Events preceding, surrounding and acutely subsequent to my theatrical viewing of the 2006 live-action feature film

Death Note II: The Last Name

4:10 PM: It was 50 minutes before work was through, and I still could't entirely believe the second Death Note movie was actually showing, in an actual theater, that actual night. I mean, it might have been one of those two-day US releases where a film hits a few hundred screens per night, which isn't as 'limited' as a five-screen NYC run or a one-off festival showing, but not a shit-ton of even the not-so-limited theatrical engagements extend the hand of fellowship outward to central Pennsylvania. Especially Lancaster. That's a mighty odd place for the notebook to drop.

So I called Chris Mautner to confirm what we were doing. I was going to pick him up from work, then he was going to take us from his house to his friend Craig's place, at which point Craig was going to drive us to Lancaster; all the switching of vehicles made it seem like we'd be participating in subterfuge, much like the space-filling suspense busywork that got the manga all the way up to 12 volumes.

Seriously: some of those 108 chapters seemed like nothing more than characters recapping recent plot maneuvers in an exciting-seeming manner while sweating. But I guess those are the spaces wherein the reader is supposed to pause their actual reading and start dreaming up what sort of contortions the premise might go through next, and how the story's razor-sharp-and-just-as-thin characters might react.

It's a little like a modern superhero Event comic, really, in that a lot of its impact comes from the reader anticipating the implications of this-or-that plot twist upon this-or-that favorite character. The difference is that Death Note actually follows through on a straight-line plot, thus requiring those many moments of Does He Know That I Know That He Knows That I Know to allow for the private audience participation that seems to power its lingering fandom.

And shit - it's worked! The movie's come to Lancaster! They'll be projecting it onto a cow! Only a powerful fanbase can manage that.

5:20 PM: After wriggling my car through the garage, pressing across town and mistaking a city post office for the parking lot to Chris' workplace (it happens), I finally made human contact.

Chris was idly reading a comic by the side of the road; mother always taught me to hide those things under the blankets, and I always listen to mother. I was filled with rage, but Chris calmed me down by directing me through traffic, across several highways and around winding, bucolic paths to his home. Soon I was cool as can be, except for the bit where we passed a Masonic village; I've got family in the Knights of Columbus, so I think if I meet one of those folks on their own turf I have to challenge them to a duel.

6:20 PM: "I read a plot summary of that movie," said Chris' wife, over dinner, "and it sounds interesting."

You all know the premise of Death Note, right? It's about this genius kid, Light Yagami, who's handed a 'Death Note' by a bored shinigami (death god) called Ryuk; anyone whose name is written in the Death Note must die, in the manner that's been written (or from a heart attack by default). Light opts to use the Death Note to cleanse the world of crime, leading him to adopt the public identity of a Old Testamant-type god of justice called Kira. There's roughly a million rules involved with the use of a Death Note, which creates a lot of potential for twists as the forces of earthly justice, spearheaded by an eccentric boy detective (and fellow genius) called 'L,' seek to take Kira down. Need I mention that Light's own father is also on the task force?

Many more characters pop in, ranging from investigators to Kira fangirls to additional shinigami. Multiple Death Notes wind up on Earth, leading to numerous Kiras. You might get the impression that there's some moral justice theme going around, but you'd be mostly wrong; writer Tsugumi Ohba (in the series' 'Official Handbook' How to Read) has been pretty open in declaring the series devoid of any substantive ideology or subtext, and Light does indeed spend about five minutes of reading time as a conflicted figure before diving headfirst into megalomania.

L isn't exactly sweetness and laughs himself, and I strongly suspect a lot of the series' entertainment is supposed to come from watching the two of them trample any sort of socio-political decorum in their desire to outwit the other, with the law unhesitatingly resorting to secret arrests, mass surveillance and open-ended detention of suspects; oh, ok, someone usually says 'gosh, this is illegal!' at which point they're instantly shot down and nobody speaks of it again. So, you're meant to be rooting for Our Heroes to crack the fuck down on freedom of the press so as to grab that gold ring; Ohba has expressed delight in the series getting published as a shōnen manga (nominally aimed at young boys), insofar as that demographic would be more inclined to accept the work as sheer entertainment, without concern for any political implications.

