After encountering the trailer for the Death Note for Netflix, I looked up the general premise. Then I looked up a video on YouTube.Then I ended up binging the whole bloody show.
A Shinigami (A Japanese god of Death) named Ryuk is bored. His world is a mess, a disaster. On a lark, for something to do, he takes his death note–a black notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written down in it–and throws it down to Earth, just to see what happens.
Enter Light. Light Yagami is about to graduate high school. The son of a police officer, he finds the world grim, unchanging, and … boring. And then he finds this little black notebook. The Death Note comes with instructions, written in by Ryuk.Light reads the rules of the death note, and first tests it out on a hostage taker, and then a rapist in progress… and five days later, he has filled the Death Note with hundreds of names.
When Ryuk comes to Light to find the death note, and see what’s become of it, Light assumes a deal with the devil, and declares that “I will happily sacrifice my soul to make a better world.” But Ryuk explains that, no, the Death Note will not come with selling his soul, but “merely” forfeiting his place in Heaven or Hell. With that bit of new information, Light’s mission becomes all about him becoming a god, out to start the creation a new world, free of criminals. There’s little buildup to Light’s declaration. It’s just that sudden. But we have a show to start, and all of this is episode 1.
After the first thousand dead criminals, it becomes obvious to all that it is the work of a mass murderer, and he is labeled “Kira” — killer.
Over time, we see that Light is possibly one of the most evil SOBs I think I’ve ever seen outside of Sauron. Seriously, there’s not one person near him he doesn’t manipulate. He drives at least one person to suicide without using the death note. At least one person he spent 30 minutes of screen time with (IE: who knows how much in-story time with) and gets to know them, connect with them, realize what a good and loving person they are … and then kills them, because there’s a possibility that they know something that might expose him. Friends? What’s a friend? Ally? An ally is just a tool, a pawn, for his own convenience. Light needs no one. Light cares for no one but himself. Even his family seem to be of value to him only as an extension of Light’s own ego, and there are points in the plot where even they seem to be expendable.
At the end of the day, Light is charming and suave, and I have read blood-sucking vampires written by Ringo and Correia that have more humanity than this guy. It’s almost like they were trying to create Satan in human form.
But good God, it is hard to tell which of these people are scarier. Light wants to be a god, and reshape the world where only “hardworking good people” exist. Light jumps onto this bandwagon fairly quickly. He goes from killing criminals, to killing cops investigating him, to ultimately deciding with one person “You have defied me, the new god! For that alone, you will die.”
Then there’s Light’s girlfriend, Misa. Yes, his girlfriend. On the surface, Misa is every anime blonde cliche made manifest. She is bright, she is perky. She is outgoing … and she might be more evil than Light. She possesses her own death note, and is a fan of “Kira.” Because that’s what every mass murdering serial killer needs — a groupie.
But when Misa gets going, the bodies start dropping all over the place.
While Light, at the very least, makes certain the ascertain guilt or innocence of criminals who drop dead–or cops coming after him directly– Misa’s quite happy to off anyone who even expresses disapproval of “Kira.”
While Misa comes off as a ditzy blonde, I don’t think there’s a single person in this entire series who classifies as stupid. We won’t even go into some of the various and sundry oddballs, nut jobs, and seemingly “normal” people who join Light’s team. Though it is amusing to have Light deal with girl trouble at some particularly perilous points in the story. It almost gives you hope that he’s human. Don’t worry, those moments don’t last long.
Then we meet L, the detective in charge of hunting Kira. L is the Holmes brothers, Nero Wolfe, and a stack of eccentricities rolled into one. There is an awful lot of thought put into this character, as well as the various and sundry back and forth between L and Light that would make for a great Columbo episode. Heck, there’s even a tennis match here that Alfred Hitchcock would love. The tennis matches here are interesting– but only one of them is literal. Watching the various and sundry thought processes of L and Light ping ponging back and forth between each other is particularly entertaining.
One of the things that makes Death Note particularly tragic is that, at one point, Light has to give up the death note. Without the notebook, he loses every and all memory of being Kira. During this time, we see that Light is actually not a bad guy. He’s particularly bright, and possibly on par with or smarter than L. Like Aquinas put it, the corruption of the best leads to the creation of the worst — and Light is one of the worst.
And that’s before Light starts to truly spiral out of control
The animation is largely smooth and fluid. The artwork is creative and beautiful. The faces are unusually well defined for anime. The music is great and atmospheric, and borrows from Gregorian chant.
Overall, I was surprised at how easily I was sucked into this series. There is little of the hysterics that usually mark anime, and the characters are largely rich, well-developed people, with a host of strengths and foibles. Light is possibly the best murdering psychopath since Hannibal Lecter. And yes, I have read Dexter. Light makes Dexter look almost shallow in comparison, and I enjoyed those books.
There is also little to no moral ambiguity. While the authorities first argue over whether to arrest Kira, and the argument ends with “the law is the law,” it becomes clear just how Superversive this show is. The bad guys and the good guys are clear. Light is the protagonist just like any Columbo villain is, or MacBeth — and there’s just as little confusion about the morality of their actions.
All in all, I recommend it. It’s currently on Netflix.