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Review © Tyler Robbins, 2010.

Directed by Hideo Nakata, 2008, 129 minutes, starring Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Mayuko Fukuda, and Narushi Fukuda.

When a pal of mine first turned me on to Death Note three years ago, I did not anticipate liking it.  It was a bit gawky for me, all sudden death and corpse-like spirit gods, and not at all like the clumsy, offbeat anime I was used to.  With time, though, I grew to quite like it, as the full set of the manga on my bookshelf attests. So does my willingness to review, and even try to love, the lesser film adaptations based on the series. I should have never doubted the tastes of a nerd living in Brooklyn. 

The first couple of Death Note films, while perfectly watchable and a lovely supplement to the books and cartoon, lacked a lot of the oomph that is necessary for a story to be told without its viewers going comatose or, alternately, losing the plot entirely as it speeds past you.  But to misappropriate a cliché phrasing, one should never judge a death note by its cover (wokka wokka). (Kill me. ;-))

There is something very basic and relatable about the story of  a young man being consumed by power, and there is a very human interest in the idea that good is never all good, and bad is never all bad; these ideas allow us to accept our faults, to not aspire to perfection, and to forgive ourselves of minor transgressions rather than flagellating ourselves for forgiveness.  Comparatively, we might identify with Light, the anti-hero of the Death Note series, but we can feel relieved knowing we're not him.

Death Note has always been about this duality, the good and the bad (even when not exactly black and white), and it is L, the foil to Light's passive-aggressive power struggle, who kept the balance.  Sadly, despite a mysterious back-story and being a totally and utterly creepy figure, L never really got a chance to shine on his own in either the anime or the Death Note films, which is why it was quite a surprise when an entire film was released to most of the world in 2008 focusing solely on this strange, ultra pale, baggy jeans-clad archetype of hikikomori isolationism and candy consumption. 

Synopsis

In Thailand, a horrible, government-created, Agent Orange-style virus has infected the entire population of a village, with the exception of a single remarkable boy.  When an English-speaking military annihilates the village with an onslaught of rockets and bombs (and some truly horrifying and realistic visuals) it is all that a mysterious agent with connections to L can do to help the young boy escape, before he too is killed in the attack.  The boy calls a memorised number, never once appearing fazed at the wiping out of his home.

Set before the final events of Death Note 2, L Change The World reflects on a crucial arc in the story of L, which is that in order to defeat Light and his control of death, L himself signed his own name in the death note, determining when and how his own death would come, essentially pulling the power out from under Light by giving himself 23 days (and the promise of 'dying quietly') to finish off his life's work.  After the deaths of Watari and Light and the capture of Misa Misa, L burns the death notes and reflects solemnly on his time spent alone, until he is interrupted by a call from the young boy.

L allows the boyto come stay with him, and quickly discovers from the child's random numerical writings and organization of everyday objects that he is a tiny genius.  Neither is sure what to make of the other, L generally being weird and tetchy, and the young boy kind of running wild, only to sit in corners alone and sulk.  They are, in essence, a match made in heaven.

Japanese viral scientists, already aware of the virus, are trying to come up with an antidote.  The scientist working on the virus tests the antidote out on his teenaged daughter, and when he is gruesomely killed by his conspiring coworker and her band of crude, evil-doer caricatures, she flees to L, carrying an SD disk given to her by her dad.  It turns out, as things usually do in this sort of film, that the scientist's previously unassuming lab partner is in fact an environmental terrorist, and in order to return the natural earth to a state of unperturbed grace she and her cohorts intend to decimate the population.  Riiiight. As you do. The only catch is that without an antidote to save themselves (and presumably to lord over a frightened public) the super-virus is worthless. 

All at once L is forced to struggle not only with how to defeat the terrorists, but also with how someone who does not even touch other people should deal with two young children, especially ones so gifted and bizarre.  But before he can offer them waffles and chocolates and as many pastel candies as they can stomach, the archetypal bad guys have broken into his enclave and they are forced to escape, with the aid of an as-if-out-of-nowhere, yet completely bumbling, FBI agent.  Their getaway vehicle: a pink powdered crêpe van, naturally.  As you do.

What L doesn't know is that the FBI agent is trying to locate the destroyed death notes - surely a failure in dramatic terms, as this whole plotline is about as suspenseful as a turnip - and anyway L and the Bobsy Twins have more important things to focus on, like not getting killed, and maintaining their sugar highs.  Will they avoid death? (Well, L won't at least.)  Will they be able to stop the terrorists in time to save humanity?  Will the FBI stop hiring the dumbest possible Japanese to work for them?

This is not a bad movie.  And I've said that about other films as a pejorative, but in this case I mean it well.  I liked L so much that I watched it twice in the same day. Coherent, subtle, sometimes even saccharine in its silliness, L is so utterly different from the Death Note films that, were there not some tangential connection tacked on to the title song at the movie's start and a few shared plot details, they would have no tonal ties that bind at all.  This film did exactly what I wanted it to do (and exactly what I did not expect from it): it took an underused, interesting character, fleshed him out without giving away his mystery, and allowed us a chance to enjoy an adventure with him over the course of two hours without finding ourselves bogged down with side stories and non-analogous cultural notes.

