DDA Top 10: #7: Death Note

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We’re finally entering a realm of the big series. Other than my little shot at Naruto last year, I haven’t really tackled big series. KILL la KILL’s about it, but I still doubt its staying power.

And like my Naruto rantings, here it’s probably going to seem like I’m focusing on so little and ignoring so much. That’s probably true, as my mantra still stands: If it’s been said before, the internet doesn’t need me adding my voice. So my comments will be generally short and sweet.

I’ve mentioned before how I personally would demarcate the end of the Anime Renaissance at Death Note.  It was really the last series to have incredible mainstream appeal.  Attack on Titan might fit that mark, as perhaps could Madoka Magica, but the absolute saturation of Death Note into the community, similar to that of DragonballZ, Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Cowboy Bebop, really puts it a cut above anything that has since followed. Death Note absolutely crushed everything in its three season run, and being back in the day before distributors were doing simultaneous online releases, it spoke all the more that most of Death Note’s fans had already seen it by the time it was translated.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, it is one of the few series that makes its moral argument “three dimensional”, as it were (I don’t know the technical term).  Often antiheroes are blasted by the average viewer, but the divisions of “Light did nothing wrong” are still strongly, if not as bitterly, divided as they were seven years ago.  In this, Team Light, as it were, rather amusingly and unwittingly embody the warnings of the story itself.

But, before getting deeper into this business, we should talk about the run of the series.

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The Human World is Isn’t Boring

The events of Death Note are triggered by a shinigami (a reaper/angel of death, lit. “death god”), Ryuk, who has grown bored with the realm of gods.  He casts down his Death Note, a book in which he can write the name of any Human being, and kill them, taking their life essence as his own.  He decides that the best way to alleviate his boredom is to follow his Death Note and see what Humans will do with this power.

The notebook falls into the hands of straight-A achiever Yagami Light.  Light is at the Bruce Wayne end of the bell curve in every way except wealth (he is just 17 after all).  He is super intelligent, analytical, charming, extremely attractive, and excels both in studies and is something of an amateur detective (his dream is to become a police officer).  His only fatal flaw (justified as it may be) is his ego and sense of superiority to the majority of society. Light reads the rules of the Death Note, and on a bored whim, tests its power. He finds he is able to use it to kill, and decides that he will begin purging the Earth of all its undesirables.

Naturally, when Mankind’s 100 most wanted all end up dead of heart attacks within days of each other, law enforcement takes notice.  Connecting dots that no one else has the insight to see, the mysterious detective only known as “L”, tracks the mystery killer, dubbed “Kira” (a Japanese localization of “killer”) to Kanto, Japan.  The chess game between Light and L to ferret the other out, Light to discover L’s name and kill him, L to find Kira’s identity and bring him to justice, makes up the majority of the series.

In all, there are three chapters to the series, each more or less corresponding to an anime season.

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Art is a Character

For the second time in a row, I’m mentioning art as a major contributing factor to my enjoyment of the series.  Wild.

Death Note is one of the only series where you REALLY get the sense that the director is almost an independent character,  The way the color schemes pop in and out of frame, the way lighting is played with even in simple dialogue which is intended to break the fourth wall, showing us a character’s duplicity while those around are blissfully ignorant, and the shinigami which only a chosen few characters are privy to doing their “Tim Burton presents Statler and Waldorf” routine are one of the major draws for me.

The series is incredibly evocative, and digging into the traditional Japanese color scheme, red for heaven, blue for hell, it is a nice way to play on the imagery of the two primary leads.

Added to this is one of the best soundtracks to date. Dark, eerie, with quirky and hardcore mixed into the sound of the series.  It complimented the scenes well, and, hitting a future point, a lot of the melodrama in the series was saved by the soundtrack, of that there is no doubt.

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Playing with Perspective

Of all the ways the show plays mind fuckery, most obvious is its two protagonists, Light and L.  The fan fight over which was the true hero is still fought, but it IS generally accepted these days that the work INTENDED to portray Light as a bad, or at the very least misguided, person.

But hey, I’m equal opportunity, and there is a strong case to make that Light was justified.

And one of the ways the series reinforced this was the two rivals appearances. Light is cool, attractive, as I said, a Japanese Bruce Wayne. He is the elite of the elite.  L is pasty, rather odd looking, and while he has cute quirks he is definitely meant to evoke the worst aspects of the whole otaku/hikikomori image.  He still has many gifts, but they are buried under several layers of social awkwardness.

Another enjoyment was when Light joins the good guys. For realsies. It warps perspective again by changing up the status quo, in a rather complicated, yet suitably egotistical, elegant plan.

