A ‘death note’ (the property of a shinigami or god of death) has fallen into the hands of Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) a brilliant university student. In the first live-action Death Note film, we witnessed Light’s transformation into the ruthless justice-bringer known as Kira (killer) as he sets about his personal mission to rid the world of criminals. For once a person’s name is transcribed in the death note, as long as the writer has seen the victim’s face, he or she will die. There are many intricate rules to observe when using the death note, but they are hardly a problem for a top honours student like Light, although it is one of the story’s many ironies that the police detective appointed to head the police team investigating Kira is Soichirou Yagami, Light’s father (a dignified and impressive performance by Takeshi Kaga).
Leading the investigation is the enigmatic young genius known as ‘L’ (Ken’ichi Matsuyama). But as more murders take place it seems that there is another Kira at large in Japan and as the second film opens, we learn that the unlikely murderer, Kira II, is none other than cute teen idol Misa Amane (Erika Toda) – and that she has her sights set on Kira I, whom she admires so much that she calls him her ‘god’. Not only does she possess a second death note, but she also has the ‘shinigami eyes’; in exchange for half of her remaining years of life, she has been given the ability to learn a person’s name just by looking at them.
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Light teams up with Misa, agreeing reluctantly to be her boyfriend on the understanding that she and her shinigami Rem will help him destroy L. The crux of the matter is – can Light outwit L, find his nemesis’ true name, and write it in the death note before L proves beyond all doubt that he is Kira and has him arrested?
The Death Note manga (written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata) is 12 volumes in length; the task of compressing such a long manga into two feature films has meant that some storylines have had to be jettisoned altogether, or new strands invented. The anime works so much better because it has the luxury of 37 episodes in which to unfold the action – but it also succeeds because of the way it manages to recreate the dark, amoral mythos of Ohba’s original story which gets a little lost in this, the more ‘realistic’ version. It also utilises mangaka Takeshi Obata’s mischievous use of western religious iconography to great effect and has a wonderfully imagined choral and orchestral score that greatly intensifies the story’s supernatural atmosphere.
So does Death Note 2 work as a live-action film? For this reviewer at least, the answer is: only in part. No matter how good the actors are at portraying their characters, the film’s success or failure ultimately depends on the suspension of disbelief: we, as viewers, have to believe in the power of the shinigami. Here, the anime wins, hand over fist; the CGI figures of the gods of death, Ryuk and Rem, whilst faithful to Obata’s original drawings, look singularly unconvincing alongside flesh-and-blood actors. Less is always far more scary in films of the supernatural and I wish that Shusuke Kaneko and his team could have been more visually imaginative, and dared to re-imagine Obata’s shinigami for this live-action version.
The film also fails in terms of balance; even in this compressed version there’s still too much plot to be conveyed and it’s a good half-hour too long (the central section based around the TV presenter Kiyomi really drags). It’s at its best when concentrating on the interaction between Light and L and as the final descent towards the denouement kicks in at last, the tension between the two brings the action sizzling back to life. The strong cast prove to be one of the film’s redeeming features, especially Ken’ichi Matsuyama, who puts in a convincing and charismatic performance as L, capturing all his quirks from the obsessive sweet-eating to the strange, shambling gait.
The special features comprise a 24-page book (not seen), trailers for Death Note the anime and other Japanese films, and on the second disc: Making Of Death Note: The Last Name, a production diary video, Death Note press conference, and an image gallery.
So is it worth watching Death Note 2: The Last Name? Yes, if only to enjoy Ken’ichi Matsuyama’s riveting portrayal of L. But to get the full Death Note experience, I advise watching the anime and/ or reading the manga.