Death Note (Netflix Live Action)

Weak

This is the US live-action adaptation of Death Note, brought to you by Netflix.  As a whole, this movie is an embarrassing adaptation of Death Note.  What makes it embarrassing is that a fan of Death Note isn’t likely to be pleased, while a newcomer to the concept is likely to ask “what was the big deal about the original work, anyway?”  What we got was an angsty teenage romance/drama with some supernatural elements instead of a Holmes and Moriarty-esque struggle of titans.

To be fair, the director did indicate that he wanted to do something different… and do something different they did.  This was accomplished through a massive (daresay upsetting) set of changes, character, setting, and even genre.  That said, there were other changes that I feel perfectly fine about.  I don’t mind that it set in Seattle and that the entire cast is distinctly American.  Those changes, if executed competently, could have been a really fascinating adaptation of the series, a “what if the Death Note landed in America,” hypothetical.  What we got was something of a wholesale slaughter of the core concept and identity of the series, turning it into almost a shambling mockery of itself.

Starting with the characters, they managed to destroy almost all semblance of cleverness or intelligence.  We are told that Light is a smart person and later he tells us in passing of something that resembles a god complex, although we never get to see it.  Instead, we get something of a whiny brat who is using the Death Note to get into someone’s pants (Mia, the replacement for Misa).  Yes, I’m serious.  I do have to say that Mia’s character was wildly altered and became something of a blend of the anime’s Light and Misa – she’s the driving force, the “actual” cold-blooded killer.  On that note, I do like what they did with her, since I consider Misa’s inclusion in Death Note as something of a tragic mistake.   As for L… Instead of a brilliant yet cold detective, we have a little bit of an emotional wreck who, surprise surprise, doesn’t actually seem like a genius.

These changes ended up wildly affecting the plot and the storytelling.  As much as it pains me to say, because of the massive changes to Light, L was almost wholly unnecessary in this story.  Since much of the movie focuses on Light and Mia’s relationship, all L does is introduce the possibility (and fear) that Light might be caught.  This makes Light even more hesitant to kill people (the exact opposite of the anime series).  This could have been accomplished with a random police officer or investigative agency, since L’s “brilliance” was to stumble around in a haphazard fashion.  That makes sense, of course, since this is not a movie in the detective/drama genre.  It’s clear that no one on the writing staff even cast a wayward glance at something like Law and Order, let alone Sherlock Holmes.

Even if we forgive that, we still have a bizarre and awkward teenage romance.  Since Mia ends up being the driving force, Light ends up being a killer to impress her more than anything.  Even with her trying to stand in the anime Light’s shadow (giggle), there’s still something massively lackluster about the movie.  Because of the relationship focus, the movie ends up being so small and trivial in scope – it’s never about reforming the world or about changing society, no matter what they say.  But at least the movie ended.  It’s over, right?  As if to leave a final insult to the viewer, the movie ended in a highly unsatisfying fashion – nothing concluded and it strongly hints of a sequel.

As a post-script, William Dafoe as Ryuk was the best part of the movie.  He was so perfect in that role, it pains me that the rest didn’t even try to be on that level.

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Daily Lives of High School Boys (series + 6 shorts)

Very Good

This is an oddity in the slice of life comedy genre because it’s about average high school boys.  Well, weirdo high school boys, but normal nonetheless.  Daily Lives of High School Boys is certainly fun to watch passively, enjoying the comedy.  You can also pay attention to the subtle (and sometimes in-your-face, not so subtle) commentary worked into the background.  With that in mind, this anime does some really interesting things that are very rare in the slice of life and comedy genres.  Overall this anime was structurally sound and pretty entertaining to watch.

Purpose: Very Good.  The first half of the anime is somewhat hit-and-miss with respect to the consistency of the humor.  Once it settles into its stride, and finds out what works well, it’s consistently strong.  The type of humor present in the anime varies quite a bit.  However, much of the humor is perspective-based, which may be somewhat surprising to the unaware.  This means that certain actions and reactions and even violence are exaggerated to the viewer to give a sense of how the characters interpret it.  Some of the perspective-based commentary is perhaps a bit too overt.  The commentary varies, but seems to generally coalesce around frustration at the differences between girls slice of life and boys slice of life comedy.  That aside, this anime truly shines when it accompanies a scene with characters’ internal thoughts.

