The Japanese psychothriller gets a fresh spin with double-header “Death Note” and “Death Note: The Last Name,” in which the central idea and the games the two principals play — rather than gore or clammy atmospherics — provide the thrills. Spun off from a highly popular 12-volume manga, and a B.O. slam dunk throughout East and Southeast Asia last year, the two pics about a college kid who kills people by writing their names in a magical book look to have strong fest and ancillary legs in Western markets, where they’ve been slow to surface. Both movies scream remake potential.
Original film took a bonny $25 million in Japan in June, and the sequel took almost twice that ($43 million) in November. Based on the manga’s popularity and the boyish-looking leads’ femme appeal, biz has been buoyant throughout Asia. In Hong Kong, first pic drew the highest first-day gross for a Japanese film in 10 years.
Films share almost identical tech crews and cast, and were clearly written as a pair, with the second already shooting when the first was in release last summer. Though the plots do diverge considerably from the manga, with extra characters and more backgrounding of the main one, casting leaps right off the page, with Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama exact replicas of artist Takeshi Obata’s protags — the androgynous-looking student killer and the kohl-eyed, weirdo teen detective, respectively.
Most of the budget for the HD-shot pics seems to have gone to the effects — notably the two Angels of Death, Ryuk and Rem, who are also dead ringers for their counterparts in the manga. Incorporation of these gangling loonies with live-action thesps is technically seamless — luckily, as that interaction plays a vital role.
“Death Note” starts with various baddies dropping dead as a hand writes their names in a plain exercise book, and panic spreads that some kind of serial killer is at work. Turns out, it’s law student Light Yagami (Fujiwara), who has already become disenchanted with Japan’s justice system.
It’s revealed in flashback that Light hacked into the police database and found criminals were being blatantly let off the hook. One rainy night, he found an empty notebook in the street, with instructions in English: “The human whose name is written in this note [sic] shall die.” In a flash, Light morphs from cocky, middle-class star student into cocky, power-mad vigilante killer, with a mission to eradicate worldwide crime by, uh, eradicating all criminals worldwide.
That’s just the movie’s high concept. At the 20-minute mark, story pulls the first of several twists that keep the idea fresh, initially by introducing Ryuk, a kind of punk-rock Angel of Death with the same tailor as Tim Burton.Second twist is the other main character, known simply as “L,” a super-detective the hapless police force calls on to solve the killings. Initially a talking laptop, and subsequently revealed as a spaced-out teen (Matsuyama, making superb use of lanky body language), L engages in a battle of wits with Light, who’s given himself the web avatar “Kira” (“killer” in Nipponese pronunciation).
These games, played in a blackly humorous way, are fascinating enough to sustain the two-hour running time despite the film’s lack of physical action and visual oomph. Underlying tension comes from Light manipulating his pursuers while finally “proving” his innocence to an increasingly suspicious L.
“Death Note: The Last Name” — which, at almost 2½ hours, would benefit from some trimming — continues the story of L gradually zeroing in on Light. Latter has now officially joined L’s investigating team in its high-tech bunker and is still plotting to discover what L’s real name is so he can write him a death note.
Convoluted plot intros a second Angel of Death, Rem, plus a second notebook, and ups a minor character from the first pic, ditzy TV cook Misa (newcomer Erika Toda), into a parallel Kira. The moral twist here is that, because of plunging crime rates, a majority of the Japanese public now supports the killings — though neither film, wisely, ever gets into the ethics of vigilantism.
Though it recovers in a clever finale, the sequel does wander during its middle going, without the strong sense of purpose that drove the original movie. Exchanges between Light and L also lose their edge from over-familiarity.
Shusuke Kaneko (a vet of “Gamera” and other monster movies, as well as femme swordplayer “Azumi 2”) directs with cool deliberation and little visual panache, focusing, in TV-drama style, on the perfs. Latter are fine down the line, with vet Takeshi Kaga notable as Light’s iron-jawed cop father and Nana Katase ditto as an ambitious TV researcher in the sequel.