Japanator Review: Death Note (live-action, English dub)


Last night and the night before, over 300 theaters 'cross the country rolled out the first live-action adaptation of some series no one's ever heard of, something about a notebook and some slob who makes sweet-kabobs. (At this point, I'm going to step right up and say that if you're not at least aware of Death Note by now, it's either by choice, or because you've never seen the Internet before. In that case, go buy and read the manga. We'll wait, I promise!)

Meanwhile, the rest of us can get down to details after the jump.

I was lucky enough to live in a major hippie hotspot for this event, so that I had a few nearby theaters to pick from; armed with my brother, who's rarely frightened by questionable dubbing or fan-frenzied crowds, plus a bag of Skittles, I picked up our tickets, wondered why I got my Bleach ones at the same time, and headed into the fray. The theater wasn't too crowded: at least three-quarters, but not packed, according to the convention mindset I came with. Only one Ryuk cosplayer was in evidence, and the crowd seemed fairly well-behaved, if noisy. Less heartening was the fact that the same three or four Fathom Events ads kept cycling back and forth as we waited, as if the theater had decided otaku weren't as likely as your average homo sapiens to buy Coke or fill in the blanks naming the latest Sex is Funny OMFG! On the plus side, though, they didn't play any 90-decibel pre-movie pop-tart wailing as so many theaters do, which was probably preferable.

Tipping the scales at just over two hours, the fun started off with a huge Bleach movei pimp, then promised us a making-of after the movie, and played out with the balance I'd expected of laughs, gasps, laughs where it wasn't supposed to be funny, cringing, and an acceptable level of "L is so beautiful!" squealing. (You can't make this up, folks.) Instead of a brilliantly bored and disillusioned high-schooler, Light is introduced to us here as an intelligent and disillusioned law student who just so happens to find a little black notebook (gotta admire the circle of dryness around it in the rain), and he's off to see the Wizard of AAAHs in executing criminals.

I'd already seen the movie, of course, and wasn't impressed then with the pacing, or most of Ryuk's late-90s CG rendering, or the painfully blatant way they laid out some elements of a fantastic story. ("Light Yagami! I think you're Kira and you suck! I gave you a fake name and you'll totally lose, so there" was wildly out of character, for starters, but I guess smart side characters take too long.) I don't mind that they gave Light a girlfriend, Shiori, or that they changed little details like a new female task force member, Ray Penber's last name, and so on; I mean, c'mon, you have to get this sucker told somehow, and there's an unbelievable amount of plot packed into the 12 manga volumes--the movie's ending was also executed quite cleverly, and well within the Death Note's rules, just like the Oscar-winning amoral bastard we know and love. :')

In my first viewing, though, I felt the biggest problem with the movie was that it was...boring. In the theater, away from the temptation of a fast-forward button, I no longer quite thought so. This wasn't necessarily a good thing, thanks to scenes like the one where Light asks his father to let him join the Kira task force, and Soichiro's gruffness in Japanese translated into hilariously stilted, awkward, highly substandard English dialogue, very nearly MST3K material (and I don't say that lightly, not since I rewatched certain bits last month). 

If you were curious, the credits at the end confirmed that the current Adult Swim cast dubbed the movie as well; Ocean is good at producing an average three to five great leads, one or two excellent extras - Matsuda was perfect! - and a pack of shrill abominations for every other role. Can someone please outlaw English-speaking attempts at imitating perky Japanese teenagers? And why did the criminals at the very beginning of the movie toss around f-bombs and s-words, and then pretty much the rest of the film pass with only Ryuk using one last poopy cuss, funny as it was? Was that their quota? For all its grimly thought-provoking subject matter, Death Note's never relied on profanity or buckets o' blood for shock value, which makes what we do see or hear (the end of the manga, anyone?) all the more shocking. Why bother to inject that into a script aimed at the very same audience?

Good Japanese actors, a few standout English roles - Light, L, Matsuda and Watari come to mind - and a promising setup for the second movie don't make up for Death Note falling this short of the manga and anime's storytelling. Besides any complaints with the dub, Viz made a particularly glaring error for Western audiences: despite the plethora of headlines, cell phones, computer and handwritten messages displayed throughout the movie, naturally all in Japanese, we never see any subtitles. Ever. After a minute or so of flash-flash-flash that made no sense to the whole theater (I myself couldn't pick out much more than "Kira" and "death"), pitchforks and torches started to go up. It felt ridiculous for such a literate movie to not at least attempt to keep non-Japanese readers out of the dark, quick as some of it goes.

Overall, I'm glad I got to see the movie with other fans, and that corporations involved with this kind of event got my money; dubbing it and putting a brief, not-too-bad "Making Of" afterward were definitely steps in the right direction as far as attracting a wider audience goes. I'll just enjoy it more when Memories of Nobody comes to town and my expectations won't simultaneously be so low and high.

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reviewed by Aoi


Aoi   gamer profile

'Ello, luvs. I be a sometime editor o' Jtor, dependent on my school and work schedule. Thanks for reading! Remember, the first one's free. more + disclosures



Filed under... #death note #event #reviews



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