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Death Note Review

by: sothis
November 22, 2009

story 4/10

Death Note screenshot

When it comes to Death Note, the masses have spoken: it's a groundbreaking, gripping tale of deceit and intrigue that will keep you at the edge of your seat from start to end. With one of the highest average ratings on Anime-Planet and a level of hype that treads dangerously close to that of Naruto, Death Note has been deemed a "must-see", a "triumph", and "a series that no anime fan should be without".

Except that it’s not.

I’m not sure if my perception of reality is fatally flawed or if Death Note’s prominent mainstream presence has blinded the masses, but I just don’t get it. Death Note is a good anime, though it’s not the best and has a rash of insidious problems that most reviews tend to miss. Now, I'm aware that the majority of readers likely want to murder me, but put down the butcher knife for a second and hear me out.

Death Note starts out promising a thrilling ride to come. Teenager Light Yagami finds a mysterious book that a shinigami ‘carelessly’ drops into the human world, but it holds a dangerous secret: any person whose name is written within dies. Almost immediately the boy decides to exact his own brand of justice on criminals, thugs and others that are expendable in the name of a better world, quickly catching the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, the general population both admires and fears this unknown assailant, giving he or she the nickname of Kira. Light's primary antagonist is L, a secretive, genius detective who vows to put a stop to Kira's reign of terror. With intellectual grace and precision the two begin a deadly game of cat and mouse where move after move is calculated, and each attempts to unmask the other first.

I won't deny that fans of psychological warfare will find the above premise engaging and exciting, and had the series ended after this first arc, I would have deemed it a smashing success. However, after building up a great deal of suspense, Death Note stumbles into its second segment with a confusing transition that isn't explained until a dozen episodes later. Almost this entire arc follows Light and the detectives as they investigate a shadowy organization that no viewer will give a shit about, and Light and L's intense dance is tossed by the wayside. Perhaps the only redeeming element of this part of the story is a powerful climax that will leave you saddened yet moved, but any non-delusional anime fan should be disgusted with what comes next: a third arc so offensively bad that I was reminded of Gantz - an otherwise powerful anime that also should have known when to quit. A whole new cast of characters appears, filling copycat roles that bring nothing new to the mix. At this point, those who aren't under the influence of fanboyism should feel any old emotional bonds they had with Death Note evaporating into thin air. By the series' end, I cared almost nothing for any of the characters, and felt relief only when the finale credits rolled; but an acceptable ending couldn't save Death Note's disappointing decline into mediocrity, regardless of how powerful the first arc was.

One other important note is one of the series' most irritating qualities: the ENDLESS, ENDLESS INTERNAL MONOLOGUING which begins almost immediately and doesn’t let up till the final episode. If you think shounen titles such as Naruto and Dragon Ball Z are bad, just wait until you see Death Note. Every single action and reaction is thoroughly analyzed internally or out loud by Light, L and damn near everyone else in the cast, followed by yet another just-as-long diatribe about what the speaker would then do next. AND THIS HAPPENS FOR THIRTY SEVEN EPISODES. Not since Ghost in the Shell: Innocence have I wanted so badly for the characters to shut the fuck up and move on. In a way, it feels like Death Note's creators were pandering to the lowest common denominator of intelligence by so grossly overstating the obvious mental leaps. Were Light and L truly as brilliant as they seem, they shouldn't need five minutes to compose every thought they have.

I'm open to hearing other opinions on why Death Note's plot is awesome enough to deserve a 15 out of 10 score, but with two throwaway, boring, copycat arcs and other problems I can't see how any anime fan in good conscience can say such a thing.

animation 6.5/10

Death Note's animation is hailed as being exceptional in every way; once again, I don't get it. The series' dark imagery provides a pleasing appearance, but the character designs look sloppy (specifically the facial linework and simplicity) and still sequences mar the experience far too often. Furthermore, frequently L and Light change color and deliver a multi-minute monologue as the camera creeps slowly across the screen, and the rest of the series tends to fare just as poorly. Death Note's definition of 'animation' apparently takes a page from the book of lazy.

