With the recent Connecticut shooting it seems just as one tragedy dies down in this country another starts. Every day it’s another story like Trayvon Martin, or the shooter at The Dark Knight Rises. It’s gotten to the point that a common sentiment I hear among people is that they don’t watch the news because they don’t want to hear about all the bad things that are happening. So what if you could stop them from happening? For high school student Light Yagami, that opportunity is exactly what he is given.
Death Note begins in the realm of the shinigami, gods of death who kill humans whose time it is to die. The only thing they need to do to accomplish this is to write a human’s name in their notebook. Spending eternity doing this bores the shinigami though, so eventually one of them called Ryuk drops a death note in the human world to entertain himself watching how a human uses his power. He winds up quite pleased with the result, as Light finds the notebook and tests it out by killing a man who has taken a school hostage, thus saving all the students inside. Seeing what the death note can do, Light aspires to become a divine being, purging the world of all its criminals. And here you would probably just use it to get rid of Justin Bieber or that professor who gave you a C last semester.
But while Light sees himself as cleansing the world of evil, the police only see him as another serial killer, and seek to find the source of how these criminals are dying. To aid them they call in the worlds greatest detective, known only as “L”. L has noticed people on the internet praising whoever is killing the criminals with fan websites set up to discuss the force they have dubbed Kira (derived from the English word for killer). He is confident this is not the work of a supernatural force, but a flesh and blood killer, and so he leads an investigation into finding “Kira”.
Light perceives anyone who opposes him as supporting the status quo of evil in the world, so he makes up his mind to eliminate L. The only thing he needs is a name and a face for the death note to work, but he has neither on L. This eventually leads to Light being pulled into the investigation of Kira, portraying himself as a hard working student looking to catch a criminal, when really he is only after L’s true identity. L asked for Light to be on the team to begin with, partially for his deductive reasoning that he helped the police in the past, and partially because he considers Light to be the prime suspect in the killings, yet he lacks concrete evidence.
This sets off a cat and mouse game between the two, with each trying to get the information on the other that will lead to the others defeat. They go back and forth outwitting each other, outwardly acting like friends and allies, while internally they are constantly aware that they are working with their greatest threat.
One of my favorite things about this dynamic is that the story doesn’t have a heavy bias towards one character or the other. There are reasons to like and dislike both of them. You can view Light as a murderer, but his philosophy towards criminals could also be rationalized in the same vein as capital punishment. And while L’s role as the detective might cast him in a more sympathetic light as a character, he is also willing to break the law to achieve his goals. In one episode he clearly violates the civil rights of his suspects by filling their homes with wire taps and hidden cameras (yup, even in the bathroom) to look for any sign of Kira being present in these houses. The show presents a moral dilemma to the viewer without providing simple, clear cut answers that would preclude discussion and issues to think about.
The show is not perfect by any means though. The dialogue can sometimes get a bit melodramatic, even for the subject matter (the infamous potato chip scene). The second half of the series is also noticeably lighter on character development of some new faces than the depth we got at the beginning. And the biggest disappointment of all is the character of Misa, a girl who acquires a death note just like Light.
The thing I find annoying about Misa isn’t her character, but her wasted potential. She starts off seeming like she might be a rival for Light, but instead becomes such a devout disciple of Kira that she falls in love with him and just wants to be his girlfriend. This isn’t a bad idea, as it’s in keeping with Light’s ambition of being a god, so it makes sense he would attract followers. My problem with Misa is that she remains a static character throughout the series, despite many times when she could have, and should have evolved into something more interesting. When the rest of the story is so complex and well-crafted, it’s a shame that the most prominent female character in the series is handled in such a simplistic way.
Even with these flaws, however, if you’re like me, once you finish Death Note you’re going to be left wondering what else can possibly match up to it. It really all depends on what aspect of the show you enjoyed the most. If you want more thought provoking stories, then Monster and Ergo Proxy (re-released in October) are good places to start.
Monster starts off with a doctor who jeopardizes his job by operating to save a child rather than the mayor. The mayor dies, but the child pulls through. The only thing is that child grows up to be a genocidal monster comparable to Hitler. Oops, wrong call.
If you want more anime with more action than Death Note, then drive a stake through the sparkly heart of “Team Edward” and watch the bloodthirsty vampires of Hellsing Ultimate, which saw two releases around November.
Black Lagoon also got a re-release in 2012, and features modern day pirates that take on everyone from neo-Nazis to the Yakuza in Japan. Yeah, Jack Sparrow probably wouldn’t last long here. Also worth noting is that the show doesn’t regulate its many female characters to damsels in distress. They’re killers, they’re mafia leaders, and often their morality takes a backseat to a pay day. As the protagonist, Revy, responds when asked what she relies on in her world, “it’s money of course. And guns. Fuckin’ A, with these two things, the world is a great place.”
But while they’re good in their own right, Death Note is still my top choice. Whether you’ve never seen any anime, or you’ve seen a lot, I think it’s one anyone can enjoy. It has great aesthetics and music, and in only 37 episodes tells a fast-paced story with twists and turns and a satisfying conclusion. For me, Death Note has set the bar for what an anime should be.