The evils in this world are inescapable. No matter where you look, no matter where you go, there are people out there who seem to do nothing but hurt others. They take advantage of them, preying on anyone they can get even the smallest leverage over, letting their own ingenuity do the rest. Rapists, murderers, thieves, all of them are nothing but soulless vampires hurting the people around them with no thoughts towards anyone’s feelings but their own. There’s no escaping it. God made a mistake when he granted man free will. This world… It’s rotting. These are the thoughts plaguing a brilliant young Japanese man named Light Yagami, a bored genius with a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire world’s criminal population. We’ve all wondered what we’d do if we could kill whoever we want with little more than a thought… We could take care of that bully who’s been harassing us, that singer we can’t stand, or that politician who doesn’t agree with us… But one day, as Light is moving between classes, he actually gets the opportunity to do just that.
Out in the courtyard, he finds a Death Note, a notebook that was dropped into the human world by a Shinigami, or God of Death, who’s just as bored as he is. It doesn’t take long for the industrious millennial to realize the kind of power he’s been given, and he very quickly decides to create a new world free of crime and evil, with himself lording over it as the new God. His ruthless genocide on the wicked doesn’t go unnoticed, as he attracts the attention of copycats, worshipers, and a mysterious detective named L who wants nothing more than to end his reign of justice. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but as the body count racks up, and the deadly game of cat and mouse between Light and his nemesis L wages on, with Light’s true intentions becoming more and more questionable with every single twist and turn of the plot, it’s worth asking: What is true justice? Where is the line between good and evil, and at what point does a vengeful God cross it? If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then then the lines may not be as clear as Light, or anyone else, realizes.
I’ve always been annoyed by people who state that there’s an ‘anime style,’ because when you actually back up and take a look at the medium as a whole, there just might be more individual art and animation styles in the anime medium than there even is in America. It’s easy to say that all of the Hannah Barbara cartoons of the seventies were designed to look like Scooby Doo, or that there are too many modern cartoons that look like Adventure time, or that CG Disney ladies just look like identical dolls with different hair and faces added on, but you can’t really say the same for the anime medium. Even anime released by the same studio around the same time will rarely ever look that close to each other, aside from a few recognizable studio quirks. I’ll admit that Studio Madhouse has released a handful of titles that look like Death note, but with Death Parade allegedly taking place in the same universe, it’s a smaller number than you’d think. Other titles like Monster, Black Lagoon and the Marvel Anime come close, but ultimately stray in one form or another.
But Death Note is one of the Studio Madhouse anime that lean more towards actual human realism rather than the big-eye, small nose giant head designs that people often attribute the anime “style” too. Characters are designed to be almost lifelike, with everyone sporting appropriately sized eyes, save for a few token weirdos who’s eyes are slightly larger than they should be, like Misa and Near. There’s really nothing about their anatomy that’s exaggerated, and none of them are drawn to be inhumanly attractive like bishounen or moe girls would be, everyone just looks human, which not only sets the tone of the series, but it also provides the perfect opportunity for Shinigami, the other-worldly observers who started this whole mess, to stand out as the grotesque humanoid monsters they should be. The level of imagination that went into them is astounding, as even the ones who only show up in one or two scenes look like nothing you’ve seen before. The human characters are also designed in such a way to inform their personalities in some clever ways.
As for the animation, this is a dialogue heavy show, so there really isn’t much to speak of. A lot of the series is just talking heads, but they took just enough of a cue from Akiyuki Shinbou to use interesting framing and shading to keep things visually interesting without ever going overboard and looking pretentious. They save their money for big movements, and I don’t just mean action scenes like fights and chases, although those do exist, and they look gorgeous. This is an extremely over-the-top show, to the point that even the act of eating a potato chip can be made to look every bit as epic as Moses parting the red sea. They go the cheaper route when events like these aren’t happening, and while I wish to say they managed their budget well, I can’t. This show isn’t just a dramatic rollercoaster, oh no, the animation is just as inconsistent, because for every breathtaking high, there’s an egregiously painful low when they try to portray fluid movement on a low budget, and it looks embarrassingly bad, and it’s just as noticeable as the good stuff, if not moreso.