Characters: Very Good.  Characters generally aren’t deep, but this is an example of a type of anime where they don’t need to be.  Instead, characters are generally interesting enough by acting in a distinctive enough way.  What was surprising was that several characters ended up having a good deal of depth, but in an unexpected way.  The strongest characters are the ones where we can see their internal thought processes.  It’s a really odd, yet effective, way to build a character since we really learn about that character by the way he thinks.  That ends up creating almost a template where, even if we don’t see the character’s thought process in another scene, we know generally what he’s thinking. By the end, they manage to develop a surprising attachment to the characters and the everyday struggles they face – you sort of feel like you knew these guys.

World: Good.  On a physical level, while fairly plain, the world served its role solidly.  For this anime, the world ended up being much more of a backdrop of everyday locations.  Those locations actually served as a passive indicator of the kind of humor to be expected.  As the anime smoothed itself out, the settings generally resolved themselves into themes that set the stage for the comedic gags.  The other aspect of the world is all the ways the characters are related to each other.  That sets up a continuity between gags.  The continuity supports and lends credibility to the characters, especially in creating a general mood and atmosphere.  This anime includes something that is also quite rare in this genre’s worlds – the solid progression of time.  The anime is far from the “slice of life that never ends.”  In all, the world did a solid job of supporting other elements.

Plot: Very Good.  Normally, in slice of life comedy, you’d expect the plots to be very, very short – often limited to the several minute gags.  For the most part this is true.  However, with the addition of time, and continuity, there ends up being a plotline to several running gags.  There is a surprising amount of progression and development that happens, which is another oddity in the slice of life and comedy genres.

Storytelling: Very Good.  Storytelling in genres of this type is also usually limited to how they set up the gags.  Continuing to praise the addition of continuity, the storytelling both benefits and utilizes it very well.  It represents a constant evolution of how you understand the characters and their odd relationships with each other.  Several of the running gags are told in such a way that it makes you want to know what happens in the end.  Fortunately, they are kind enough to show us.

Pace: Good.  While this anime suffers a little bit in the beginning, it eventually finds its internal pacing.  Once it does, things run smoothly.  As it hits it stride, they begin to vary the skits’ internal pacing – some slower and some faster.  Once things are running smoothly, the pacing’s role in the gags ends up increasing.  They manage to play with pacing in a way that manages expectations and allow for several gags during the specific skit’s runtime.

Daybreak Illusion

Good

Daybreak Illusion is in the same category as Puella Magi Madoka Magica – it’s a darker take on the magical-girls genre.  Although it gets real dark, fast, compared to Madoka Magica, it pulled its punches for the most part.  While interesting to watch, it lacked the proper development to be truly great.

Purpose: Not Really Good.  It wasn’t entirely clear what they were trying to do.  Much of the anime was more weighted to action.  Rather, it was the impact of the action on the characters.  However, events that they spend half of the anime agonizing over were glossed over in the end.  It’s almost as though the author tired of that theme, treating it as more of a several episode plot-arc instead what they set it up as – an overarching theme.  The focus then shifted to the “ultimate mysteries of the world.”  Oddly, they don’t even go too far there.  They give hints of even greater and darker revelations, but never really explore them.  Frankly, that got lost in what appeared to be an odd attempt to tie in the old “plot arc” into what was going on. The lack of focus ended up sapping some strength from all of the other elements.  By the end, it felt as though the events should have been really gripping – edge of the seat gripping – but they didn’t really manage to set it up properly.

Characters: Weak.  It’s important to note that character depth and interesting characters are two different things, although they can be related.  The characters in Daybreak Illusion were interesting, both in their character design and personalities.  Each of the characters played a different role and provided a slightly different take on what was going on.  However, they lacked depth.  In this case, the depth was relegated to the characters’ backstories and some problem that came up, related to their past, that they had to overcome.  Basically, it was a one-off problem that, once solved, was the end of the character’s development journey.  In this way, it was a rather short trek for our characters to make.  This ended up robbing many scenes and plot elements of their impact because the characters weren’t strong enough to make it a compelling personal struggle.

World: Good.  This was another world that involves Tarot cards.  However, this only serves as a basis for giving the main girls powers.  Only the most basic and superficial things are explained – just enough to give you a sense of what’s going on.  For over half of the anime, this bare-bones setting is used.  Most of the actual world-building comes after the halfway point.  Once that happens, it actually begins to explain things.  Sadly, there ends up being more questions than answers – they hint at something bigger and darker lurking behind the scenes.  They don’t go much further than hints, though.  With all that said, the world gets the job done by providing an interesting enough setting for interesting things to happen in.

