“Now, supposing a god and his world existed, even then I’d stop and think for myself. I’d decide for myself whether his teachings are right or wrong. After all, I am just the same as you. I put faith in my own convictions as to what I believe is right, and consider them to be righteous.”
I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show as fast as I watched Death Note last week – I don’t have an exact time, but it was in under 48 hours. That alone speaks to its quality, but let’s jump into the specifics of this brilliant anime.
Based on the Japanese manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, this 37-episode, single-season anime follows 17-year-old Light Yagami, a gifted but bored and slightly jaded high school student as he stumbles across the Death Note, a magical notebook that automatically kills anyone whose name is written inside of it, so long as the writer also knows the person’s face. Light soon learns that the Death Note belongs to a Shinigami (a god of death in some Japanese mythologies) named Ryuk, who deliberately dropped it on Earth out of boredom to see what would happen.
Light soon decides that he will use the Death Note to eradicate criminals and create a world where he uses his superior mind to rule as Justice. As more and more people are inexplicably dying, the mysterious killer the public has monikered “Kira” still baffles police and government officials. They are forced call upon the brilliant detective L, who has never revealed his identity in public, but has solved every case he’s ever been given. So begins an intricate game of cat-and-mouse between geniuses.
The art for this show is absolutely stunning. I’m not an artist myself, but as a viewer (and an often picky one), the use of specific colours to code characters and their intentions during asides or inner monologues was so appealing, as was the idea to draw Light and L as visual foils.
Even though Death Note is more cerebral and focused on elements of suspense rather than fast-paced fight scenes (think chess as opposed to a boxing match), the creators managed to make things as simple as writing in a notebook or having a conversation feel as exciting and action-packed as a combat scene. The only other shōnen anime (a label for stories geared towards teen boys, generally with a male protagonist and lots of fight scenes) I’ve watched didn’t hit the mark for me like Death Note did, and it did it with displays of intellect instead of brute force badassery. Very cool.
Some of my complaints about other animes I’ve watched before this one were incomplete or two-dimensional characters and awkward dialogue. Once again, Death Note delivers big where other shows simply don’t. Not only does it avoid both of these issues, but it provides several complex characters whose motives I had so much fun dissecting and analyzing. There aren’t really any good people in this show either; if you’re all about those morally gray characters like I am, this show is for you.
I also can’t go without talking about the plot – I mean, talk about intricate. The cat-and-mouse game between Light and L has so many layers and watching them think ten moves ahead, plan their attacks against and escapes from each other, and deal with unforeseen variables as they surface in lurching, unexpected twists was a genuine treat. I was constantly fully attentive, dying to see what they were going to do next.
Along with the constant strategizing between the two, the overarching narrative is dealing with some very tough, complex topics and questions: specifically, what does justice really mean?
All this to say: I fucking loved this show and I plan on re-watching it for sure. If you like suspense, mystery, fantasy, police shows, or serious anime, Death Note will not disappoint you. I’d recommend this even to non-anime fans, including the people who think cartoons can’t be serious or are just for kids, because this show will prove you wrong in the best way.
*End of spoiler-free section*
I talked about the broad points of Death Note above, so I really want to take this section to talk about some of the more specific things that absolutely made fall in love with this show (and maybe a few that I didn’t like).
First of all, I was absolutely devastated when L was killed off. I expected that either he or Light might die because the story had been building to something huge like that, but I definitely didn’t think it would happen as early as it did. As much as I mourned him, so many moments leading up to his death were so well done (that rooftop scene in the rain and the ensuing moments on the stairs… fucking incredible) and I definitely think that ultimately, L dying was a good plot decision. It was a gutsy way to resolve the mounting tension and it hurt, but it had to be done. It was good pain.
However, I was bit less keen on Near and Mello. I hear they’re more well-developed in the manga (and considering Ohba and Obata’s character work on Light and L, I believe it), but their introduction into the anime storyline felt a bit rushed to me and I just never latched onto either of them in the way that I did with L. It seemed like they didn’t know what to do with Near’s character; they tried to make him a lot like L to try and scoop up the remaining hype from him, but there were just enough differences (and not enough new substantive character work) that Near felt signficantly subpar.
