The Death Note live action movie and the anime series were both released in the same year. Both were based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata and I feel that one got it right and the other got it terribly wrong. The film (part one of two) is simply missing everything that made the series great. The mood of the piece and the way that it makes the reader/viewer question the very nature of morality in a world that contains evil are both completely absent in the film. Light Yagami, the young man who is the center of the story, is presented as a cold-hearted and shallow character here, whereas in the series we had a well-developed main character who I found myself rooting for in spite of some of his actions (think Dexter).
I’ll not go into the story here. If you’d like a quick overview, check out my review of the series here. Yes, there are some changes to the basic plot, but they’re mostly minor. What we don’t get to see, however, is how Light Yagami struggles with the idea of the death note and how best to use it. We never really get to see his brilliance at work. We never see what he’s thinking so we never find out that he’s decided to become a kind of god and correct the course of society through his actions. Without these things, he’s just an asshole with a gun on a crowded street.
I understand that the series had 12+ hours to explore this story and the movies only had about four, but I think it’s at least possible to present a two or three film version of DN that rings true to the source in less than 12 hours. I suppose we’ll see what happens when Hollywood takes a stab at it in 2014, but I don’t have a lot of faith in that version being any better than the Japanese film.
I think the Japanese film industry has learned a little too well how to make Hollywood-style pictures. First, find a property that works in one format already, then suck everything that worked out of it, especially anything involving complicated ideas or philosophical questions, then spit out the husk and count your money. That’s what seems to have happened with DN.
Some may wonder how the film delivered Ryuk, the death god who is the one fantastic element in the story. Well, they did it with crappy CGI. I think that was probably the only way to go with the character, but he needed to be a little more Gollum and a little less Scooby Doo.
Not only is the CGI lame, there isn’t a single thing that’s visually interesting in this picture. There’s not one original element. And the camera? Somebody must’ve gotten dolly track for Christmas. The shots hardly ever stop wandering around, panning and zooming and pushing in. Don’t misunderstand me — this isn’t a shaky-cam movie. All the moves are fluid and smooth. There’s just way too many of them. I guess they were trying to make up for the two-dimensional characters.
I’m sorry to say that the characters in the movie are more cartoonish than their anime counterparts. How is that even possible, you ask? Well, my theory is that the anime is a lot like a black box theatre production in that it gives you some outlines and lets your own mind fill in the details. Because of that, the characters seem more real as long as their dialogue and actions ring true.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Stick to the series. It’s seriously worth the extra time. This movie is not recommended.
PS – Please note that the series has been chopped up and turned into some animated films that shouldn’t be confused with the live action movies. I haven’t seen them, but I think you should stick with the original series instead of those abridged versions.