Death Note, arguably one of the greatest thrillers the anime industry has ever seen recently turned 10, and my A.S.S. is ready to shoot the shit about it.
This was inevitable, yeah? With not only the Netflix film premiering recently, but if anyone knows me, they know Death Note ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite anime. In the 10 years since its anime premiere, Death Note has influenced a number of things and people, and has left a mark on the industry that won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Death Note has earned its legacy, earned its praise, but it’s also not an infallible production; I is certainly not the strongest cat-and-mouse, good-vs-evil thriller around, but the flair for dramatic and pacing keeps it from ultimately fading into obscurity. It faithfully adapts the manga, albeit with a few differences here and there to fit the anime medium, and studio Madhouse created a style that oozes the manga’s art with a sheen that’s remarkable. But after 10 years, is this thriller about a man with a god complex, who can kill anyone he deems unfit for his new Earth at the stroke of a pen, worth hunting down?
Light Yagami is an above average student, with a squeaky clean image and he’s destined for academic greatness. He’s so exceptional, he often gets easily bored and will show disdain for the rest of the world. Meanwhile Ryuk a Shinigami, or death god, is also bored and seeks some excitement from the human world. Their two worlds are brought together as Light discovers a notebook titled ‘Death Note’ in his schoolyard and after reading the notes written by Ryuk, the former holder, the two quickly discover their boring days are over. Thanks to the eponymous Death Note, Light is told that he can kill anyone, at any time, as long as he has their name and an image of them in his mind as their name is written. Additionally, since Light touched the Death Note, he’s now able to see and interact with Ryuk and learn more about the rules and regulations the book has to offer. Unsurprisingly he’s as skeptical as we all would be, but regardless he’s still intrigued and hangs onto the book just in case his assumptions are incorrect. Ryuk not only helps him understand the rules, he also lets Light in on one major detail of Death Note ownership: Ryuk will be the one that writes Light name in the Death Note when it’s Light’s time to die. While this might deter many from using the Death Note, this only hardens Light’s resolve and goals and drive. With Ryuk by his side, Light sets out to become the God for his new world.
With Ryuk by his side, and a few test subjects under his belt, Light quickly adapts to his new role with great vigor. His intelligence shines through as he’s aware that his actions will have repercussions, so he’s careful about who dies, when they die, and eventually the how of their death. This is where the charm and style of Light’s character comes into play: he’s so ludicrously analytical and perceptive, that he’s on a level of thinking that leads him to weigh virtually every aspect of his actions, determining nearly any outcome of any choice he may decide to choose. That’s also one of the highlights (or possible lowlights some viewers may criticize Death Note for) the series features prominently: inner monologues. Every episode is rife with characters analyzing and observing while processing their next move(s). It’s an idea that often works in a novel or manga, because the medium is a different beast that encompasses that style. Anime can be a different creature, a creature that can’t translate the style of such magnitude into an intriguing, well-paced creation. Series director Tetsurō Araki (who would later direct the massive hit Attack on Titan) thankfully was able to present a show of character’s who would spend a bulk of an episode talking or thinking to themselves. That still could sound quite boring; a show about characters talking to themselves or expositing various plot details, but the creativity of presentation doesn’t stop there as composers Yoshihisa Hirano and Hideki Taniuchi accompany every scene, ranging from soliloquies, to chases and shootouts with a marvelous soundtrack that always resonates and perfectly adds to the flair. Furthermore, studio Madhouse crank the eye-blisteringly stylistic visuals to eleven and add a level of glisten and shine to Death Note that makes the mundane into a marvelous production. Quick camera whips with many motions featuring tracers that highlight and create an energetic atmosphere. It’s occasionally so extravagant that some scenes were even a popular meme at one time, but I think the risk pays off for the show’s benefit that leaves a lasting positive impression rather than an untimely effect. The manga creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata were also able to use the fantastical nature of Ryuk in an imaginative way in order to benefit Light’s goals too, as although Light can see and react to Ryuk, no one else is able to do so unless they touch the Death Note, adding another layer for Light to weigh-in on as he carries out his plan. And despite this mild fantastical fare, and an additional trick implemented later in the series, Death Note remains a grounded series with an otherwise believable premise.
And I think that’s what made Death Note a bigger success in the west, its accessibility. With other shows like One Piece and Naruto and Bleach inundating kids with dreams of over-the-top strength, endless riches, and unbelievable powers and abilities, Death Note aims a bit differently towards a character’s growth to power, but presents a “real world” to encompass its story. Save for Ryuk and the Shinigami influence in Death Note, everything that occurs within its story is completely viable and fascinating. When at the time most media is presenting the good guys as nearly indestructible, foolproof creations, Death Note presents an intelligent villain that you may root for or boo and hiss at many other times; or at the very least understand their motives and actions. It’s presenting an under-represented story of the villain often succeeding. I don’t think of Light as an anti-hero, and I know people do and have, but let’s face facts: he’s an entitled, bored kid doling out justice at his own whim regardless of all the particulars. He is shown to go to insanely great lengths to ensure he’s taken care of, always putting himself before anyone else. He’s a diabolically malicious man, but on some level there is an appreciation for this kind of wit and showcase of aptitude. Seeing the side of a grossly intelligent villain, how their mind works and their plans fully come to fruition; there something about watching how it all unfolds that’s so alluring. And when the story introduces the real hero in L, we see the moral compasses factor in more, as L has the look of perhaps a villain with his appearance and mannerisms and the fact he wishes to stop Light, while Light is the pristine student who’s dad is a police officer, so who would suspect him? It’s this balancing act that the series walks its entire run, and constantly calls morality into question.
