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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.'
Ordinarily, I make a point to avoid series plagued by fanboyism, as they generally suffer from pitiful characterization, flimsy storylines, and sub-par aesthetics. Yet, Death Note carried some strange allure and managed to pique my interest, so I decided to give it a shot. I would not be disappointed. It's one of those gems that graces the anime world only every so often and certainly deserves a considerable amount of respect.
At its core, Death Note is an anime that captivates you with a story fashioned around logic, wit, trust, and betrayal. Filled with deep characters and weaved with intensity, it grips you from start to finish with amazing vice. It traces the story of Yagami Light, a young college student who has become disillusioned with the pervasiveness of crime and corruption spread throughout the world. Purely by accident, he stumbles upon a book called a Death Note, which allows its author to kill any person of his or her choosing by merely writing their name inside, given that they know the person's name and face. Though at first skeptical, Light decides to use its powers to cleanse the world of evil, and thus begins his quest for justice.
What immediately follows, however, is a conglomerate struggle of ethics and morality. Death Note presents a surprisingly detailed scenario in which the definition of absolute justice is blurred and the true nature of morality is put into question. Unlike other pseudo-intellectual anime that attempt to provide naïve approaches to such tough subjects, though, it does not step lightly around any of its subject matter. The script writers do a fantastic job at presenting the storyline in dramatic fashion without drowning out its substance in philosophy. There are a number of such elements that the series touches upon, but each and every one is seamlessly streamlined into the anime.
Due to the nature of Death Note's story, however, it's incredibly difficult to present an accurate, detailed reflection of the plot without giving important details away. The drama is presented in a very cumulative fashion, with each individual episode building upon the intricacies and complexities of the last. For a series built so strongly around logic, this is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. You'll find yourself gripped from the first minute until the last, carried on by numerous twists and turns that keep the story both fresh and intriguing with each installment.
Death Note takes the liberty of incorporating some of the best shading effects to date. Grasping emotions and moods with unrivaled precision, detail pervades every inch of every scene. One of Death Note's greatest assets is its ability to immerse the viewer into the anime itself, and the animation here definitely plays a major role in making that happen. Camera angles are taken to accentuate facial expressions, shadows fashion character designs, and the scenery defines moods. Death Note's aesthetics reflect the essence of the storyline itself, and are awash with metaphorical splendor that can be appreciated on a number of different levels.
Oddly enough, two of Death Note's lowest points are the average quality opening and ending themes. Though they certainly capture the mood of the series well enough, they aren't too impressive as individual tracks. Aside from these songs, however, the vast majority of the insert music is above par; save for a very few select pieces, it's surprisingly well orchestrated. The voice acting is where Death Note's sound score really shines, though, especially with Light -- I felt his actor captured his personality and expressions with pinpoint accuracy. By in large, this same standard of quality assumes itself in all but one character, so be prepared for a treat in this category.
Again, commenting on the characters is hard because Death Note continually builds upon itself the story progresses. Though I didn't particularly care for some of the development of a few side characters, every person to appear throughout the series has a distinct purpose. The number of extraneous characters is kept to a virtual minimum, and those who serve little purpose only appear for as long as they are needed; you certainly won't find a plethora of useless fluff here. The writers went through the series with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that each fills his or her respective role with the utmost of precision, making sure only to assimilate those who are necessary for the dramatic elements of the plot.
To conclude, I'm incredibly impressed with Death Note. While, like any other anime, it does have its flaws, as a whole they are relatively minor. There are a few ups on downs throughout the course of the thirty-seven episodes, but the vast majority of time is spent very wisely. To its fortune, the series is constructed in such a way that it has a nearly universal sense of appeal, and as such should not be passed up. Most definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so make sure to check it out if you have not done so already.
Enter the mind of a sociopath, Light Yagami. A remarkable teenager, he's devilishly handsome, twice junior tennis champion, and ranks first in the national exams. In other ways, though, he's quite the simpleton: a textbook megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur. Oh, and he's just been handed the power to kill individuals simply by writing their names in a notebook.
Death Note is a cat-and-mouse suspense-thriller with a paranormal twist and hints of schizophrenia in its concept design. It requires that viewers suspend their disbelief and common sense in order to fall in love with it. For example, we must believe that there are teenagers more intelligent than the world's best detectives; that death gods exist and give humans said notebooks just for fun; and that the man assigned to solve the mystery of the death gods, and has seasoned police officers drooling after his knowledge, is an emo. Rather than waste time excusing itself, the show prefers to sidestep these chasms of logic and run straight for the action - the onus is thus on the viewer to choose to follow.
What sold me on this escapist journey was not the cliffhangers or the sumptuous animation, but Mamoru Miyano's incredible incarnation as Light. He evokes just the right balance of charisma and pure evil. Take this line for instance: 'Then, behind the fact that deserving criminals are dying of heart attacks, I'll gradually start killing off people who cause problems for innocent people, through illness and accidental death... Then I'll have created a world filled with those I've judged to be kind and hardworking.' In the universe of crackpots, this speech is nothing remarkable. However, when Light says it, I start to believe that taking the world on this collision course to hell would be the most invigorating accident I've had since Jackass. His performance is infectiously gleeful, as though he really had started to go mad in the recording booth and the tape just happened to catch him talking. When Light cackled, I cackled too; when he became angry, I froze. Even if Light is the bad guy, Miyano makes him so convincing, it's difficult not to root for him.
