Aahhh, Death Note-- it's one of those rare hyped-up bits that evades being of the 'little kids punching things' genre, and manages to actually be on the psychological side of things. An intense drama about a little black book gone horribly wrong, Death Note is pretty much what would happen if you went into an average otaku's brain while thinking about the captain of the football team.
It's not entirely inaccurate to say Death Note is what started me on anime; I'd always had an interest but it was one of the first full series I actually watched. (I believe Great Teacher Onizuka was actually my first anime, though I wouldn't fully watch it until much later in my life.) A friend said it was an anime I'd die for and for the most part, he was right. I am a sucker for anti-heroes in such a flavour as Light Yagami, and honestly, he's a pretty prolific character and widely regarded as one of anime's finer badasses amidst them all with his quick thinking, cold calculation and somehow likeable God complex.
But I mean, look at the reviews; besides the occasional bash, Death Note is basically universally hailed as some sort of paragon of storytelling. Okay; I'll admit I was a huge sucker for half of the anime.
Why don't we go into some more detail before I shovel out my full opinion, though?
Light Yagami is your average... er, okay, he's a prodigal child with a bit of a vindictive streak. It doesn't take long for him to stumble across the titular Death Note. It's a small book with its name on the front and the quaint ability to kill anybody whose name is written within its pages. Holding what is essentially the power of life and death in book format, Light does what any self-respecting angry teenager would do: he plays God in the most cruel way possible by weeding out criminals and their ilk. Attached to the book is one Shinigami, Ryuk-- he is an interesting sort, the kind who's always watching over Light's shoulder, waiting for the slip-up that, in exchange for the Death Note, turns over Light's soul. Intrigued by Light, he remains as this sort of neutral party to Light's actions.
Enter L, his mysterious and mostly self-proclaimed rival, a similar genius who seeks to counter and one-up his movements at every turn. Bent against stopping someone with the arrogance to call themselves God-- or 'Kira' (killer transliterated into Japanese) as his admirers, eager to earn his favour, have called him-- L serves as the main opposing force to Light. It's hard to peg a true antagonist and protagonist outside of barest definitions; on one hand, one can't help but understand Light. On the other hand, he's obviously running off a huge ego burst with this silly little life-claiming book.
This whole conflict occupies roughly half of the anime's runtime and is, I will swear to this day, one of the most gripping and intriguing stories I've seen around. It's not the best, but it's sure to keep you on the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next between two geniuses who seem to be (and are frequently painted as) total opposites as they pit their minds against each other.
And then there's the other half of the anime. To summarize it adequately, it feels like a poorly written fanfiction. Key characters are replaced by shoddy stand-ins who more or less emulate behaviors while there's no real emphasis on their actions.
See, the Light vs. L arc is amazing because these two characters are highly vindicated and they won't, at any cost, let the other stop them. They stand on the two opposite ends of a conflict very starkly but the story twines that together in such a wonderful way that there's no real 'want of loss' from either character; there's just this gripping intrigue, wondering which will win. The anime manages to make the two characters seem very much equal despite the obvious advantage of controlling the powers of life and death (though without a name, Light cannot kill L-- though you didn't actually think his name was L, did you?).
The latter arc, without spoilers, is anything but. It's dry, bland, drags on way too long, feels horrifically episodic and has these bland cut-out characters who just feel like they were plucked from the nearest awful fanfiction. They really just feel like "Original: the Character" while being thinly-veiled 'replacements' for prior characters. Poor, and unlikeable replacements.
If I had to rate these separately, have no doubt; the Light vs. L arc would have gotten a 10/10 hands down, and I'd go then into detail... But instead, the entire performance is dragged down by the second arc which I don't even feel like giving an adequate score. Yes, I was that put-off by it; it just feels like a bunch of written-in deus ex machina to further the plot eventually to the end. Half-way through the second arc it just needed to be put down, and by the end of it it's almost a relief.
You're babysitting two kids. One is obedient, likes whatever hobby it is you have, is perfectly compliant, doesn't fight you on things and is very nice to you in general. This pleasant child goes to bed on time and doesn't fight you on it. This is the Light vs. L arc. The latter arc is this unruly stinker of a child that runs about rambunctiously, keeping the Light vs. L arc awake past bedtime with its thunderous stomping and screaming for no other reason than it needs to thunder and stomp and scream. It's tired, it wants to go to bed, but no-- just because you want it to go to bed, it fights you on the matter.
That's the most appropriate analogy I can possibly give. As soon as it had begun the second arc felt like it had overstayed its welcome and it really should have been just a two hour OVA or something, because as a canon part of the series it feels like a bastardization of everything that had happened. Thus, as it is indeed a whole anime, I can't stomach to give more than 5/10 for the story. The first half was stellar; the second half was, by contrast, the complete opposite.
I can't complain about much. Some of the design choices feel a bit odd and like they're trying a bit too hard and again I trace to the second half of the anime for this. Unlike the story, however, this does not drag down the entire performance of the animation. A stellar delivery here once again as with the first half, capturing a unique theme and an awesome feeling and atmosphere. There's this sort of 'red versus blue' theme that constantly occurs in the first half between Light and L-- it's a nice touch, I felt. I like the character designs, personally. They're unassuming, mostly, and well-done enough.
