How can one adapt a 12-hour anime series into two live-action films, totalling four hours?
Surprisingly well, it turns out.
If you want a plot synopsis, I advise you to read my review of the first episodes of the Death Note anime series, because I refuse to summarize the same plot twice.
Let me get this out of the way. These films’ single great failing is their dialogue. It’s stilted no matter how you slice it. I’m not sure whether it was jsut bad scriptwriting or (more likely) bad translation. The subtitles are always jsut slightly off, and it’s pretty darn distracting. Sadly, this time there is no option to jsut turn to the dub, because while dubbing works well for an anime show in which lip synch is irrelevant, it fails to work in a live action movie.The same two actors who brought L and Kira vividly to life in the anime series fall flat here, playing the same two characters.
The films’ other weakness is their lack of energy. Though Death Note is, in essence, a fantasy crime thriller, these films feel calm and controlled, rather than frenetic and suspense-filled. The music is generally low-key, the cinematography is nothing to rave about, and the budget…well, the budget is pretty low. If you need proof of that, just look at these shinigami. They want so hard for you to believe that they’re actually there…but you just can’t.
Also, keep in mind this film was released after special-effects extravaganza the Lord of the Rings. So yeah.
Now, let’s talk about what these films did right.
Doing that is impossible without giving a lot of spoilers, so you might not want to read the bolded section below. All I can see is that if you’re adapting 37 episodes of anime into two movies, you’re going to have to make pretty big plot changes. And whenever big plot changes are made to the ending of a source material, there is the potential for big screw-ups to take place.
No comment required.
Luckily, Death Note completely dodges this bullet. In fact, in many ways, the ending of the Death Note films is dramatically superior to the ending of the Death Note anime.
See, in both the film and the series, the story is framed as a contest between Kira and L. However, in the anime, L dies two-thirds of the way through. We are then treated to a battle between Kira and soem boring kid with white hair who is definitely not a more annoying clone of L. Which is not the same thing at all.
In the movies, L lives to the end, and the climax is, as it always should have been, a final confrontation between L and Kira. Not a confrontation between Kira and some character that was introduced too late into the story for us to care about him. The result is a much more satisfying finale. Though the last third of Death Note was admittedly filled with a lot of cool plot twists and colorful characters, a part of me can’t help wishing the anime had ended this way, too. The end result is essentially the same, but L’s death is much more dramatic and, dare I say it, fitting in the movie. He knowingly writes his own name in the death Note in order to win, sacrificing his life for justice, and then dies peacefully while munching on a chocolate bar. You couldn’t ask for a better ending, in truth. Whoever made this single change was truly on to something.
Another positive change is the improvement the films make to the female characters. Misa Amane, though a little bit dependent, is no longer the suicidal, brain-dead annoyance she was in the series, and minor characters like Naomi Misora and Kyomi Takada play a much more prominent role. The sexism that plagued the anime is pretty much absent here.
So I can honestly and happily recommend both the movies and the anime to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the world of Death Note. The series has more detail, more plot twists, and more suspense. The movie has an (arguably) better ending and better female characters. Both are a great example of imaginative storytelling done well.