WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the anime series Death Note.
Death Note was published from 2003 to 2006 in the manga magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump. Months after its end, an anime was released on the 3rd of October 2006. Spanning 37 episodes, it ran until the 26th of June 2007. It was directed by Tetsuro Araki (Guilty Crown, Attack on Titan) and the animated by studio MADHOUSE (One-Punch Man). It was licensed and released in the US by Viz Media.
The main point about Death Note is morality. It’s constantly put into question, and the characters in the series are various shades of grey rather than black and white. The protagonist is Light Yagami, a young genius and high-school student who happens upon a book called the “Death Note”. This notebook can kill anyone if you write their name in it, as long as you’ve seen the person’s face before. Ryuk, a shinigami or God of Death, is the owner of the notebook and follows Light around from the moment he acquires the Death Note.
Light has a very black and white view of morality. Justice and law goes back very far, to 1795 BC. Few people know that the very laws we use today are those used in Mesopotamia back then by Hammurabi of Babylon. The Mesopotamian laws were adopted by the Romans, who enforced them on most of the world, leading to today’s laws.
After Hammurabi, we have the Bible around 1000 BC. The earliest (recorded) concept of morality seems to have been brought to us by Moses, with his ten commandments in 450 BC. If you were to ask someone if killing was wrong, they would say yes. Cheating? Yes. Theft? Yes. The answers they give will usually be perfectly in tune with the ten commandments. An interesting parallel is drawn between L and Light. Both are preparing to kill innocent people to defeat the other. L kidnaps and tortures a child, has several criminals killed much like Kira does, and circumvents many laws.
The series has roots in not only Japanese but also Western culture. Inspiration and references Christianity, Ancient Rome and European literature are all present. The main, most explicit symbol is the apple. They represent knowledge, the forbidden fruit. They are also almost perfectly spherical, just as Light longs for the word to be “perfect”.
In literature, there is something known as a ‘point of no return’. Light reaches this in the 7th episode of Death Note, “Overcast”, when he murders the FBI agent Naomi Misora. It’s the first non-criminal he kills, simply since she has evidence against him. We also see a sense of Light’s true motivation. The cunning Light we first meet would have simply walked away and killed Naomi off quietly. But his love of theatrics makes him dramatically reveal himself at the end. Had she given him another false name, she would still be alive and Light would be arrested and executed. It could have been a disastrous blunder, much like his final mistake leading to his death.
Once she’s possessed by the Death Note, though, he taunts her openly. This is the mad Light, who stands on all fours on L’s grave or lets out the iconic insane laugh in the last episode. The first time the series uses a red filter on Light is when he’s plotting to kill Naomi. His features are sharper, he looks somewhat older and certainly less of a round-faced teenager. In the coloured filter moments, he is a killer.
This point of no return marks the end of Light’s already thinning morality. After that episode, he will kill anyone who gets in his way, including his own father and allies. He develops a God complex, going further and further down his delusional path of insanity. Not only has he deified himself, but he thinks he is a messiah.
A very powerful quote appears right before L’s death, when he and Light stand on the rooftop in the rain. What L asks is very important.
“Tell me, Light, has there ever been a time since the day you were born where you’ve told the truth?”
The music stops, all sound stops. We see L angry for the first time, as we finally realise he knows full well who Kira is.
The audio is used in a superb way in the anime. When Naomi gives her badge to Light, and he can finally see her full name, the music stops just as the tension has stopped. She’s dead the second he touches her badge. The sound stops at several other exciting moments, heightening the tension.
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