A kindler, gentler L
The original Death Note (Live Action) and Death Note II: The Last Name are two of the finest anime-to-live action adaptations I have seen. They were massive hits in Japan, and have gained a solid following in the West as well.
One of the driving forces behind the popularity was Matsuyama Kenichi (The Taste of Tea) portrayal as the enigmatic L, a genius detective who stays hidden from the world and operates from behind a computer screen. Matsuyama was a relatively unknown actor at the time, but managed to create a compelling character that was even more captivating than as originally imaged in the comic book series.
Just like with Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs, audiences demanded more L, something complicated by the fact that the character of L dies at the end of “Death Note: The Last Name.” However, a death scene has never stopped a studio looking to cash in on a character’s popularity!
Like many people, I was really looking forward to “L: Change the World.” Not only would I get to see Matsuyama assume his most famous role again, but master horror director Nakata Hideo (Ring, Dark Water) was at the helm, and it seemed destined to be an instant hit. Unfortunately, 1+1 does not always equal 2, and “L: Change the World” is definitely the lesser entry in the Death Note trilogy.
Nakata solved the problem of L’s death by setting the adventure in the twenty-three days between when L wrote his own name in Misa’s Death Note, and when he was show dying peacefully eating a candy bar. The set-up begins when a young boy shows up, claiming to be the only survivor of a deadly bio-weapon outbreak in Thailand. The outbreak appears to be an act of terrorism by an eco-group who wants to wipe out a third of the human population in order to make the Earth livable again, without so many humans draining its resources. L swings into action, taking on the young boy and another young girl, Maki, on a quest to create an antidote to the deadly virus and save the world from the eco-terrorist’s vile plan.
The plot, on the whole, is somewhat by-the-numbers, and pairing L up with a pair of kids was not the best decision. Nakata has said that he wanted to show L’s human side, his weaknesses and emotions, but these things only serve to make L less interesting. The character works as a super-human oddity, so massive in brain power he has difficulty associating with other people. He shouldn’t be paired with a cute young girl with a can-do personality and a charming smile. He shouldn’t be wasting his abilities battling villains who are so campy and stupid.
Which is not to say that “L: Change the World” is horrible. Matsuyama’s characterization of L is still fantastic to watch, and the film does have some great moments. L’s Crepe Truck is a lot of fun, as is watching him try to calm down a girl who just watched her father get killed by offering her a candy, and not understanding why that doesn’t work. The juxtaposition with L and Maki does work, but at times it comes off as too cutesy.
I think what is really missing from “L: Change the World” is a credible villain. In both Death Notes, L had to match wits with someone almost his equal, the owner of the Death Note Light Yagami. However, the leader of the eco-terrorist gang does not nearly operate on L’s level, and the outcome is never in doubt.
As a fan of the Death Note films, I was glad to watch this final entry. It is a lesser film, but worth watching for Matsuyama’s portrayal of L. Seeing both earlier films is definitely a pre-requisite, as certain parts of “L: Change the World” won’t make sense without understanding the previous installments.