Saturday, October 24, 2009
Today I will be reviewing another favorite anime of mine (and many others), Death Note. Don't worry I'll review some series I don't like too much soon. Anyway, this is an anime I first did not at all want to see. It did not seem like a title I would like, and I thought the fanbase for this was crazy. But one day I was bored and decided "what the hell" and figured I'd see what the hype was all about. I checked out episode 6 or 7 on Adult Swim on demand, and boy am I glad that I did. I got hooked. I thought this would be another series where I'd disagree completely with every other anime fan out there (i.e. Fullmetal Alchemist, Elfen Lied and and most Ghibli movies, anime everyone seems to love but I can't stand). Throw in my dislike for most Shonen Jump titles and you'll understand why I thought I'd hate this (although I now feel this show is vastly out of place among titles like Naruto, Bleach, and such. It's nothing like those shows). I'm just trying to say I didn't think I'd like this show at all, in fact part of me wanted to hate it. But it's so good I couldn't. You would have to be mad not to like this amazing show.
Death Note was animated by Madhouse, who almost-always seems to impress me. It originally aired in 2006 and 2007. It was directed by Tetsuro Araki, who is a director to watch out for. He is a master of storytelling and able to create a great amount of suspense with reletive ease. He knows what he is doing, and how to do it. Of course he was just taking what Tsugumi Ohba (story) and Takeshi Obata (art) had already created as a manga, and adapting it into a TV series, but he still proved himself to be a more then competent director. Toshiki Inoue wrote the screenplay for the series, and it's handled with care. Anyway Death Note is suspense/psychological thriller anime about how a smart high school senior named Light Yagami, finds a supernatural note book with the power to kill, and how he uses it to try and become the God of a new world. He plans to kill criminals all over the planet, in order to create a crime-free world in which he would rule. To kill a person Light needs to know the name and face of that person, then write it down in the death note. And that is just the first of the many complex and thought out rules of the death note. And the rules are not meaningless either, as they are put to good use and becomes important points of the plot. Light is later joined by the former owner of the death note, a shinigami named Ryuk (who just decides to watch the show, and doesn't take much action by the way. Very cool!). But as the police start to notice all these criminals dieing, they start up an investigation to get to the bottom of it. They are assisted by the brilliant and mysterious detective L to help track down this mass murder, and a battle of wits ensues. Not that I needed to tell you all that, as everyone and their mother probally knows this already. The paceing for the show is very fast, but somehow it all works. In fact it's something you learn to love. You never get lost in the details, although a lot is happening every episode. It's never too hard to keep track of who has the upperhand, or what this person is attempting to do and how. Anyway the concept in and of it's self is just brillaint. It's very original and very simple. Who says there's nothing unique and original anymore? Everything is just the same story choped up and changed around a little? Not this. There's some originality left in the world.
As if this brilliant concept wasn't good enough, the series challeneges the viewers, both mentally and morally. What I mean is the series has so much going on, you really have to pay attention and follow the logic of the show intensely and actively. And you have to think about everything going on. It also asks us some great moral questions, and may even challenge your morals a little bit. Like for example is what Light doing right? I mean the world would be a much better place without criminals, right?And as he kills these people crime rates do drop all over the planet. But on the other hand he's killing people he judges to be evil, who gives him that right? He's not able to be held responsible to the people like the government is, and how many innocent people is he killing, by sheer coincidence or accident? I mean not every single person in jail, or labled a criminal is guilty. The government and media can make mistakes too. Is L right, for trying to stop a coldhearted, manipulative mass murderer? Because he goes to some real lows, stopping at nothing to try and capture this "Kira", the name given to the person killing all these criminals. He does some terrible things along the way, like having no problem sacraficing a criminal in order to narrow down his search, or placing illegal wire taps and other surveillance in people's houses! Invasion of privacy much? There seems to be no such thing as civil liberites to this guy. The ends justify the means, as long as Kira is caught that's all that matters. Same goes to Light in a way. All of that is much more then most series can say. But that's not even the best part of Death Note.