And, personally, I love the clip show.  Because it shows us everything from L’s perspective. Those of us who asked “Why haven’t you just done Light in already” got that window to see that, no, it actually was still -reasonable- to presume Light’s innocence.

Playing with perspective more was the moral ambiguities.  Not only in Light but L as well. Imprisoning Misa in bondage gear, using convicts as guinea pigs, the guy did some damn questionable shit in the name of justice.  But I’ll touch more in the next section about that, for both L and Light.

And of course the finale. Which really didn’t translate into anime (they didn’t even bother with the epilogue) but let’s check a few things about that first.

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My friends and I have a joke that Death Note is a remarkable series. All 25 episodes of it.

Near is not loved. And I am among his haters. He was just a relatively ineffectual L replacement. His lack of direct involvement with Light only added to the realization that that ho-yay dynamic was lost forever. And Near’s quirks seemed to be just for the sake of being quirky.  With L, we had the impression that these were personality traits, but they were sideshows.  Near’s puzzle obsession just seemed to be “SYMBOLISM!” slapped all over our faces.

And the fact it’s this little shit who does in the guy who did in L…says jack all about L, doesn’t it?

I actually approve of the ending the movies used.  But of all the endings, the anime one was the worst. It simply closed out without explanation or justification, just leaving us with the impression Near was just better than Light. Light fucked up and bam. End credits.

So let’s share what the alternatives were.

For those of us who said “Wow, Light was really fucking out of character in his final moments.  Shouldn’t he realize that no jury in the world would convict him when he has over a 50% approval rating?” fear not, if you don’t know, there was an epilogue in the manga.

Near is saved slightly by this epilogue.  Matsuda is speculating on the case some time after life has gone “back to normal”. He notes that crime is back to where it was pre-Kira, and that for all of Light’s wrongdoing he was right about his status.  And then he connects some interesting dots, which are of course “speculation” intended to be exposition.

Near burned the Death Notes immediately after the case. They weren’t even used as evidence. Matsuda compiles a list of the convenient happenings on that go on around Light’s death, and surmises, probably accurately, that Light and his minions were being controlled by the Death Note.  Near had already written Light’s name in to expose himself as Kira. He then burned the evidence so no one would know.

It KIND OF saves Near that he had to resort to “cheating” to end Kira.  It gives us less the impression that he is slated as more capable than L, rather than he was more morally flexible, and perhaps felt forced into doing an evil thing to end a greater evil. That is a normal Human temptation, and is one of the most humanizing things they did with the little shit.

“Oh”, you might say, “You mean the same temptation that turned Light into Kira in the first place?” Yes, I would answer, yes it is. Thematic!

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The movies, of course, ended differently entirely. It was L who took out Light, by writing his own name into the Death Note. His pre-existing death overrides Light’s attempt to do him in, exposing Light, and L lives out his final week on earth eating candy. Which I love. Sure, it’s bittersweet, but mutually assured destruction plays into the greater themes of the work as well. That good people can resort to bad things, if we take L’s suicide as a “bad thing”, more tragic.

But, using the MAD example, that was kind of Japan’s opinion of the Cold War during the later stages, after it had established itself again. While still technically a US ally, they tended to see both the USSR and USA as short sighted lugheads who weren’t BAD, but with their powerful weapons (nukes/death notes) they could ONLY bring misery from such devices. It was the weapons that were wrong, not those who wielded them. And L makes this exact point. If he had possession of the Death Note, he very well could be Kira, and someone else would be hunting him down. He says, directly, it is the Death Note that is wrong, not the man who carries it. But he must still be stopped. Light is given the power to end wrong by doing wrong, and he gives into that Human fallibility.  If you need a real world example, the US Senate just had an interesting read on torture you might enjoy.

Good people can still do bad things. But L, for his part, seems to keep that in perspective. He knows he is breaking the law, he knows he is being unethical, but he must do it for no one else can.  Light has lost that perspective. He feels he is chosen, he feels he has power and MUST use it, and rationalizes the evil he commits with that power as a good thing, not for the wrong thing that it is.

Both interpretations, the L suicide and the Near murder, play into that theme as well. L’s I just addressed, and Near feels the temptation to use a bad device to a good end.  He, thankfully, shows himself better than Light by destroying them, but as Matsuda speculates, probably to save his own ass.

Still better than “Lul totes better than L”.

But I think these themes are the heart and soul of Death Note, and as presented in the anime, Near does not reaffirm these themes.  In fact, he practically contradicts them, as the ending we were given simply stated “All bad people come to a bad end. You can recognize them by the maniacal laughter”.

