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Death Note: Light Up the New World
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by Jay Seaver

"Write this franchise's name in the book; it had a good run."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Was there really any particular demand for another spin-off of the theatrical "Death Note" series, or was the recent Japanese live-action television adaptation just a reminder to the rights-holders that there was money to be made? It doesn't particularly matter, I suppose, because this new addition coming ten years after the pretty entertaining 2006 two-parter is the worst sort of legacy sequel, picking up the convoluted mythology of the first but lacking the characters who initially got their hooks into the audience, or any particularly interesting successors.

A prologue states that the God of Death was so entertained by the chaos caused by the Death Notes ten years ago that he sent a dozen more of these magic notebooks to Earth, allowing a whole new set of people to kill someone just by writing the victim's name (and, optionally, manner of death) while picturing his or her face. The Death Note Task Force is revived, this time led by Interpol detective - and L's "true heir" - Tsukuru Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) and masked private investigator Ryuzaki Arai (Sosuke Ikematsu). It soon becomes clear that someone is trying to take control of all the Notes, quite possibly Yuki Shien (Masaki Suda), a hacker who considers himself "Kira's Messenger". He has sent a "Kira Virus" out that hints that the original Kira, Light Yamagi, is somehow still alive, which draws in Misa Amane (Erika Toda), now a successful actress whose memory of having used a Death Note was erased even if her feelings for Yamagi linger.

That paragraph likely sounds impenetrable for those who haven't encountered this material in one form or another before (there is the original manga, an animated adaptation, the two previous live-action movies which spawned spinoff L: Change the World, the Japanese live-action TV series, and the recent American live-action film), although odds are that there aren't many of those in the film's target audience: Death Note was a cultural phenomenon in Japan and one of the country's most popular cultural exports for a time. And there's certainly potential in a sequel, with an international scope and a "new world" of social media interaction that offers more at both extremes of anonymity and transparency that was just getting started when the earlier iterations came out. Though few characters survived the previous movies, you could probably build a heck of a thriller or satire around Misa as what looks to be a mature, decent woman whose celebrity is built on infamy she can no longer fully recall alone.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters for the new movie are not nearly that ambitious. Light Up the New World spends much of its running time repeating of the plot twists of the first movies, like it's too timid to expand the mythology in ways that weren't in the original manga even if that set-up was specifically designed to force the story down a single path. The film is basically starting from scratch, but the filmmakers don't seem to have the guts (or interest) to be as enjoyably loopy as its predecessors were, with the main new things of interest a couple of new Reaper designs. Indeed, the mostly-boring group of supporting characters implies that this group of filmmakers don't really get that part of the originals' appeal was that, underneath the slick black-and-white aesthetic and high-minded questions of morality, they could get genuinely weird - Light, L, Misa, Ryuk, and even L's butler Watri were broad, entertaining characters, maybe not realistic but memorable. Instead, this one mainly ups the body count and makes the conspiracies more realistic, and that's not nearly as cool as the surprises that were in store ten years ago.

Part of this, perhaps, comes from Shinsuke Sato directing the film. Currently on a string of capably adapting various manga thrillers and light novels into mainstream hits, he does a good job of cranking up the tension during a confrontation and has a good eye for using the deep blacks and offsetting whites that has always been this franchise's look, even if he doesn't polish them quite so much as Shusuke Kaneko and his team did with their movies. He benefits from ten years of improvement in visual effects technology, too; Ryuk and the other demons have gotten a nice visual upgrade without changing their look. The filmmakers do a fair job of taking a group of far-out concepts and getting them down to a scale where the audience can connect.

Indeed, fans of the previous Japanese "Death Note" movies will likely be happy to get a little more of that, and the filmmakers never really screw things up. That's faint praise for a series that previously built a satisfying cliffhanger out of a smirk but here tones down the melodrama even while talking a good game about raising the stakes.

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originally posted: 10/14/17 02:25:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/06/19 PUMP UP THE JAM Worst DN "Live-Action" movie ever! 1 stars
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  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Shinsuke Sato

Written by
  Katsunari Mano

  Masahiro Higashide
  Sosuke Ikematsu
  Masaki Suda
  Erika Toda
  Rina Kawaei

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