Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Rules of the Shinigami

'The most logical way is to think that the death god exists.'

I recently discovered the Death Note franchise, apparently very popular worldwide, via an interesting tie with the title logo on it that somebody was wearing in a photograph. It's one of many Japanese franchises, it seems, that started out as a manga, received an anime adaptation and made its way to live-action films, soon to be needlessly remade again for a Western audience.

I got hold of the live-action film first, or at least the first part of it (they split it into two), expecting a pretty awful adaptation but feeling, for some reason, in the mood for just that. But though it felt like a TV production at times, mostly in special effects, and though I'd managed to get a horrible dubbed version which made it very hard to take seriously (as dubbing always does), it was better than I expected, and about halfway through the second one, The Last Name (after a switch to subtitles), I realised that I was actually really enjoying it.

The reason for that is genuinely clever writing, and a plot that feels like it really earns all of its twists and developments, without pulling its advancements out of thin air or resorting to the abuse of narrative tricks like misdirection.

The premise of the film is that a college-aged boy, Light Yagami, finds a Death Note dropped by a shinigami—a death god—called Ryuk. The Death Note is a notebook that causes the death of anyone whose name is written inside it as long as the user has the face of that person in mind. It contains a list of written rules specifying the terms and conditions regarding how exactly it can be used, with stuff like time limits, detailing the way a person dies, etc; all kinds of arbitrary rules resembling those of a kid making up a game as he goes along, with the primary purpose of imposing some limitations so the concept can be integrated and doesn't become immediately unwieldy and the story over very quickly.

With this context set, the story then develops into a continually inverted cat-and-mouse game between Light Yagami and the equally intelligent mysterious detective known only as L, who is trying to track him down. Obviously the concept behind the Death Note opens the story up for a lot of big questions about murder, justice, morality and so on, but the battle between these two characters, the ongoing attempts by each to outwit the other, is where this story really finds its grip.

And it works so well because it uses the rules of the Death Note (and one or two others given by the shinigami) to frame it, providing all kinds of stuff for the characters to get around or deduce or to use in imaginative ways. Characters are constantly testing the boundaries and making sacrifices, but always operating strictly by this Death Note logic, however arbitrary that logic might be. It's a what-if scenario that almost invites the viewer to take part, because we're free to try and figure out for ourselves how we might act in each situation and what the next move might be.

The result of all this is that the plot develops with some integrity, consistency and thus believability, becoming wholly immersive even though Light does have an obviously computer-generated shinigami hovering over his shoulder all the time. The story sucks you in anyway, and whatever relevance there is to the obvious big themes of morality and justice comes to arise naturally, making the whole thing much more honest and worthwhile.

This kind of sums up for me, in a sense, the strength of storytelling that isn't a slave to the kind of realism that demands a world exactly like ours, whether this fictional world logic comes to be the focused object of the plot, like the Death Note or Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics or the Loom of Fate in that ridiculous film Wanted, or whether it functions as a wider truth of the world, like magic in a Tolkien-type fantasy or the existence of anthropomorphic aliens in a space opera. These worlds, these what-if scenarios, are simply a way of framing our experience by creating scenarios which, however fantastical or extreme they seem, can be fertile ground for exploring and testing the humans (or human-likes) stuck at the heart of it.

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