Plot: Very Good. The plot itself was quite good, in spite of some hiccups.   There were a good deal of strong plot points that were clearly designed to test a character’s personality.  Many of those plot points resulted in changes in perspective or trajectory of a character’s development.  However, the strength of the plot was squandered by the weaknesses in other elements.  That’s not to say the plot was uniformly strong.  One problem was that it was a bit predictable – each character got a turn in resolving an outstanding personal problem. Another problem was that a major plot point was discarded, only to be hastily tied in at the end.  This created an odd disconnect in the logical progression of events.  In spite of these failings, it still managed to be quite strong, perhaps too strong for the rest of the elements.

Storytelling: Decent.  While it feels like the storytelling was a major letdown, it still did a basic enough job to work without really detracting from anything.  Some of the scenes were quite strong because they set up moments that were supposed to be solidly emotional.  One of the strongly notable scenes involved creating an odd sense of wrongness, as though something was off.  This ended up being quite important.  Unfortunately, some of the stronger scenes that had proper buildup didn’t end up working out the way it should have because the weak characters that prevented the payoff.  Other scenes, however resulted from a story that was disappointingly done in several areas, weakening the overall mood.  Rather, it failed to set up the appropriate mood.  One example is how they don’t manage to convey important information until way past its relevance.  This isn’t good because it leaves the audience speculating about what’s going on instead of guiding the audience through the story.  When that happens, it hurts the overall mood because the audience gets out of sync with the events that are unfolding.

Pace: Very Good.  The pace wasn’t really a problem here.  While the anime does get quite dark, fast, they leave enough space to prevent it from becoming overwhelming.  The pace is fairly uniform throughout, fast enough to prevent things from getting stale.

Durarara x2 Shou

Good

I am a fan of Durarara Season 1- rated Excellent.  However, in comparison, this was a much weaker entry.  It’s almost impossible to separate this from the first season of Durarara (Durarara S1) and evaluate it on its own.  One thing to note is that production was much weaker – there were many more animation cheats employed, such as the “chat screen” and the “key animation only” scenes.

Purpose: Decent.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with the purpose in this anime.  The best way to describe the purpose was to split the anime into several arcs, with not all of them working towards the resolution.  The first two arcs were really to re-establish the characters from Durarara S1 and then lay some groundwork for future events not covered in x2 Sho.  Thus, the actual trajectory of the story was relatively short and made some digressions that didn’t really have anything to do with anything at this point. Now, I haven’t actually read the manga, but my impression is that what seems to have happened here was that this season followed the manga very closely instead of abridging it like Durarara S1.  Unfortunately, the kind of purpose that works in manga doesn’t usually translate well into anime.  Even at the point of resolution, we were left with the sense that x2 Sho was merely a bridge for other things, yet to come.

Characters: Good.  The characters that carried over from Durarara S1 were competently done.   Their characters were maintained in a faithful manner, but little was done to grow them. It was fun to see them interact and play off each other, but they remained relatively unchanged.  As Zenko , my other half puts it, “It’s like an official fan-fiction with the continued adventures of our heroes as they were when we last saw them.”  Basically, for everything that involved the Durarara S1 characters, it was like an OVA.
A bit of a problem area involved all the new characters, bringing the total “named” character count to 32 (If I remember correctly).  Since there were so many, they were able to do small bits of character development, but not really enough to make the characters terribly deep.  That said, they did manage to develop key quirks and oddness in those characters so that they (generally) weren’t out of place in the Durarara world.  Unfortunately, they seemed to introduce and develop some characters that didn’t really have a place in the ultimate resolution.

World: Weak.  This stems from the problem of adding so many “named” characters.  The world itself made little progress or development since the characters were all directly moving the story in some way.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it came at the expense of the world.  For comparison, Durarara S1 managed to expand the world (at least to Ikebukuro) and give it a sense of life on its own.  In S1, the characters seemed to have their own place in the world.  In x2, however, the characters were the world.  In sum, the world became somewhat of an invisible backdrop that really didn’t exist.

Plot: Very Good.  The hallmark Durarara is the use of several intersecting plot points, which they definitely continued to do here.  Generally, each character had a set of plot points that were gradually illuminating the overall plot, kind of like a photo-mosaic.

Storytelling:  Excellent.  The way they managed to tie the plot points together into the mosaic was strong.  They would focus on individual stories, going back and forth through time enough to make sense of a different side of a certain event or why a character walks into a particular situation.  They would tie them together in time though the use of some keystone event.  In addition, when they “zoomed in” and told very character-specific stories, they did a really great job.

Pace:  Decent.  There’s not terribly much to expound upon here.  It did pick up later, although it was never really slow.  The way the stories were structured, they didn’t have too far to go.  So what ended up happening was that the pacing didn’t really help or hurt anything.  It was enough to get the job done, but slow enough that it didn’t seem to do it in a particularly tight or efficient manner.