Yes, Light shouldn’t be killing at all, but at first he’s simply killing convicted criminals, selfish, greedy people capitalizing on other’s hard work, and other socially recognized “scum” of the Earth. So he’s wrong, but at the same time, one can argue his actions to being just and right to some degree. I’m not outright comparing murder to thievery, but it’s similar to old adage “is it okay to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?” Well, yes, ethically, morally it’s wrong, but it’s for the greater good, at least in the eyes of the thief. In Light’s case, removing the crime and murderers and villains from the world is for the greater good; or at least his greater good. It brings us varying philosophical debates and ideals that a lot of other manga or shows might. The pas-de-deux of Light and L is the driving force behind the bulk of Death Note. They’re always determining the best course of action: L aims to capture Light (who operates under his pseudonym Kira) and Light aims to rid the world of all evil and create a new world.
I’ve read and heard many varying opinions on the general morality issues of Death Note and most are all valid criticisms. Some examples range from the fact that the morality issues are a bit too much for the intended shonen audience, stating that the main audience is simply too young for it. Another criticism cited that the younger audience could perceive that Light’s drive is completely justified and that it’s the true one route of justice. They continue, that the moral compass of Death Note is unstable, and potentially damaging, for younger viewers. Those who haven’t fully formed a socially acceptable idea of morality could be easily swayed by Light’s actions, feeling them justifiable and right. Naturally, these are simply a couple of opinions from others that are viewing the series from varying degrees and viewpoints, and they’re certainly entitled to their opinions, and while I may not agree wholeheartedly, I welcome the new viewpoints or analysis I may have looked over.
Death Note is still as breathtaking and engrossing as it was 10 years ago, and even knowing the result of the series, like a lot of other thrillers, it’s always fun to revisit and re-explore its world and characters. I’ve seen the series countless times, knowing everything it leads to, how it gets there, and the ins-and-outs; it’s still a super gripping story that never lets go. It’s a show that I can never say “I’ll only watch just one episode” because as soon as the ending credits roll, I’m ready for more and the next thing I know, I’m six or seven episodes deeper into its web. As glowing as I have made Death Note seem, I do have issues with the latter half of the series as it loses a bit of the grounded, more authentic world building and gets a tad more fantastical for my tastes. Furthermore, while I won’t spoil a thing, I’ll always believe there is a certain, vital point in the series where it was best to end on rather than where it did, as it never reaches the same level of quality in the thriller and emotional level. Whether the creators Ohba and Obata planned it all along, or wrote themselves into a corner, or if their editors insisted to keep it going when they wanted to end it, there’s a certain ‘something’ missing. The content post time-skip is still addictive and it’s still full of the same cat-and-mouse game the series has become to be known for, but the satisfaction levels aren’t comparable. New characters arrive, the story shifts more and more, and the convolution levels are cranked even more to near irrational heights. It’s a rather glowing blight on an otherwise perfect series, but please do not let one person’s thoughts deter you.
Seriously, do not overlook Death Note, and if you’ve managed to hold out this long on viewing it, I think you owe it to yourself if you’re a fan of thrillers to be treated to one of the greatest suspense anime ever created. There is a ton of stuff here to love, as well as criticize, but I think more viewers walk away satisfied than frustrated regarding Death Note. In terms of how you should watch it, subbed or dubbed, I think either version is a great choice. More ‘purists’ might think the JP voices are best at telling the story, but given the rather ‘universal’ appeal of the story and presentation, the English dubbing is quite terrific too. With a solid cast, an amazingly perfect soundtrack, and memorable direction, Death Note is a must-see for newer and older anime fans, and thankfully it’s practically available on every streaming service around like Hulu, Viz’s site, and of course Netflix.
Like most people here, I’ve been watching anime for many, many years. I owe blocks like Toonami for getting me into the medium. Shows like Dragonball Z and Ronin Warriors shaped my beginning years, while shows like Neon Genesis Evangleion and Cowboy Bebop showed me that there’s some true artistic ability and expression found within anime (moreso than big burly dudes punching and screaming for hours on end). I now try to watch anime showcasing many genres and storytelling. Anime is just another great, creative medium for telling stories, and I’m happy to share my thoughts on the series I enjoy with you!