I’ve had a long break away from watching animé for no real reason. Having regained my animé mojo, I have been chasing recommendations for shows I’d enjoy. One of the regular recommendations was Death Note. Seeing it was on Netflix, I decided to give it a try.
It’s an old series now (and has been succeeded by numerous live action movies in JP) but as a major US live action version is forthcoming, I’ll avoid any out and out spoilers.
The show is about Light Yagami, a Japanese collegiate, who finds a Death Note lying on the floor. That is, literally the notebook of a shinigami, a Japanese spirit of death.
Inside the cover of the notebook are the rules on how to use the book: essentially, write someone’s name in it while picturing their face in your mind and they will die of a heart attack within 40 seconds.
Light experiments with it (because having a magic killer diary would be awesome?) and confirms that it is genuine…
Any human who uses a Death Note can now see the usually invisible shinigami. Light notices Ryuk, the spirit who left the notebook for someone to find, which is when Light learns the rest of the rules governing the Death Notes. After which he goes on a killing spree, targeting criminals.
This of course garners the attention of the Police who, having little to go on beyond “Someone is clearly killing criminals”, bring in the world’s number one private investigator, “L”. Thus begins the main thrust of the show: two people with the level of intellect which only exists in fiction in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
And it’s brilliant.
To start with, the show does not ignore the questionable morality of whether it is right to murder criminals and murderers, i.e. capital punishment. Good people fall on both sides of the divide and no definitive answer is given within the show. A quick Google search reveals that Japan has the death penalty for treason and homicide but has increasingly fallen out of favour in more recent years.
As the show is seen through the eyes of Light, it also examines his character (and to be frank, he must have a very fragile psyche, as any time he has the notebook, he swings from lawful good to lawful evil in a heartbeat). It transpires that Light is in the same high-functioning sociopath genius club as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.
He seems highly moral, with a strong sense of justice, which of course is why he believes killing criminals is his duty. As “L” states himself, this is a very facile way of looking at the world. Light even starts to conceive of himself as the “God of the New World”.
While Light is obviously highly educated and highly intelligent, his long term plan seems to be;
- Kill all criminals
- Become God of the New World
Presumably there is a lot of detail in step 2 which is never revealed (though judging how dark Light goes, it involves the threat of death by diary and lots of it). Whether this is a fault in the writing or intentional is unclear. I tend to err on the side that he had a plan but got caught up in trying the cat and mouse game with “L”.
And it is that cat and mouse game which makes up the bulk of the action.
Quickly, “L” learns that the person murdering criminals is in Japan, has access to Police information (Light’s father is the Deputy Director for the Police in the area) and clearly has a childlike view of justice. This rapidly profiles the murderer, narrowing the suspects.
As the killer can literally kill with a name a photograph, an anonymous team of specialists, led by “L”, with fake identities and cover stories is created to investigate the suspects. The world names the unknown murderer “Kira” (a play on the Japanese pronunciation on the English word, “Killer”) and so begins the battle between L and Kira.
And it is extremely well written. This is ostensibly a character driven morality play between the two of them and it is absolutely dripping with characterisation (just check out the write up on Light Yagami on TV Tropes to see just how detailed it is).
Alone, that couldn’t keep a story going for 37 episodes, so how “L” figures things out and how Light only just manages to stay one step ahead of “L” is as equally well written. In fact, largely because Light is making things up as he goes along (and isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is), is how he keeps “L” on his case, despite the fact he has no real tangible evidence, motive or method for Kira’s activities.
It isn’t all as one sided as it sounds, though. Light frequently outwits everyone with plans within plans. There are times when Light has convinced everyone he is not Kira save for “L”, who despite evidence to the contrary, refuses to believe otherwise for no reason other than he’s the only one who fits the profile. The writing is extremely clever at times and I can safely say that there is no point where anything seemed too convenient or impossible to have planned for (despite more than one of Light’s plans being based entirely on the successes of his own investigators).
I do have one criticism, however. One problem I find with JP narrative is that they have tendency to stretch things out or go off on wild tangents (Sword Art Online suffers with this really badly but does manage to bring it together at the end). Death Note is no exception: I’m sure that this could have been reduced by 10 to 15 episodes and would have been stronger for it.
The ending is really, really good. Which is highly unusual for most animé (my understanding of JP story structure is that they are less concerned with the destination and more with the journey, hence the endings generally suck by Western standards). I am reliably informed that the live action movie, while apparently not as good as the series, does have a stronger ending. Having read the summary, I can agree with that in principle.
Obviously, this is an animated series and the style employed varies wildly from studio to studio. It’s a subjective matter (for instance, as much as I liked Fafner, I did struggle with the weird ‘whiskers’ that were drawn on some characters) and sometimes can be off putting. The animation is fairly realistic here (there aren’t any random penguins in it or overly cute girls with massive eyes and bright pink hair) and is very consistent.
One thing which was particularly impressive was the score. The music is definitely in the rock camp, very atmospheric and of high quality. Some of the music sways from alternative rock to straight up heavy metal (some of it sounds like it could have been made by the JP version of System of a Down). It really suits the show.
As awesome as this show is, I can’t resolve is the idea that it is 37 episodes long. It doesn’t need to be that long and at times, I did feel that the show needed to get on with it. If it weren’t for the sheer unnecessary length, I would have no problem recommending this to non-animé fans.
TL:DR “Death Note is a brilliant, character driven drama about a game of cat and mouse between two dysfunctional intellectuals. Probably a bit overlong but definitely worth your time.”