Quality film news, reviews and features
22nd April 2008 12:30:00
Posted by Matt Shingleton

Death Note Volume 1

DVD Video Review
Having added Naruto and Bleach to their catalogue, MangaUK continue their quest to distribute the finest in contemporary shōnen (boys) manga with Death Note. Created by Tsugumi Ohba (rumoured to be a pen name for Hiroshi Gamō) and making its Shōnen Jump debut back in December 2003, Death Note ran for almost 3 years spanning 12 extremely popular volumes, and when it ended a very successful two-part live action film adaptation was released in Japanese theatres, bringing a whole new audience to Ohba’s work. By the end of 2006 the anime adaptation was already airing across Japan. To manga fans in the west Death Note isn’t quite as well known as the likes of Naruto and Bleach, but those who have read the whole thing are in almost unanimous agreement that it is among the finest serials that shōnen has to offer, and it’s a permanent fixture in most fan’s Top 10 manga lists.


Death Note tells the story of Light Yagami who is seemingly the perfect student: good looking, hyper intelligent and from a middle class family headed by veteran police chief: Soichiro. The world is literally his oyster, but underneath the flawless facade lies self-righteous misanthrope who sees the world around him as one big gutter. One day, Light stumbles upon a textbook left behind on the grounds of his school, Entitled: Death Note, the book is completely blank except for a list of rules:

  • The human whose name is written in this note shall die.

  • This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.

  • If the cause of death is written within 40 human seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.

  • If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.

  • After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

That evening he decides to test the book on a random criminal and is stunned to learn that it works. The shock is soon replaced by diabolical scheming when he realises that he can use the book to rain justice down on any criminal in the world – providing he knows their face and name – and if he uses the same method of death, then people will realise that somebody is bumping off anyone who commits a serious crime, thus eventually eliminating all the evil in the world. With the heart attacks eventually coming to the attention of the police and public, Light’s plan proves very successful, gaining him new fans by the day. Soon he is give the name of “Kira”, and established as a mysterious angel of justice. Not long after using the Death Note, Light is visited by its original owner: a shinigami (death god) named Ryuk. The shinigami are a race of near-immortal beings who observe earth from another dimension, taking human lives by writing in their notebooks. Immortality has turned the world and its inhabitants into a barren, languid void, bereft of life and excitement. So for a little excitement Ryuk has dropped his Death Note in the human world knowing full well he has to remain in that world until the new owner of the Death Note dies, or the book itself is destroyed. When Ryuk discovers the lengths to which Light is willing to use the book, he is delighted by the prospect for entertainment it holds, but further entertainment is provided when Interpol hire L, greatest detective in the world, to catch Kira. After ingeniously devising that Kira is operating somewhere in the Kanto region of Japan, L decides to join forces with a team of Tokyo police officers – including Light’s father – and an epic battle of wits between L and Light begins..

If I were to use an analogy to compare Death Note to MangUK’s other big shōnen serials, then I’d say that if Bleach and Naruto are Star Wars: A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, then Death note is Empire Strikes Back. It’s the moodier piece and not afraid to place plot ahead of flashy excitement. It’s also the entry that fans get much more out of. Death Note’s story is set up to buck all the major conventions of shōnen manga. The most obvious and most important convention twist is that the main character is actually the antagonist of the piece, and his rival is the protagonist, this leads into another twist: death rate. Death note is much darker and features a very high body count that is all the work of the main character. Further genre defiance comes in the form of the serious tone of the piece, there is comedy in Death Note, but it is most certainly not an action comedy – and speaking of action, there are no lengthy unarmed battles played out while supporting characters watch on and commentate the fighters intent. The commentaries are still present throughout the story, but the approach is much more elaborate and far less obvious. This all adds up to make Death Note seem fresh and exciting; a breath of fresh air in a genre that ordinarily abides by a rather rigid set of rules.


Shūsuke Kaneko’s 2-film adaptation of Death Note did very well at the box office in Japan and HK, but was an exceptionally poor representation of Ohba’s work. Of course, the logistics of converting a 12 volume story into 2 x 2 hours of film meant that it was never going to remain faithful to the source, but what really disappointed me was how flat and lifeless Kaneko’s direction was. Death Note is a very big, theatrical series, coursing with manic energy and featuring some vigorously played out action set-pieces, and the films didn’t even begin to translate that to screen. As a result, I was expecting a lot from the anime series, particularly knowing that the manga story was done and dusted before the anime eventually came out, meaning the staff writers had the opportunity to leave any filler material behind and just stick 100% to Ohba’s work. My expectations were high, but they have been more than met by director Tetsuro Araki and his crew, who have completely nailed the dark, weighty tone of the story. For western fans not used to Japanese mystery crime thrillers the style of Death Note may appear very operatic and overblown, and the vast amount of exposition may jar, but for the Japanese fans the joy is in the elaborate contrivances and theatricality. They like the writers to surprise them with an ingenious and extreme a scenario as possible, and Tsugumi Ohba is very, very good at doing exactly that. He sets out very specific rules regarding the use of the Death Note, and just like all great thriller writers, he effortlessly spins all manner of complex challenges that Light has to mentally overcome, with L matching him all the way. This results in Death Note being an extremely dialogue-heavy series, but one that demands a very satisfying intellectual investment from the viewer. What’s more, there are so many twists and turns in the plot that it is almost futile to try and second-guess the writing.

