The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 8 – Death Note

Death Note

Anime has a reputation for displaying adult themes, whether it is violence, sex or some similar scenario. This week’s column covers an anime full to the brim of murder and death.

Originally having started as a manga by artist Takeshi Obata and writer Tsugumi Ohba created between 2003 to mid-2006, and then adapted into an anime a few months after the manga’s conclusion, Death Note mixes detective fiction with elements of a thriller and supernatural fantasy. It also has the interesting distinction of featuring a lead character who is possibly one of the most likable, and almost certainly the most successful serial killer in fiction, in terms of total killings.

The series begins with a creature called Ryuk, who is a “shinigami” – a “death god” in Japanese folklore akin to our grim reaper. Ryuk uses a mysterious book called a “Death Note” to kill humans, but is bored of the shinigami realm, so when he gets his hands on a second Death Note he decides to drop the spare into the human world to see what will happen.

The book is found by student Light Yagami, the son of a police officer who hates anything evil. After some deliberation he takes the book and reads the instructions, which are:

  • The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
  • This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his/her name.
  • Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
  • If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
  • If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
  • After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

After some experimenting Light discovers the book really does work, and so decides to use the Death Note for what he believes to be a noble cause: to kill all the evil people in the world, until only the good are left, and to make himself the god of this new utopia. Ryuk is interested in this development, meets Light and follows his exploits.

Soon the deaths attract public attention, with the media dubbing the cause responsible “Kira” (the Japanese pronunciation of “killer”). The police try to track the mysterious Kira down with one man, a detective known simply as “L”, being able to put some key clues together. Thus Light has to battle L in order to prevent himself from being arrested.

In terms of a Western comparison, it could be argued that Death Note has similarities to a series like Dexter (the Death Note manga came out several months before the first Dexter novel and both TV series debuted in the same week), but whereas in Dexter the central character only kills people after getting enough evidence to prove their guilt, Light Yagami kills people on even the remotest suspicion of wrongdoing, no matter how trivial. Light becomes colder and more calculating as the series goes on.

The thing is, despite Light becoming manipulative, emotionless, megalomaniacal, and draconian due to the influence of the book, the more you watch the series, the more you want Light to win. Because you have to admit there is a bit of the vigilante in all of us. Admit it –there are certain people out there you wish just did not exist. If you could get rid of all the bad people in the world, the chances are you would think that is a good thing to do. It is just that killing people is somewhat sadly misguided.

What is even more misguided are the sad cases of real-life Light Yagami copycats. There have been several cases of American students being suspended or expelled from school for making their own Death Notes. Even worse however was an actual murder in Belgium where two murderers left notes near their victim proclaiming themselves to be Kira.

Death Note is a series that is dogged in controversy, but the actual series itself is hugely gripping. Some believe that the later episodes are less interesting, but on the whole it is thrilling and Light Yagami is one of anime’s most intriguing and mesmerising characters.

The 37-episode long TV series is released by Manga Entertainment. Two live action film adaptations have also been made and are released by 4Digital Asia.