Although the cast of bad guys are somewhat underdeveloped (for example, Mr. Scary Eye is sheet-thin), they do their jobs well, and we are never asked to question their goodness or badness like we had previously with L or Light.  These dudes are evil, and even if they may have lacked continuity in parts (the man who was going to shoot a young girl with a shotgun finds himself helpless when a small crowd of street people block the road), they were neither the crux of this film, nor even that important to its most central themes. 

I did get tired of the absurdities of the movie (eco-terrorism will never, ever be protrayed realistically in my lifetime, and heaven knows what returning the world to nature and terrorizing humans have to do with each other), but on the whole this was a movie built on the idea of getting to know this one character better, and sure enough we did.  In fact, while I had previously cooed at L for being all of the things I myself have been accused of being outside of internet life - a loner, bumbling, wholly unaffected, unwilling to play the games that young people and old people alike think are necessary to social interaction - by this story's end I had a much more rounded view of him.  Seeing him try to comfort these very sad, very shaken children with the only joy he knows (delicious candy god damnit) you feel like somewhere in that lumbering, slumped skinsuit is a real person sequestered away.  But just when you think the man has gone soft, you find out that half-hug he's given the girl is just him checking her body temperature in case she has the lethal mutagen.

Perhaps the most positive thing about this film are the young characters themselves.  In a world where heroism is often portrayed in the egoistic, thoughtless, musclebound bodies of charismatic and gregarious tough guys, it is intensely rewarding to see a battle of immense magnitude fought quietly through arithmetic and science.  A kindergarten mathematical savant and an aloof logician who is the poster child of Asperger's Syndrome, these two manage to navigate the intricacies of a world they have very little understanding of with more understanding than many. 

For anyone who does not often find people with hero qualities at all appealing (or their brawny showmanship in any way intrinsic or attainable) this is a refreshing change of pace, and no doubt something that will never, ever, ever translate accordingly to the rumored American Death Note remake.  Although like the rest of the Death Note stories, the women involved get the short-shift in terms of character development (this time we have a frightened and erratic school girl versus a vicious, heartless scientist bitch), at the end of the day the overall arc of the story has so much more to offer than the face-value story of super-kids versus environmental terrorists that these transgressions are mostly forgivable. 

Contrary to the modern hipster zeitgeist, somehow a story of embracing your own inner strengths is right at the forefront of L Change The World, as is an underlying theme of not being defined by where you were born or where you are from, and instead making your own (however atypical) family.  They're both sweet concepts, and to be packaged as a mystery in what is otherwise advertised as a series of ghost-based morality plays is quite crafty. 

Although it is hard to imagine L as the same character from the manga (where he was supposedly a master in tennis while living abroad in England), the L in the movie is probably greater than his equal just by maintaining so much mystery.  This is obviously not all down to Ken'ichi Matsuyama's performance; a great deal of credit goes to in-house favorite Hideo Nakata, of Ring and Dark Water fame, for transforming a potentially goth-y slacker with some serious eye baggage into a wonderfully complex character who transforms before the viewer's eyes.  Matsuyama's averted eye shifts are used to maximum potential, and it's telling in the quiet tone of the movie that the director has finally figured out a way to make a film that has a few layers of depth, while still remaining wholly commercial to non-aficionado audiences.

This is no brilliant film, which is an intellectual handicap to my visceral enjoyment of the film.  It is hardly 'extreme', and in fact were this not a spin-off of Death Note, this film would not even necessitate a review on this site.  Hell, if this were not a spin-off of Death Note, this film would not have even been made.  Most reviews of the film unsurprisingly compare it to the predecessors in the series, which is a bit expected but undeserving.  In the succession of the group, it is perhaps a bit jolting and a change of tone, and as a fan of the Death Note series of manga, anime, and films, it isn't quite as bullet-proof in a canonical sense as the second film adaptation The Last Name.  But as a diversion to our normal haunts of art nouveau blue-filter films, cyberpunk machine rape, and obtuse ghost dramas, L: Change The World makes for some good mid-afternoon entertainment that, despite its murder and terrorism themes, is exceptionally benign and innocent and evn silly.  Paired with a platter of sugar-based sweets, you might even find yourself forgetting that this whole thing started with a Japanese Zac Efron killing thousands of people with a magical notebook.  Not bad at all.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment: 7/10
Violence: 5/10
Chills: 2/10
Gross-outs:  burnt people toast/10
Sex: none at all, it's all kids and death in this one
L's Adorable Sad Faces: too many, two many I say!

Films in a Similar Style: It's a bit like Audition, but without any tension at all, and children, everywhere

*** Recommended ***

L Change The World Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [1260x720]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2010

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Hideo Nakata
Ken'ichi Matsuyama
Tatsuya Fujiwara

Links

http://wwws.warnerbros.co.jp/L-movie/ - Official film site
http://www.deathnotefilms.com/L/home.php - A co-produced Viz/MTV Iggy site with flashy videos
http://oceanmoon.wordpress.com/2008/02/16/l-change-the-world-review/ - The blog press has spoken, and they are articulate as usual; notice the inherent self-segregation of anime watchers and film viewers- fandom is lovely, is it not?
http://www.lovehkfilm.com/panasia/l_change_the_world.html - Love HK Film and I don't always agree, but I will concede that without an intellectual foe L really can be just a loveable goof (who I'd like to hug, all the time)
http://www.nihonreview.com/live-action/l-change-the-world/ - You know, now that I think about it, Wolverine kind of sucked too


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