The animation is a mixed bag, but in terms of the music, Death Note might just have one of the best soundtracks in anime history. The first thing you probably think of in terms of Death Note’s ost is the loud, epic greek choir that fires up for all of the show’s biggest moments, Low of Solipsism, the most memorable song in the series and easily one of the most iconic themes of all time. It’s right up there with the Azumanga Daioh eyecatch music, being instantly recognizable, maybe even to people who haven’t even seen the series. As much as I’d like to praise it for it’s overall use throughout the series, it’s the individual character themes that really take the cake here. Light and L are generally represented by the guitar and the piano, respectively, with the former representing youthful revolt and(probably unintentionally) deliberate insincerity, with the former representing order and the return to the classic world, IE the one Light’s trying to change. Appropriately, each theme has the instrument representing the opposing character creeping into it at some point.
This is taken even further by a later character named Near having a similar theme to L, albeit with a less conventional instrument for a less conventional detective. Their themes go a lot deeper than this, with the progression of each track representing the course of the plot, and trust me, every character gets a similarly descriptive theme, but you don’t want to hear about that. You want to hear about the openings, and how awesome they both are. They’re both artistic, high energy and visually stunning, and they’re every bit as representative of the plot and characters as the musical themes are. Musically, the first opening, The World, is a lot more conventional, which by no means is a bad thing. It’s the catchy hard rock song a show like this should have, with a ton of religious imagery and every major character getting their time in the spotlight. The second opening, What’s Up People, has become notorious in the medium for being entirely balls-out insane. Switching from hard rock to Death metal, it symbolizes the chaos of the world and Light at that point in the story.
The English dub was an Ocean effort, and while they’ve produced some less appealing dubs in the past, this one is surprisingly solid. There aren’t a lot of Canadian anime dubs out there, so the ones we do see don’t really feature the actors or directors we’ve gotten used to through the American ADR scene, and the different sound plays up how different this entire show is really well. The only problem you might have with it is the uncanny valley effect of hearing so many past and present My Little Pony actors lending their voices to such a serious show. The two main actors in particular are outstanding, with Brad Swaile matching every beat of his Japanese counterpart, and Battlestar Galactica veteran Alessandro Juiliani actually surpassing his. Swaile is able to play every side of Light Yagami, from the good-natured innocent he pretends to be to the heartless killer he hides under the surface, and he even manages to sound just as crazy and psychopathic as Mamoru Miyano, effortlessly passing the bar at every opportunity. Juiliani went above and beyond with giving nuance to L that frankly wasn’t there in the original sub.
I don’t know how Brian Drummond was able to do Ryuk’s voice, but I feel like I’d offer him a lozenge if I ever met him in person. He plays the character like a combination of Wolverine and Harvey Fierstein, which makes sense, as he’s played Wolverine in more than a few adaptations. He’s had a long and prolific career in both anime and western animation, doing everything from My Little Pony and Bratz to Cardcaptor Sakura and Gundam, but he’ll always be Ryuk to me. Shannon Chan-Kent hasn’t done as much anime as Drummond, having less than ten credits to her name, but she does her best to keep up with the sheer insanity of her own Japanese counterpart, and while she doesn’t quite match up, the simple truth is that I’ve yet to see anyone match the inflections of Aya Hirano. If Wendee Lee couldn’t do it, then the singing voice for Pinkie Pie could only be expected to do so much. She does a fine job, but still kinda misses the mark, taking an annoying character that Aya saved and just playing her as annoying anyway.