Light kills convicted criminals under the pseudonym 'Kira' (a reworking of the word 'killer') with the aim of creating a pure world. Let's face it, most viewers will cheer the death of Shibutaku, for example, who attempts to rape a girl one fateful evening. The show even puts a mirror to this instinctive moral hipocrisy; as police trawl the city to bring the murderous Kira to justice, grateful citizens dedicate websites and television shows to him, calling him a hero of the people. Light himself is not particularly meticulous about his moral code - very soon, they're dropping left, right, and centre just for getting in his way. However, the question still remains: is his moral reasoning kinked or is he the only one thinking clearly in a world where murderers and rapists retain the same rights as law-abiding citizens?
On the other side of this psychological war, the genius detective L proves to be a strange one, too - although not to the same level of fascination as Light. Judging him by his scraggly black hair, pale skin, and ferral posture is probably more favourable, since underneath it all he's rather hollow. He reveals nothing of himself except that he's a friendless eccentric with a child-like vulnerability the fangirls will like. Mainly, for his part in the chase after Kira, he talks about probabilities in exact percentages. 'Well, when I say "suspect", it's only about one percent,' he says with the deadpan certainty of a supercomputer. I just heard mathematicians everywhere wince in unison, but I'm sure his teenage viewers appreciate the general gist. In any case, he is necessary simply for the fact that, without his cunning interventions on the side of justice, Light's plan for world domination would be too easy. Moreover, despite his relative shallowness, he does end up delivering the best episode of the entire series.
I could not close this discussion without mentioning Death Note's excellent grasp of suspense. It churns out in droves the kinds of edgy cliffhangers other shows could dream up only with the aid of drugs. While it handles these twists with the same regard for truth and logic as, say, Alice in Wonderland, it never forgets to do so in style. Viewers can thank the wizards at Madhouse for the outstandingly rich concept design, which thrums with hallucinatory overtones and brings to life some stunning set-pieces. I lived for those moments when Light delivered one of his crazed monologues, his eyes glowing red while behind him loomed shadows of a vast, empty, hellish landscape. Indeed, Death Note may not be cerebral, and its main characters are pure fantasies, but it's skilful and witty and packed with the kind of brazen spectacle an audience damn well deserves.
Studio Madhouse is the king when it comes to anime shows and this is another good example of that. Most Hollywood movies couldn’t do it any better. There is variety in faces, so nobody looks the same and most characters change clothes all the time, so don’t expect the “Naruto effect”. There are also too many static frames that ruin a perfect mark but aside from that it is excellent, as long as you like dark palette colors. Opening and ending songs are simply mind numbing. Some music themes repeat too often and may become tiresome after the 100th time you listen to them; although this didn’t happen for me.
The story is about the Death Gods in the series getting really bored with their existence, and from time to time playing tricks with mortals, just to kill the boredom with a little laugh. Once of them is throwing supernatural notebooks that kills anyone whose name is written in it, in the human realm. An ingenious and amoral teenager named Yagami Light finds one of those notebooks, and like the megalomanic he is, decides to use it for killing all the criminals in the world, establishing a new world order of peace and justice with him adored as a God! All of which will be done in secrecy, since he is not almighty and a simple cop can arrest him if he is found out. From this description you quickly realize that he is not the typical hero of justice but a criminal mastermind.
The theme of the series is morality. Is it moral to kill someone, without giving a chance of redemption for his crimes? Don’t you become a criminal by killing against the law, even with the best of intentions? Does killing all those you consider “evil” can really make the world a better place? How can you be sure if someone deserves to die? What makes your personal judgment criteria better than anyone else’s?
But since the protagonist is not your average boyscout, he doesn’t really care about morality. In fact, he clings towards the opposite direction. He doesn’t believe in universal morality, God, after-life punishment, or ethics in general. Heck, the very atmosphere of the series promotes such beliefs. God is either uncaring with the world or non-existent, and all beings in Creation are left to do as they please, with morality and justice being just human fabrications for maintaining social order. Yagami is beyond such ideals. He believes that the end justifies the means and that brilliant people like him are superior and thus always correct before the opinions of pitiful commoners. If HE gets what HE wants, then nothing else matters. He is willing to do anything it takes to promote his way of thinking, including taking advantage of people’s feelings and good intentions, winning their trust just to abuse them, killing good-willing people who don’t agree with him, killing supporters who don’t follow his commands to the fullest, and even killing his zealots when they are no longer useful to him. And all which are done without lifting an eyebrow, since what he does is in his mind always correct. He is an extreme form of a Machiavellian character or a psyched version of Cao Cao from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The message he promotes is quite amoral: “There is no meaning in life, goodness is for suckers, brains and cunningness are all that matters, live the way you like and screw how others feel about it.”
