Some films can be thought of as "gateway movies," capable of opening one's eyes to an entire genre that may have once been off limits. If you don't like Westerns then I'll put "A Fistful of Dollars" in your hands. Don't like foreign movies? Try "Run Lola Run" or "Amelie."
Other films go even further, opening up even larger worlds than just a category of film. See "The Hours" and it might inspire you to check out Virginia Woolf which would then open up the whole world of Modernist literature. And how many people were inspired into journalism by "All the President's Men"?
"Death Note" presents a similar opportunity. For years now I've known plenty of people obsessed with anime and manga (the Japanese comic books that frequently inspire anime.) I've never been able to join them, though. I've tried plenty of times but have yet to understand.
All along I've known that if I could just find the right anime or manga then I'd be able to appreciate it. The "Death Note" series of manga, anime, and now a live action film is just the opportunity for those looking for the right entrance to this world.
"Death Note" starts off with a compelling premise loaded with potential. Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a brilliant young college student with quite a future ahead of him. His life is forever changed, though, when he discovers a magical notebook - the death note - dropped to earth by Ryuk, a playful shinigami (death god,) bored with his existence and looking for amusement.
The death note has the power to kill. When you write someone's name on a page from the death note they will die. You can even go further, writing when they will die, and what will cause it. Light takes it upon himself to use the death note to right a world that horrifies him. He goes on a killing spree, writing the names of the world's worst criminals in the death note.
The world's evildoers spontaneously dropping dead attracts attention. Pretty soon this bringer of justice or mass murderer - dubbed "Kira" by the media - has drawn supporters, detractors, and his own police task force working full time trying to stop him. Drawn to the case is the equally brilliant detective L, the ideal rival for Light. L has a worldwide reputation for cracking impossible cases. And now he's set his sights on "Kira," vowing to track him down and bring his own justice.
The film could stand practically on its premise alone, but it goes further, continuing the strengths of its source material, the manga and anime. The premise is brought to life by rich, challenging characters. Light and L are the best kind of protagonist and antagonist - yin and yang reflections of one another, each competing versions of justice. It's difficult to tell which side you're rooting for and who's actually doing the right thing at any given moment. The themes that "Death Note" explores are very real and relevant. It tackles timeless issues of justice, law, and morality and always in a tricky, ambiguous way.
Amidst the serious struggle there's also a more playful element as well in the character of Ryuk, the black and gray, creepy but cute death god that follows Light everywhere. Ryuk is enchanted by the human world and continually amused by how Light uses the power upon which he's stumbled. Ryuk doesn't really have a horse in the race. He's not going to help Light, he's mainly just going to watch, enjoy the apples that Light gives him, and reveal new rules about the death note at inconvenient times.
The film and its source material are also constructed with stunning intelligence. Light's inventiveness with using the death note and L's deductive reasoning are immensely entertaining. The film continually surprises with its twists.
It's somewhat tragic, though, that such a great film is marred by its presentation. The decision was made for the Japanese-language film to be released dubbed with the voices of the actors who portrayed the characters in the anime. This "Godzilla" effect is rather distracting and made even worse by the foolish decision not to subtitle any of the text in the movie. This is very frustrating since writing is so central to the story. We never get any translations of anything written in the death note or published in the newspapers. Who made that decision?
If one likes the movie then they're practically guaranteed to appreciate the manga and the anime. The film is true to the plot and spirit of its source material. So for those looking for an in into the often unapproachable world of anime and manga, a more accessible series than "Death Note" is unlikely to emerge.