The rest of the cast is also at least fine, with the only other obvious stand-outs being the characters of Mello and Near, whom I can’t really talk about for spoiler reasons. Kirby Morrow, the original Goku himself, goes absolutely crazy as the justice obsessed character Teru Mikami, and his performance goes about as off the rails as anyone else I’ve mentioned thus far. I don’t think character actor Chris Britton has done any anime aside from this one, but he plays Light’s father Soichiro as grounded and authoritative, showing the age of the character very clearly through the fatigue of his voice. Vincent tong,Trevor Duvall, John Murphy and a disappointingly small role by Brian Dobson(But not as disappointing as the screen time that Tabitha St. Germaine got) make up the other officers of the NPA, none of whom battle the main cast for your attention, but all of whom do a solid job in more grounded and realistic parts. The writing is on point and as accurate as possible, and I honestly recommend watching both versions at least once, as it sounds amazing in both languages.
Death Note is one of those few anime that really don’t need an introduction. If you know what anime is, you’ve heard of it. It’s not quite as recognizable as Dragonball Z or Pokemon, but if those shows are Hulk hogan and the Macho Man, then Death Note is at the very least John Cena… There’s no guarantee that you’ve heard of it, but it’s still pretty damn likely. To this day, it’s the most recently released anime to receive an American remake, and I’m not just talking about that Netflix movie that I’ve been putting off watching… I am thoroughly convinced that Breaking Bad took more than a few notes from it. Oddly enough, for an anime this popular, the backlash hasn’t been as severe as it has been for a lot of other titles that blew up as big as it did… Most critics and audiences have at least a generally positive opinion of it, it’s broken a lot of cultural barriers, and it’s even managed to inspire a number of real life murders. Is it worth all the hype? Does it really deserve it’s spot in the public consciousness?
Well, we’ll start with the negatives. I didn’t really notice it until I was rewatching the series for this review, although it is pretty obvious now that I think of it… This story was, more likely than not, written as it went along. It has to have been. There’s very little material on display that feels like it was planned out in advance, or at least it wasn’t planned very far in advance. I’ve read comments from the manga’s mysterious author that at least two of the side characters’ deaths were decided spur of the moment, in one case because the character was learning too much too quickly, and the second because he happened to be the most expendable option out of those available at the time. Now writing a story this way isn’t always a bad thing… Stephen King is exceptional at it. The problem is that you have to know how to make it work, and Death Note kind of doesn’t. Outside of the music and openings, there was NO foreshadowing in this series, which makes a lot of plot twists feel jarringly out of nowhere, but there are much more obvious examples.
Take, for example, the booby trap Light builds to conceal his death note early on in the series. Light goes into great detail about how he built a secret compartment to house his notebook, telling us not only how it works, but how it was set up to destroy the book if anyone were to get too close to discovering it. this is all well and good, but for the amount of screen time it takes up, it never actually comes up in the story again. It never plays a part in the narrative, except for covering a potential plothole down the line, but that alone isn’t good enough to justify the attention that went into it. There’s a rule called Chekov’s gun, stating that if something gets mentioned in the story, it has to play a part later in the story. You don’t mention a gun if nobody’s gonna get shot by it, and you don’t go to extreme lengths to avoid something if that thing’s never going to either happen or almost happen. We don’t need to know how he hid the notebook, we know he’s smart enough to do it. We don’t need to know how paranoid and careful he is, the door trick tells us that just fine on it’s own.
Sure, maybe it was PLANNED to come up again, but I’m pretty sure the only reason they did that was so nobody would question why the people putting up surveillance cameras in his room never found it. Even for that purpose, simply having him say “Nobody will ever find it” would suffice, because we would have taken him at his word. It’s especially strange because as meticulously as this was described, the author was still perfectly happy with never explaining how Light was able to sneak a tiny television inside of a SEALED bag of chips, which he was somehow able to clearly watch while writing down the names being broadcast on it, all while never actually looking into the bag itself. Kind of a weird for us to just take on faith when you’re explicitly describing a fail-safe that never actually gets used. But this is also emblematic of another huge problem that writing like this can cause, and that’s the fact that the author often wound up writing the story into a corner and having to pull out complete bullshit in order to get out of it.