The best part of the series is the sheer thrill and excitement one obtains from watching the show. It's intense, dramatic and incredbly suspenseful. The thrilling nature of the show is really something else. Never before have I seen a show that relies so heavily on suspense, and not just any suspense, but very good suspense. The shows main suspense depends on the amazingly brilliant game of cat and mouse that develops between Kira (aka Light), and L. It's a sign of good storytelling when you worry about this character or that one, or wonder what's going to happen next. The status quo never remians the same for long, and the person who has the advantage can never seem to hang on to it. It's very smart how all this plays out. L is trying to find out who Kira is to sentence him to death. And Light is trying to find out who L is, to write his name in the Death Note to kill him. Whoever finds out who the other person is first wins. The story contains intelligent fast paced fast paced deductions, multiple dramatic scenes , strategies, and epic mind battles that will keep any viewer hooked for the long haul (as this is a 37 episode series, much longer then I'm used to anyway). There are also some great, well thought out plot twists throughout the show, that will come as a real surprise. Many of the episodes end on great cliffhangers, that make you beg for the next episode, and the show will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Also Death Note never relies on "false suspense", that is it doesn't provoke suspense to then end up with a red haring or creates suspense unintelligently (i.e. horror movies where a cat was what scared the character at first. That brings a big let down to the veiwer. Another example is a scene where the character can't manage to get his keys to open the door correctly when he's being chased by the villian/monster. That makes us want to hit the person, and makes us just plain dislike them. Plus it's just not very realistic and it's very contrived. These scenes usually damage a work unless they are handled with great care. However, Hitchcock could handle false suspense quite well. But of course most cannot handle it as well as Hitchcock. Death Note avoids "false suspense" completely, and it's for the better.) Death Note is a master of suspense, plain and simple. I doubt any other series (live action, anime or written works) will ever match up to it's ability to deliver suspense to the viewer. It is a rollercoaster of a plot, with great ups and downs, and wild turns and twists a long the way. And the conclusion (don't worry no spoilers) is incredbly dramatic, suspensefull, and more then satisfying. It ties up all the lose ends, and brings us down from our "high" of suspense quite nice. Also it's a very sad ending, that might impact you a little emotionally. In fact I rank the conclusion of this series as one of the best in all of anime (it's #2, right behind the excellent ending to Now and Then, Here and There). It will be hard to top the ending of this show! I was literally shaking with anticipation leading up the last moments of the show. It's a perfect bookend to the series.
Now for the poduction values. They are godly! Let's start with the artwork and animation. The artwork is just perfect. Madhouse was a great choice for adapting the gothic style of the manga, and uses a great original style for everything. The color pallete is dark for this series, but not at all gloomy. In fact Madhouse seems to have used a great contrast of light and dark in this series, and made everything very easy to see, but still have a great dark look to it all (which is perfect for this as it's a very dark show). The character designs are also incredbly well done. They are very detailed and realistic looking. The older detectives looks great, the high school students look realistic, and the girls all look very good (many of them are quite pretty, yet still real looking). And I have to mention that the show has a hook in it for the gals. Many of the characters are clearly bishounen bait. The illusion of debth for the characters to move around in 3 dimensions is prevalent in this anime and very well done. As for the animation, since the show is mostly talking, walking and thinking, there's not much for them to animate. However they managed to make writing with a pen look amazingly cool and incredbly epic. That's a plus in my book. When there is an action scene, you can bet it's perfect looking. Car chases, shootouts, and dramatic deaths are all animated with great care. The music is another thing that will impress you. All the opening and ending songs are great tracks. Fun to listen to, and are very fitting. But the strengh of this series comes from it's brilliant background music. From intense themes, to more calm ones, to church like hyms (that fit with Lights idea of becoming a God) and dark tones, everything is done perfectly. The music is used to hold the suspense and drama and it's just amazing. The perfect theme is used at the perfect time, and they all sound great. It's very loud and noticeable, but this is a good thing. Death Note easily has one of the best soundtracks in all of anime. It's not exactly soemthign most would listen to out of context, but it's quite good for the show. As for the dub, it's just another perfect part of this amazing series. The dub was produced at Ocean Studios in Vancouver, Canada. Brad Swaile gives one of his best performances to date as Light Yagami. He just nails the role in every way. The way he handles his characters inner monologues is really impressive. Alessandro Juliani gives L a quirkiness about him, that just fits perfectly. Soichiro Yagami, Light's Father, is played by Chris Britton who gives him a gruffy and older sound that fits perfectly. In fact many of the older detectives have gruffy sounding voices, and many of the younger ones have a youthfullness about them that makes you understand them. A lot of thought went into the casting of this show, and every single line is acted perfectly. It's a very fresh, and expertly done dub. An example of what dubs can and should always be. It's one of the best dubs of the last few years, and a personal favorite of mine. Only slightly beaten out by another Ocean dub, Black Lagoon. This is a dub everyone and anyone would like.
