Friday, April 25, 2008

More methadone for the Death Note addict

If re-experiencing the epic Kira vs. L. and company battle of wits in the Death Note anime or reading through all the completely inessential bonus material of Death Note Vol. 13: How to Read hasn’t completely satiated your desire for more Death Note, Viz has another, wordier option: Death Note Another Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases, a prose novel (and perhaps best regarded as apocryphal) prequel to Death Note.

I found myself in an odd position when regarding this book. In general, I’m awfully leery of these sorts of expansions of pop stories that seem completely complete, particularly when they begin expanding beyond the original medium.

For example, we probably didn’t need those last three Star Wars movies, let alone the, what, hundreds of novels and comic books playing in the Star Wars “universe.” Of course, that’s me as a jaded, cynical 31-year-old, post-being a film critic. As a little kid, I watched those goddam stupid Ewoks movies. And the Ewoks and Droids cartoons, and would have taken any more Star Wars I could have gotten at the time*.

So, in principle, I would think a prose novel adaptation of any kind of Death Note would seem a bit silly, were I not still so enraptured of the original. That is, my fannish feelings toward the franchise are still fresh, and I do still feel that lingering, “Oh, did it have to end…?” that came at the end of Vol. 12, so, as terrible an idea as the novel might seem in theory, in practice I couldn’t wait to read it.

Well, the Columbus Metropolitan Library finally got a copy, so I had a chance to sit down and read it.

Another Note is the work of someone credited as “NISIOISIN,” an apparently popular Japanese novelist who is listed in library catalogues as “Ishin Nishio.” Manga-makers Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata get credited with “Original concept by,” while Obata provides art. There are eight black and white pieces by Obata, each coming before the start of a chapter, and depicting random scary things that don’t pertain to the plot concretely. There’s also a full-color title page piece depicting the two leads, which looks much like the covers for the Death Note collections.

The book takes the most obvious route for franchise expansion. Since L. is a world-renowned super-detective known for solving thousands of impossible cases without ever revealing his face in Death Note, he obviously had many adventures before he first went after Kira in the manga, giving writers plenty of potential to work with, so long as they work backwards.

There are several connections to the Death Note manga, some much more strained than others. It's set in Los Angeles, some years before the events of the manga, and features an almost ludicrously complicated serial killer mystery. This is the clue-leaving kind of serial killer that Batman might deal with, but rather than a single riddle or single joke per crime, he leaves a half-dozen or so extremely complicated and subtle clues at each crime scene.

As the story opens, three victims have been killed so far, and mysterious super-detective L. wants to make sure a fourth doesn't occur. To do this, he enlists an FBI agent currently on a leave of absence. Her name is Naomi Misora, whom you may remember from a rather brief appearance in the manga, briefer even than her boyfriend FBI agent Raye Penbar's.

Investigating the first crime scene, she encounters a weird private detective who introduces himself as Rue Ryuzaki . He has several quirks that will immediately identify him to Death Note fans. He has dark circles under his eyes, and an extremely stooped posture. He likes to sit with his knees drawn up to his chin, and he eats a diet that seems to consist almost exclusively of sugar.

As complicated as the killer's clues are, the book is fairly straightforward—pages and pages devoted to Ryuzaki and Misora at the first three crime scenes, trying to unravel the clues that might lead them to the killer.

As I said, some of the Death Note connections are pretty strained. The killer has shingami eyes for some reason, although he's never met a shingami or possessed a death note. The narrator is also a character from the manga, presenting the book as notes on the case, although how this particular character would know the bulk of the information contained in the story isn't apparent, nor does writing a few hundred pages in a novel-like format on a case of L.’s seem like something that particular character would devote his or herself too.

Additionally, Wammy's House is involved to a certain degree, and there's an oblique reference to the agents L. employed in he and Light's investigation of the Yotsuba Corporation.

The prose is very simple and straightforward. There is virtually no description of any kind regarding the characters or the settings—despite what's needed to discuss the clues—and the dialogue is similarly dry, with a lot of "..."s indicating...someone not talking?

While this doesn't exactly make for a transcendental read or anything, it does keep things short, simple and focused more on the mind-games of the killer and the detectives. And, perhaps more importantly, it reduces the time a reader might spend on trying to make sense out of why the killer has shingami eyes or any of the goofier aspects.

In other words, it moves extremely quickly.

NISIOISIN does an admirable job of recapturing the cerebral struggle aspect of the manga, while pulling off a pretty interesting twist and another, final Death Note reference as a kind of O. Henry punchline to the whole thing. (I admit to an out-loud “Heh” upon reading the last paragraph).

I doubt it would be too terribly well-received by a reader who has no previous experience with the franchise, as the narrator's mentioning of the events and characters of the manga go unexplained throughout, but given the number of Death Note fans in the English-speaking West, that probably won't present much of a problem for Viz. Death Note fans should find plenty to like in it; certainly less than there is to dislike.

Given L.'s history, and the nature of mystery book franchises in the U.S. market, there's certainly potential for this to go one for a long while yet, if the market is there for it. The narrator mentions having at least two more cases to discuss, one of which is a "detective" war between L. and other detectives whom he has defeated over the years and assumed the identities of.

I'd be interested in reading another Another Note or two, although, thanks to this and How To Read, I've been able to successfully wean myself off of my addiction without any major withdrawal symptoms.

*I thought the Cartoon Network Clone Wars series was totally awesome, by the way. And while I haven’t read many of Dark Horse’s comics, I did like many of the stories in the Star Wars Tales anthology collections.

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