Story: Tsugumi Ohba
Art: Takeshi Obata
Genre: Supernatural / Thriller
Volume Count: 12
Version reviewed: English Translated
Date of Review: 17 Jan 2009
After you strip away the rabid fanboy- and fangirlism surrounding this title, you’re left with a well-crafted thriller. Too well-crafted, perhaps.
One day, straight-A high school student Light Yagami finds a notebook on the ground. Inside, it says “the human whose name is written in this note shall die.” Light is sure that this must be some sort of joke, so he tries it out, and sure enough the person whose name he writes in dies soon after. It doesn’t take Light long to decide that with this notebook he can make the world a better place by ridding it of criminals, so he begins the systematic elimination of those people which he deems are a threat to a peaceful society. Not very long after he has started to use the Death Note, Light meets the shinigami responsible for his finding the notebook, Ryuk. Ryuk advises Light on its use, and Light’s real mission begins. Light’s work of self-proclaimed justice begins to gain a following in Japan, and the people christen the one ridding the world of criminals “Kira”. This activity soon captures the attention of the world renowned faceless detective known only as “L”, who is determined to capture Kira – believing him to be nothing more than a mass murderer – and reveal Kira’s identity to the world. Light finds out that he is being pursued, and begins his quest to defeat this “L”. Thus begins a battle of wits for the ages.
Before I formally begin this review, here’s a short summary of how I came to find out about Death Note. My first awareness of this title was when it exploded in popularity in the US, and the resultant mobs of rabid fanboys and fangirls, especially the latter with their rampant slash fantasies of characters in the story. At this time, I had no particular interest in the title. Later on, a good friend of mine started collecting the manga, and told me it was very good. Then, the US premiere of the first live-action Death Note movie came around, and I was invited to go see it. I figured ‘why not? it looks interesting’, and went to see it. Squeeing fangirls and fanboys in the theatre aside (who were very annoying, mind you), the movie itself was very good, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Until reading the manga, this was my only exposure to the title, and as of this writing, I still have not seen the anime version. Having now completed the manga for myself upon borrowing it, I can now share with you my own thoughts on this immensely popular title.
“Why so much context?” you may wonder. When it comes to popular titles, I think sometimes it’s worth noting that some people can still get into a title in ways other than jumping on the bandwagon. Also, with little knowledge beforehand – only what I knew from the movie – I believe I was able to go into reading Death Note with an open and somewhat more objective mind.
Anyway, on to the review! Death Note is a story that starts simple enough, but gradually spirals out into something much more complex. The first phase of the story involves Light and his experimenting with the notebook to find out just how it works and what he can do with it. After the groundwork is laid, the focus of the story begins, and that is the mental chess match between Light (Kira) and L. The narrative of Light and L each trying to outsmart and catch the other is the primary story at play.
As I got further and further into the story, I started to feel conflicted about how it was progressing. On the one hand, it is a fascinating story about two intelligent people trying to keep themselves two steps ahead of the other at all times. On the other hand, there were points where it seemed that the story was beginning to go in circles and repeat itself. It was usually at this point that a new character or plot twist came into play. For most of the first half, this is what kept the story fresh and helped it avoid falling into the trap of repetition. It was the later parts of the story where I couldn’t help but become somewhat disengaged from the story. As the battle of wits became more and more intricate, I felt that this level of detail and intricacy was beginning to weaken the story. Things were starting to seem too convenient and too perfect on each side of the conflict. I was starting to feel that the story was becoming complex for complexity’s sake. I finally pinned down this concern that I was having about some of the developments in the story, and it was summarized in three words: deus ex machina.
Another personal frustration was the behavior of some of the main characters in the story. A few of them possess what are to me extremely annoying and distracting idiosyncrasies in their behavior. This made it hard for me to focus on the story, when all I could think about was how I wanted to smack the characters in question across the room for being so irritating. In the later parts of the story, between flat out disliking some of the characters and the story reaching a level of complexity where I was no longer able to suspend my disbelief, what had made Death Note so interesting to me in the early stages was now a shadow of its former self, and was indeed starting to have an air of repetition.
All of that said, I actually did not completely dislike the story, as many of my comments thus far may suggest. The plot twists do keep it interesting for the most part, except for the times when they come across as more of a deus ex machina intended to move things along (or perhaps make the lead characters seem that much more intelligent). The overall tone of the story is very serious and deliberate, with so much narrative being dedicated to the plot’s complexity that it leaves little time for comic or lighthearted moments. Most of the comic relief comes from the shinigami Ryuk (who looks like a misfit from a biker gang) and a girl named Misa Amane (aka Misa-Misa, a Japanese idol star) who makes her first appearance a few volumes in. Outside of a few other minor instances, the story in Death Note is all business and no filler.
So what is my final take? Death Note is a story I am conflicted on. The premise is good, the story is good, but certain characters and some aspects of the story’s execution leave me cold. Making up for some of the negatives for me was the fact that at no point during the story was I able to predict where it was going to go next. It did have me guessing on the outcome all the way to the very end, and in that respect Death Note did a very good job. Therefore, I would have to say that it is indeed a very good story, but it still has its faults, and there are parts where I wish it could have been handled a bit differently. Still, the finale was good. It was the journey to that end which hit a few speed bumps along the way for me.