My experience with Death Note is fairly unique among the anime I’ve watched. It’s been on my “To Watch” list for awhile, but I wasn’t interested in it when it first came out. In fact, it sounded fairly terrible. Not only did I already know my answer to the obvious “what would you do if you suddenly had this power” question, but the death toll among the cast seemed far too staggeringly high for my taste, and the plot seemed somewhat convoluted from what I heard.
Still, I was a bit… morbidly curious, you could say, so I read up on it, got a general feel for it, and I even watched a few episodes.
I readily admit, it was the character of Misa Amane that first drew me in, putting this sunshine-y ditz – I had no idea right then exactly how idiotic and obnoxious she would turn out to be – in the midst of all these brooding, eccentric geniuses, who were dealing with death and murder, was a contrast I was not expecting. So, Death Note went on my list for things to watch sometime in the future, but not right then.
Now I’ve finally watched the whole anime straight, and I can offer my two cents.
I don’t feel too bad about the inevitable spoilers, as this has been out for a decade or so now, but, still…
Death Note is unique in at least one way: the lead character is not the hero. He is a villain, through and through.
…ok, before I say anything else, the Japanese manner of names, where it’s “Yagami Light” sounds a bit better, but still, naming your son “Light?” Small wonder he has such issues with his ego!
At the start of the story, Light Yagami is a young, highly-intelligent student with excellent grades. One day, he stumbles across the titular Death Note, a black notebook in which he can write the name of anyone whose face he knows, and it will kill them. There are some rules which govern the limits of the notebook, but one can control the manner of their death and even what they do right before dying.
The notebook was was dropped in the human world by a shinigami, which is a god of death/grim reaper sort of creature. This creature’s name is Ryuk, and he dropped it on purpose, because he was bored and craving distraction. And what a distraction he got!
After Light tests the Death Note on a pair of criminals, one holding a school hostage with bombs on the news and the other trying to rape a woman right in front of Light, he realizes the power it advertises is real. Having taken two criminal lives in the midst of crises, Light can’t deal with the weight of having taken any humans lives. Instead, he takes his belief that the world is rotten and needs cleansing and turns himself into a “chosen one” in his own mind. He begins mass murdering criminals around the globe, and this is how he intends to change the world, even become “the god of the new world.”
Yeah, he’s loco.
Naturally, as “justice” is being replaced with “death,” including people who are made to commit suicide – which is a far more abhorrent violation of a person than simply murdering them – the authorities take issue with the mysterious serial killer dubbed “Kira,” in a play on the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “killer.” Led by a mysterious genius known only as “L,” law enforcement agencies around the world begin an exhaustive investigation. However, L manages to quickly outwit “Kira,” confirming his suspected location somewhere in Japan. Thus begins the war of wits between Light and L.
This would have been more compelling for me, really, if I’d ever been able to sympathize with Light, but I never once took his side in this conflict. Seriously, I hated him from the first episode to the last. He’s self-centered and self-righteous, casually murders anyone who inconveniences him, takes the time and effort to gloat at several of his victims as they die, he has no problems with using and discarding people, be they enemies or devoted allies, all with a smile… and, to top it all off, he is, despite his intelligence, so incredibly stupid!
Granted, the gloating would cover that, but it gets so much worse. My favorite example would be when he decides to murder an FBI team because one of them was conducting surveillance on him. Not only was this counter-productive to avoiding attention, but the agent in question found nothing suspicious about him to warrant further investigation. Light could, and should, have done nothing.
In short: Light is a blathering, psychotic fool with extreme delusions of grandeur, and most of his problems, which he blames on others, are exactly of his own making.
By contrast, we have Light’s greatest nemesis: L.
L is easily what I like most in Death Note. Speaking as a high-functioning autistic, I could see a lot of myself in L’s eccentricities, though his genius and deductive abilities easily put my poor brain to complete and utter shame. He doesn’t see the world the same way as everyone else, so he sees many things they don’t. He’s not what you would call “socially graceful,” but strong of mind and will. He doesn’t mean to be insensitive to people, but he tries to look at the big picture and sometimes his “detachment” saves the lives of those under his command. As an autistic, I could actually relate a bit to his aloofness, but I tend to wear my emotions more on my sleeves.
For the first major portion of the series, L is Light’s nemesis, and he gets really close to exposing Light’s identity as Kira, several times. Unfortunately, even L isn’t perfect. If he were, he would have noticed something. One of Light’s schemes to “prove his innocence” involves writing two fake rules at the back of the Death Note, one of which involves the owner of the notebook supposedly needing to write new names in it at least once every thirteen days, or die. Light had himself imprisoned to clear himself of suspicion, knowing L would eventually find the notebook. However, the next round of killings, as Light handed the notebook to a sacrificial pawn, began fifteen days later. Fifteen. Not thirteen, or twelve. If the rule had been legitimate and Light was not Kira, then Kira would have died by then, yes? Conclusion: the rule is fake, written in order to clear the perpetrator of suspicion, and the only suspect at the time was Light.
But L failed to realize that in time. Worse, he was even able to see his death coming, and he knew he could not escape Light’s deadly machinations. He was finally outwitted, murdered in cold blood. All he could do was trust in his successors, a pair of genius kids who never worked well together, to end the case in his place. Thus, Near and his more nefarious rival, Mello, suddenly entered the scene. They never worked together, but, oddly, they managed to fulfill L’s will together, deus ex machina style.
It was both poetic and a let-down for Near to outwit Light at last with one of the oldest and simplest tricks in the book. And partially by the luck of Mello’s last-minute interference.
All in all, I find myself very lukewarm about the entire series. I love L, and I like Near, but we spent far too much time with Light, and everyone knows it’s unpleasant to spend hours and hours in the company of someone you hate (the wait for his death was interminable). the rest of the cast, while having their moments at times, ended up being inconsequential in the end.
There were very few moments I really loved, though that scene with the cops lining up to form a wall protecting their comrade was great! And there were other moments that just did not work, like when your enemy has a bomb and you have a gun, threatening them with the Death Note just makes no sense whatsoever. The scheming and counter-scheming got a bit confusing at times. And had I not known ahead of time about the FBI agent, his fiance, and L all dying, I may not have been able to handle it so well, and I still generally hate shows where everybody dies. The intrigue was good, even riveting at times, but lost steam in the the latter portion of the show, which seemed more “cobbled together” than “carefully crafted.”
It just got really long and tedious, ya know?
And then there’s the question: what would you do if you suddenly had something like this Death Note? Here, I must admit, I’ve had two answers to this question. The first time I considered it, I thought, “No, I would not use it. It’s not for me to play judge, jury, and executioner. And only someone naïve, ignorant, and uncaring for their fellow man would use it easily.” Now, I am more of a mind where I might use it, but only as a weapon of war, or in an immediate crisis, and with some great care taken in selecting my targets.
Either way, though, there is no way on Earth that Light Yagami was ever in the right. What tenuous legitimacy he had went straight out the window the first time he tried to murder L, and even more when he murdered those FBI agents. Seriously, the man was so sick in the head that he never thought to justify himself because he never saw anything wrong with anything he ever did.
This is called, “madness.”
All in all, I’m giving Death Note, in my own opinion, a rating of 6 stars out of 10.