A Review of the Death Note Anime

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.

Coming Soon: “Tales of the Once and Future King”

Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. We are just a short two weeks away from the release of “Tales of the Once and Future King”, published by Superversive Press and edited by Anthony Marchetta (me), with assistant editor Mariel Marchetta contributing.

So what is “Tales”? Is it an anthology?

Well, yes and no.

Is it a novel?

Yes and no.

“Tales” is something different. “Tales of the Once and Future King” is both.

The main story is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale, and it is a full story – more than a simple excuse to fit other stories in between it, like what is seen in “God, Robot” or the original “I, Robot” that was its inspiration. It has action, romance, knights, vampires, banished kings and fair maidens locked in towers. It’s all there.

But in between it are the stories. And not just one or two. There are eighteen stories from the same number of authors, and they are not just stuck there, but integrated into the main plot. And not just one type of story either. We have your traditional medieval fantasies, yes, but there’s also steampunk, and Lovecraftian fiction, and stories set in the modern day, and stories in space, ranging from a child’s reading level all the way up to young adult.

“Tales of the Once and Future King” is a book with…everything. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Enjoy the show.

The Time To Join The Game Is Now

I hope that you’re now a regular reader here. Furthermore, I hope that you’ve added this blog to some form of reader or feed aggregator. Every day you’re going to see more and more opportunities for getting involved, and I don’t just mean Call For Submission posts.

Take a look at what’s been posted over the last few weeks. New books getting published? That’s an opportunity because you reading that book and then writing a review is a big deal, both for you and for the author. You’d be wise to post it to your own blog, and then to the book page at Amazon; the former grows your audience, and the latter helps the author by spreading word of mouth. Win-win. The same applies to new magazines and anthologies.

Are there some relevant events–a signing, a convention, a meetup–coming up in your area? Spread the word; hype that up, assuming that it’s not thoroughly subverted to the enemy’s cause. All that takes is a little time to post to your blog and then spread the links to all the socials; you can do that over a lunch break.

Can you draw? Are you at all serious about getting good enough for people to cut you checks? There’s always room for more of you, as even the most dedicated of the professionals can’t do it all, and this is the time to get in and make yourself into the next Frazetta, Bradstreet, Takahashi, or Toriyama. Especially if you study the great art of the past and heed the wisdom within its frames.

I’m going somewhere with this. Do you remember the Parable of the Spoons?

A man is near death. As he leaves his body, an angel appears and puts him before two doors. The angel opens both doors, and in each is revealed a feasting hall full of people at table wielding spoons longer than their arms. At first they seem identical, but soon the differences are apparent: in one, they are crazed with hunger as they attempt ceaselessly to shorten the spoons so they may feed themselves only for the shafts to stretch anew; in the other, they take turns feeding their fellows using the reach provided, and all are satisfied and merry. The angel turns to the man and says “Now you see what Hell and Heaven are like.” The man survives, and thereafter dedicates his life to improving his people.

That’s what we’ve got to do now. You’ll be fed in turn by feeding others now. Get in the game. Now is the time.

The Superversive from the East: Giant Robo – The Animation

Giant Robo is, as the linked article states, both one of the oldest of Japan’s comic franchises and the source of one of the best original animation series in the last 30 years. As such there’s some familiar issues that any franchise faces, starting with multiple continuities that often drastically reshape the premise into something very different from other versions. That’s why I’m specifying the OVA series: “The Animation”.

The reason for this specific incarnation’s enduring appeal is that this story is one of the most boldly Superversive stories to come out of Japan. Just take a good look at the trailer below:

That’s all you need to know, right there. The details that really deliver on the story’s promise aren’t in the trailer, but you will see that every element gets used–and used well–to tell a tale that uplifts the audience, inspires them to face great fears with courage, and press on even when you think you’re done for. That boy, Daisaku, is your protagonist and he gets put through the ringer over the course of this short series, but he does make it happen at the end–albeit with help (and a Pellenor Fields moment that is ridiculous, awesome, and (by that point) makes logical sense).

And it is thoroughly entertaining at all levels. The music is fantastic, the aesthetics are brilliant, and the production team did your Avengers or Justice League style of “heroes band together to stop a world-wide doom” story better than Marvel or DC have to date, in any medium. Daisaku’s the plunky youth you want to cheer for, Big Fire’s villains range from love-to-hate to completely despicable, and the other Experts of Justice may be rough around the edges but they are still heroes.

And, as for the necessity of virtue, the plot centers around two virtue-related matters: the origin of the Shizuma Drive, and the truth about the disaster that nearly derailed its introduction. Big errors got made, and everything about this story is a logical consequence of those errors, but there is no fixing it without fixing those errors- and that final bit shows this story’s value as a Superversive work.

The commercial availability of this animation isn’t what it once was, but you can get it at Amazon in a boxed set on DVD at a reasonable (for commercial anime) price. It’s not a long series: just under 6 hours, total. Agent Carter‘s first season ran longer. Recommended highly!

