One of the most well-known, notorious anime out there, Death Note has certainly made a name for itself. Between its manga run, anime adaptation, spin-off movies, video games, TV drama, and even a MUSICAL, Death Note is getting a lot of milage, even in 2016, a decade after the release of the anime. Does Death Note deserve this attention? In my opinion, certainly.
Confronting the moral questions that come with the power to kill anyone in the world, Death Note put forth a rarely seen story at the time, putting us into the shoes of a brilliant main character that was blatantly the “bad guy,” as well as having intense conflict without a need for explicit violence. Death Note is very unique, and stands out in many ways, thanks to its stand-out premise, characters, and themes. However, all this being said, it has its flaws.
Today, I’ll be going through the anime adaptation of Death Note, looking at everything it has to offer, and offering my opinion on it. There will be NO SPOILERS in this review, so if you want to enter it blind, don’t worry about a thing. Regardless of my personal opinion, it is an iconic story, and worth checking out on that alone. That being said, let’s get into it!
In a world after death, that is neither heaven or hell, wandering gods of death waste their time, gambling, chatting, simply existing. These Shinigami have only one reprieve from their eternal boredom – their Death Notes, with which they kill humans by writing their names, allowing the Shinigami in question to continue living. However, one Shinigami, Ryuk, bored of such a life, drops his Death Note to Earth, hoping that he might be entertained in the world of humans.
As it so happens, gifted student Light Yagami stumbles upon the Death Note, skeptical of course, but willing to give it a go. Discovering the power the Note has, he vows to cleanse the world of what he believes is evil, cementing his position as the moral authority, “the god of the new world.” People are noticing the deaths of criminals across the world, dubbing this new presence “Kira.” With such a huge, consistent trend of death, officials across the world are scrambling for an answer, as to who could be responsible. A mysterious detective, known only as L, believes he can provide an answer, pitting his wits against this Kira in a mental showdown for the fate of the world.
The premise of Death Note provides much room for drama and conflict, and indeed, much of the show plays out like a thriller, based entirely off how Light chooses to evade attempts to identify him. We get to see the brilliant schemes of Light in action, pitted against the genius, eccentric mind of L, in conflicts that, depending on execution, can be both spectacular to watch, and painfully boring.
It is there that I must offer criticism of Death Note. There are many, many standout moments that I could name, points where the drama comes to a head and everything in the story just works out in the most ridiculous, yet admittedly suspenseful and thrilling ways. However, the theatrics slow down as the series goes on, to be frank. Not that the grand reveals are any worse, rather, there comes a point when there are not many more mind games to be played, character interactions lose their importance, and the episode-to-episode stories just meld into a giant mesh of…average.
First off, we have our protagonist (???), Yagami Light. The perfect student, a ladies man, a father at the head of the police force of Japan, one would think that Light had it all. However, this prodigy, for all his smarts and talents, was bored, discontented with the way life was – doomed to just live and die, with no hope of changing the world for the better. That is when Light found Ryuk’s dropped Death Note, suddenly giving him an avenue to accomplish these massive dreams. Killing off criminals with the Death Note, he hopes to cleanse the world, fill it with people he considers morally righteous, and ultimately become “the god of the new world.” His staggering intellect, his father giving him access to a wealth of information, it seems at first that Light is set to change the world as he sees fit, under the guise of the seemingly omniscient deity known as Kira.
This is where L comes into play. The mystery detective, employed by the United Nations only for their most significant cases, L has taken an interest in the killings of Kira. No one knows his name, his face, or his history, and he has gained quite the reputation as a skilled investigator. Although he is a rather strange individual, pale, gaunt, and with a surprising affinity towards sweets, L is undoubtedly a genius of the highest caliber, going head to head with the invisible killer, Kira. Pushing Kira into a corner, L stands as the only individual who has a chance of finding him, the only individual stopping Kira from becoming the uncontested authority of the world.