But Death Note is hardly a typical shōnen series; some have deemed it 'neo-shōnen' due to artist Takeshi Obata's pretty boy character designs, obviously meant to attract a female readership, but I tend to see its characters' demented desires to be on top and be the best and win win win -- the 'contest' played with reckless disregard for human life and freedom -- as a nasty little subversion of the typical shōnen theme of struggling hard toward victory.

And surely Ohba -- as much as he'd like to play Ryuk, dishing out death for no reason beyond his desire for distraction -- understands that pure entertainment can easily act as political suggestion; it's important, I think, that very few of Death Note's driven characters ever 'win,' and all their friendships are cast as matters of expediency or outright lies. Those that don't die by series' end are left ruined or unhappy, unless they've never been awfully happy to begin with. There's a tiny fragment of old gekiga soul in there, hating on the optimism of a growing nation in favor of cruel, poverty-stricken facts of the street. Death Note's poverty is moral, mind you, as its Japan is past the boom and beyond the bust, and the very opposite of solitary.

I didn't say any of that at dinner, obviously. Hell, I only paraphrased Evelyn's (Chris' wife's) dialogue. Did I mention that all these timecodes are estimates? I think I made jokes about I-CY the iPod penguin; like, there ought to be i-Ice that turns to i-Water when there's hot beats. How we all didn't explode from that feast of hilarity is a mystery for the ages.

6:45 PM: Chris was again the director as Craig drove us into the looming darkness that is Lancaster at nightfall. I hadn't seen the first Death Note movie (also 2006), but Craig had. It didn't cover a lot of the manga - only the first two and one half volumes, up to Light agreeing to (gah!) join L on the task force that's searching for him. Even then there were some alterations; I'd heard the second movie even had an updated ending, which it'd sort of have to unless it was planning on screaming through 1000 pages of comics on its own.

7:15 PM: Ah, the Lancaster theater! A small popcorn and a small drink was $11.50 - how modern!

It was a really great scene in the lobby. The first Amish guy I saw was cosplaying as Mello. "Matt is my second-favorite character, English." His horse came as Light's dad; the mustache was perfect.

No, I'm sorry, that was a horrible lie and a worse stereotype. I should know better than to impugn the fine city of Lancaster and the good Amish people with my cruel humor. I beg your forgiveness. Anyway, soon it was time for the movie to begin, so we all hustled into the barn.

7:30 PM: Previews! The 2005 Nana movie! The 2002 Ping Pong movie! Other trailers that all looked sort of the same! Teenagers asking each other out on dates! The magic of movies!

Lots of teenagers in the crowd too, including a loud bunch of female cosplayers; some dude yelled at them to be quiet, so he could savor the subtle grace of Love*Com the movie. There were also a couple of metalheads around - I guess Death Note is kinda metal, what with the demons and dying and portent. I even spotted a few older folks, presumably looking to check up on the recent Asian cinema. Poor assholes.

7:40 PM: Yes! The movie! Death Note II: Death Noter! My 16-year old foreign film purity impulse clawed at my gut when I realized the picture was dubbed into English, but I managed to keep down my popcorn. Chris later told me that it seemed like the English cast was the same as the Death Note television anime's; this turned out to be mostly true, although the heretofore female shinigami Rem had inexplicably been changed into a guy, a fact that did not escape the metalhead sitting to my left. Metal for truth, motherfuckers.

7:42 PM: A palpable mass eyeroll flowed through the crowd as Dani California blared over the titles; it made a little sense to me, though. Japan doesn't have the hugest film industry around; you're probably more likely to touch a national mass audience through manga, which is what Death Note did. But other cultures are (far) more amenable to movies, so it's maybe worth everyone's while to plug in a pair Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes -- Snow (Hey Oh) plays over the end credits -- to shore up the international appeal. I'd hoped for a montage of Light killing people set to Love Rollercoaster, but no luck.

There wouldn't be much in the way of flair on the whole, although maybe that's a fitting tribute to the puzzlingly acclaimed, bland-as-sand art of Obata; and yes, I used to feel it was mildly striking that he even managed to keep the story moving through Ohba's prickly thatches of dialogue, but I've since realized that such a skill should maybe be something more 'up the stairs from the cellar of competency' than any particular virtue, you know?