Still, most viewers will likely appreciate Death Note's animation and consider it perfectly acceptable for a modern anime. Movement - when it actually occurs - flows wonderfully, and the shinigami world is depicted with a perfect combination of desolation and intrigue. Other visually impressive elements include the 'life counters' floating above people's heads, and the eerie red glow of 'shinigami eyes.'

sound 8/10

Death Note's first opening track is forgettable, but the second shines - well actually, it growls and screams. I think this is the first time I've heard a thrash metal track used as an anime's intro, and in this case it works perfectly. Combined with frantic, crazed shots of Light, this intro truly is a herald of things to come, and helps accentuate his madness. Overall the background score perfectly complements the suspense and intrigue, delivering a handful of orchestral, church-like tracks that grow on you throughout the series. While Death Note doesn't have much going for it, the music is hands down awesome.

characters 6/10

Love him or hate him, Light is one evil dude. From the get-go he's painted as a teen with a god complex who teeters between reality and insanity, and this persona rings true for the entirety of the series. Light is not a saint, nor does he have any hope of redemption; each move he makes is manipulating, sinister and self-serving to the core, justifying him as the ultimate anti-hero. You'll generally both cheer along as he executes the scum of the world and cringe as you watch people get stepped on along the way. Light's twisted, deranged view of his utopia damages everyone around him and in general, his personality is one of the best aspects of Death Note.

Counterpart to Light is L, a fiendish, quirky detective whose bizarre mannerisms and actions provide some of the series' (perhaps unintentional) comic relief. L wasn't developed as much as I'd hoped, and only near the end of the anime do you learn about his history. Still, his character comes across as a bit one-dimensional and should have been more fully fleshed out. Then again, he exists mostly as the protagonist - or antagonist - against Light, and their battle of wits is enjoyable to watch. One thing's for sure, not since Evangelion has there been such a firm division in fanboyism between those who swear by Light, and others who pledge their allegiance to L.

Last but not least there's Ryuk, a shinigami (death god) who quietly tags along with Light as he inflicts his wrath on the world. Ryuk doesn't judge, and he doesn't stop Light's actions, no matter how ill-conveived. In fact, the shinigami often chuckles creepily when the boy unknowingly makes a mistake or does something exceptionally evil; the supernatural being bides his time until he gets what he wants: Light's soul. Unfortunately Ryuk only stays in the spotlight strongly in the first arc; during the second he is out of the picture, returning in the third as a minor actor. It's too bad, as he provides the only other source of comic relief with his obsession with apples.

Several secondary characters also take the limelight at times, evoking a variety of emotions. Light's father, refusing to believe his son could be the killer, made me angry out of empathy. Misa, one of Light's admirers, is whiny and ditzy to the point that I wanted to punch her in the face. And Mello, one of the later characters in the series, prompted more anger - this time at the series' creators for not coming up with someone more original. While each of these and more grace the screen and take hold of the conversation at times, none are developed enough to really care about.

overall 5.8/10

Originally I planned on giving Death Note an overall rating of 6 to 6.5, but after carefully thinking about all of its faults versus strengths, I can't in good conscience award such a high score. A good first dozen episodes (flaws aside) does not a groundbreaking series make, and the consistent and escalating flaws ultimately condemn Death Note to being a good, but not great, anime. I understand that the masses are unable or unwilling to find fault with such a highly-revered title, but in my opinion that's a dishonest stance. There's no denying that the second arc is poorly tacked onto the first, that the third is nothing but a bad carbon copy, and that the thrill level wildly oscillates between high-octane and boredom; so why is Death Note constantly referred to as the best thing on the planet?

To each their own I suppose, I just know that Death Note - even without the hype - was a big time disappointment for me. I wish the creators had done the humane thing by euthanizing it sooner, rather than insulting the viewers' intelligence with endless, overdone 'intellectual analyzing.'

Important note: feel free to respond with your own feelings about the series, but given how volitile I know this review will be I need to remind each reader to keep this thread in mind. Personal attacks on any reviews or reviewers (rather than one's own opinion of the anime) will be removed, and may result in the removal of commenting ability.

