Friday, December 12, 2008

DVD Review: Death Note: Volume 1 Box Set

If you had the power to kill anyone just by knowing their name and face, what would you do with it? That's the premise behind the anime series Death Note, now available in its first box set. Containing the first 20 episodes of the series, this set takes you on an dark and entertaining ride.

Based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note focuses on a brilliant Japanese high school student named Light Yagami. Despite his popularity, considerable intelligence, and loving family, he is bored with his life and the world. Things change, however, when he finds a mysterious notebook called a "Death Note." Inside the book, he find instructions to use the book to kill a human. All that's needed is a name and that the person writing that name in the book have the person's face in their mind. Conditions, causes, and even time of death can be dictated by writing them next to the name. If nothing else is written, the person dies of a heart attack within 40 seconds.

Curious about the note's power, Light tries it out first by writing down the name of a criminal holding a school hostage. Although the criminal dies just seconds after he writes down the name, Light isn't really convinced until he uses the note to kill a man attempting to rape a young woman in front of his eyes.

When he realizes that the note truly works, he becomes mad with power and decides to rid the world of all the people he thinks are bad. He writes down the names of many major criminals and, in an attempt to gain notoriety, has them all die of heart attacks. Light's deeds bring him a visit from the Death Note's actual owner, a shinigami (god of death) named Ryuk. With Light coming into possession of the Death Note, the two are connected. Only Light and those who have touched the Death Note can see Ryuk.

As Light continues to kill criminals, the world at large starts to take notice. People take to calling the unseen force "Kira" and devote websites to him. The U.N. brings in a mysterious, freelance detective known only as "L" to find and capture Kira. What follows is a war of wills as L and Light try to stay one step ahead of the other. In the process, Light's father, the Japanese police, the FBI, and even a "second Kira" are all caught in the crossfire.

Death Note could have easily been a disturbing horror series (imagine what someone like Jigsaw could do with a Death Note) but it works well as a suspenseful drama/mystery. The show has a very dramatic feel from the use of choral music in some scenes to surprising camera angles. There are times when it almost veers into self-parody (a scene involving Light and a bag of potato chips has to be seen to be believed) but the show doesn't take itself too seriously to keep it from being entertaining.

Apart from the sometimes twisty plot, the various character relationships are what makes this show good. The unusual connection/not-quite-friendship between Light and Ryuk is unique. Ryuk stays pretty neutral but is amused by what Light does. He's the only person Light can talk to about the perils of being Kira, although that doesn't stop Light from trying to manipulate him when he needs to. Then, there is the relationship between Light and L. The two of them are similar in that they are brilliant minds who can't be themselves and must stay a bit detached from the rest of the world.

The animation, done by famed studio Madhouse, is pretty good for a TV series. The character designs match the manga well and the color palette is surprisingly varied at times for a show like this. The English dub is solid with good vocal performances all around. If there is one gripe to be had, it is about the opening menu on each disc. The menu takes far too long to get to the main screen. Fortunately, it can be skipped.

The Death Note Volume 1 Box Set contains the first 20 episodes from the 37-episode anime series across five discs. The discs are housed in a handsome digipack with the inside artwork replicating instruction pages from the Death Note. All the episodes feature either English audio or Japanese audio with English subtitles.

There are a good amount of extras in this set. Each disc features a behind the scenes featurette with a different English voice actor from the series and production artwork from the series. Each disc also has one episode available with audio commentary by people who worked on the English dub. In addition to the extras mentioned, disc one features clean versions of the opening and ending, disc two features an interview with the Japanese director and character designer, and disc five has a trailer for the live-action movie version of Death Note.

The Death Note Volume 1 Box Set is great for fans of dark, suspenseful drama or those who may have missed the show when it aired on Adult Swim. Considering that it packs the first five individual volumes in one set at a better price, it's also a great deal for fans of the show who have yet to pick it up on DVD. By the time you finish this set, you'll be looking for the rest of the show just to see how it all ends. The inevitable Volume 2 Box Set can't come soon enough.

DEATH NOTE based on the comic "DEATH NOTE" by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata
originally serialized in "WEEKLY SHONEN JUMP" published by SHUEISHA Inc.
© Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata/Shueisha
© DNDP, VAP, Shueisha, Madhouse

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