Anime Review: Death Note

Written by Richard Brown

There are two responses to take when a series is as popular as this one. The first, condescending view, is that people generally have bad taste and it’s all a fad. How else can you explain the Spice Girls? The other is that something popular HAS to be good. The two billion odd people who love Harry Potter can’t all be wrong, can they? Which camp does Death Note fall into? Well, as it turns out, neither.

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The Basic Plot

Light Yagami is a bored, frustrated, but exceptionally gifted teenager. Ryuk is a similarly bored Deathgod, who drops his Death Note, the focus of his power, into the human world. Light picks it up and immediately experiments with this notebook and the instructions within, killing a gunman and a petty thug in the process. Overcoming his revulsion at what he’s done; Light soon embarks on a quest to rid the world of evil, with Ryuk along for the ride. The world soon notices, dubbing the anonymous Light as “Kira”, but L, the world’s greatest detective is soon after him. The scene is set for a battle of wits the like of which has never been seen in history.

I have seen the Light! He carries a notebook…..

Few animes have a concept and story as interesting as Death Note. Imagine a notebook, in which you could write a name of a person whose face you know, and that person will die. How would you use this tool? To take down the”bad guys”, or would you just throw it away? What would happen if it fell into the hands of someone with no morals at all? Or worse, someone who had a god complex? Death Note assumes the last possibility happened, and makes this character the lead of the anime. It does not attempt to make Light into some kind of super villain, an anti-hero, or pose a moral quandary about his actions. Light is simply an unrepentant murderer who is swiftly, and totally, corrupted by the power of the note. Well, perhaps not totally, while he kills all that threatens or offends him, he does not kill wantonly. Light is entirely cold, ruthless, intellect and in any other anime would be a hateful foe. I hesitate to describe Light as a “monster”, as this would imply his behaviour is somehow inhuman. It isn’t, just look at the history books.  He is simply, evil as a human can be, and placing him as the lead character is Death Note’s big gamble, and what makes it work is the anonymous detective known only as “L”. This quirky individual matches Light step for step, revealing the limitations of the notebook in episode 2 and singling out Light as a Kira suspect with speed. The series quickly becomes a battle of wits between two big brains, one rigid and self-righteous, and the other rough and creative.  L also likes to play dirty, if the need arises, which stops the series from becoming a simple good versus evil tale. It is very satisfying to watch, the tension in the series keeps you coming back to see what happens next.  Factor in some frankly beautiful animation for a TV series, and a solid voice cast, and you got some quality entertainment.

Light and Ryuk (Right)

Now, the problem with reviewing Death Note is that its entertainment value is based solely on its plot, and to discuss it properly I would need to do so in detail. This makes it very difficult for me praise it properly without spoiling the experience, so I avoided doing so.   This is a weakness common to anything which relies on big plot twists (I know I never bothered to see The Sixth Sense, when I discovered the ending by accident). I still credit Death Note with having one of best stories I’ve seen in anime, and some very interesting characters. So, I’d like you keep this in mind, while I give what must seem a litany of complaints.

The David Beckham of Animes (think about it)

In broad terms, the series is a little stupid at times, and this is all the more noticeable given how sophisticated the series makes itself out to be. The first problem is the supporting cast, with a majority of them being in the “Doctor Watson” mold. Used only to explain the reasoning of the lead characters, and make them look impressive in the process, most of them are two dimensional as a result.  Yes, several do really steal the show (such as Deputy Chief Yagami), but most are forgettable and some are frankly sycophantic towards Light. Given how the anime tends to avoid discussing morality in any meaningful way, this comes across as a glorification of Light’s homicidal tendencies. Large chunks of the plot require major suspension of disbelief, to the point where it is hung by the neck, rather than suspended. Its one thing to accept the functions of the Death Note, contrived as they are, it’s quite another to stomach the massively complex gambit Light pulls off towards the end of the second act. This is then followed by a new storyline, which just seems to be more of the same, rather like a filler arc in Dragonball. There seems to be in the anime a much more elegant story that has been dragged out unnecessarily; instead of there being a fighting fit 26 episode show, Death Note comes in at a flabby and self-satisfied 37. Eventually, you realise Death Note’s real weakness, the creative staff simply isn’t as clever as the characters they are dealing with, leading to a drawn-out series with increasingly little depth to it.

Just as planned

In many other series, these flaws might have been excusable, but the anime is so invested in the intellectual that I just could not forgive the writers. You see, what the series actually amounts to is lots and lots and lots and lots and LOTS of standing around and talking.  There isn’t much in the anime to entertain beyond this, and those seeking a little comedy, or perhaps a subplot, have a long wait for it. By the time this does appear, the people who enjoyed the plot are likely becoming frustrated that the series is moving so slowly.  While it is welcome that the anime tries to grow beyond its own format, thanks to an expanding cast and a very clever plot twist, but the execution is increasingly poor. The idea of having Light get a bubbly and somewhat dumb girlfriend, for example, was definitely a good one, given the humour this brings to the series. However, this character is a harem anime stereotype, and frankly feels out of place in comparison to the rest of the cast. None of the above is immediately fatal, but I would say its best not to look too hard at this anime, because there are simply so many wasted opportunities and examples of laziness.

Conclusion

Death Note is an anime with a very clever concept, good characters and very good visuals  Sadly, it suffers from a painfully dragged out story, and a format that is pure marmite. Based almost entirely on “Xanatos Gambits”, and beautifully animated, Death Note is a great anime for lovers of spy dramas and detective novels. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to the expectations it gives you.

6/10

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