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Death delivered


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POSTED: Sunday, March 22, 2009

Anyone not already familiar with the “;Death Note”; franchise, whether it be through the 12-volume manga (Japanese comic book) series, the 26-episode animated TV series or the first “;Death Note”; live-action movie, might want to pass on “;Death Note II: The Last Name,”; now available on DVD.

It's not that the movie lacks a compelling hook. The central concept of the Death Note, a supernatural notebook that grants its owner the power of a shinigami (death god) and gives him or her the ability to kill anyone whose name is written in it, is certainly a solid foundation upon which the story is built.

But aside from several rules governing use of the Death Note flashing on the screen in the opening minutes of “;Death Note II”; and quick, millisecond-long flashbacks to scenes from the first movie interspersed between those rules, there's no context to what's going on. Director Shusuke Kaneko sets the learning curve high right from the beginning: There's an opening scene with a criminal killed when his name is written in the Death Note, a young woman and some creepy white creature; the aforementioned title sequence; and a funeral for a character killed in the previous movie, and the story just barrels forward from there.

Left largely unmentioned is the background story: College student Light Yagami (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara) found a Death Note dropped by the shinigami Ryuk and is using it to kill off criminals, adopting the alias “;Kira”; in the process. The police, confounded by the string of mass killings, hire an eccentric investigator known only as L (Kenichi Matsuyama) to discover who—or what—is behind the deaths. What ensues is a chess match of wits between Light/Kira and L in which the morality of Light's actions are called into question; sure, he's killing criminals, but are those deaths justified?

That's the story that “;Death Note II”; joins in progress: L is still looking for Kira and suspects Light, while Light has managed to make his way onto the investigation team and is looking for a way to kill L to get the police off his tracks. This movie's subplots center largely around pop idol Misa Amane (Erika Toda) and news reporter Kiyomi Takada (Nana Katase). Misa admires Kira, manages to obtain a Death Note of her own (as well as her own shinigami, Rem) and operates as a second Kira to avenge her family slain by a robber several years ago. Kiyomi also finds Kira's methods fascinating and wants to learn more about him as well.

Then there's the matter of that “;last name”; alluded to in the movie title. Those who have read the manga know that there's a point in the series where a certain character dies. What happens after that point has divided readers, with some saying the story remains good through the end and others saying that the story promptly veers off a cliff, lost in a muddle of convoluted twists and turns.

Kaneko's solution is to toss out those twists and turns and streamline the story—so much so that while manga readers may know the identity of that last name, what happens to get to that point is significantly altered. While the changes come largely at the expense of character development—some characters from the anime and manga are eliminated, and Light, L and Misa are the only characters who seem fully fleshed out—they help keep the story moving. And at a running time of more than two hours, not including the theater-exclusive behind-the-scenes featurettes, it's definitely important to keep things moving along.

All of this plays out in a way that surely will thrill hard-core fans of the series. L retains his signature disheveled look, crouches atop chairs and rarely is seen without some snack in hand. Female fans will swoon over the cute guys playing Light and L; male fans will be captivated by the cute ladies playing Misa and Kiyomi. There's also a bit of a novelty seeing Ryuk and Rem walking around scenes in their computer-animated form.