Director: Tetsuro Araki
Episodes: 37 + 2 TV Specials
Genre: Psychological, supernatural thriller, suspense
This is a review I promised long ago… I believe dating back to episode 16 of our weekly podcast, when we briefly discussed this anime. I apologize for the long wait, but it just so happens that I truly never had the time to work on it because of several other things that got in-between of my fingers and a computer. I promise to deliver an honest critique to make up for all the lost time I wasted. At this point in time if you don’t know what Death Note is… then you really have been living under a rock. Sometime ago, the talk among anime fanatics was Death Note. It turned out to be such a phenomenon that it was almost as big as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Both titles were released in the same year as well, yet Death Note is the darker of the two.
Death Note was born out of an idea by writer Tsugumi Ohba (who actually bases the character “L” in the story after her own personality), and the art of Takeshi Obata (well-known in Japan for his designs in Hikaru no Go). The Death Note franchise traces its origins from the original manga which ran on Weekly Shonen Jump from December 2003 to May 2006. The anime adaptation began its run on Japanese television later that same year the manga ended. Death Note proved to be a runaway success for its authors, Shueisha (its publisher), Madhouse (its animation studio), NTV (its Japanese television network), Adult Swim (was it now?), and well, whoever else was involved at some point with it. It was so successful, that NTV actually produced a series of live-action films based on the manga (two were released after the anime’s debut). Unfortunately, the films are infinitely inferior to the anime adaptation for reasons I won’t go over in this review. Just stay away from the movies…
Why was Death Note such a hit? Perhaps a bit of insight on its story might help you understand.
Death Note follows ace student Light Yagami, who finds everyday life quite rudimentary, and believes the world is falling apart. He has grown tired of hearing the same thing on the news every day. However, one day this brilliant yet pure soul comes across a notebook called “Death Note.” Upon opening the notebook he notices the following instructions written on it in legible English:
- The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.
- This notebook will not take effect unless the writer has the subject’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
- If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
- If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
- After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
At first, Light dismisses it as a bad joke yet decides to take it home. Shortly after successfully testing it in private, he realizes the preposterous potential this could have on changing the world. Thus, he decides to use the Death Note to cleanse society of evil, successfully becoming its God in the process.
If that wasn’t enough of an incentive to get you interested in the series, then you should stop reading at this point. This anime had a plethora of pros going for it right from the get go. Starting with the unusual premise of a notebook that spells death for those whose name is written on it, and ending with the fact that it isn’t your typical story aimed at the supposedly relatively young audience reading Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. I don’t even know how its creators, Ohba and Obata were blessed enough to publish this on a magazine aimed at young boys. And this adaptation is just as good as it gets in that regard. It remains faithful to the source material despite changing a few details and completely skipping others. The reason for its success however, lies in the fact that Death Note has some of the most bombastic mind games you’ll come across. This is the biggest incentive of this series, since I see it as a fascinating character study about our highly intelligent protagonist Light Yagami.
When new characters are introduced–but particularly the one who’s tailing Light’s trail of “divine intervention”–is when this cat-and-mouse game really takes off. Not long after Light starts dispatching “justice” on criminals (especially after death row prisoners start dropping like flies), the police intervenes. This intervention’s name is L, and he is obviously Light’s foil. He’s messy, he’s honest, he’s eccentric; not quite the ladies man but a brilliant mind. A character who is solely dedicated to making Light’s cynical quest for godhood all-the-more difficult, yet entertaining. Oh, and I bet you’re wondering who the owner of Light’s Death Note is? It’s a shinigami (god of Death) named Ryuk. It turns out that Ryuk dropped his notebook in the human world in order to entertain himself, as he too was tired of his quotidian life in his own realm. Thanks to Ryuk, Light now possesses a tool to cleanse the world of evil, and as the lifeless bodies of evildoers surface, private investigator L steps in to catch “Kira,” the new “savior” in the eyes of many. As the tensions escalated between Light and L, my body remained glued to the seat in front of my television ever so curious to know just what the hell would happen next.
