All spin-offs have pluses and minuses. The positive side of any spin-off, of course, is that a strong character from a series strikes such a chord with fans that he or she merits a separate, standalone story. The negative side is when the spin-off strays too far from the original, losing the elements that made it so successful in the first place. L: Change the WorLd (sic), from Viz Pictures, is billed as “The Unwritten Chapter of Death Note” and focuses on one of the characters from the successful Japanese manga, anime, and live action movie series. As such, it succeeds as a separate feature about the final case of L, the eccentric young genius detective whom audiences have come to love. But for those looking for another true Death Note movie, lower your expectations because this is a very different film from the stories that preceded it.
For those unfamiliar with the Death Note franchise, (or "Desu Noto" in Japanese), here’s a quick background. Writers Tsugumi Oba and Takeshi Obata first created the tale as a comic book series in Japan and then adapted it into a popular anime cartoon series, which was followed by two live action film versions.
The story deals with the Joker-esque Ryuuk, a shinigami, or “god of death,” dropping a notebook onto Earth that has the power to take anyone’s life whose name is written in its pages. An idealistic young man named Light Yagami discovers the Death Note and uses it to become “Kira,” a serial killer of criminals, in a misguided attempted to make the world a better place. Light is confronted by L, a quirky, crime-solving mastermind. The heart of the Death Note series becomes the battle of wits between Light and L, as Light falls deeper into megalomania, trying to justify his view of morality and fighting L in the process. L eventually sacrifices himself to stop the killing spree and destroy the Death Note.
The new movie, L: Change the WorLd, points the spotlight squarely on L, the slouching, shaggy-haired detective with peculiar idiosyncrasies (such as the way he sits, types, and picks up objects) during the last 23 days of his life. While fans of L will delight in this feature-length adventure that reveals many more facets of the character than previously seen, the film struggles to match the poignancy of the Death Note saga that has come before.
Light Yagami is deeply missed as L’s counterpoint. In this new movie, L battles eco-terrorists whose mission is to unleash a virus that will kill all humans (except themselves of course) in a crackpot mission to save the environment and place themselves as nature’s caretakers. Yes, there is a similar moral ambiguity about extremists with a deadly cause compared to the vigilante justice of the earlier Death Note narrative, but L deserves a challenger of higher stature. The terrorists seem like second-rate villains and do not equal the drama and depth of Light and the “Kira” killings of the first two films.
Just because it might not fully measure up in the context of the rest of Death Note (the monstrous Ryuuk, for example, is barely a part of this story), as a one-shot feature with L as the star, it has fun moments and some enjoyable scenes. Ken’ichi Matsuyama as L carries this movie on his slumping shoulders. He’s a terrific leading man, and it’s no wonder that fans have embraced him. Like the anime character come to life, he conveys a lot through just his eyes and a little turn of his head. This movie reveals the character’s emotions and soul, and audiences will connect with him even more. Like the mask he sometimes wears, his own face hides a multitude of feelings that slowly become uncovered during the course of his final adventure.
The writers of the script, Kiyomi Fujii and Hirotoshi Kobayashi, achieve this feat through a tried and true Hollywood cliché – match the hero with some endearing children in order to bring out his kinder, gentler side. Surprisingly, rather than coming across as corny or sentimental, the subplot about L having to protect the 12-year-old girl, Maki, and the little nameless Boy, is the strongest part of the movie.
Mayuko Fukuda plays Maki with a broad range of perkiness, sadness, rage, and tenderness as she loses her father to the virus and bonds with L. In some scenes, it reminded me of Natalie Portman’s performance as Mathilda in Leon: The Professional. The Boy, played by Narushi Fukuda, is emotionally distant, but shows signs of savant brilliance. He draws out the most feeling from L who sees a bit of himself in the child who is connected to his dead mentor Watari (played nicely by Shunji Fujimura, channeling Batman’s Alfred) and whom he names Near, a character who has a pivotal role in the manga plotline.
The direction by Hideo Nakata, who made the blockbuster Ringu horror films and helmed the American version sequel Ring 2, is slightly slow-paced compared to Western standards, but it works well as a character study of L, as he abandons his computers and gadgets, relying more on his intellect and resourcefulness than ever before. The cinematography by Tokusho Kikumuro, best known for Ju-on, is adequate with moments of excellence, especially the shots of L emerging from the horizon as a force to be reckoned with and then walking off into the sunset to face his deadly destiny at the end. The original music, particularly the string instrumentals, conveys the proper mood throughout the film.
L: Change the WorLd is best viewed in the original Japanese with English subtitles, but the voice actors for the English-language dubbed version do a fine job. Alessandro Juliani provides the soft but arresting voice of L. Ron Halder is noble and captivating as Watari. Chantal Strand brings Maki to life in her various stages of emotion. Cathy Weseluck is strong as Kimiko Kujo, played on the screen by star Youki Kudoh. Michael Dobson provides the voice for the returning character, Detective Matsudo, played by Sota Aoyama from the other Death Note films.
The DVD offers behind the scenes segments and director interviews, plus the original Japanese and official English trailers. The audio is available in English or Japanese 2.0 Dolby Stereo and 5.1 Dolby Surround.
If you are looking for another film to drive the plot of Death Note further, this may not be exactly it. But if L is your favorite character and you wish to see one last adventure of his before the character dies in a story that rounds him out admirably, then this movie will serve you well.