My friend Karandi over at the 100 Word Anime blog pointed out in her review of this series that it relies heavily on coincidence, and yeah, this is a really good point. Death Note is damn near Shakespearian in the amount of deus ex machina asspulls it uses. Coincidences aren’t just conveniently used, they’re deeply ingrained in the plot, and I’m not exaggerating that. This entire situation began on a coincidence, with Light just happening to find the notebook, and it ends on a coincidence, because spoilers. I know coincidence on it’s own isn’t the end of the world, I mean there are a ton of heroes who constantly have to save people that coincidentally happen to be their loved ones, but the sheer amount of it in Death Note is astounding, and it works really hard against the reputation the show has built for itself around being smart. On top of that I can’t count the number of times that characters made stupid or ill advised decisions for the sake of the plot, and I’m not just talking about canonically stupid characters like Misa.
But since Misa’s been brought up, that’s another criticism the series keeps having lodged against it, and it’s pretty damn valid… Death Note is skin-crawlingly sexist. With very few exceptions, and I can not stress the word very hard enough, male characters make up the entirety of the police force, politicians, business heads and major players in Light’s death game, with those few exceptions I mentioned either being pawns with limited agency or having extremely limited screen time. Women are portrayed through their relationships to male characters, playing the roles of mother, sister, grieving lover or obsessed stalker, and the only two exceptions to this that I can think of are Wedy and Halle Lidner, who certainly had agency and lives of their own, but were used far too scarcely to make an impact. I had high hopes for Naomi Misora, who was really likeable and interesting, even though she was giving up her career to become a housewife and was out to avenge her dead fiancee. She was a smart and proactive character, which is why it’s profoundly insulting how her sudden brain fart led to her downfall. Trust me, there’s a good reason she’s one of only two characters to get their own light novel spin-off.
Misa Amane gets close to top billing, which is progressive by his series’ standards, but it comes with a pretty harsh trade-off… She is canonically the dumbest character in the show, motivated entirely by infatuation(also canonical), and while she does get a few moments to shine here and there(like her manipulation of one certain business head), her screw-ups and terrible decisions way overpower anything good she brings to the series. Yeah, she’s devoted to Kira for avenging the death of her parents, but she would die for Light and happily be used by him just because he’s good looking and smart. I’ve already covered their terrible relationship in my ‘top ten worst romances’ list, so I won’t dwell on her here, but there’s still the matter of Light being a certified chick magnet, with countless female characters getting charmed by him, including a girl who wants to continue their date after watching a man die, and a certain otherwise promising character playing right into his hand despite knowing better from the details of her husband’s death. The only difference between him and Kirito is that he’s acknowledged as being a dick about it. The ladies still be cray thirsty, though.
But even with these issues being very pronounced, my biggest problem with the series is something I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else complain about… I hated the voice overs. It was just too much. I know what you’re saying, that’s just a part of the experience! It’s how they portray the mind games between the hero and the villain! Yeah, well, you could say the same thing about Yugioh, and that show gets ruthlessly parodied for it, while Death note somehow gets a pass despite being even worse about it. I kept waiting for Light to reference the heart of the cards, or something. It’s true that these sequences could sometimes be useful, like when Light was freaking out about Naomi Misora and his thought process helped to amp up the suspense, but I would honestly say that just over half of it is unnecessary. I don’t need to hear Light say “40 seconds…” to get that he’s waiting forty seconds, and I don’t need to have every one of his schemes explained to me, before OR after they happen. This is how stories are written when the writer thinks that you’re too stupid to figure things out for yourself.
