“The human whose name is written in this note shall die…”
A little over a year after the final volume was published in English, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing one of the most hyped and most heavily-spoiled manga series ever: Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note. Death Note is based on the highest of high concepts: “The human whose name is written in this note shall die.” If you had a notebook you could use to kill anyone whose name and face you knew – what would you do? Death Note‘s main character Light Yagami decides to use it to cleanse the world of evil people – evil by his definition, of course.
After a brief reflection on the morality of this decision, Light sets about his task with glee and gains the attention of police forces worldwide, who dub the mysterious murderer “Kira” (a Japanese pronunciation of “Killer”). The eccentric detective L decides to join the chase. Once L comes into the picture, the story settles into the form it retains for the rest of its run: an increasingly complex cat-and-mouse game between Light and the people investigating him.
It’s in the twists and turns of the pursuit that Death Note comes into its own. Tsugumi Ohba doesn’t go in for character development, and doesn’t bother much with exploring the moral dilemmas the existence and use of the Death Note throws up; instead, the focus is on the plans and manipulations and gambits and counter-gambits Light engages in to cover his tracks, fool his pursuers, and further his ascent to virtual godhood. Sometimes these plans get ridiculously convoluted; in the words of TV Tropes, they cross the line from Xanatos Gambit to Xanatos Roulette, with all parties involved seeming to know too much and manipulate events with far too much skill. More than once, the moment when you’re convinced that Light has been caught in a trap and cannot possibly get out of it will be followed by Light grinning his evil, satisfied grin and thinking to himself: “Exactly as planned!”
There’s always an explanation, but it’s not always terribly convincing, and even when the plans are more or less reasonable, there’s always a lot of lengthy introspection along the lines of “he thinks that I think that he doesn’t know that she knows that I know…”, repeated for each character so that you can be absolutely sure who knows what about whom. Provided, that is, that you can hold it all in your head.
I get lost a lot when I’m reading Death Note, and sometimes it’s irritating, but it’s worth it for those moments when the dominoes fall in exactly the right way and Light’s plans — or someone else’s — work out just perfectly. The bizarre thing about Death Note is that I actively dislike most of the characters, and yet that doesn’t hinder my enjoyment at all. Would you enjoy a chess game less if the king was a sociopath and the pawns were all naive morons? It’s the moves that matter, not the pieces; not even the players.
Takeshi Obata’s art is never less than gorgeous, and one of the interesting things about revisiting the first few volumes for this blog entry has been seeing how his style evolved over the course of the series, growing smoother and slicker by imperceptible increments. The subtle, understated touches he adds in facial expressions and body language make up somewhat for the thinness of the characters as written. It says something for his range of faces that characters as superficially similar as Mogi, Ide and Matsuda are impossible to confuse for each other.
Does Death Note live up to the hype? Yes and no. Yes, in that it’s a compelling read from beginning to end with more twists than a ten-mile corkscrew; and no, in that every aspect of the storytelling other than the simple unfolding of the plot is thin and unsatisfying. Ohba gestures towards moral reflection, but doesn’t follow through, and most of the characters are, as I’ve said, either very lightly sketched or thoroughly dislikeable. (Don’t get me started on Misa. I don’t normally hate fictional characters, but dear God, it’s so easy to make an exception for her. As Shaenon Garrity put it: “She’s the stupidest creature on planet Earth. Even stupider than the other female characters in Death Note, who are all stupid. Even stupider than other idol singers… a woman with the mind of a squirrel monkey.”) What’s more, after volume 7, there’s a sudden dip in the quality of the plot, as the events of that volume leave a hole in the manga’s narrative structure that’s never quite filled. The last five volumes are less compelling than the first seven, and the plotting begins to get sloppy by comparison. To be fair, the pace picks up in volume 9, and even if it never quite matches the tightness of the early volumes, it’s always fun to read.
And, ironically, a large part of what makes it fun is the very sketchiness of the aspects I’ve described as “unsatisfying”. One of the Death Note fandom’s favourite characters is Matt, a character who appears in a grand total of 12 panels. Not 12 pages: 12 panels. The very concept of the Death Note encourages speculation: if you had one, what would you do? If you were in Light’s shoes, and wanted to do what he did, could you do a better job? If you were investigating Kira, what steps would you take to find out who he was? Death Note is set up to encourage the fans to read between the lines, to speculate, extrapolate, and come up with their own ideas. It may not be deliberate, but that’s the effect, and that being so, too much detail in the characterisation or in the moral reasoning would be counter-roductive — it would leave less space for the reader’s imagination.
So in the end, the thing that makes Death Note so powerful is the same thing that makes the Death Note itself powerful: the fact that you can write anything you like in it.
Just don’t write any real person’s name. After all, “The human whose name is written in this note shall die…”
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak. You can read Katherine’s thoughts on the movie adaptation of Death Note here on the blog.