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Amazing Cliffhangers

One of the best things about the first season or so of Death Note is the cliffhangers.  The show has a very slow build, truly following the three act structure.  And the slow burn is an amazing construct of the series.

While the second and third parts can drag (especially the third, in all we feel 6-8 episodes over-budget), the first season is a meticulously plotted track. Each episode closes with an upping of the ante.  Be that the showdown at the end of the second episode that lays out the premise of the plot, the death of Ray Penbar, the death of Naomi, or the revelation that there’s a second Kira, it is extremely well plotted in that never does an episode climax feel like it is over-shined by a previous episode. Well…maybe excepting the potato chip bag…but thankfully that’s way early, before many of those scenes I mentioned.

It peaks at the end of the first season.

And this. Fucking this.

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Everything about this reveal is marvelous. The two Kiras flanked by their shinigami, the foggy way the screen mellows out as the two embrace, the look on Light’s damn face, and the music.  It is the crescendo of this ever escalating conflict.

From this moment on, the series will feel like it hits peaks and valleys, never quite hitting that same slow burn the first season managed to pull off rather well.  Because, frankly, there’s nowhere to go from here. Light has been given the tool to take down L. From here it’s a game of intellectual keep-away, which was less interesting on the whole than what felt like a pile up.

Light doesn’t take the investigation seriously; L pinpoints his location to Japan.  Light tries to be god in his leisure time; L identifies that Kira is a high school student.  Light puts on bravado; L grows more suspicious with surveillance equipment, and uses the FBI to keep tabs on the Japanese police families.  Light kills Ray Penbar; his fiance comes to hunt Kira.  Light kills Naomi; L takes notice and figures out there’s a missing piece of the puzzle.

It was this heap, like a metaphor for a lie.  Like telling a lie, it’s a simple mistake, perhaps. But in order to keep it hidden it spirals out of control. Just one thing after another that could expose you, like a house of cards that is just barely keeping you free.

Once Misa arrives, that’s over.  And I’m not necessarily faulting the story on that point. Changing gears is a good thing, but the success of the two gear shifts is…debatable. Nevertheless, this first third of the series with the constant raising of the stakes was probably a huge boon towards the show’s eventual success.

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Oh My God….There was Way Too Much Ham in that Actor

Okay, let’s discuss the biggest weakness of the series. Melodrama. Mello drama. …I’m sorry.

There can be lots of screaming, lots of shouting for shouting’s sake, lots of sinister laughing for the sake of it.

The dub? The dub did not help. Actually I think it made it worse. Potato chips….ugh…

Saved by the artistic elements that made the mood suit the hammy acting, Death Note barely squeaked by to hit the top 10, otherwise, like Hellsing Ultimate, while I might have labeled it an enjoyable experience, the overacting and camp might have been TOO much for me to handle.

As it is, I appreciate myself some kitsch, and Death Note is full of it in a very self-assured way that JUST comes close to bending your suspension of disbelief, but always seems to be distracting you like a magician with whatever else is going on screen for you to obsess over it too much.

However, of all the reasons people may not like this series, this is definitely the one they get no argument.  If atmosphere cannot save a scene for you, then this is a hard swallow.

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Speculation At Its Finest

As a work of speculative fiction, Death Note is a magnificent example of a “what if” story.

About the only thing that diverts is, the above pictures, shinigami eyes. That is the only element that twists this a little into full on supernatural story. But other than that, the premise is quite straightforward.  What if there were things as Death Notes, and what if one just fell to Earth?

Everything else is an exercise in how the normal world would react to such a crisis. I rather admire its elegance that it didn’t really try to pull extra shinigami powers out of its ass just to make something in the plot happen. Most everything was focused on the Human drama between Light, his minions, and the police. It doesn’t try to break its rules. This can lead to some head scratching (the entirety of the Mello arc), but I respect a series that tries to stick to its guns, and not just throw in a shitton of random ninja powers to summon the moon.

…No I’m not bitter about something at all, why do you ask?

And even the eyes had been set up some time prior to Misa showing up.  So just saying that this girl had them wasn’t even that big a stretch, just another rule of the notebook. So consider this my admiration as a fellow crafter looking upon artisan work.

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All In All, Worth It

Death Note probably remains the series people recommend to anime newbies most, and for good reason.  It is an example of a story that uses its animation medium to the fullest.

Just…watch with subtitles.  Mamoru Miyano’s mastery of Light’s character is unmatched in any translation. The Kira laugh is never the same without him.

This is one of only two real “blockbuster” titles on my list. The other will be coming up soon. But it’s not next.

That honor belongs to a slightly different series than this. It certainly involves scribbling down in notebooks. And scissors. Lots of scissors.

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