Close to the final confrontation, when Light says something like “it was always going to come to this, a one-on-one with L” or whatever and they show L’s face, I remember kind of rolling my eyes and feeling a bit disappointed, because they clearly wanted it to feel like Light versus L, but it didn’t because obviously it was actually just Near that was there. He had potential; I did like his seemingly genuine commitment to justice (rather than just entertainment in L’s case). I wish we’d gotten more insight into why he was like that. Maybe that stuff’s in the manga.
Anyway, even though I didn’t love Near and Mello and my overall excitement did drop for the post-L arcs, the show didn’t get bad by any means. I think that’s largely thanks to the incredible character work on Light. The intersection of his boredom, brilliance, and god complex to eventually show us that absolute power corrupts absolutely was perfect. I especially loved when he lost his memories of the Death Note and we got to see what he could have been without it, including his friendship with L.
I get chills just thinking about that moment when he’s in the vehicle with L and he gets the Death Note back and his memories flood him, and it zooms in on his face and he just goes “I’ve won” – best moment in the whole show (except maybe for the final minutes of the last episode). The writers’ ability to create dread, thrill, and suspense like that is something I haven’t seen in a while and that I honestly didn’t expect to find in Death Note.
From the bit of fandom discourse that I’ve read, it seems that people are torn on the ending, understandably I’d say. I personally think a full circle like that is fitting and I loved witnessing Light’s downfall from the careful, strategic genius to a reckless, paranoid, insane mess. Apparently this made some fans angry, especially fans of Light, who say he “shouldn’t have lost/died” because it “wasn’t realistic/accurate to the character” that he was fooled by the whole Mikami-fake-Death-Note situation, but as someone whose favourite character is also Light, I personally think they’re wrong. It’s totally accurate, because by the end of the show, Light was shutting down and going completely crazy. Long before the warehouse scene, he was frantic, all over the place, clinging to the last shreds of his power as Near was closing in. Maybe I feel that way because I knew Light needed to be stopped (despite rooting for him) but either way, I don’t think this was lazy writing and from the moment Light realized he had lost, his death was a given. Again, it came back to what Ryuk had told him at the very start: that he would write Light’s name in his Death Note one day.
Speaking of Ryuk, this isn’t a criticism of the show, but I do wish we could have seen more of the Shinigami realm. I liked the addition of Rem to the story, but I really wanted to learn more about how the Shinigami operate and what their realm is like. I know that’s not what the story was about, and I’m thankful that it wasn’t because Light and L’s tale was much more fascinating, but I still crave more worldbuilding in that area.
My one criticism of the show is its treatment of women. Death Note definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel and there’s some pretty sexist dialogue (I think at one point, Misa says something like “I just want to be happy at home, where a woman should be” or something like that). Yikes.
Also, every female character (except for that one random FBI agent at the end) is or ends up being at least one of the following:
2) otherwise severely victimized (kidnapped, traumatized, or sexually assaulted)
3) unrequitedly obsessed with a male character to the point that she has zero personality beyond that or motivations of her own
4) a stay-at-home wife and/or mother
I was initially excited by the appearance of Misa, because thus far everyone had just assumed that the Second Kira was a man, and I thought this was a really good opportunity to bring in a strong female character to subvert their expectations. However, any promise Misa had beyond a plot device was quickly stifled by the choice to make her a ditsy, obnoxious love interest whose only personality was venerating and obeying Light.
This isn’t to say Misa doesn’t do cool stuff (her role in the Yotsuba arc in particular was fun to watch) but objectively, she’s just not good female representation and there’s absolutely none in this show. I get that that’s pretty standard for shōnen, but for an anime that surpassed or subverted every other shōnen element and expectation, I hoped Death Note would do the same with sexism and misogyny. Oh well, you can’t have it all.
Ultimately, Death Note is an excellent show. Combining incredible characters, pacing, and art with deep topics and an awesome story, it’s no wonder that this is an anime staple that is still recommended and watched as often as it is, fifteen years after its creation.