That’s admittedly a lot of negatives, so what’s positive about this show? how has it survived so prominently in the public consciousness, music and character designs aside? well, there are two elements that I think give it staying power, and the first is the dynamic between Light and L. And no, I’m not just talking about the whole ‘genius vs. genius’ appeal, it goes deeper than that. While they’re polar opposites all the way down to the computers they use, they also share some stark similarities. They’re both obvious sociopaths, L by accident and Light by design, and they’re both drawn to each other more for the challenge of it than through any sort of moral sincerity. They both justify their actions through moral superiority and altruism, but at the end of the day, it’s more a matter of ambition… Light wants to be god, L wants to tackle an unsolvable case. They both put on acts to inspire people to side with them, albeit with different intents, and they both seem to exhibit fear rather than remorse when they do something wrong… L for fear of punishment, Light for fear of being caught.
I don’t think I have to explain how juicy a premise that is… Two characters that just happened to land on opposite sides of the law due to their circumstances, both valuing personal success over actual justice, and they’re going at each other’s throats while pretending to be friends. This interplay alone kind of makes up for the fact that there are less than five characters in a giant cast that get any development. Everyone is a player in the game of Light and L, two bored geniuses who will stop at nothing to obliterate each other… They couldn’t be more similar, but they also couldn’t be more different, and they both have pretty much every anime fan in existence gravitating to one side or another. Life even kind of imitates art, because while Light was designed to have the social skills to manipulate people in ways that L could never dream of, that also wound up being the majority consensus of the fanhood, who tend to side overwhelmingly with Light, despite the fact that he was explicitly designed to be evil and unsympathetic, but they’re drawn more to the passion of his cause and his slick, slimy charisma than to his actual actions.
Even when this dynamic disappears thanks to a certain plot twist that happens about two thirds of the way into the story… A twist that most viewers loathe, but that I personally never minded… The show is still able to at least be interesting and engaging, and that’s due to it’s other major saving grace; Death note has an absolutely brilliant sense of pacing. There is not a second wasted in this series, nor does any part of it ever drag. Death note does not fuck around. Every moment of screen time is spent furthering the plot or the story in some way, and the high, energetic tone only ever slows down when it damn well wants to. It’s all plot, plot, development, spectacle, plot, reveal… I mean, yeah, there are moments that probably could have been cut without affecting anything, but more often than not, those are the really fun and memorable scenes like the tennis match, and you don’t want to skip scenes as entertaining and full of levity as that. Even at it’s worst moments, and let’s not kid ourselves, there are some serious qualifiers for that title, Death note is a roller coaster you just can’t bring yourself to get off of.
Death Note is available from viz Media. It’s been released in numerous different formats, including individual 4-episode disks and the more recent thinpack bluray release, none of which are that hard to find. There have been several movies based on it, including two animated films that retell the story through Ryuk’s eyes, three Japanese live action movies(only one of which I’ve seen, and it was barely watchable) and an American movie on Netflix that I’ve been avoiding like the plague. The original manga is also available stateside from Viz Media, as are both Light novels, which I highly recommend checking out just for the awkward translation issues alone.
So after all that, is Death note worthy of it’s reputation? does it deserve to be so popular, and stand the test of time like it has? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes, it absolutely does. I’m not saying that it’s myriad of problems don’t matter, or that they should be ignored, but the final product is way more entertaining than the sum of it’s parts. For example, I may have complained about the author just making things up as he went along, and it probably would have been better if he’d had some grand scheme in mind so that he could fill it with depth and meaning, and symbolism that wasn’t just pretentiously chosen for aesthetic purposes, but it wouldn’t be so heart-poundingly unpredictable, so this really is a matter of execution ultimately trumping substance and content. Death note is a high energy detective thriller that, despite it’s many asspulls, never loses sense of the basic rule of cause and effect, and is able to be as campy and over-the-top as you can imagine while still taking itself completely seriously. It’s got a lot of problems, sure, but I can’t think of anyone who I wouldn’t recommend it to, and I think everyone should see it at least once. I give Death note a 7/10.