Sunday, July 06, 2008

Death Note, Re-Post

By sheer coincidence, I was watching L: Change the World, which is both a prequel and a sequel (you'll understand when you see it) to Death Note and Death Note 2: The Last Name, on Saturday evening, and so I had the movie on my mind when, on the Sunday morning, I opened my Times and found the teeny little review of Death Note 2: The Last Name, which is currently running in UK cinemas.

It's such a pathetic review, that I've re-posted my Death Note post from IMANGA, from May, below, in the hope that someone in the Sunday Times leads movie critic Edward Porter here so he can discover a little something about the movie he watched. Here's the review in full, and the link to it so you can see I'm not making it up. According to mister Porter, Death Note: The Last Name is:

A teen-angled Japanese popcorn movie that plays like a live-action version of an anime cartoon, Death Note had a brief run in British cinemas earlier this year, and here we have its sequel, directed by Shusuke Kaneko. It revolves around the same smooth-faced central characters - a precocious, eccentric detective and a scheming antihero - who continue to do battle regarding the latter’s ownership of a notebook that magically kills anybody whose name is written in its pages. I found the first film enjoyable enough in its own silly way, but the follow-up is strictly for devout fans (should there be any in the UK). Nobody else can be expected to wear out their brains trying to keep up with the plot, which introduces all sorts of new rules and regulations governing the fatal book.

Okay, there are so many things wrong with this review that it's hard to work out where to start. I mean, honestly, do these people actually go to these things and look around? Edward and his partner in crimes against pop-culture, Cosmo Landsman (remember his graphic novel epiphany from watching Persepolis?), surely notice, when they are sitting there watching movies like Death Note, that they are the only people wearing plus-fours and Tweed jackets and who are completely unfamiliar with the material they are looking at.

I think we should begin by taking it for granted that there are Death Note fans in the UK. There are 4 in this household. Secondly, no, it's actually not a 'live action version of an anime cartoon', it's a live action and CGI version of a manga, that also has been made into an anime series, to great acclaim. Thirdly, this is part 2 of the story that began, strangely enough, with part 1, the first Death Note movie - you must have noticed that the little preview after the credits of the first Death Note movie (which you say you saw) opened this movie? And fourthly, you could have mentioned that the movie is well acted, well produced, and the CGi is excellent, Edward, because it is.

Now, it may well be that the movie critic concerned is taking the piss, but one can't be too sure, so let's take a quick look at some Death Note facts:

In Japan, the Death Note manga has sold around twenty million copies, and Death Note was nominated for 'Best Manga' at the 2006 American Anime Awards.

Over 800,000 copies of the 12-volume Death Note manga have been sold in the United States, and the first volume of the series is heading for around 100 weeks in the top-50 charts. Even the spin off novel, Death Note: Another Note, climbed into the top-10 in the US Science Fiction book charts.

Adult Swim, which also runs in the UK, on Bravo, is showing the 37 episodes of the Death Note anime series to millions of happy US viewers, and the Death Note DVDs have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the US and the UK (my daughter Kim got her free 'Light' figure with Volumes 1 and 2, in the land of Scotchland, no less). This popular series, as you can imagine, repeatedly pops up in the top 5 in the Anime sales charts.

They have actually even heard of Death Note in China, where the manga has even been recalled in places, after the Chinese government panicked when Chinese schoolkids made their own 'Death Notebooks'.

The Death Note movies have been no less popular, and on its release more 65,000 Japanese movie-goers watched the first Death Note live-action movie on just two days in May.

So, since we don't live in a cultural bubble, I'm guessing that yes, there are some Death Note fans in the UK, even some devout ones, but just in case any non-devout cinema-goers actually fancy popping in to see the movie, it's just not true that '(The Last Name) introduces all sorts of new rules and regulations governing the fatal book.' on the contrary, those rules and regulations are all well established, and even a passing familiarity with the first Manga volume, or a quick look at Death Note on Wikipedia, will tell you all you need to know. I'm afraid you just either didn't pay any attention to Death Note or Death Note: The Last Name, Edward, or you just didn't do your research properly.

Death Note, Re-Visited

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, it's an experience. You will be transported to another place - that's the best that great fiction can aspire to.

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