Stage

To kill or not to kill: that is the question in 'Death Note: The Musical'

by Yukari Tanaka

Contributing Writer

One day you’re suddenly handed the power to kill at will without ever having to see your victims. Would you use this power for good, meting out justice to society’s worst offenders? Or, would you indulge in your devilish side, exacting revenge on those who’ve wronged you? Maybe you wouldn’t use it at all.

“Death Note: The Musical” originally took the form of a manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It follows the story of Light Yagami, a high school student hungry for intellectual stimulation.

Early in the story, Light becomes the owner of a notebook (the titular “Death Note”) that allows him to visit death upon people by simply jotting down their name in its pages.

The story moves quickly and, after vowing to reign over a new world, spurred on by a shinigami (god of death) named Ryuk, Light sets off to eradicate the nation’s wanted criminals — the people he is convinced the world would be better off without.

What was initially driven by well-intentioned vigilantism crumbles into full-blown psychopathy that ultimately consumes Light.

The story has been refashioned into anime and film adaptations since the original 12-volume manga series was first published in 2003. In 2017 Netflix released an American version starring Nat Wolff.

A musical adaptation was first staged in 2015 and, while it caught some fans by surprise, the project took to theaters not only in Japan, but also in South Korea and Taiwan, to critical acclaim.

Directed by Tamiya Kuriyama, known for dramatic stage pieces like last year’s “Caligula,” and with an original score by American composer Frank Wildhorn, “Death Note: The Musical” is returning to Tokyo with a brand new cast.

The role of Light is being filled by both Ryouta Murai, 31, and Shouma Kai, 22 — two actors with very different backgrounds playing the role alternately on different dates.

Murai experienced his first stage play barely five months into his acting career, starring as Kojiro in “Fuma no Kojiro” (“Kojiro of the Fuma Clan”) in 2007, a theater adaptation of the manga series of the same name. “Death Note: The Musical” marks Murai’s 35th stage appearance.

“I’ve seen so many plays directed by Kuriyama and he is definitely one of my favorites,” says Murai. “It has always been my dream to take part in a Kuriyama-directed theatrical piece.”

For Kai, the upcoming production marks his first lead role on stage and in musicals since he made his acting debut in the popular television series “Kamen Rider Ex-Aid” in 2015. He beat out more than 2,400 candidates to land the role of Light.

“I have been wanting to do musicals for a while now,” says Kai. “So when someone at my agency told me about this audition, I didn’t think twice and just went for it.”

Having previously only worked in screen productions, the reality of the situation hit him hard once rehearsals began in early December. He compares it to trying to break through a 5-meter-thick wall every day.

“Theater really throws your acting skills into sharp relief,” says Kai. “You can’t fake it when it comes to stage acting; people will definitely sense it. I’m most certainly relearning everything.”

Murai says there is one thing he sees in Kai that he wishes he also had to help him live out his version of Light to the fullest.

“I don’t look like a high school kid, let alone remember how it feels to be one,” says Murai. “So when I see Shouma delivering it so naturally it really makes me think that I have to find a unique way to express it.”

Life goals: Ryouta Murai says he has fulfilled a dream with 'Death Note: The Musical' — appearing in a production by Tamiya Kuriyama. 'Death Note: The Musical' music showcase / Takahiro Watanabe
Life goals: Ryouta Murai says he has fulfilled a dream with ‘Death Note: The Musical’ — appearing in a production by Tamiya Kuriyama. ‘Death Note: The Musical’ music showcase / Takahiro Watanabe

Kai, meanwhile, says the role has made him more aware of current affairs.

“I’ve been trying to stay on top of what is currently going on in our country by watching the news and reading newspapers,” he says. “I especially look for things that I feel are inconsistent and irrational to further understand what might have gone through Light’s mind.”

“Sometimes I do wish the ‘Death Note’ really existed in real life, especially when I hear about mass crimes,” Murai says. “My assumption is that most people in power would want to be in possession of the notebook; but that is exactly why it should never be handed over to humans. It will in no way bring positive results — no matter who it belongs to in the end.”

Kai says he feels he can fully relate to Light’s philosophy.

“If I owned one (a ‘Death Note’ notebook), I would probably use it, too,” he says. “What scares me the most today is the idea of anonymity; how people can openly state their opinion without having to expose their real names and faces. I think that is what the ‘Death Note’ is, because it lets you kill anyone without having to reveal your personal information to the rest of the world.”

However, such a debate has neither limits nor a conclusion for these two men.

“I think this is why ‘Death Note’ has gained so much popularity around the world,” says Murai. “A fairly straightforward story can generate so much discussion simply because everyone defines justice differently. ‘Death Note’ lets us explore every aspect of it.”

The two actors agree, however, that the play goes beyond the imaginations of those who expect it to be just like any other musical.

“His use of light is just absolutely amazing,” says Murai of Kuriyama’s dramaturgy. “To be honest, we don’t move around much on stage, but the message is still conveyed, echoed and felt — a lot has been packed into this musical.”

Kai agrees, adding: “I have no doubt there will be instances in which audiences will be convinced about the possibilities and values that theater holds.”

Rather than simply re-creating scenes from the original manga, the musical version of the story brings the world of “Death Note” to a whole new level.

“It would be more accurate to say that instead of just re-creating the story on stage, the play represents how the story would be like in real life if the world of ‘Death Note’ were to be three-dimensional,” Murai says. “Frank Wildhorn has done a brilliant job of capturing the original stories and encapsulating them into each composition.”

The two actors also find common ground when picking their favorite scene from the production.

“The ending doesn’t follow the conventional musical-esque ending,” says Kai. “The last song is just spectacular. Both the melody and chorus are so heavenly that it makes me feel like I am just a tiny part of a greater, larger planet.”

“That is exactly why musicals are fascinating. Not only do they spark your imagination through dialogue, acting and staging, but also through the music,” Murai says. “One thing I can guarantee is that the new version will not let you down. You will not only get to enjoy the world of musicals through a captivating story, but also share the atmosphere, time, values and experiences with the rest of the audience.”

“I just hope this new musical piece will become an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the significance of ‘justice’ and ‘being right’ in the context of our society,” Kai says. “There is no right or wrong, nor will people leave the theater with a definitive answer. But our role is to provide a well-founded basis for those momentous debates to take place later.”

Whether you think you’d give in to your worst revenge fantasies or stay on the straight and narrow, you’ll at least come away with a good song.

“Death Note: The Musical” will run from Jan. 20 through Feb. 9 at Tokyo Tatemono Brillia Hall in Tokyo before going on tour to Shizuoka, Osaka and Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture. For more information, visit horipro-stage.jp/stage/deathnote2020.

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