If you were offered the power over life and death, would you use it? That's exactly the power given to the straight-A highschool student Light Yagami who stumbles across the Death Note. What appears at first to be a normal notebook actually has the supernatural ability to kill anybody who has their name written within its pages. Light decides to try and make the world a better place by taking out criminals and wrongdoers. The sudden spate of mysterious deaths soon attracts the world's attention and Light becomes seen by many as a god- that they come to know as Kira. Light/Kira's actions also put him in the sights of the world's law enforcement agencies, and he finds himself up against a task force led by his own police chief father. To make things worse, they are working with the world's most renowned detective- a mysterious figure known only as L.
Death Note is a 37 episode series, produced by Madhouse and adapted from the original manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. The series originally ran between 2006 and 2007, when it aired in Japan on NTV.
The basic concept is undoubtedly an odd one, an idea it's hard not to think could only come out of Japan. The idea of somebody being able to kill somebody simply by writing a name down (and thinking of their face) isn't something that you would think would make for an exciting show. Yet against the odds, it worked in the manga and it works on screen too.
The concept raises lots of interesting issues like the nature of evil and whether it can ever be justified to take a life. Light is also a very unusual protagonist. He starts off as an idealist, and right or wrong he believes he is doing what he is doing for the betterment of society. Yet in pretty short order he also starts taking out people who are investigating him or who get in his way. He doesn't even seem to have redeeming characteristics, showing very little regard for anybody else around him. Essentially, he shows every sign of being a sociopath. By the end of the show he is basically a monster.
It's not all that rare to have an anime with an anti-hero in the lead role. But Light is more than that, he's more like the lead in a western crime drama like Breaking Bad or Dexter. Contrasted with him is L, the nominal antagonist of the series.
With his peculiar manner, unusual posture and quirks, L is a nice contrast with the preppy and always well-groomed Light. His incredible detective skills and lack of social skills might well remind you of Sherlock, but he's a memorable creation in his own right. With his sunken eyes and mop of unruly hair he is one of the most iconic creations in anime and manga this century.
Light and L are well matched and it makes for a compelling game of cat and mouse. This battle of wits is the show's main selling-point, with L trying his best to uncover Kira's true identity. Matters are complicated by the fact that Light manages to get himself involved in the investigation, with the task-force unaware that the one they seek is among their own ranks.
The death notes are originally owned by Shinigami, or death gods, and Light's in particular was originally owned by a mischevious specimen named Ryuk. When a shinigami's death note is passed onto a human that death god becomes bound to that human until they die or give up ownership, and so Ryuk becomes bound to Light. The spiky haired, apple-munching Ryuk is always fun to have around and provides much of the comic relief in the series.
As the show goes on, plenty of other complications are thrown in like additional death notes, creating a second- and third- Kira. The plot is even sidetracked at one point by the search for the newest Kira, totally derailing the plot so Light can fill the role of a more typical hero for a while. All these extra complications only distract from what is at heart a compelling psychological thriller.
As the story nears its end, there's a shocking twist that changes the course of events dramatically. As a surprising plot turn it works just fine, but it has a detrimental effect on the show's remaining episodes. It's not as if the show goes off the cliff entirely at this point, but it can't help but pale in comparison to what has gone before. This is an issue that it has inherited from the source material. However, it is notable that it is a problem that the Japanese live-action adaptation managed to avoid by coming up with a new ending.
Also less impressive is the show's treatment of female characters. The female lead, is a model named Misa who usually dresses in the gothic-lolita fashion style. She is defined almost entirely by her obsession with Light/Kira and exists only to serve him and progress the plot. Other woman characters get similarly short shrift- but to be fair, Light treats pretty much everyone as if they are only a tool to serve him, male or otherwise.
Visually, with Studio Madhouse responsible it is unsurprising that it looks pretty impressive. There is nothing particularly flashy about it but it is consistent and decently animated and more than gets the job done. The studio didn't really stand a chance of recreating Obata's beautiful and incredibly detailed manga art on a TV budget, but the anime has a good stab at recreating the designs. The music- which has a strong metal vibe, with plenty of screeching vocals- is pretty fitting the show's gothic atmosphere. But it certainly won't be to everyone's taste- it definitely wasn't to mine.
The show looks and sounds as good as ever is likely to in this new Blu-ray edition, which contains the full season and also the two-part OAV follow-up Death Note Relight as a bonus feature.
Death Note is, in the end an absorbing series that will keep you guessing to the end. Things become convoluted and perhaps at times it's a little over ambitious. But give me a show that tries something a little different and falls just a bit short over something safe and predictable any day. So while it's not perfect and it comes a little unstuck towards the end, one thing Death Note isn't is predictable or safe.
This is a cerebral affair, putting scheming and machinations before action or gore. It may not quite reach the heights of a classic, but this is still an impressive achievement. Death Note is certainly not your average anime series. And it's all the better for it.
DEATH NOTE [COMPLETE SERIES AND OAV COLLECTION] is available on BLU-RAY and DVD in the UK from MANGA ENTERTAINMENT, and in the US from VIZ.