Sunday, March 02, 2008

Death Note, Finally.

My major difficulty here is that I am aware that lots of you are currently reading the Death Note manga, and watching the anime, and may not even yet have seen the movies, so I have to avoid spoilers and as a result I don't want to go into too many plot details in case I accidentally let the cat out the bag. So, the review is kind of general, but it's affectionately done and I hope it gives the casual reader, unfamiliar with Death Note, a nudge toward reading the series.

I hate a lot of book reviews. Many book reviews nowadays are little more than puffed-up plugs between Oxbridge graduates, and a good many seem to be little more than the reviewer comparing the title to other books he or she claims familiarity with, in order to impress other editors with his/her reviewing powers. Having been to university with at least one critic, I have to tell you I'll be amazed if she has ever actually read anything other than a take-away menu from cover to cover.

Two things really bother me though, a review like the one I read this weekend where the reviewer only spoke about the book being reviewed in the final paragraph (which is okay when the reviewer is Umberto Eco, or George Steiner, or Derrida) and ridiculous hyperbole like 'understanding Hamlet's world is like trying to comprehend a whirlwind...'. Actually it isn't, because trying to 'comprehend a whirlwind is nonsense, unless you study whirlwinds, in which case it's a simple exercise - but it tells us nothing about the story. Besides, Hamlet's world is really very easy to understand.

What I want to know is will I like the book, will I be interested in what happens next, will I be desperate to finish it and yet desperate not to leave the world I have stepped into, too soon? This is difficult to gauge with a straightforward, dare I say conventional and old fashioned, book. The fly-leaf and the pages on view may well engage one, the book itself can still go on to be a tremendous let down. It's a lot easier, I think, with a graphic novel because you can tell from looking at the drawings and reading the dialogue from just one or two pages, whether or not it has you in its grip - especially if you have been anticipating the release of the larger work after following the story in comic form weekly or monthly, which is often the case with Manga, and is the case with Death Note in particular.

By the time Death Note (デスノート, Desu Nōto), written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, kicked off as a regular series in Shonen Jump Weekly, it centered around Yagami Light an extremely gifted, but bored, High School student who happens upon a supernatural notebook that kills anyone whose name is written in it. With 108 chapters, spread over 12 volumes (tankobon) the series picked up a large and dedicated fan base.

The Death Note Anime, more or less follows the Manga pretty faithfully, the Death Gods, the Shinigami, carry notebooks called “Death Notes” with which they control the lives, and principally the deaths, of us mere mortals. If your name is written down in their Death Note, you will die, of a heart attack ( unless another cause of death is specified) within 40 seconds. The Shinigami, Ryuk, who mirrors Light's boredom, drops his Death Note in the human world, where Light discovers both it, and his new found power over life and death. He can now kill people, or at least his alter-ego 'Kira' can, with the stroke of his pen. At first Light uses his power to kill bad people whom the State seems unwilling or unable to punish. The powers that be, unsettled by the hornets nest Kira has stirred up, employ the mysterious L, a master detective, to track down the Kira.

The series has been also been adapted into two live-action movies, Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name. Here, Light is again a brilliant student, but somewhat older than the anime character, and his pondering on criminality (his father is a high ranking officer), morality (he is a student of philosophy and criminality) and his role of man/god after finding the Death Note is more fleshed out.

A novel based on the series was written by Ishin Nishio, called Death Note: Another Note. The premise of this was very clever and it tied into the Death Note universe by having Mello (a young candidates to become L's successor) narrate the story of L's first encounter with Naomi Misora during the Los Angeles 'BB Serial Murder Case' which was mentioned in volume 2 of the Death Note manga.

As you will know from the recent post on my blog, a third Death Note movie, L: Change the World, was released earlier this month (February 2008) in Japan, and a new tie-in, one-shot story was published.

Without wishing to repeat the very thing I mentioned earlier as a pet-hate, the hyperbole that causes one to write ridiculous sentences about 'whirlwinds' (although 'reaping' such a whirlwind might be more appropriate with Death Note, than Hamlet) I have to say I have never read anything in the West that can compare to this work, in scope, size or scale. I have read other manga that compares, such as Monster, or MPD Pyscho, but I don't think our comics or graphic novels operate on this standard of magical realism. Perhaps, some South American fiction comes close, but those would mainly be short stories and their aims and goals would be more limited. Manga on this scale, sets out to transform the lives of millions of readers, not a few, well-read English majors.

From a cartoonists perspective, I see the benefits of the Japanese system of production as key to the superiority of work like Death Note. The story actually began looking very different indeed, as a one-shot, with some very loose ideas about where the story would go, or what it might become - one imagines:

The triumph of the Japanese system of producing anthologies of weekly and monthly comics, targeted at specific age-groups, allowing the artists and writers a large degree of creative freedom whilst building a large and loyal audience, can be seen to great advantage here with Death Note. After the one-shot's success, the story reappeared as the more finished article we know today. The careless Ryuk even reminded us that he had lost his Death Note again, and over the succeeding months the tale grew more and more sophisticated with each twist, turn and moral dilemma. The popularity of the feature soared and it quickly became a hit all over the world, thanks to word-of-mouth and the scanlation groups.

Of course there was the possibility that the Death Note anime would be horrible. The manga is superbly drawn and the plot doesn't pander down to the lowest common denominator, so there was a possibility that the anime would strive for a larger audience, and water the story down. Those fears were quickly dispelled as the anime clearly used the manga as a template, and like the manga, it looked fantastic:

The biggest test though, would be the live-action movies. There were so many possibilities to screw-up here, loyal fans are both a blessing and a curse and the casting could be wrong in their eyes, the story could be scrambled, the CGI could look dreadful, the script could be awful, the permutations were endless. As it transpired, the first movie met with such universal praise that for months the coming second movie was the only chatter on the Death Note fan sites and forums. The casting of the first movie had been perfect and the teaser at the end of it, for Death Note 2, really caused a buzz:

All in all, Death Note, the manga, the anime, the movies, its an experience. You will be transported to another place - that's the best that great fiction can aspire to do.

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