The Superversive from the East: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In the 1980s, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever to come out of Japan first hit the shelves as a light novel: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It would later get adapted into a 110-episode anime series, produce two movies, and several side-stories mini-series. Unfortunately, only recently did the original light novels get licensed for release into the West. (You can fix that here)

Whether you read the novels or watch the anime, you’ll find a truly epic Space Opera that hits most of the things you want out of a Superversive work. While the moral clarity is muddled at times, as this story reflects the mood of its day, the protagonist and the deuteragonist (and their key allies) are clear heroes with heroic virtue and epic flaws.

There are no supernatural powers. There are no aliens. There are no giant robots, laser swords (save for those shown as part of an in-fiction feature film), transformable machines, or other tropes popular with the famous SF/F franchises arising in Japan at this time. The fantastic elements are confined to FTL travel, cybernetics, the many technologies implied by the fact that galaxy-wide human colonization occurred, and high-end medical technologies. Yet there are massive fleet battles only eclipsed by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, and cultural conflicts (with attendant political intrigues) that drive the plot overall (and thus many subplots therein).

What there is, however, is true love (but often filial instead of romantic). What there is, however, is courage against often ridiculous odds. Faith held against powers willing and able to destroy you and yours, and fortitude in times of struggle are what you will find here. And, while individuals can succumb to their tragic flaws, the overall conclusion is hopeful in both absolute and practical terms. If you can find a good playlist online, and you can deal with subtitles, the long-running series and its related works will bring you up without lying to you on what it often takes to climb that mountain to a better tomorrow.

Moreso than any other work of science fiction or fantasy out of Japan, I recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes, especially if you like your key characters to be competent as well as their opposition. Victory here is earned, and therefore deserved- including the hopeful end.

The Superversive in Film: Char’s Counterattack

Today, I direct your attention once more across the Pacific to Japan. While I can–and do–recommend Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Studio Ghibli films, that’s not the man behind this film. The film is Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the man is Yoshiyuki “Kill ’em All” Tomino.

The protagonist and antagonist are, once more, Amuro Rey and Char Aznable. This movie is the end of their story, which began with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and it brings their conflict to its conclusion. However, that doesn’t mean you need to watch that series (or Zeta Gundam, or ZZ Gundam) to appreciate this film; you’ll be fine going in cold.

The reason for me marking this out as Superversive is due to the root of the conflict: Despair-fueled egotism, expressed as fanatical terrorism. Char does what he does out of a deep-seated obsession with Amuro, whereas Amuro had moved on and began to–at last–find the possibility of happiness in a future of family and fatherhood as he serves Mankind as part of an autonomous elite unit. (This is mirrored in Bright Noa, the unit’s commander. He is married and a father, happily so, and has only gotten stronger as a character because of that.)

It is also because of that root of conflict that you need not see the previous series to appreciate this film; the root reveals itself early to the audience, as shown by Char’s behavior before executing the big villainous plot to force Mankind off Earth entirely. That root comes full circle in the end as everyone sees through to that root and Char gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion in the climax.

The film’s theme of Hope v. Despair shapes everyone in the cast, for good or ill, and while the villain’s plot is ended it comes as a high cost. (Another regular Gundam trope.) You can see how each character’s embrace of hope, or succumbing to despair, leads to that character’s fate. Tomino has his status as a master for a reason, and you see it in action here.

Thus the ending is bittersweet, but overall a positive one, but not without leaving some matters unfinished and exposing others heretofore buried. (This would set the stage for Gundam Unicorn, which takes place three years after this film.)

And, for all the men-with-screwdriver sorts out there, yes there’s plenty of science in this fiction- the plot (as it often does for a Gundam title) revolves around dropping very big things on to very populated places on the surface of Earth. (Remember that this is the franchise that destroyed Sidney, Australia by dropping a space colony bigger than Babylon 5 on it.) The robots, even the psychic powers, are consistent if unreal (and have other purposes for their presence).

Recommended. It’s the final chapter of a classic saga of Japanese science fiction for a reason.

Ghibli Retrospective: “Whisper of the Heart”

What a charming film, and what a tragic history behind it. “Whisper of the Heart” was written by Miyazaki, produced by Miyazaki, and had its storyboards supervised by Miyazaki, but it was not directed by Miyazaki, nor Isao Takahata. The director of “Whisper of the Heart” was Yoshifumi Kondō (creating that line over the o is annoying, so with all due respect to Kondo I’m done with that). Ghibli had a significant problem, then and now, of developing a new class of directors once Miyazaki and Takahata retired (the problem is so significant, in fact, that after Miyazaki’s latest non-retirement is was an open question whether or not Ghibli would be making any more films at all). Some people rose up and made good films – Goro Miyazaki, who directed “Up on Poppy Hill”, Hiroyuki Morita, who directed the sequel/spinoff “The Cat Returns”, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” – but none of them were truly designated the successors to the Ghibli brand like Kondo was.

Kondo was to be the next Miyazaki – indeed, Miyazaki himself had essentially hand-picked him as his successor. And it’s hard to ask for a better debut than “Whisper of the Heart”. Tragically, though, Kondo died not long after “Whisper” of an aneurysm, which Miyazaki himself blamed on overwork (another way of saying that he blamed himself for Kondo’s death, being the one who pushed him so hard).