Now, he's never terribly bad, mind you, but give the guy a less cluttered writer and he's a popular, unspectacular craftsman, squarely set in the anime-informed contemporary shōnen tradition, if more prone to adding lots of glossy details. Granted, I'll pretty much always take a mid-level shōnen dude over, say, a mediocre Wildstorm house style guy, if only because the culture of manga is more competitive and generally demands a stronger grasp of storytelling fundamentals just to get yourself in the door -- and breaking into American comics is no walk in the park to start with -- but that doesn't make Takeshi Obata any more interesting to me.

Anyhow, the titles looked like the opening to a television series; Chris noted that Death Note would work really well as a North American cable show, and I agree, but the film felt composed more in the manner of tv movie from years back. I haven't seen many other works by director Shūsuke Kaneko (only 1995's Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe), but he doesn't seem to have much of a personal style going; a lot of this Death Note movie felt anonymously professional.

7:50 PM: Also, the opening is pretty goddamned choked with exposition, capped off by Ryuk delivering a big, clunky line in the manner of "LITTLE DO THEY KNOW THAT YOU'RE KIRA, EH LIGHT, HYUK HYUK!!!" Which begs the question: is anyone besides those poor foreign cinema connoisseurs in my Lancaster audience going to see Death Note II: Guns of the Patriots without being at least mildly aware of the setup? Even given foreign export concerns?

8:20 PM: Still, two things managed to really stand out. First off, the movie's pretty damn campy, almost surprisingly so, given that what little I've seen of the anime was solemn to a fault. And it turns out camp is a tone that works pretty well with Death Note, from Light's manga-derived hairdo (which has him looking like he just escaped from a Monkees cover band) to a guy standing up at a Sakura Festival after a transmission from Kira and screaming something like "NOW IT'S THE KIRA FESTIVAL!" to great applause. And when in doubt: have L eat a snack or wheel his chair in slowly at the bottom of the frame.

This both dulls the series' edges and gives the actors some room to play. The only character anybody's likely to match up with its performer is Light's dad, played by no less than Chairman Kaga from Iron Chef (no 'stache, sadly) although Erika Toda has a high old time as emergency backup Kira/infamous Goth Lolita anti-love interest Misa-Misa (who's sort of toned down, sorta) and Ken'ichi Matsuyama ably runs through the library of tics that make up L's character. The kids in the back loved L, cheering his first appearance and delighting at his every move. Anything even remotely sexual got a lot of hoots and whistles too; Death Note isn't a very randy series at all, so there was a lot of room for creativity. Shit, maybe its asexuality encourages that.

8:50 PM: Second standout - lots more women. I imagine this too was done with an eye toward export; manga may have a reputation in North America for creating/reviving a lot of the interest of girls and women in comics, but Death Note's stance as per the ladies boils down to "they're stupid."

I don't mean that it's overtly misogynistic -- Light is overtly misogynistic, although the trait's part of the ugly thrill of his anti-hero persona -- but that each and every female character is presented as: (1) a total goof; (2) utterly ineffectual; (3) window dressing; (4) useful bait; and/or (5) a quickly-dispatched minor threat to any of the awesomely gifted male characters. And while those male characters are mostly (but not uniformly) 'bad,' they're charismatically adorned in a way that the women never, ever are. It's all so oddly sexist for a comic that's supposed to be reaching out to female readers, although it's succeeded splendidly, for all its faults.

The movie is different. There's a woman on the Kira task force who says lines sometimes. Light's younger sister gets a somewhat more active role. Most profoundly, the entire Yotsuba Group subplot is ripped out in favor of an ambitious newswoman's quest to prove herself, eventually with the help of a Death Note; it's a modification of a certain chess piece character's role in the manga, allowing her a bit of wicked laughter and flair. Not all that stunning a leap, but there's some effort made.

9:10 PM: Man, I sure didn't know this thing was two hours and twenty-one minutes long going in. Fuck.