Anime Info

Have you ever felt like the world would be a better place if certain people weren’t around? Such grim daydreams might occur when watching the dismal daily news, but on one fateful day, Light Yagami finds that these daydreams can become reality. By pure happenstance, he comes across a black notebook entitled "Death Note", whose text within states that whoever's name is written on its pages will die. With the aid of the death god Ryuk, Light takes it upon himself to rid the world of its corruption, ushering in a new era of purity one death at a time. But as Ryuk foretells, Light's actions will not go unchallenged...

my anime:

not rated

About the Author

sothis's avatar

sothis

My fav genres include sci fi and horror, but you'll find a lot of obscure reviews from me too, given I watch a ton to add to the database. My new reviews are written a lot better than my old ones, so when in doubt, sort by date! ^_^ Enjoy, and I welcome any and all feedback.

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comments

TeamJoseph avatar TeamJoseph
May 16, 2011

The manga was serialized in Shonen Jump, if mangaka ended his/her own series that quickly, it would be detrimental to his/her career. That's probably why it kept going when the story lost it's original feel.

default avatar Richard0
May 6, 2011

I wanted to say a lot of things in regards to this review but by biodomino had done it for me. What I will add is that I applaud this review. While it is heavily biased against Death note and is clearly wrong (On a partial level) I think this review is quite brilliant from a subjective point of view. What do I mean?

Fanboys everywhere have heralded Death note as a masterpiece; I do disagree but not by a long shot but if you expect Death note to be a masterpiece before watching it; it will ruin the experience. I watched it without such exaggerated notions in mind and i was able to fully appreciate its unique and original quality. This review helps others who haven't yet watched death note do the same (hope they don't read this comment though!), by playing down death note you're giving them a great experience especially since there are some people who don't like to agree with the masses and as such are inclined to prove them wrong .

If this was your intention all along than kudos as an anime lover but shame on you as an objective reviewer.

Biodomino avatar Biodomino
May 6, 2011

Disparaging Death Note on the basis of the second and third arcs is tantamount to proclaiming, "I don't like anime."  While the show surely goes downhill, it really doesn't have any other place TO go, and you can't really fault it for trending towards the quality of other shows that are still very highly rated but suffer the very same quality.  Even the worst of Death Note still competes with the top 100 anime, easily.

Moreover, this is simply a problematic mode of thought when reviewing anything.  Do you review it as a whole, or do you focus on what is truly artistically meritous?  No work of art is perfect, but imperfections do not necessarily diminish the value of the experience.  Is Kenshin not worth watching because the Kyoto arc is far better than the rest?  Is Naruto not worth watching because the latter half is nothing but filler?  How badly can the last two minutes of many hours of enjoyable anime butcher the entire experience?

Taken as a whole, maybe Death Note does not hold up to the standard of the investment:entertainment ratio set forth by certain literature, cinema, and cinematic television, but if not, then what in the world of anime does? Certainly if you rate the show in its entirety on a bell curve, there are very few contenders to beat it for a 10/10.

Suppose you are generous enough to simply factor out what you consider fluff service for the drooling droves of fanboys (e.g., skipping the decidedly lackluster anime filler in Bleach and watching only what is true to the manga yields a better experience for the general viewer, but may very well leave some people wanting more of whatever they can get).    Sometimes it is more meaningful to rate a show according to how badly parts of it SHOULD be watched, rather than taking it in its entirety.

I'm a fairly tough judge myself-- having completed more than 100 series, and having dropped roughly as many, I've lost my patience for enduring tripe.  Having said that, Death Note is shining example of anime done right.  If it's greatest flaw is that it starts at a 10 and moves towards a 7, that still puts it leaps and bounds above the vast majority of anime, even highly acclaimed anime.

Roven avatar Roven
Apr 27, 2011

I knew it, as soon as I finished this I just muttered "meh"

And I started to tell people my openion about how the show just sank after the first arc.

I was starting to question myself if it's just an allergic reaction to all the fandom going on.

Thank you for proving me wrong. And now I have move confidence in my tastes :)

sothis avatar sothis
Apr 24, 2011

Guys for the sake of those reading this review who haven't seen the series, please leave major spoilers out of comments (I'm removing them when they pop up)

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