Thursday, February 25, 2010

Death Note (manga, films)

We watched the two Death Note films a few days ago.

I read the manga in Japanese a few years ago. Here's what I thought about them then:


Ôba Tsugumi, Obata Takeshi 大場つぶみ・小畑健. Desu nôto デスノート. Shûeisha – Jump Comics, 2004-7. Vol. 1-12.

A psycho-horror thing. Basic premise is this: there are a bunch of Death Gods out there somewhere who kill humans by writing their names in their Death Notebooks (Death Note, in J). One, Ryuk, gets bored and drops an extra Death Note into the human world, where bright high schooler Yagami Light finds it. Ryuk has kindly written the instructions inside the book, so Light realizes he now has the power to kill anybody whose face and name he knows, merely by writing their name in the notebook. He commences a campaign of secret assassinations of known criminals, with the goal of forcing everybody in the world to be good. Light’s ultimate goal is to become the god of this new world.

This all happens within the first couple of episodes. The rest of the thing is concerned with all the people trying to figure out who the killer—nicknamed Kira on the internet—is and to catch him. It’s pretty suspenseful up through the first three or four volumes, then gets tedious for a while, as Light has to go underground—lose his Death Note and forget he ever had it, joining the police search for Kira—for a while. Picks up again when Light recovers his powers and does away with his nemesis, a superdetective nerdboy called L. Then it gets tedious again until the end, when Light’s final bid for world supremacy (against L’s successor nerdboy, Near) fails, and Ryuk kills Light, because he’s washed up. No more fun.

Jump Comics are aimed at teenage boys, on the young side. And that’s the real flaw with this. It’s an interesting premise—absurd, of course, but pregnant with possibilities—it could verily easily have explored the typical teenage-boy fantasy of being able to do away with one’s enemies. Typical at least of some teenagers, certainly in these troubled times. But they skirt that kind of psychological penetration; Light’s pretty much a one-dimensional guy: so strictly virtuous in his application of murder that he’s kind of boring. And they don’t follow too far the philosophical implications of what he’s doing: they try, of course, attempting to depict a world divided between people who think murder’s murder, no matter what, and those who think, either through fear or admiration, that Light’s got the answer. But once they set out this debate, quite early, they never really advance it too far. And there are all sorts of opportunities for irony that are passed up in the ending, which is just a basic shootout.

Actually, not really a shootout, but a chess match. That’s what the whole series is, essentially—some action early, and a few action sequences later, but basically it’s a chess match between Light and whoever his opponent of the moment is. And this is what gets tedious—endless scenes of Light furrowing his brow as he reviews his plot and what he thinks the other guy’s plot is, and what he thinks the other guy thinks his plot is, and what the other guy thinks he thinks the other guy thinks his plot is—and lots of the other guy doing the same. It amounts to endless recaps, really, and statements of the obvious. Maybe necessary if you’re thirteen, and it’s churlish to complain, really, since that’s who this is aimed at.

All I’m saying is that at first this looked like it might transcend. It doesn’t.


Mrs. Sgt. T basically concurred - she gave up on them quicker than I did. We ended up watching the movies because one of our students was thinking about writing a paper about them, so we figured we'd better familiarize ourselves.

All in all, the movies did a fairly good job of condensing 12 volumes of manga into two films (both released in 2006 in Japan - it was enough of a franchise already that they greenlighted a two-part film). They got rid of the whole bit with Near and let it end on the showdown between Light and L (which is how the manga should have ended too - that it didn't was a classic case of trying to milk the franchise). They condense the timeline so that Light starts out as a college students (which robs the story of some of its adolescent-psychosis subtext, but oh well).

In other ways they're faithful to a, and I mean this, fault. The first movie is reasonably okay, some decent suspense, and at least a half-hearted effort to think about the conceit's Issues. The second movie does just what the manga did: it devolves into endless mind-games between Light and L. In fact, that's all the second movie is. In the very beginning Light walks into the investigation's HQ and literally starts playing chess with L. "AUGGHHH! They're NOT going to do this!" I screamed. They did it.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Taliesin West

The last art-related thing on our trip to Arizona that I haven't blogged about is the first one we did, which was our visit to Taliesin West. This is the home/school Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built in the desert outside of Scottsdale, his winter home.

I've been putting off blogging about it because I feel I should really have something fine to say about it. Something worthy of it. I don't. I mean, it was awesome. We took the three-hour tour, and I'd recommend it. It really was worth the $60.

It was worth it because it was really nice to be able to see the whole place, or at least as much as is open to the public: the living areas, the working areas, the gardens, the guest house. It's still functioning as a school, the docents made clear; and those docents - what a trip. We were guided around by this elderly German woman who knew Mr. Wright, and spoke of him in very reverent tones. At break time we were seated at a table with this even older woman in a wheelchair who had spent most of her youth with Wright at the two Taliesins, and from her wheelchair she regaled us with tales of life at the school. Both of these women, as well as the way everybody stressed the self-contained nature of life at Taliesin (Wright really seems to have controlled all aspects of his students' lives) reminded me a lot of some of the religious colonies I've visited - Amana, for example. A totally secular modernist cult? Not so far-fetched, I guess...

But that's a little paranoid. Mostly it was just three hours of looking at beautiful, even noble modernist architecture that really does live up to its promise. Interacting respectfully with the landscape, while at the same time feeling extremely mod and aesthetically well-thought-out. In fact it almost felt comfortable - Wright's stuff, if taken to its logical conclusion, can lead to unhappy hipsters, but I don't think I'd be too unhappy living there.