9:30 PM: Problems cropped up later on in the picture. The campy feel -- never backed by any affirmative stylistic stamp -- vanished as things got climactic. The pace got lumpy, like the film was trying hard to work in many favorite plot points without a lot of regard toward overall consistency; it's a feeling old-timey anime viewers will know well from '80s OVA, many of which were created as little more than fancy mementos for fans of a manga or something, secure in knowing that the fans would be happy just seeing favorite moments move. Fan product; Death Note II had that feel.

But I later realized the problem was more fundamental. Part of the great success of Death Note in the west, I think, is that it's a plot machine first and foremost, not unlike many 'mainstream' comics in the US. It's a little diabolical in that way; there's nearly no human element discernible. Every character is barely more than an accumulation of amusing/endearing traits, with virtually no depth. All effort is put toward cooking up the best twists and the most badass plot points, to the extent that the comic seems like it's written by one of Ohba's chilly boy wonders, or maybe a bemused shinigami who doesn't really 'get' humans.

And it's good at what it sets out to do, though every page I turned left no desire to ever turn back, save for purposes of clarification. Moreover, it leaves little of substance to translate to a different medium beyond a recitation of said twists and plot points (and I suppose actorly evocations of said amusing/endearing character traits), which were developed for the purposes of stringing a comics serial reader along for years. Plop a bunch of them into a 140+ minute film, and they don't quite lend themselves to crisp artistry. But what the fuck else can you do with Death Note, have L perched in his chair eating pudding for two hours?

I suspect a more inspired director could have known better what to cut, what to preserve and how to present it all; director Kaneko has mentioned wanting to add a father-son focus to the material, but it can be unforgiving in its monomania.

9:50 PM: The same traits leave Death Note (in any iteration) especially prone to spoiling, so I'd better warn you before revealing that Misa kills Light in this one.

Ha ha, no, that doesn't really happen; the real (updated) ending, which I'm now going to reveal, is a trickier thing.

Basically, the movie grafts compatible bits of Vol. 12 of the manga onto the big Vol. 7 climax. It even plays around a bit with manga readers' expectations, in that L's original death scene goes almost just how it did in the manga.

But -- to the delight of fans everywhere, I'm sure -- the movie L manages to counteract the effects of Rem's use of the Death Note by writing down his own name with a 23-day delay of effect, thus rendering himself invincible and saving the world from Death Note III: Who Wants to Pay Money to See Near and Mello on the Silver Screen? [CRICKETS CHIRPING]. Light is undone, and must face his horrified daddy, who gets to survive the film more (I suspect) because the timeline didn't get to the 'he dies' plot region than for any cognizable theme. Realizing the story is over, Ryuk scratches Light's name in the book, and that's that.

Well, there's also a hero's sendoff for popular L, who's already had a 2008 spin-off film, L: Change the WorLd, set within his final days on the planet. While no doubt fan-pleasing, this does lead the movie into the queasy position of adopting an ends-justify-the-means attitude toward L's use of (let's face it) torture among other abuses.

The manga may have been cold in knocking the guy off, but it fit with Ohba's nihilistic concept of the story's action as an unforgiving process of conflict, and his take on characters driven wildly to succeed at any cost. It all ends in shit or unfulfillment; even Near, the 'winner' of the manga, will just go on looking for the next case, the implication being that he'll eventually screw up and die and get replaced, ad infinium. There is no virtue in this friendless perseverance, and all victory is illusion. The non-heroes do rotten things, but to no particular good (beyond ours and Ryuk's delight, of course!).

The movie? Well, L did what he had to do, and at least he got the bad guys in the end, which makes everything a-ok! Is that more immediately satisfying? Because it's also kind of fucking gross.

10:00 PM: Should I mention the heart-tugging One Year Later epilogue? Probably not, since nothing happened. As Chris whispered to me: "One year later... EVERYTHING'S THE SAME!"

10:05 PM: The movie also came with a dvd-ready bonus documentary after the credits, in which everyone talks about the joys and challenges of whatever. It was one of those things where they keep flashing the title at you after every talking head segment, which was useful since I tend to forget where I am and what I'm doing every five minutes or so. Wait, where'd the shower go?

10:35 PM: Out of the theater, into the night. Black trenchcoats lined up waiting for rides on the sidewalk. I guess we were the 'old nerds' of the bunch.