And it’s such a shame, not only for him and his family, of course, but for the world, because “Whisper of the Heart” is truly an excellent film. I’d probably rank it above at least “Ponyo” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. “Whisper of the Heart” is the story of Shizuku, a young teenage girl on the cusp of her entrance exams for high school, but whose real ambition is to be a writer. Shizuku struggles from insecurities about her art, as well as the normal trials and tribulations that a young Japanese girl goes through regularly in suburban Tokyo. Along the way she discovers that a boy named Seiji has been checking out the same books as her at the library, and after rocky introductions the two fall in love quickly thanks to their shared ambitions – Seiji wants to be a violin craftsman.

The more I think about this film the more I realize how much I liked it. The movie is clearly a movie for girls, but it’s more than that. It’s a movie for writers. I don’t know a writer in the world who can’t empathize with Shizukui’s lack of ideas followed by her sudden burst of inspiration that causes her to spend up to four in the morning writing. This happens to me all the time; I’ll be run dry of ideas, and then I’ll get the BEST IDEA EVER, and I’ll have to get the story out RIGHT NOW. It is more than once that I have stayed up until four in the morning writing.

And I can empathize surprisingly well with Shizuku’s romantic life. There is a scene when Shizuku, who has never really shown interest in boys before and is quite shy, is talking with Seiji alone, but unbeknownst to her the entire class is hiding behind a nearby door and eavesdropping. When she figures it out, she’s furious.

This is me. I am not outgoing, and so people find it amusing or entertaining when I take an interest in someone, and I HATE that. I have made excuses to leave my house in order to talk to people without worrying about eavesdropping, so Shizuku’s reaction rang VERY true to me.

The direction in the movie is indeed fantastic, if not quite flawless. Some of Kondo’s visual themes and motifs are brilliantly subtle, to the point where I’ve had to read other reviews to actually catch them, but some are rather on the nose, like the scene where Shizuku tells Seiji that she does not want to be a burden on his life, but wants to aid him, while she is helping him push his bike up a steep hill. This is effective, I suppose, but blunt enough that you can sort of see the gears working in the background. “Hey, you know what would make a good metaphor…” But it’s also something that is quite easy to chalk up to directorial inexperience, and his use of visual storytelling is so on point, so razor sharp in so many other places that his skill and talent is readily apparent.

The script is Miyazaki, and thus excellent. It is much less whimsical than most of Miyazaki’s fare (most; remember that one of the things that makes Miyazaki great is that he could tackle ideas from any direction and knock them out of the park regardless), but it has as much heart as any of them. The story is only barely less slight than “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but Kondo treats it with the utmost respect; maybe what’s happening here isn’t a big deal in the sense that, say “Princess Mononoke” or even “Porco Rosso” was, but it’s a HUGE deal for Shizuku, and Kondo doesn’t minimize that.

When a boy Shizuku’s friend Yuko has a crush on upsets her, Shizuku and Yuko are both angry, but also both mature enough to talk it over and come to a more rational decision about what to do about it. What happens to them isn’t something for us to laugh at, but a real crisis in their lives that they handle; the only difference is that it happens not to be the sort of crisis we face often as adults. Later, when Shizuku bursts into tears after hearing Nishi’s opinion of her story, we empathize and understand why. To Kondo, being a teenager just means you deal with different issues than adults do, not that they’re less important.

This goes all the way down to the controversial ending. Sure, a marriage proposal is sudden, and they’re too young to act on it anyway, but then the whole point is that being young doesn’t mean your decisions don’t matter. Miyazaki said that the reason he added that ending is that he wanted the protagonists to commit to something; again, it all comes down to respect for the characters. Their choices are not unimportant. They matter. Them being teenagers doesn’t change that.

The ending, by the way, is also EXTREMELY refreshing. Both Seiji and Shizuku, when given the option to go the path of the starving artist to chase their dreams, reject it, and choose to finish their schooling so they could come back to their ambitions after standing on more solid ground. There’s something particularly Miyazakian about that touch, a level of sophistication and maturity lacking in most western films.

Also worth noting: The love story might be the closest of all of them to the Miyazakian ideal of “Two people inspiring one another to live”. This is basically the sole reason Shizuku and Seiji believe they’re suited for each other; both of them are inspired by the other’s dedication to their dreams, and both agree to help the other fulfill them. You can see why Miyazaki decided to adapt the original manga in the first place.

“Whisper of the Heart” is an underappreciated entry in the Ghibli canon. It’s something of a bittersweet pill when you realize we’ll never have another Kondo film to watch, but he left us with – to use a metaphor from the film – a real gem. Perhaps it is rough and unpolished occasionally, but beautiful regardless. And, ah, when it sparkles…!

We’ll never know what Kondo could have been, but we know what he was, and that is the director of a beautiful, moving, and inspiring piece of meticulously crafted cinema. And that’s a better legacy than most of us will ever leave.