Sunday, 22 March 2009

Thinking too much about things that don't bear thinking about (Death Note edition)

Today I watched the two Death Note films back-to-back. I found the first one thoroughly enjoyable, the second one less so. However, something that struck me during the course of these films, and in particular the second one, was the over-reliance on completely made-up mystical rules (or as one imdb commentator put it: "the intriguing mystical lore"). Now, I can understand the appeal of universe-building, and of trying to make whatever magical/science-fiction-ey elements you're introducing make some sort of workable plot sense. Introducing limits is a very good way of controlling whatever non-real element you've introduced, so as to try and ensure you don't get into some kind of Superman II situation where absolutely anything goes, sense be damned ("and then Superman spits himself into three people...because, you know, he can totally do"*). However - and keeping with American superheroes for the moment - I'm reminded of an assertation I first remember being made by David Mazzuccheli, although I'm sure it's been said hundreds of times by hundreds of different people, that the more realism you apply to something that is blatantly not realistic, the more you only serve to highlight the absurdity at the heart of the genre. You'll never see Robin in the Christopher Nolan Batman films, for example, because brightly-coloured boy sidekicks would simply jar with the more realist world that Nolan et al. have generated. All criticisms of the Schumacher films aside, it could hardly be said that Robin's was distinctly out of place in them (he was played as an infuriating, unrepentent jackass, but that's beside the point).

I guess what I'm getting at is that, with the Death Note films, I really resented the over-use of completely fictional magical rules and regulations, because the more they cropped up, the more I couldn't resist thinking about them and what might be the cause of them, only to be frustrated by remembering that, of course, there was no cause to them as they were completely made up. For those who don't know, Death Note is a manga/anime/film series that follows a young man who one day stumbles upon a mysterious note book. Whenever this young man writes a name in the note book, that person dies shortly afterwards. The young man thus decides to use said note book to help rid the world of criminals. This is actually a really interesting concept, and it all serves - perhaps fairly obviously - to lead into a neat fictionalised look at the corrupting influence of absolute power versus the possible good that might come of this form of extreme vigilante justice.

But here's the thing. I can very easily buy the central conceit, that there's this magical note book that can be used to kill people. The strength of such a concept lies in its simplicity. It's got a nice fairytale quality to it ("this lamp will grant you three wishes," "these boots will allow you to travel seven leagues in a single step," ...). What I find problematic though, is the fact that, no doubt forseeing that fans would seek to pick holes in this concept ("what if two people have the same name? Do they both die?"), the author saw fit to include all sorts of rules and caveats ("the person writing the name has to have the victim's face in mind at the time of writing, so the book 'knows' not to pick someone else with the same name"). Now, there are quite a few of these rules, and after a while they all get quite convoluted. There's this whole thing about losing your memory and regaining it once you've touched the book again (but only if you're actually holding onto the book, if it's not one you've used before...or something) that really takes the fucking overcomplication cake, as far as I'm concerned. However, my real problem isn't with these made-up rules themselves. I'm not here to pick holes in them. The problem for me really is the fact that they exist at all, as - and maybe I'm alone in this - every time these rules about the way life, death and these note books comes up, I'm left wondering where the hell these rules came from and who on Earth put them there in the first place.

Fairytale concepts thrive on their simplicity. If one wondered why the hell the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood could talk, one would likely go a bit mad (could the cows whose milk made the butter that Red is transporting to Grandma's place also talk and think? If so, what the hell were they doing being farmed in the first place?)** However, one simply tends not to think about these things at all unless the rules and the universe behind them is explored. But, as I'm arguing here, any such hard look into a completely fictitious world will no doubt ultimately be frustrating and fruitless as of course it leads into a big bottomless pit where of course, there are no ultimate solutions because it's all totally made-up; d'uh! I don't go about reading into the whys and wherefores of science fiction and fantasy concepts as I please, in fact quite the opposite is true, that's the whole point of this post. I once chewed a guy out for getting all concerned about why the mechanics of the Matrix universe wouldn't work, arguing of course that in something like The Matrix, the point of the story lies far, far away from the strict mechanics of the universe. In Death Note, however, so much of the plot involves utilising/abusing a knowledge of these rules in order to create intricate plans and schemes that take advantage of them. They're always in the spotlight. As I said, maybe other people don't think like me, but to me, all this served to do was highlight the fact that the rules made no sense. It's not so much that they were gobbledegook (the author clearly had done some thinking when coming up with them), more that the very fact of them was nonsense. Who the hell made them up, why, and how?!

Maybe all of these are addressed in the manga. I don't know. Either way, I suspect that any solution would only lead to a kind of infinite regress wherein whatever magic rule-maker exists must also adhere to some other magical set of rules or whatnot.

To summarise, whilst I enjoyed Death Note thoroughly, watching the films simply served to remind me that while establishing a set of rules to dictate fictional powers & abilities is important (otherwise you risk ending up in "My magic is stronger than yours." "No, my magic is stronger than yours; just because" territory), I wish writers would avoid relying on these rules as plot points, as focusing on them only serves to illustrate their ultimately contrived and constructed nature. Remember in Ang Lee's Hulk where he explained why the Hulk can just spontaneously grow muscle mass even though biological growth doesn't work that way, and all it did was open up a new can of worms? I guess that's my point in a nutshell. Sometimes, the magic of a concept is lost when you look at it with too analytical an eye (or more specifically, when the plot itself forces you to look at it with that critical eye).

*Not to mention the infamous "then Superman throws his suit's logo at the bad guys and it turns into a huge net, because yeah, I'm sure we meant to establish somewhere that Superman can do that. We're not just pulling random super-powers out of our collective asses, honest!"
**I'm channeling a little bit of Gregory Maguire here, who asks such questions of animals/Animals-with-a-capital-A in L. Frank Baum's land of Oz in his Wicked novels.

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