So, 9/10. I won't bore more by extensively detailing the minor flaws that come from the knockoff characters in the second half.
Again a stellar performance, the sound is just the right touch for this anime, somewhere between creepy and dramatic. The whole experience is enriched by the themes present. I really have no complaints; they nailed this one spot-on.
10/10. I really can't pick out flaws. Memorable tracks that give a great part of the atmosphere are about as good as you get.
Ah, here we are. The section I rued the most; the characters... and ultimately, the other half of why the other half of the anime is just a mish-mash of failed projects.
Fortunately, Light is consistently the main character. This means that we're lucky enough to see the mastermind at work consistently throughout the anime, learning his quirks and habits and getting sucked into his flair for dramatic monologuing and intensity. He's likeable in a backwards way; one can't help but get caught up in his gusto for... you know, playing God. All the same, he feels a bit one-dimensional. There's never any question why he's killing-- it's because he thinks he's right and they're wrong, and he makes this very clear very early. So there's never any ulterior motives to his action. Thankfully, his battle with L is intriguing enough that you have to wonder what he will pull out next against L.
...and so conversely, L is the perfect contrast; while Light likes to put on airs of being a dignified honor student as the epitome of form and pride as such, L is this quirky, outside-the-box character who acts as though he was never taught how to sit in a chair and eats enough sugar to put a small woodland animal down three times over. His appearance is similarly bizarre and it all makes for an odd contrast when he's the only one who can rival Light's constantly calculating genius. Perhaps it's easiest to say these two characters are most appealing when pitted against each other; seeing the ways their minds intricately play out events is sort of a fascinating thing as they run probability after probability past each other and remain unflappable and cool as ice on the surface but run dangerously close to meltdown inside their heads. Honestly, the contrast is just so hard to pull away from.
Misa is some sort of obligatory ditzy blonde who sort of relives the constantly-tense-and-serious environment the two spotlight characters create, but most fans attest that she just needs a good clock-cleaning. Nonetheless, even she somehow feels appropriate, mixed up (rather intricately) in all of Light's calculations.
But that would bring us, at length, to the show's latter half. Disappointment runs amok with Near, who is a character who is-- at length-- just L without the intriguing motivation. He's L for the sake of being L and has none of the vindication or personal stake against Light that makes the viewer really sympathize. (I mean, okay, yes he has a reason, but it's just not as compelling-- or presented as such-- as L's) It's just the barest definition of L's character, with its quirky appearance and genius, without any of the person behind it. I cannot stress enough how utterly boring and uninteresting this character is; what makes it worse is that there's some suspension of disbelief that goes on. Okay, let me elaborate there-- the entire show is very fictitious, but believable in this small, fictitious way. Things are never happening 'just 'cuz', there's always a good backing. Near's interactions do not provide this and ultimately end up feeling like deus ex machina-- or in other words, that they're happening just to usher the plot along with no thought to why the character would, or could, do that.
Near is essentially the co-star of the show's latter half and it shows in spades. He's a terrible character and I say that with all of the seething criticism I can burn through grit teeth. If not for Light's omnipresence throughout the show I would once again slam down a 5/10 for being a half-complete job, but thankfully, Light's character manages to hold some of its charm. Secondary characters here and there carrying over from the second season enhance this, but it'd be a lie to say that the show is anything but Light vs. L and then Light vs. Near, and the other characters fall under the 'available resources' department.
So there you have it. Half of Death Note is every bit as praiseworthy as the masses make it out to be, but how they can get behind the second half is just beyond me. I suppose focusing on Light alone might be reason, but the whole conflict of the second half just feels contrived and hollow, the straight definition of anime filler, except that it's not filler-- it's the entire second half of the show, some 18 episodes of boring, uninteresting and totally uninvolved conflict with characters that ultimately end up being just as boring and uninteresting as the stories they represent. At least, with them there, somebody cares about the second half... because I sure don't.
In the end, I can't really ask myself to do more justice than a 6/10. The characters carrying over from the first half to the second feel good and the same as before, which is nice. The first half is a stellar thing and, if it were an anime of its own, it would be pretty damn good and an interesting contrary to how things tend to pan out (and did, in the rest of the anime) in anime these days. But somewhere along the line, they passed script duty off to some chump who majored in 'terrible fanfiction' and it just shows so, so badly. Whether it was rushed, tacked on at the last minute, a drunken idea or someone's insistence that ending it at the first half would have been a faux pas, few things are wounded as badly by being carried on as Death Note is by it second half. And thus, while I once again agree the first half is a beautiful piece of work and while traces of it carry into the second half, I just can't bring myself to acknowledge any redeeming qualities of what the second half brings to the plate, causing me to basically review Death Note half and half-- half of it is stellar, 9/10 or 10/10 material and the other half is just poorly stitched on to its former half, worthy of a 3/10 or maybe, maybe a generous 4/10 at best.
So, there it is. My final score is 6/10 for being half incredible, and half incredible-- first for being incredible in its intrigue and quality, and second for being incredible in its audacity, insisting it needed to continue and not leaving well enough alone.