Anime Review: Death Note (2006-07)

Light, L (left), and Ryuk (right)

The Death Note manga came out in 2004 -- when I myself was in Japan, coincidence? I think not! -- and was an immensely enjoyable read.

The Death Note anime came out a couple years later, and is available on Netflix streaming. It hews pretty closely to the manga, and is equally enjoyable. It made me cackle and gasp by turns, usually because of the protagonist's cleverness and his steady descent into megalomania. 

Plot: Ryuk, a bored shinigami (god of death), purposefully drops a "Death Note" in the human world. Shinigami use Death Notes to kill people. Enter Light Yagami, an equally bored high school student who stumbles on the Death Note, which conveniently comes with a user manual inside. As written on the first page:
Rule #1: The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.

Rule #2: This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected. 

Rule #3: If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person's name, it will happen. 

Rule #4: If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack. 

Rule #5: After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
It's a great premise for a supernatural story, asking questions about justice -- who deserves to be executed? to be the executioner? It also touches on privacy and government intrusion, what an ideal world would look like, and the merits of oppressive safety versus risky freedom. Also, why are apples so tasty? (That's an in-joke: Ryuk loves apples and claims to go into withdrawal when deprived of them.)

The series answers those questions by way of the cat-and-mouse game between Light's public persona, Kira (Japanization of the English word "killer"), and the mysterious detective L. Kira earns L's attention when he starts using the Death Note to kill violent criminals, which L denounces as outright murders. The stakes get higher when Kira decides that the people hunting him also threaten the new world he is building on the corpses of the "bad" people.

But Kira can't kill L per the rules of the Death Note, because he doesn't know L's real name. So he keeps punishing criminals, often using their deaths as tactical actions to evade L's prodigious deductive abilities. Both Light and L believe they are administering justice. Which one is right?

Actually, Death Note answers that question early on, when Light monologues about creating a new world with only kind people. "So you're gonna be the only bad person left?" Ryuk asks."What do you mean, Ryuk?" Light replies, cementing his villain-protagonist role.

The twists and turns of the plot are utterly delightful. Ryuk is the number one complicating factor. He explicitly tells Light that only sheer coincidence led him to finding the Death Note, and that he will neither help nor hinder Light. He also reveals to Light the "shinigami eyes" deal, wherein the Death Note user can trade half of his/her remaining lifespan for the ability to see a person's true name when they also see the person's face (even in photos!).

image source: wikipedia

And when a second shinigami with a spare Death Note comes along...

In the midst of Light and L's moves, counter moves, counter counter moves, and counter counter counter moves, Death Note provides a commentary on human nature, showing the shallow concerns of the individuals who are touched by the Death Note's power. Most notable are Higuchi, a businessman who is only interested in corporate success, and Demegawa, a TV producer who's laser focused on boosting ratings. No wonder Light, with his grand ambition of remaking the world, considers himself the only true owner of the Death Note. Then again, his punitive executions only remove the individuals, and not the system that created, corrupted, or ensnared them...

The anime is a joy to watch because of the gloriously over the top visuals. Characters are color-coded: Light gets red hair and red eyes when he's planning or doing something evil, L is blue when he's adding up facts and coming to the correct conclusions, earnest cop Matsuda glows golden when he does something dangerous to prove his worth to the Kira-hunting team, and so on.

Subtext is also gleefully splashed across the screen in melodramatic face-to-face moments on top of imaginary buildings, which I believe is an anime convention (c.f. Bleach). This is when two characters stare each other down in a mental landscape, each presenting his viewpoint / action plan / thoughts. So many thoughts in this series.

Speaking of too much, there are ridiculous montages of people writing -- just writing, okay, with a pen -- and their exaggerated gestures are perfectly complemented by the thundering music...oh gracious, the music...Like the color scheme, the Death Note soundtrack is the enemy of subtlety. There's ominous Latin chanting, frenzied chorals, catchy piano and guitar riffs, and everything in between. It's fantastic. Light and L each get awesome themes, and "Light Lights Up Light" is a bittersweet piece that perfectly captures one of the concluding scenes of the anime.

At 37 episodes x 21 minutes per episode, the series goes along at a fast clip, with only a few fillers. While the latter half of the story arc occurs and finishes at twice the speed of the first half, it's also the part when Death Note gets a lot of slapstick moments, so I was pleased to have that over with. Besides, Kira devolves into a gloaty bastard after too many of his Evil Plans succeed, and it's just not the same without the tension from the earlier episodes.

TL;DR: Recommended binge-watching! Watch in Japanese with English subtitles for Light's and L's voice actors: they nailed it.

Bonus info for the anime nerd: Kappei Yamaguchi (!) is L -- quite a departure from Ranma, Inuyasha, and other ranbo kyara he has voiced.

This post brought to you by pork chops!