Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name have to be seen together as they make up a complete story, which is also an excellent adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime series. In addition, they are great psychological thrillers that should not go overlooked in the lead-up to Halloween. Their scares are not as overt as in other Japanese horrors, but instead more subtle. In the Death Note films, the darker sides of humanity are explored – specifically, how both absolute power and the pursuit of justice can corrupt the soul. Light (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and L (Kenichi Matsuyama) are also one of the great cinematic pairings of characters. Each has qualities reflected and contrasted in the other, and they also excellently portray the themes of power and justice.
Light is a brilliant high-school student who by chance obtains a notebook with supernatural powers. Anyone who owns the notebook can write down a person’s name, which results in their death. The notebook is originally the property of a shinigami (death god), who appears to Light after he touches it. The shinigami Ryuk was bored of his supernatural role, and dropped the notebook on Earth to see what would happen. Light was also bored of his school life, and instead decides to rid the world of criminals through the power of the notebook. However, he is soon pursued by the enigmatic L, who is a reclusive but brilliant detective. The two films depict a game of wits between the two masterminds, and the second shows how Light eventually gets closer to the investigation and L himself, while trying to claim he is innocent. There is a third film directed by Hideo Nakata that focuses on L – Death Note: L Change the World (2008) – but it is nowhere near as suspenseful as these two.
Though the films inevitably have to cut out a lot of the original manga story, the tension and characterization remains. Because of the story’s division into two films, and the smaller cast of characters, there are unexpected twists at the end of the first and second halves. Anyone who steers clear of film adaptations of manga and anime will find a rare treat here, as the two-part narrative is an admirable attempt to match the quality of the original story. The popularity of Death Note is further illustrated by the superstar casting of Fujiwara and Matsuyama, who are still high-profile celebrities in Japan. They also prove that they are great actors, as they bring great presence to their characters on-screen.
The fantastical aspects of the narrative also do not spoil the films. The use of the shinigami as a plot device could have led to extra layers of their fantastical world being introduced and making things over-complicated. That never happens – even in the second film, when a second shinigami is introduced. These supernatural creatures instead permeate slowly, and their rules regarding the notebooks instead lead to greater machinations and schemes between Light and L. Until the very final scenes, it is never clear who has the upper hand.
Ultimately, this is what makes the films effective as subtle psychological horrors. Light and L simply use the people around them as pawns in their attempts to outdo one another. People’s lives are often in the balance, and Light is often willing to sacrifice others and aspects of his own personality to remain uncaught. L is similarly dismissive of the dangers that his police colleagues face in chasing the elusive “Kira” (‘killer’ in Japanese), who he sees as the most dangerous enemy he has ever faced. Police officers are simply resources to him, who are either useful or not depending upon their skills. Light and L are perhaps two extremes of human nature, but their actions are believable in the modern world (minus the MacGuffin of the supernatural notebook). The Death Note films may be dressed up as flashy, big-budget manga adaptations, but top production values cannot hide the dark themes which lurk at the core of their story.