I can vividly recall debating the death penalty at around ten years old. It was in English, I think, towards the end of the day. Our class was encouraged to break into two halves: those who supported the death penalty, and those who didn’t. I chose the latter side. But my reasoning was hardly humanitarian; I gleefully argued that criminals should be imprisoned because ‘death would be the easy way out.’ It took a more mature friend to point out the moral and social purpose of imprisonment. I was in no mood for it; in my mind – thanks in large part to my privileged upbringing – I saw no distinction between criminality and the malicious villains found on my afternoon cartoons.
I’ve grown up somewhat since my pre-teens. However, I’m not sure that can be said of the creators of Death Note. As you’ve probably heard – this is surely one of the most successful of the modern era of anime – Death Note’s title refers to a notebook, modest in appearance, which causes the death of any human whose name is written within. It falls into the possession of high schooler Light Yagami (Mamoru Miyano/Brad Swaile), who swiftly bypasses any reservations about using it by resolving to create a “new world”. He sets about achieving this goal through the systematic elimination of criminals across Japan and – eventually – the world. He’s soon feared and famous, known only as “Kira”. The notion that these criminals might not necessarily be incarnations of people but, perhaps, flawed individuals trapped in an unfair system is never raised.
It’s not that the series is unaware of the simplicity of Light’s conception of justice. As L (Kappei Yamaguchi/Alessandro Juliani), the detective tasked with finding Kira notes, “We’re dealing with an individual who has a very childish concept of right and wrong.” It’s not like the show presents Kira/Light as a paragon of morality, either; within the first few episodes he’s knocking off FBI agents whose only crime to have been assigned to shadow him. Morality feels incidentally, though; fundamentally, Death Note positions itself as an intricate chess game between Light and L, their respective actions bringing them closer and closer together as the series progresses.
Said chess game is remarkably well executed, it must be said. Light and L are each rendered as incredibly intuitive and logical, unpicking each other’s gambits with ease while constructed their own convoluted traps and failsafes. The problem, for me, is that Death Note is – for the most part – almost entirely bereft of humanity’s foibles. L and Light are so perfect and intelligent that it begins to feel less like we’re watching a drama than a showdown between a pair of computers. The absence of a moral compass bleeds into the show’s foundations; it’s all about who wins.
If that were all there were to Death Note, I admit I would have stopped watching well before I got to the end of the 37 episode run. Thankfully, the show picks up noticeably in the midsection, with hopeful rays of light breaking through the smothering darkness. A stretch of episodes in the middle is defined by some well-conceived plot twists and characters acting for reasons other than cold, hard logic. In short: humans actually acting like humans! It’s short-lived, and occasionally crudely executed, but it makes for surprisingly great television. It’s still intensely dark; this is the kind of show that twists love – the deus ex machina of fantasy fiction everywhere – into a crippling liability.
A shame, then, that Death Note’s final third is so disappointing. The show finally pulls the trigger on an inevitable outcome, and while it’s executed with anti-climactic panache, the writers seem to realise that there’s no real way to recover the story’s momentum thereafter. A smattering of new characters allow it to limp over the finish line, but it feels like an artificial extension of life (presumably, to reflect plot developments from a manga without such an arbitrary conclusion).
There’s something brilliantly evil behind Death Note’s conception, and even at its most flawed it remains distinctly original. If only it had more sophistication, more humanity behind it than I did at ten years old. There is a Netflix live action adaptation on the way – I’m cautiously optimistic.
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