Death Note: The Last Name

Death Note: The Last Name


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The Asian horror bandwagon rolls relentlessly on; apparently Warner Bros have already snapped up the remake rights, but this is one instance where a bit of dumbing down might not be a bad thing. Death Note: The Last Name takes a solid-gold premise – writing down someone’s name in a supernatural book instantly kills them – and adds in so many plot twists, subsidiary characters and mythological back-stories that what should have been a tight, fun B-movie becomes a bloated endurance test.

It’s a sequel to Death Note (itself a film version of an anime TV series based on a hugely popular manga serial), which introduced the character of Light (Fujiwara), a university student who finds a book, the ‘death note’, which is the property of ‘god of death’ Ryuk. With it, he can order the death of anyone simply by writing their name. Depressed by the levels of crime he sees around him (his dad’s a hard-working police inspector) Light turns into a literary Dirty Harry, secretly jotting down the monikers of Japan’s more notorious badasses, who immediately expire from gruesome heart attacks.

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The public hail this unseen vigilante, dubbed ‘Kira’, as a folk hero, but the police realise the danger of such unchecked power and form a special unit, headed by Light’s dad, to track Kira down . Their secret weapon is another teen genius, ‘L’, who looks like a slimmed-down version of The Cure’s Robert Smith, lives on sugar and e-numbers, and neutralises the book’s power by keeping his real name secret.

It’s worth having some prior knowledge of all this before sitting down to The Last Name, because it throws the audience straight into the action. Misa (Tada) is being stalked by a mugger when he suddenly drops dead and (in one of the film’s few genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moments) a new god of death, Rem, appears before her, and presents her with a second book.

Misa, a minor character in the first film whose family was killed by a burglar later given the Kira treatment, discovers that Light and Kira are one and the same, falls in love with him, and pledges to carry on his work. In addition, she’s been given an upgrade, the Eyes of Death, which enable her to discover a person’s real name just by looking at their face. Meanwhile, Light has managed to infiltrate the Kira hunters and comes face to face with ‘L’. The battle to discover the whereabouts of both books intensifies as it becomes clear that only one of the opposite-yet-alike protagonists will emerge alive...

Such a summary doesn’t even begin to take in the myriad developments that spin off from this initial set-up. New rules about who can own, use and pass on the book sprout like mushrooms. Subsidiary characters appear, disappear or are killed off in rapid succession; the most significant is Kiyomi (Katase) a TV reporter obsessed with the Kira case, who becomes the third person to possess a death note and gives the cops their first chance to get hold of it...

But there are several others and the cumulative effect is of a film straining to keep it all together (or perhaps to cram the second and third parts of a projected trilogy into one). There’s a difference between being kept guessing and being left bewildered. Many of the plot developments seem to have no logic, there only to provide a new ‘event’ or give one side or the other a get-out clause. The climax is, admittedly, a good rug-puller but by that stage I was just glad to see everything finally brought to a close.

Another problem is the uncertain tone. To be honest, ‘horror’ isn’t the best way to describe it. The heart attacks are shocking but not gory and sadly the CGI depictions of the ‘gods of death’ are deeply unscary; Ryuk in particular comes across as equal parts Cesar Romero’s Joker from the Batman TV series and the lead singer of Kiss after a particularly hard night’s partying. The idea of a supremely powerful but amoral embodiment of random mortality is a potent one, but a disembodied voice or a deceptively ordinary human being would be a more effective way to portray it.

It’s perhaps better to think of this as a supernatural psychological thriller, except that none of the characters are sufficiently likeable or loathable to make you care that much what happens to them, which (together with the overlong running time) blunts the intensity. And the depiction of female characters as either vengeful harridans or devoted chattels isn’t exactly a great leap forward for the genre.

The plus points are good performances from the cast (mostly veterans of other crossover hits like Battle Royale), and a few memorable moments: the Kira hunters donning motorbike helmets to protect them from the Eyes of Death; and an under-suspicion Misa doing housework with a chain around her ankle. And the idea of the ‘gods of death’ being less than all-powerful, prone to falling in love with mortals or being outwitted by them, taps into an interesting area of Japanese mythology.

If the American remake sticks to the plus points (and has some slightly more three-dimensional female characters) it might be a rare example of a remake improving on the original. For now, The Last Name is worth a look if you liked the original or are partial to the odd trip to the manga/anime universe. But the average cinemagoer is likely to find it (excuse the pun) deadly dull.

Reviewed on: 05 Jul 2008
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A brilliant Japanese student uses a book given to him by a ‘god of death’ to dispense his own brand of justice.
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Director: Shusuke Haneko

Writer: Tsugumi Oba, Takeshi Obata

Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Erika Tada, Nana Katase

Year: 2008

Runtime: 141 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Japan


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