Despite its popularity, I have never been tempted by the manga Death Note and its many spinoffs and adaptations; it seemed to be all goths and pretty boys, exactly the kind of manga I cannot get into. Lovefilm delivered the 2006 live action adaptation the other day, and I don't know how close it is to the source material, but it's really quite good.
Genius law student Light Yagami becomes disenchanted with the justice system when he discovers that many of the worst criminals get away with their crimes either through various technicalities, or a lack of confidence and courage from their accusers. It is then that he meets Ryuk, a god of death, who gives him the Death Note, a book with prophetic abilities; if a name is written in the book, then that person will die in whichever method is detailed by the writer, or a heart attack if left unspecified. Light sees this as an opportunity to restore justice to the world and sets about doing away with criminals. The police suspect that the deaths are no coincidence but can find no connection, so turn to another genius, L, so reclusive that he speaks to them through a laptop, his image hidden and his voice disguised. The bulk of the film details the battle between Light and L as they attempt to outmanoeuvre each other.
It's something of a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and that rash of US oddball-genius-solves-crimes shows, and on that level it's more than satisfying, with plenty of fun crunchy bits as we see the pair's plans to defeat each other play out step by step. That said, what impressed me most about the film, and where it has a surprising depth, is in the moral questions it asks.
It starts out as a bog-standard musing on vigilantism and the limits of the justice system, but as the story goes on, it gets more complicated as a result of how the characters develop. Light comes across as a cocky little git right from the start, although it's clear that he cares about people, and it's this combination that leads to his use of the Death Note; that would be enough characterisation for many scriptwriters, but they go further in this film -- I can't go into any details for fear of spoiling it -- and by the end, it asks the viewer some tough questions about their view of the protagonist.
This is all mirrored and somewhat inverted in secondary protagonist L; he's as clever as Light, but sees the investigation as a game to be won or a puzzle to be solved, and the larger question of right and wrong seems to be irrelevant to him. He also seems arrogant but it's less a sense of superiority and more like a detached distance, as he sees only patterns and numbers; he is quite happy to risk and even sacrifice people to draw out his quarry, again forcing the viewer to ask who they're rooting for in this tussle, and why.
For its part, Death Note doesn't provide answers. It presents two characters, each with merits and flaws and each tied into a number of difficult moral quandaries, and then rolls the credits. Like Princess Mononoke's intelligent examination of environmental issues, the film says that there are no easy answers, that life is too complicated, full of compromise and synthesis, and leaves the viewer to figure it all out. It's one of the most subtle, clever and philosophical films I've seen in a long time.
As such, one would think that Ryuk, larking about Light like a Sisters of Mercy version of Roger Rabbit, would spoil the whole thing, but the irony is that this black-clad god of death lends a light-hearted edge to the film. He hangs around as a buddy of sorts to Light, watching TV in his room and eating the family out of apples, and I have to admit that the character design is quite good. The cgi used to realise the character is a bit rough around the edges at times, but he's not in the film enough for it to be a major issue. His inclusion doesn't make the story any less grim or rob it of its depth, but it does rescue it from any possible danger of devolving into navel-gazing self-importance.
Death Note itself is only the first half of the story; a second film was released the same year, and that has now been pushed to the top of my rental list. We'll see how it compares.