‘Death Note’ Director Shusuke Kaneko: Nietzsche, Manga, and Gods of Death

From left, Light Yagami and the God of Death in Death Note; Kaneko.Photo: Courtesy of Death Note Film Partners/Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

The Japanese films Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name were released in Japan just a few months apart in 2006, Kill Bill style. Based on the hugely popular manga series of the same name, they tell the story of a handsome young college student named Light Yagami who finds a magical notebook that strikes dead anyone whose name is written on its pages. Observed by the Death God whose notebook he found, and constrained by a rather byzantine system of rules printed on the inside cover, the idealistic but flawed hero Light immediately begins to write down the names of unpunished criminals, in an attempt to single-handedly bring justice to an unjust world.

Both movies hit No. 1 at the Japanese box office, the first knocking The Da Vinci Code out of the top spot along the way. They went on to break opening-weekend records in Hong Kong as well. Picked up by Warner Brothers, they're due to be released in the United States soon; we caught up with the director, Shusuke Kaneko (and his translator, who likes to speak about Kaneko in the third person), as he arrived in New York for their U.S. premiere tonight at the Japan Society, as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

Were you required to follow the plot of the manga precisely?
Shusuke Kaneko (via translator): The hardest part of making the movie was that the holder of the original copyright gave him a condition: He could not change the rules of the Death Note. However, in the manga, as the story progressed, they added rules, they kind of bent it every now and then. It was almost like, not exactly cheating, but if you have a strong stone, scissors, paper rule, and someone plays just like a little tenth of a second later, then he always wins.

Light is such a vivid character in the manga; he's even very carefully drawn in a particular way. How hard was it to translate that character to the screen?
The largest difference between the manga and the movie in terms of Light is that in the cartoon, he's a high-school student, bored to death, and he's like a genius. And you know, he starts using Death Note to kill the boredom or to have fun almost. However in the movie, he's a university student, he's studying law, he has this very high standard of justice.

Is Light the sort of character who would have gone down a corrupt path no matter what? Or does the Death Note actually make him evil?
Without the Death Note, if he didn't see the Death Note, he would've been a really successful, high-spirited, high moral standard lawyer. That was his point of view as a director.

Death Note strikes me as similar in some ways to Harry Potter, but with a very different take on morality. Harry Potter is also a teenager who gets fantastical powers. And a big theme of the Harry Potter story is that Harry uses these powers for good, to act within the laws and uphold them. But in your films, Light also feels he's using his powers for good, but consciously goes far above and beyond the laws — and even winds up in a prolonged face-off with the police.
Especially looking into the contemporary Japanese social situation. Because of the democracy, society puts all our stress onto protecting the criminal's rights instead of the victim's rights, and people get very frustrated. However, they don't want to dismiss the whole idea of democracy, so that creates a lot of frustration and dilemma and self-conflict. There's no one absolute value in terms of good morality.

I noticed Light reading Nietzsche at the café table in the film.
As Nietzsche pointed out, there's like so many diversified values in terms of morality, and one morality cannot lead to everyone's absolute happiness.
—Ehren Gresehover