Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

Death Note

Light: "The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die? Com'on. There must be something wrong with me to even consider it."

But the teenaged Light Yagami does more than consider it. He can't resist the temptation to write names in the notebook himself. He's convinced that he can use it to dispense justice and to rid the world of criminals. Shusuke Kaneko directed the live action version of Death Note. He liked the way the character begins by intending to do good.

SHUSUKE KANEKO: "It would be very interesting to have the character kill only criminals. It's a moral dilemma, like Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. So it's an interesting moral dilemma between what's justice and what's evil. It's sort of like a cat and mouse theme between the character who has the notebook, and those trying to catch him and that gives a great dynamic to film."


Light and the death god Ryuk in Death Note (Viz Pictures)

The film grows intense as Light (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara in the live action film) starts to use the notebook to kill the people chasing him, and he gets drunk on his god-like powers. The film taps into the frustration some people in Japan are feeling about rising crime rates. But the way the characters act on that frustration is very distinctly Japanese says the director.

SHUSUKE KANEKO: "In the States you have very easy access to guns but in Japan that's obviously not the case. Actually one of the interesting things about Death Note is that main character is writing the names in a little notebook, and I think that's a very Japanese method of taking a revenge on somebody and that's what makes the film interesting."

The detective known only as L is not only smart but has a penchant for sweets in Death Note (Viz Pictures)

As Light grow more bold in his use of the notebook, a mysterious young detective known only as L (the quirkily endearing Ken'ichi Matsuyama) takes on the case. The two young men engage in a battle of wits with each insisting he's the only one fighting for justice. The film proves sly and riveting as these two opponents face off.


The live action Death Note won over young audiences in Japan. It even made headlines back in 2006 for beating the Hollywood blockbuster The Da Vinci Code at the local box office. Shusuke Kaneko thinks one of the reasons for this success is that young people now look at movie going as a kind of clubbing.

SHUSUKE KANEKO: "I think for the past few years I think a lot of teenagers have been going to the movies, and I think one of the reasons being American style multiplexes opened up in Japan, and young people think it's the cool thing to do to hang out in multiplex."

Grady Hendrix programmed Death Note and its sequel Death Note: The Last Name at last summer's New York Asian Film Festival. The film attracted a young crowd and all the screenings were sold out. He says it's great to see young audiences with a hunger for movies they can't figure out in the first five minutes.

GRADY HENDRIX: "It's all story. The plot twists are what drive the movie. The big selling point for the Death Note movies are the plot twists. In a way, it's almost like Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes for a new generation. It has the trappings for a young audience - it's very internet savvy, it's very sort of manga inflected, it has a very pop sensibility but at the same time it's doing the exact same thing that Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie were doing decades ago."

But the film's smart enough to also include a computer-generated shinigami or death god to hook younger audiences that have grown up on video games. This spiky-haired, punky demon with an attitude looks and acts cool. Kaneko knows how to bring creatures like this to life; after all he has directed films with two of Japan's most iconic monsters, Godzilla and Gamera. But for Death Note, Kaneko opted for computer generated creatures rather than suited actors. But for Death Note, he made sure the actors knew what the CGI creature would be like to act with.

The computer generated shinigami Ryuk -- the character taunts Light but also teaches him about the Death Note book (Viz Pictures)

SHUSUKE KANEKO: For the death god we had a real doll or puppet ready so actors rehearse with the puppets on set and then during the take, they do it on own. We all developed an affection for that doll.

Grady Hendrix says the film's computer effects offer a sharp contrast to the men in rubber suits that many people associate with Japanese pop cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

GRADY HENDRIX: "I think what's happened is Japanese pop culture has gotten much, much slicker, and the budgets have gotten bigger and I think that economic stumbling block of getting over the lower budget it doesn't happen any more. The Death Note movies look like a $50 or $60 million dollar movies. They're very polished, the CGI looks great, and so I think any excuse to not like it has been removed."

Seiji Horibuchi is betting that Death Note will appeal to American audiences. He founded Viz Media 22 years ago to introduce manga to U.S. readers. The first volume of Death Note remains in the top 10 best-selling graphic novels (according to Bookscan) more than two years after its release the U.S. More recently, the company broke new ground by making the Japanese anime TV series legally available to U.S. audiences for download on the Internet. Viz Media's success in the U.S. with the manga and anime prompted Horibuchi to found a sister company, Viz Pictures, to bring Japanese live action films to U.S. theaters. Viz Pictures took its cue from the recent success Viz Media had playing the Naruto anime movie in some 200 theaters for a two-day run.

So now Viz Pictures is taking this same strategy and applying it to live action Japanese films. The company is partnering with NCM Fathom (which operates the largest digital in-theatre network in North America) in order to distribute Death Note digitally. Digital distribution affords them a new means of getting their product out to exactly the crowd they want while saving money by not making expensive film prints that need to be shipped out to each theater. So Death Note will open in 300 theaters in forty states on May 20 and 21. This is the way of the future, says Horibuchi.

SEIJI HORIBUCHI: "We are dealing with a very niche film and even though this is a huge success in Japan, but most of the Japanese live action contemporary films are not really available in this country. So this is unusual way to promote films I believe."

Unusual because it's a foreign film opening in multiplexes and mall theaters, and targeting a young, mainstream crowd. They are also creating effective partnerships with Hot Topic to sell Death Note merchandise and giveaway free ticket. Viz has also been using its multiple websites as well as email blasts to tap into that demographic.

SEIJI HORIBUCHI: "Website is the most effective and fastest way to gather fan's information and interests and to promote. I think the website is the key and especially for this kind of film and with this kind of campaign with only two nights showing, the website will probably be the best way to promote this event."

The film effectively brings the manga characters to life in the live action film of Death Note (Voz Pictures)

Last summer, the New York Asian Film Festival had no trouble finding young crowds for its sold out screenings of Death Note. Programmer Grady Hendrix says that's proof of how pop culture today is getting to be the same everywhere.

GRADY HENDRIX: "I have a hard time figuring out what is American and what is Japanese anymore because quite honestly a 13 year old living in Manhattan and a 13 year old living in Tokyo have a lot more in common than a 13 year old in Manhattan and a 34 year old in Manhattan. Manga's popular, anime's popular, and now Death Note apparently."

For this month's screening, Viz will be unveiling a dubbed version of Death Note to make it more accessible to mainstream audiences, and will be including a special mang-to-live-action feature as part of the screening event. Personally I wish they has left Death Note in its original Japanese with English subtitles. I run an anime/manga club at a local middle school and most of the kids have no problem watching subtitled shows when the stories are engaging enough. I think Death Note is a strong enough and compelling enough to hook people in any language. It also raises complex ideas about justice, the law, moral responsibility

Advance purchase tickets went on sale in April at the Fathom site. If Death Note's a success be ready for Viz Pictures to quickly release the sequel Death Note 2 and the spin off L: Change the World. If you love good story telling, an intricate plot, cute young Japanese stars, and a punky shinigami, you won't find a film better than Death Note... unless it's Death Note 2. So far I have loved Death Note in all its various incarnations and I urge you to sample it in one of its various formats.

Companion viewing: Death Note anime series, Death Wish, Godzilla All Out Monster Attack, Gamera 3

Listen to my NPR feature on Death Note.