Yagami’s rival in the story is “L”, another ingenious teenager who believes that upholding the laws is the closest thing people have to justice and morality. Logic and thorough examination are his ultimate weapons. He and his aid are in fact a crazed version of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The story is mostly about Yagami vs L and his followers, trying to outsmart one another with various, cunning, multi-layered mind tricks. Yagami tries to hide the fact he is Kira, the supernatural killer, and dispose of L & co. without leaving incriminating traces around him (a VERY hard task). L & co. on the other side tries to smoke him out and arrest him for the murders (also VERY hard).
The detective aspect of the series is exceptional. A crazed Sherlock Holmes taking on a psyched Cao Cao! Unpredictable and yet ingeniously planned-out, most of the time, with the two of them standing next to each other most of the time and yet are unable to eradicate one another. Not without an ingenious planning that doesn’t leave room for openings for the other guy’s ingenious planning. It feels like watching a chess game between two world champions with the rest of the people being just pawns in their hands; manipulated to do their bidding, without even realizing it most of the time.
On the other hand, the supernatural aspect of the series is simply bullshit. There is no realism or reasoning with the
Death Gods being bored. What the hell; boredom as driving force? There are several attempts to explain and reason the powers of the Death Note, but there are no explanations about its general existence in the world. Why does the Death Note exist? Who made it? Why do Death Gods exist? Why are they bored with their existence? Did something happen that made them lose their reason-for-being? How correctly does the accent of the name of the one you want to kill must be written? What if the language you are using does not support a proper pronunciation? How well must you imagine someone’s face? What if you remember him as he looked decades ago? Why the pages of the Death Note never end? How does someone forget about its existence without having memory problems with everything else he was doing in the meantime?
So, ok, some can arbitrarily think that God made the Death Note and the Death Gods and then stopped caring about His creations’ actions, thus depriving everything of a reason-for-being. And that the Death Note works with a “Word: Death” spell, which is triggered by translating the victim’s written birth-given name to its True Name via the Death Notes’ metaphysical energy. But these are just unsupported viewers’ opinions and thus not really canonized as true.
And it becomes even messier if you consider Yagami’s depiction of an ideal world. A world of total justice and peace, based on the fear of death would be a world of terror and hopelessness. Also, in theory every human being loses his/her temper and does something really stupid at least once in his/her lifetime. There wouldn’t be anyone left alive in Yagami’s ideal world! As cool as it is to have such a protagonist, he is eventually delusional, insane and megalomaniac. In other words, he is a villain. And no, he didn’t become because he found the notebook, he always was like that. He simply went overboard when he was offered the power to kill without being punished for it. Throughout human history, people with total control over the lives of others don’t become more just and caring, as time goes by. They become crueler and more uncaring, thus slowly bringing the fall of their own creation.
As much as I was enjoying this show, I have to admit that it changed for the worse after a time skip took place.Without a main rival around, Yagami starts making silly mistakes and L’s side starts reachings to verdicts seemingly out of nowhere. The scriptwriter simply reached to a story dead-end and yet still had to wrap up the story in a way that wouldn’t be too evil for a shonen story. Well, he didn’t do a good job, the storyboard is a mess in the last episodes and got ruined like a tower of cards with a badly placed card at the top. The ending is melodramatic but feels way too dry with the build up it had so far, and it’s nowhere near as fun as it was before the time skip.
As far as characters go, Yagami/Kira and L are the only characters that really matter, thanks to their non-stop mind-trap competition. All the rest are just there for support, commenting on events or being peons in greater than themselves schemes. You cannot really connect with any of them because they have the same demeanor and a weak presense. They may not look the same but really feel the same, no matter where you look. Even the top two characters are essentially two sides of the same coin. At least they bother to mask it nicely, as all characters dress differently (Misa with Goth lolita style, Ryuk with punk style), and have quirks and personal tastes (L loves sweets).
It’s still rather easy to figure out that there is very little character development going around which is not based on amnesia or brainwashing because of the notebook. Yagami in particular gets a completely different personality when he loses his memory that is nowhere near his megalomaniac self before he found the notebook, thus it becomes bad writing.
Regardless of all that, Death Note remains as one of the best thriller detectives in anime form. Its problems become apparent only after you rewatch it and pay attention, but it is definitely a very memorable series, with great production values and no filler episodes.
SUGGESTION (DEATH) LIST
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
Death note is my favorite anime to begin with there is no doubt about it. But why is it my favorite? The characters are all well thought out, the plot makes you guessing each time if you have not seen it as many times as I have (which has become so much that I can watch it in the Japanese without the subtitles and still know what is going on). The mind blowing epicness of this thriller is so intense that if you are not strong enough to take it you better not just think about watching a few episodes. YOU MUST WATCH IT ALL! And not to be a spoiler but when it comes to a certain point in the anime, do not stop halfway through because you are angry or sad or upset. Continue and see what happens anyways. You must see it to believe it!