Tetsuro Araki understands this completely, and he directs the series with real muscle. He incorporates all manner of visual tricks, like drawing parallels between characters via the use of split screens and editing the lengthy exchanges of dialogue in an energetic way. The music from Hideki Tanuchi and Yoshihisa Hirano is also an excellent accompaniment to the drama, using mild rock synth tracks for the more straightforward scenes and then building up into an extremely moody gothic crescendo for the darker moments. Similarly the performances can switch from restrained to really exaggerated when the material demands it, which the cast rises to admirably. Araki has clearly brought his own style to Death Note whilst remaining totally faithful to the source material, which is exactly how you should adapt a shōnen manga series.

The plotting and direction is in perfect symbiosis, but perhaps the most engaging aspect of Death Note is in its setting. It quite clearly taps into the social malaise of the big societies of today, and the ongoing perception that crime is spiralling further out of control with each passing generation. But it also posits some interesting questions on the nature of morality and justice; this occurs when there is a big divergence in the ideology of the Death Note universe, as Kira becomes more and more popular by the public until he is essentially set up as the true overseer and definer of what is right and wrong. So what we find as the series progresses, is a role reversal slowly emerging, where L and his team remain 100% committed to capturing Kira suddenly find themselves becoming the “villains” as Kira is now accepted as a “hero”. This is certainly a very intriguing twist, and one that Tsugumi Ohba never deliberately intended when he was writing the series, but the very fact that you can come to this elaborate interpretation is just one of the many reasons why Death Note is so highly regarded by fans of solid, intelligent storytelling.


Presentation

Death Note ran for 37 episodes back in 2006-2007, so I’m expecting MangaUK to release it in single or double disc volumes that contain between 5-8 episodes in total. This first volume contains the first 8 episodes of the series split across two DVDs.

Presented anamorphically in the original 1.79:1 ratio, this NTSC>PAL conversion looks pretty good. Death Note was animated by MADHOUSE at a higher budget than your typical “longer” series and it looks very slick indeed, it also incorporates computer animation and the hazy shading you tend to find in large budget shows, yet the inevitable digital banding is not very noticeable at all. The series also has a very bleak colour scheme with lots of greys, and while low-level noise is certainly present in the image, it is nowhere near the amount I was expecting. In general the colours are very strong, sharp, natural and no bleed, alas the amount of chroma noise in the image does let them down a little bit, but considering the muted nature of the image it’s hardly an excessive amount. Brightness and contrast levels are very impressive, and detail is good with no noticeable Edge Enhancements. There does appear to be a very fine, ghosty haze around character outlines which isn’t easy to spot, and I can’t decide whether this is some sort of banding effect or a form of composite ringing, certainly there are no other noticeable forms of composite artefacts like dot crawl or cross colouration. Overall though, this is a fine transfer where even the NTSC>PAL ghosting isn’t too distracting.

In keeping with their more streamlined policy towards audio options, MangaUK have provided the original DD2.0 surround audio track and an English DD2.0 surround dub. The Japanese track sounds very clean and is generally quite pleasing. The dialogue is always clear and audible, with no distortion when things get more heated, and the bass sounds solid and forceful when needed. Dynamics across the front stereo soundstage are strong, breathing life into the fanciful sound design, but the rear channels occasionally sound a little flat in comparison to the front stereo channels. Luckily it’s not noticeable enough to cause any concern.

The English track is of comparable quality to the Japanese, with just the dialogue sounding a little quieter in the mix, and ambient noise – most notably room echo – being much higher in the mix, in fact in some scenes they really pile on the room echo to the point of disruption of the dynamics, which is a shame.