11:10 PM: I had to have a map drawn for me to get back on the highway, so all-consuming was my fear of Masonic influence.

11:35 PM: I found my way back to the highway, after only a few wrong turns. I decided that I still enjoyed myself at the movie, despite my many misgivings, maybe for the simple occasion of why is the red light going on behind the temperature icon?

11:36 PM: I could hear bubbling under the hood as I approached. I grabbed a rag in advance. The radiator cap was hot to the tip of my finger. I counted to five, headlights ripping past me on the night highway, and I pushed down on top of the rag and twisted, and the thing vomited orange down to the road. Fuck me. Fuck.

11:40 PM: I took a piss off the side, down a little slope beyond the guard rail. I turned back and saw steam still rising. Lucky I have a spare cache of coolant in the back, not that it might do me much good.

11:55 PM: Cup by cup, I combined the engine's cooling with my replenishment of coolant. It was better when the trucks weren't passing by, since they shook my car and their lights knocked off my aim. I spilled very little. Cup by cup. I imagined a drunk driver slamming into the back of my vehicle, ripping my belly open with torn, scratching metal and plastic. Cup, cup. The block was still hot.

12:20 AM: I tried to move it; got half a mile before the light went off again.

12:35 AM: The best part about calling AAA is when they ask you if you're in a safe place. Yeah, I guess.

12:45 AM: Chris and Evelyn were unbelievably kind on the phone, getting me names of local garages in anticipation of the tow, although I hoped he could lift me home. It was good just to have human contact.

12:55 AM: I wondered about the psychological effect of spaces. Cars and trucks grew sparse. Lights kept the long road visible, but there was only a metal box far behind me and a blue Attractions sight way on the inky horizon. A single light from a home shone from way up a hill, and across from that there was the subtlety of the eastbound lane. I began to crave personality, in the way that even being alone in an office leaves traces of connection with people. There was nothing out there.

1:10 AM: It wasn't bad. The stars were out, and it was only cool. I had a jacket, and a blanket in the car. The flashers blinked yellow, on and off. I was only anxious for the lack of activity. I fixated on the headlights of oncoming vehicles, pacing back and forth.

1:25 AM: A man pulled his car over, way in front of me, and asked if I needed help. I said no. He was the only one who'd stop.

1:30 AM: I heard a snap in the grass behind me. I hoped it wasn't a bear or anything; I might have to get in my car and close the door.

1:40 AM: Youths zooming by called me a faggot. I wondered if the tow guy should have called me back.

1:50 AM: The tow's bubbling lights appeared. I was getting tired, which would have been the main peril in my situation, though a mild one at that. The driver apologized for taking so long: "It's been a busy morning."

2:10 AM: It was good to talk to someone, with the progression of my life halted. It was like taking a drink after a long trudge through humid woods. There's so much occasion around, that blackness has a little residual power as an isolating element, a dehydrator.

2:40 AM: "Hmm," I thought, "I hope he lets me off at an ATM."

2:55 AM: They can't drive you home. A mile and a half. I've been out later.

FINIS: Who's out on the streets of my town at 3:00 AM?

- Me

- The tow guy, turning around and driving off in the opposite direction.

- The person filling their working car at a gas station. They probably consider this 'morning' too.

- The young guy sitting at a computer in a Barack Obama campaign office, downloading hope. Or porn. Or both, given tabbed browser technology.

(there are flashing lights and sirens and fire trucks race down the street)

- The man sitting on the steps of his(?) building, waiting for something.

- The guy in a hoodie passing by me on my left. A car pulls up behind me and I hear the guy from the steps get in, his greeting indicating a work day. Morning for him.

- Two young fellows laughing and carrying on with a cell phone in an alley by a hotel.

- Whomever is driving the street-sweeping machine slowly up the main drag right before the turn to my street.

(the red lights reflect off anything metal from down my street)

- The firemen milling around the two fire trucks, three blocks up from my place.

- The older man seated outside a building that smells like smoke, his face melancholic. He's not dressed for anything that's morning for him. I don't know his plot. I barely know mine. I'm still a sponge, and I absorb what he's feeling. I tell myself to walk straighter, because it's not so bad for me. The lights flash all the way up my street while I'm walking in the middle of the road. It's not so bad.