Beginning in the 1990's Japanese, Korean, and Chinese film makers produced a number of extraordinarily good horror movies: the Ring, the Grudge, Pulse, Spiral, The Eye, were all masterpieces of the genre, and all have been remade for the American market.
Lately, that fountain of grim has produced almost nothing of value. But yesterday I watched Death Note. It was so good I sat there hurting for almost a half hour because I didn't want to push the damn pause button and go pee.
Death Note originated as a manga written by Tsugumi Ohba with art by Takeshi Obata. Manga are Japanese comic books published in paperback form and serialized. I haven't read the manga, nor have I seen and earlier video done in cartoon form. Translating a manga or any other comic book into a live action movie is always a very difficult business, but when it works well it produces a superior product. Some of the aforementioned movies were published as manga before they were filmed.
A young man, Light Yagami, wants to go into law to follow the footsteps of his father, who is a detective. Light wants to bring bad guys to justice, but he is naive. He discovers, to his dismay, that bad guys often get away scot free when witnesses refuse to testify or some other technicality prevents conviction. He suffers a crisis of faith.
At that moment a small book is dropped from the sky and lands before him, somehow protected from the moody rain that is drenching everything else. It turns out to look like something you would buy at Barnes and Noble. Inside the cover are instructions: write the name of someone, and imagine that person's face, and the person will die. Of course the book works as promised, and Light immediately sets about righting the wrongs that disturb him.
The book was dropped by Ryuk, a shinigami, one of the death gods. Ryuk survives by getting all the years of life that would have been enjoyed by someone written into the book. He is a fantastic creature with a sort of devil-mask, clownish face and tattered but effective wings. He likes apples. In the movie, Ryuk is computer generated to look just like the image from the manga. That is the only special effect that the movie employs.
Light goes about his business with vigor, and soon everyone realizes that someone is killing off a lot of rapists, murderers, and general scoundrels. The mysterious avenger is known in popular (i.e. internet) culture as Kira. Because of this, in part, Light quickly develops a God complex, and becomes absolutely ruthless. The police also realize that there is a vigilante working, and organize an investigation. They turn to "L", a mysterious person who, for much of the movie, communicates with them only via a lap top and distorted voice. This is key, of course, because without a name or face, L cannot be targeted by Kira. Most of the action of the movie turns on the game between L and Kira.
To give you a little taste of the action, L analyzes the timing of the mysterious deaths and plots them on a single page chart. It looks like a college student's schedule. L determines correctly that Kira is a college student who was not killing anyone when he was in class. That's pretty good action for a comic book movie.
Two hours in I realized that the story couldn't be resolved in the time left. Sure enough, it ends in the middle. I cursed the TV and rushed to order the second part from Netflix.
Death Note contains some useful reflections on the nature of justice and the corruption that can come from wanting to do justice. But it doesn't go very deep into those questions. It does something as good or better for a movie: it builds the action on those reflections. The plot is frequently marred by too much explanation, but that is about its only flaw. It features a lot of death, but no gore at all. The actors are all superb, by the standards of the genre. They are selected largely because they look like manga figures, with a lot of long, straight hair partially obscuring their faces.
Best of all, the battle is a battle of wits. The action almost totally consists of the stratagems of the two main characters. One of the detectives, who looks a lot like Jack Lord in Hawaii Five-O, keeps admonishing L that "this is not a game!" But of course, that is precisely what it is.
Death Note is delicious, if you like this sort of thing. I really do.