As for the English Dub, i’ve got to admit that they’ve done a very good job with a uniformly solid cast. Brad Swaile plays Light pretty naturally, and while he doesn’t quite exhibit the same range that Mamoru Miyano does in the role (he struggles mostly with the pomposity of the character), he does a more than adequate job of expressing the duality of the “hero”. Brian Drummond is very good as Ryuk - which admittedly is the easiest role to pull off, but he does it with aplomb. If there’s a weak link among the three central characters then it’s Alessandro Juliani – don’t get me wrong he puts in a good performance, but somewhat ironically he actually overacts the part a little. L is supposed to be the most controlled character in Death Note, he’s a pragmatic oddball. Alessandro tends to play him with a bit more “flair” almost as if he’s channelling Arthur Conan Doyle. As with the main players, the supporting cast also all do a fine job, and help make the English dub of Death Note one of, if not the, best English dub I’ve heard for a shōnen series.

Optional English subtitles are available, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall, all on screen text is also adequately subtitled.

Extras

Viz (the American producers of the English dub and DVD release) have sorted MangaUK out with some extra features for once, they’re spread across the 2 discs as follows:

Disc 01

English Voice Actor Behind The Scenes Featurette: This 12minute feature mixes studio dub recording and interview footage of Brad Swaile and English voice director Karl Willems and gives a pretty comprehensive look at how the process works. It’s actually recorded during the dub of the very first episode of the series, so you’re very much getting Swaile’s initial impressions on the character and both interviewees discuss the mood and themes of the piece.

The rest of the features on this disc are self-explanatory:

Clean Opening
Clean Closing
Bleach Trailer
Production Art Gallery



Disc 02

Audio Commentary For Episode 07: Recorded with English Staff Associate Producer Jiro Okada and voice actress Tabitha St. Germain; who did the English voice of Naomi Misora, who features prominently in this particular episode. Both seem amiable and comfortable in each other’s presence and talk freely about the actors and staff who worked on the English dub, but as usual with these kind of features they offer very little insight into the series itself.

Behind The Scenes Featurette Part 2: 2nd part of the featurette on disc 01, this 9-minute again features Karl Willems, but this time we see Alessandro Juliani in action recording the voice of L. Once again the makers of the featurette chose to interview Juliani on his first day of work on the series - which in this case is for episode 02 of the series – and he and Willems discuss similar topics as Swaile did on the first disc.

Japanese Animation Director And Character Designer Interview: Another 12 minute feature and conducted in Japanese with non-removable English subtitles, this is the most worthwhile extra in this set. Director Tetsuro Araki and designer Masaru Kitao talk about how they ended up on the Death Note project, revealing that MADHOUSE were looking into making an anime adaptation for a good while before they finally got it into production. Araki goes into detail on the logistics of fitting the 12 volume manga into 37 anime episodes (mostly the difficulty of cramming as much of the dialogue in as possible), and explains how he basically mapped out the entire story and episode direction, then control over the project switched to Kitao, who ran the overall visualisation of the show. Both men also discuss how they started out in the industry and who their main influences are. As a big fan of Shunji Iwai I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Araki studied the great director’s work while he was working on Death Note.

Production Art Gallery: Rounds off the extras, similar to the gallery on disc 01 but concentrated on the episodes featured on this particular disc.

Overall

Death Note is pitch black, intriguing and essential viewing for any fan of intelligent action-thrillers. The R2 release from MangaUK provides fine A/V representation aside from the usual NTSC-PAL foibles, and for once there are a few extra features that are actually worth your time.

Details and Specifications
DVD Video Review

Region: 2

Certificate: 12

Distributor:
Manga Entertainment Ltd.

Running Time:
182 mins approx
Soundtracks:
Japanese DD2.0 Surround
English DD2.0 Surround

Subtitles:
English

Director:
Tetsuro Araki

Main cast:
Light Yagami
Mamoru Miyano (Jpn)
Brad Swaile (Eng)
Ryuk
Shidō Nakamura
Brian Drummond
L
Kappei Yamaguchi
Alessandro Juliani
Soichiro Yagami
Naoya Uchida
Chris Britton
Sachiko Yagami
Ai Satou
Saffron Henderson
Sayu Yagami
Haruka Kudou
Kelly Metzger
Watari
Kiyoshi Kobayashi
French Tickner
Tōta Matsuda
Ryo Naitou
Vincent Tong
Hirokazu Ukita
Hidenobu Kiuchi
Jeremy From
Kanzo Mogi
Kazuya Nakai
John Murphy
Hideki Ide
Hideo Ishikawa
Brian Dobson
Shuichi Aizawa
Keiji Fujiwara
Trevor Devall
Raye Penber
Hideo Ishikawa
Michael Adamthwaite
Naomi Misora
Naoko Matsui
Tabitha St. Germain
Lind L. Taylor
Yukitoshi Tokumoto
John Murphy
Koreyoshi Kitamura
Masaru Ikeda
Howard Siegal
-- more --
Ratings
Film
8
Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
6
8


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