Another highlight of this title is the theme it addresses. There is some obvious and heavy moral dilemmas at the very core of this story. I think it’s impressive that Ohba and Obata raised ambiguity by questioning the very essence of human morality. Not everybody relates to Light’s attitude and actions, though some will. Several questions lingered in the back of my mind as I wondered whether Light’s actions were beneficial to mankind or not. I also wondered what would a normal human being do if he ever encountered such an ability? What would you do with it? Would you kill somebody or not? I am sure this will be quite different for everybody and that is the brilliance of it. It’s a relief that all of these important details carried over to this adaptation and we must thank Toshiki Inoue who handled the script with a tenacious enough grip. Inoue never allows the writing in Death Note to sermonize the viewer into one side or the other and always remains at the borderline of the situation.
I could make the same argument for Death Note’s director, Tetsuro Araki, who handled perhaps the biggest challenge of his career. I’m sure Araki was thinking at the very early production stages how to make a story that comes off as antipathetic and narcissistic, transform into something quite accessible, perhaps even sympathetic. That must have been his biggest obstacle. How does he portray Light (an ingenious yet aloof) as somebody we can’t dislike? I would have hated to have that job. I truly mean that… Because some of the lengths Light goes to in order to fulfill his purpose are quite jaw-dropping to say the least. In spite of that, Araki paints a picture devoid of opinion on the matter. He shows the facts as they happen, but restrains his camera from showing you a side on the events. Araki never takes a side, that is until the ending…
And I honestly don’t blame him for it. Araki had to take a side eventually, just like everybody else who has seen this anime. You honestly can’t watch Death Note and not expect to side with Light or L. Most people, in fact, throw public protests once they arrive at a part of the anime which involves one of the most shockingly gut-wrenching moments involving the two. While the moment itself isn’t easy to swallow by any means, most viewers should know that we are not meant to root for anybody specifically. You can take sides, sure, although that’s not what Death Note is supposed to evoke, since it really is a focus on Light Yagami and nothing else. The viewer isn’t supposed to root for L to take over Light’s role. That was never the intention, yet most who disagree with Light will use L as a means for him to usurp the spotlight entirely.
Most people miss the fact that Death Note truly shines when it focuses on its once-pure-and-now-corrupt protagonist. This is an obvious course of things in a story like this. When you’re given a power as formidable as this one, it is bound to corrupt you inside and out. Absolute power corrupts. A plain, simple rule that not even a human as clever as Light Yagami can break. Regardless, he is still the best part of Death Note. It is such a treat to follow his thoughts, his course of action, his reactions to L and his opposition. It’s a thrill to see how he foils his enemies, slips away from his captors, and uses people to meet his ends. Later, when Light meets a girl who also possesses a Death Note, things get even more intriguing. He fully commands this opportunity, as Light Yagami is somebody who’s always ahead of the game.
Moreover, he becomes more and more sociopathic as the series escalates. Somebody who experienced Light’s decay was Mamoru Miyano, his voice actor. Miyano who was well-known for portraying a conflicted soul like Kiba in Wolf’s Rain, and the suave yet childish Tamaki Suoh in Ouran High School Host Club (earlier that same year), perhaps delivers a career best here. Miyano turns Light into a terrifying concoction from deep within. He unleashes an inner sadism one would expect from Adolf Hitler, in the body of a doppelganger known as Light Yagami. I also never knew he had a truly fearsome laughter.