Light and L absolutely steal the show. Their mental chess games against each other are what Death Note THRIVES on, and overall, it’s an absolute joy to watch the logical games that Light and L play with each other. That being said, I’ve gotta acknowledge the bad part of a show that thrives on the exploits of just two main characters. Without said characters, the show lacks much conflict, much memorability. Sure you have Ryuk the Shinigami, Light’s father, and other characters that pop up late in the series, but the two shining gems that are Light and L are, honestly, the only ones that keep the show rolling. It’s a damn good show, to be sure, but it lacks substance, complex character interactions that perhaps, could have launched Death Note into “extraordinary” territory.
Death Note has a certain style about it that adds dramatic flair to scenes that could easily, if done wrong, be boring. Luckily for us viewers, Death Note is sure to bring the style, with huge contrasts between darkness and light that really emphasizes the tone of the series, topped off with ridiculously dramatic music that is used to great effect. The way in which it is animated just works with the dark tone that Death Note tries to convey, and overall, the series is simply solid in that department.
That being said, if you’re not a fan of overwhelming dark visuals and a generally dark tone, stay away, or at least keep that in mind. With an overall black, gray, and red palate, even at Death Note’s brightest moments (from a color point of view, mind you) it still seems rather diluted relative to other animations. It does work well, given the nature of the show, but…it is rather one-track in that aspect.
4. Thematic Elements
With a story like Death Note, a name like Light, and a Shinigami as one of the primary characters, you KNOW it’s going to have some interesting themes. Darker, serious themes, of course, but still some ideas that are worth considering.
Something worth noting is that moral conflicts are not exactly confronted head-long in Death Note. Rather, it presents the audience with a story, and characters that have their own views on the world, and lets them speak for themselves. Things happen, concepts are presented, but never are they elaborated on, despite the potential for such elaboration to happen. Of course, that’s not exactly a bad thing, allowing for one to get caught up in the story presented, but, I feel like it’s just something to note.
One theme that is prevalent throughout the story, is Light’s desire to be the “god of the new world,” if that phrase hasn’t gotten old yet. Well, along those lines, there are certain references to religious ideas that add a bit more complexity to the story, if that is kept in mind. Beyond Light’s fairly obvious god complex, if one notices the intro to Death Note (which deserves an analysis in and of itself)an apple, a well-known allegory for sin, is interchangeably used with the titular Death Note. Such a comparison shows throughout the series, corruption and sin accompanying the one who may use it.
There’s certainly more meaning behind the series as a whole that can be taken: after all, the power to kill anyone you wish, in and of itself, is a power that leaves a lot to the imagination. Such themes are presented in the story, but just take my word for it- Death Note is NOT lacking in the thematic department. From the idea of human corruption, to the finality of death, this series has a lot behind it, and certainly can provide much food for thought.
5. Personal Enjoyment
To wrap this review up, I just gotta say I enjoyed the crap out of this anime. I knew it had a huge reputation going into it, and I can certainly see why. There are some great moments that got me hype as hell, not to mention providing enough food for thought to make Death Note a series to last in the minds of viewers as something certainly unique.
However. That being said, as many people who’ve watched Death Note know, it does drop off. Opinions on said drop off are varied, some people absolutely loving the show regardless, and others believing the whole thing was ruined because of it. As for me, I still found enjoyment in even the bad parts of Death Note, just…nothing to what I feel it could have been. Perhaps it couldn’t have been helped, given the nature of its story, but for those who wish to give it a go, just don’t expect the intensity to last the entire way through.
All that in mind, I’ll give Death Note a 7.90/10, due to its memorable main characters and stand out thematic elements, while being bogged down by a story that, despite starting high, just kept slowing down, to the point where the characters presented couldn’t be enjoyed like in the beginning. Don’t be fooled by the rating though: Death Note has CERTAINLY earned its legendary reputation. It’s a trailblazing story, carving out a new path, providing an extremely unique experience for those willing. Technically, perhaps, it wasn’t the pinnacle of how a story could be constructed, but it was an enjoyable ride nonetheless, and one I recommend watching.