It’s impossible when reviewing Death Note not to end up coming across just a little bilingual. I don’t mean as in Japanese English; I mean in terms of analogue to digital medium. Death Note, for the one or two people in the world who don’t already know, started as a manga conceived and written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Hikaru no Go’s Takeshi Obata. It was serialised in Weekly Shonen Jump starting December 2003 and the 12 volume publication sold an estimated 18 million copies. And Death Note the series takes after its published predecessor so much it’s impossible to speak of the two things as separate entities. In fact, they’re so closely related, I haven’t actually been able to watch the end of the series because I haven’t read the end of the manga and I don’t want to be spoiled. So, read on but be warned; Death Note is one of those titles in any medium that you end up investing so much in, accidental spoilers are almost cause for extreme measures.
Why the investment though? Well, probably the one thing that really makes this series work is its killer intellectual hook. The main character, Light Yagami, is the pristine ideal to which all good boys and girls (especially Japanese) we believe should aspire. He’s handsome, intelligent, popular, the perfect big brother and the epitome of the good son. He’d probably even be the perfect date. The future is bright for this shining paragon of society. Don’t we all wish we had his life?
On some level, that’s exactly what we wish, and by establishing this perfect character, the creators of the story are achieving two things – they’re giving you someone to identify with and they’re legitimising his actions in your mind. But Light Yagami has a dark underbelly. Light Yagami isn’t the hero we assumed he would be; he is in fact far from it. He’s a dictator in the making. He’s the kind of person who, when he finds a notebook that claims to have the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it, does what any perfect, intelligent teen would do: gives it a go. And when he realises it works, that he actually can kill people just by writing their name down, he comes to a perfectly logical, reasonable conclusion that doesn’t involve burning it to cinders then and there – he’s going to use the book to make the world a better place.
And this is where the hook comes in, because being there with Light, following his logic, looking at his way of viewing the world, you find yourself thinking; Yeah, he’s kind of right… But as a reader, as an observer, there’s also this conflict occurring – you like Light, he’s not evil, not insane in the normal, villainous sense of the word, but what he’s doing is basically cold-bloodedly sentencing people to death. Sure, they’re criminals – to start with – but does the guy who had a screwed up childhood and a lot of anger issues who bashed and killed someone in a fit of rage deserve the gas chamber? Does the guy who held up a Lawson and got away with a hundred dollars in takings? How do you decide what level of punishment fits which crime? How do you sort unfettered evil from desperation or mental instability? From bad decisions and ignorance? And once you’ve made those kinds of judgements, where does it stop?
You come to these questions almost by stealth. Not that Death Note’s messages are in any way subtle, but here Light’s way of thinking is certainly understandable, and suddenly there and what you are seeing is someone who is playing God, who doesn’t have to concern himself with the reasons people do things, with the circumstances. On a broad level, this series is decrying our failure as a society, the flaws of the justice system, the impotence of the individual, our lack of a cohesive answer to all the world’s ills, an answer that Light provides with all the faith, all the righteousness and charisma of a natural tyrant. The sheer strength and directness of these messages, the screen thick with sledgehammer cues involving mass media and the desensitisation of the population, are clearly accusatory, clearly leading us to ask ourselves through Light and his actions; what is right and wrong, exactly, and more importantly, what are we willing to do, based on our beliefs?
But if that was all that Death Note was, it would get pretty heavy pretty quickly and likely would have never become the phenomenon it actually is. So, here’s the second thing that the creators do right – they introduce light into the dark, a perfect binary opposite to our perfect main character; they introduce L and suddenly, Death Note isn’t just a conflict-inducing story about moral rights and ethics disguised as a series about kooky death gods and their journals. L, mysterious criminal investigator, teen prodigy, social pariah and clearly dork-extraordinaire, stands at polar opposites to Light in almost every way, Holmes to Light’s Moriarty, Ben Kenobi to his Vader. With the introduction of L an incredibly tight, incredibly tense game of cat and mouse begins, the twists and turns and convoluted machinations of which someone like Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock would have murdered to come up with. And you’re there with Light every step of the way and God help you, you want him to win, but actually, you don’t because if he does, L’s a dead man and L’s pretty cool and actually L should win, because Light’s getting a bit out of control there, right? But oh, if L wins then Light…
And now you can see where I’m coming from in terms of investment. There’s no narrative distance afforded here. Madhouse studios have done an outstanding job translating Takeshi Obata’s appealing style to the screen, and their creative use of colours and angle, their distinctive animation quirks, give the series a rich, almost surreal weight. But in the end, gorgeous production values are only icing on an already enticing cake and the pull of this series can be almost entirely attributed to the incredibly good source material and the fact that Madhouse chose – wisely – not to mess with what is possibly one of the best stories in any medium to come out of Japan in quite some time.