L, on the other hand is played by Kappei Yamaguchi, known for his collaborations in Rumiko Takahashi’s adaptations such as Inuyasha and Ranma ½. Yamaguchi becomes a synonym of justice with L here. There is an unmistakable level of wit and acidity in his performance. It’s as if he’s found that sweet spot that invokes enough sympathy for the L persona; effectively making him all of the more enigmatic, yet emblematic. Aya Hirano who was also known as Haruhi Suzumiya that same year, finds her niche in Misa Amane (the other Death Note bearer, and Light’s potential love interest). In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya we knew her as the hyperactive title character, and here she forgoes her witty one-liners for blinded obsession. As Misa, she turns into a crazy, bubbly, and ignorant follower of Light. At some point, she contributes a song for the soundtrack called Misa no Uta (literally Misa’s Song) which is eerily disturbing to say the least…
Misa’s Song might be scary, but what would Death Note be without its electrifying score? It just wouldn’t be Death Note. All hats and standing ovations should go to Yoshihisa Hirano and Hideki Taniuchi respectively. Yoshihisa Hirano had his breakthrough that year when he also scored Ouran High School Host Club’s classical pieces, and what he produces here is just as affecting. I was not familiar with Hideki Taniuchi’s work prior to this, though at this point, everyone should be. Both composers produce some of their very best work here. It’s safe for me to say that Death Note’s musical compositions range from intense, to thrilling, to even discomforting (see Misa’s Song for reference).
Some of the best tracks include all of L’s songs, as there are several renditions, and also a song that plays on the final episode called Coda~ Death Note. The original score found here not only elevated the situation, but transformed it into a magisterial entity which was meant to always accompany scene after scene. Where there was no music, there was no Death Note. The opening and ending themes are also quite good to listen to. They’re hardcore metal songs, quite good actually, but everyone’s favorite (including my own) is What’s Up People?! by Maximum the Hormone. It’s a phenomenal death metal song, and I’m not even a death metal listener. Just click on that video above and find out why this song is far above all the rest of the opening, and even ending themes.
Now that I have dissected this anime well, I must complain about it. Because unfortunately, it’s not perfect. As much as I wanted it to be. Believe me… later on, I actually wanted to like it. Fortunately, I did, though it became difficult for me to muster respect for it again. Death Note has a huge problem, and that is its inconsistency. When a character study as robust as this one decides to drop the one character keeping it together, then I have a major problem with it. This adaptation (as well as the original from what I’ve gathered), both disengage Light’s dynamic at some point in the story. That’s when the entire thing just becomes a chore to sit through. I feel like this inconsistency led to another major flaw which was its contrivances. Later on, when the story tries to go back to focusing on Light again, I had suspended all belief in what was possible. I simply took what the story was throwing at me, but I was not agreeing with it.
These contrivances were in fact so bad, they became see-through enough for me to notice plot holes here and there. I can’t mention what they are out of spoilers sake, but I will tell you, Death Note loses steam quickly after some point in the story. It then becomes frustratingly contrived. Insomuch that I started calling these incidents “coincidences.” Coincidences such as “A character would do this, so I’d do this to show you!” or “Oh, wow! We both did that same exact thing, at the same exact time!” and even “I know you did that, but I was way ahead of you, because I…” The narrative was mind-numbingly obtuse and Light wasn’t even the topic of discussion anymore. At this point, unnecessary characters made entrances, only to exit a few episodes later. I also wondered at this point if I was going to like Death Note or not.
It started with so much potential (perhaps too good to be true), and fortunately ended with solemnity. This adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s exercise in morality works for a number of reasons, despite several bumps down the road (mostly identity issues). When Death Note focuses all its novelty on its sharp, I daresay groundbreaking protagonist is when it deftly stimulates the mind of its viewer. This is what the ending pulls off, which is why I ended up liking it. I have heard differing opinions on the finale. Some say it doesn’t work because it’s not faithful to the source material, while others think it’s too sensational. I say it works. Simply because I wanted less contrivances and more focus on my beloved Light Yagami, and that’s exactly what I got. Director Tetsuro Araki and writer Toshiki Inoue even do the impossible at the grand finale, which is accompanied by a beautiful piece (Coda~ Death Note) from Yoshihisa Hirano that punctuates whatever is transpiring as the credits roll. But the unthinkable happens and that’s why I liked it. What’s the unthinkable? Well, we’re shown this was all about Light all along.