So with all that praise you may ask "well is it perfect then?". Well not quite, but very close. There are many people who feel the second half of the series does not at all live up to the first. Personally I disagree with that completely. There is nothing at all wrong with the second half of the show. It's just as good as the rest of it. The series keeps up it's quality thoughout and has no filler. Just because there is a major change in the style of the show, does not make it any worse. It's just different, not bad by any means. In fact I found the show to build on it's self, in so the later episodes would have even more suspense then the earlier ones. So then what's the problem? Well many of the characters are not very well developed. Many are nothing but chess peices, being used for the plot, by the plot, and only needed to exist when the plot calls for them. (Where are they when the story is not moving forward? Who cares!) So there are a few 2 dimensional characters in the show. However the show seems to have purposely done this. It seems to have decided early on not to develop some characters, and so it's not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things anyway. In fact the show may be better for it in the long run. Instead of wasteing time developing character after character, this series would rather stick to the giant game of cat and mouse between Light and L, and focus on creating suspense. But many of the characters are realistic, believable and sympthatheic and that's enough for me. Their actions make sense in the context of the show, and never feel out of place. Sure some people would like more emphasis on the characters evolving over time then this show has, but the way this series handled it's characters did not bother me too much. A little bit more emphasis on a few characters would have been amazing, but I'm more then happy with what we got. I felt it had just enough character development as to not take away from the plot, so I'm not that bothered by this small "problem". Oh and there was one deus ex machina (I'll just say "the rocket" and leave it as that as to not spoil anyone) that didn't fly with me in the show. It felt like the writers wrote themselves into a corner, and did something completely unrealistic to get them out of it. It pulls you out of the show a little bit. Although in the context of the what's going on and the setting it does make some sense. That's all that really bothered me about the show. The rest is flawless.
One note more note about the director. I first saw the anime, and then went and read some important parts of the manga afterwards (currently I'm reading the manga from start to finish). The changes the director made to the anime were done with great thought behind them, and I easily prefur them to the original. The slight changes really help the series more often then not, and the ending of the anime is vastly superior to that of the manga. They both have the same ending, but the manga goes on to show what happens afterwards, which is not at all needed. It ruins the punch of the series, and is not really that interesting. The series needed to stop at the right time, and luckily the anime knew when that was. After the last scene in the anime nothing else needed to be known. Going on and explaining more stuff is pointless in my opinion, and sort of ruins everything. Other changes, like the slight difference in the chronology of certain scenes are easily for the better, and flashbacks are used in more important scenes. The use of great camera angles, like those that show us Light writing with his pen, or someone dieing dramaticlly is something you really miss out on with the manga. And the amazing use of split screens. like those showing L vs Light, or many people at the same time during different things are exceptional, and something the manga lacked. The manga would show one thing at the time, while the anime would show mutliple things happening at once (making it much more exciting). I prefer the way the anime dealt with those scenes. The great use of flashbacks in the begining of each episode, cliffhangers at the end of an episode, and other changes to when things happen, helped to add tension to the scenes. Also I find that "watching" something is much more exciting and suspenseful then reading something. So if you want to have the most excitement and thrill out of this series, I suggest you watch the anime first. Then go back and read it to see where it all began. No offense to the original mangakas of course, as the manga is amazing on it's own. It's just a different experience to watch something then to read it. These are some signs of great talent for the director, so keep an eye on him.
All in all Death Note is nearly a flawless effert. It's a smart show, that's very dark, intense, dramatic and exciting. The show is an example of how to create excellent suspense, and has one of the best endings in all of anime. The artwork and music is flawless, and the direction is very strong. The dub is a top-of the line effert by the Ocean Group, something sub-only fans would enjoy. There are some slight problems with character development, but it's easily overlooked. And one scene felt like the writers got trapped in a corner and wrote themselves out of it very unrealistically. But it is an excellent show. It's every bit of the hype. A smart show like this hasn't been popular since Neon Genesis Evangelion (a show the director admits to being a huge fan of), and I hope it's a sign of other smart shows to come. There really is nothing else out there quite like Death Note. Don't let the hype scar you off like it almost did to me. You just have to see this show.