime for you.
Audio gives a balanced offering between dubbed and original Japanese, giving viewers the choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo for each language. I wish more companies took this step! We can give consistency points to Viz Media for hiring back the English voice actors from the anime to reprise their roles here, so whichever you opt for, you're getting a decent presentation. Both 5.1 tracks make excellent use of rear channels for environmental noises (mostly in the sweeping arrivals or departures of death gods) with clear dialogue and moderate bass. I found the English track to be mixed a bit more quietly than the Japanese, and had to play some remote games to balance the dialogue against the rest of the soundtrack, but nothing too distracting. The stereo tracks are surprisingly adequate, robust and strong with bass response. The score suits the film well, full of throbbing bass and melancholic strings.
In terms of extras we get a 20-minute featurette, "Making Death Note II: The Last Name" interviewing cast and crew, U.S. and Japanese trailers, some previews, and an upcoming trailer for the spinoff film L: Change the World. A light offering, but I'll take it in favor of having four audio tracks to choose from.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where Death Note II miscalculates is marginalizing the intellectual elements in favor of sheer plot adherence. Okay, it's a sequel, and there's an awful lot of ground to cover in terms of story and plot progression, but what makes Death Note fascinating is the moral ambiguity, and there's none of it in this film. We're halfway through a story having already met the characters. Light is just a jerk—we don't really understand why he does what he does, or why L needs to capture him. These are simply their roles to play. It's a bit one-dimensional. We didn't even get a lot of this exploration in the first film.
What I wanted more of was the tension between Ryuk and Light, between Light and his own inner voice, between right and wrong. It's present in the manga, present in the anime, but it's not present in Death Note II.
Death Note II makes the tough decision to trade moral complexity and intellectual depth for adherence to its own source material, which is a "win some lose some" situation. We sacrifice the moral depth of the original material in favor of a simple mystery story, but audiences will be suitably pleased by the complex and dynamic plot as L and Light duel and trade barbs.
If you enjoyed Death Note, Death Note II: The Last Name gets right back on the horse without hesitation. The film picks up exactly where the first film left off, offering a near-seamless continuation in tone and pacing. What more can you ask for from a sequel? You keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and it gets even more complicated if you can kill people just by looking at them and writing their name down.
A reasonable sequel, all things considered. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
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