Writer: Tsugumi Ohba
Illustrator: Takeshi Obata
English publisher: Viz Media
Genre: Shonen, psychological thriller, supernatural, detective fiction
Rating: T+ (older teens and adults)
Release date: October 10, 2005
Note: All manga illustrations come from fan-translated scans. The dialogue itself is not the same as the official version and differs slightly.
Originally introduced in the Weekly Shonen Jump, the Death Note manga eventually went on to become a commercial success—amassing over 26 million dollars from manga sales alone. The financial victory of the manga drove the franchise to spawn an anime adaptation, a series of live-action films, and more.
Among anime viewers and manga readers, the image of the black, supernatural notebook has become a symbol synonymous with the psychological thrill-ride that is Death Note. In this series of reviews, let’s take a look under that blackened cover and see what lies beneath.
The life of a death god is a dull life, indeed. Blessed—or cursed, perhaps—to live for eternity in a bland, listless netherworld, the shinigami (death gods) whittle away their meaningless existences through half-baked entertainment. Aside from writing the occasional human name in their Death Notes in order to prolong their shinigami life-spans, the death gods feel that they have little purpose.
Enter Light Yagami, a top-of-the-class, honor-roll student in Japan. Facing his own sense of boredom—the constant expectations, the same classes and lectures, the sinfulness of humanity—Light finds himself staring out the classroom window in deep thought, just in time to see the Death Note fall to the lawn outside. His curiosity peaked, Light takes the notebook home with him and soon becomes engrossed by its intricacies. The Death Note contains an entire set of rules, with the main premise being: “The human whose name is written in this note shall die.”
Believing the notebook to be a prank, but overwhelmed by curiosity, Light writes the name of a criminal in the notebook. Forty seconds later, the man dies on live TV.
With the weight of the notebook’s legitimacy weighing down on him, Light makes the decision to use the Death Note to change the world, ridding the earth of crime and creating a utopia over which he can reign as a god.
But the mounting, unexplained criminal deaths quickly catch the eye of the Japanese police. Now accompanied by the shinigami, Ryuk, Light finds himself a suspect in the investigation.
Enter L, a mysterious detective able to miraculously solve even the most impossible cases. With a perfect crime-solving record, L makes it his mission to track down Light (now hailed as Kira by the populace) and bring him to justice.
As an adrenaline-laced chess match of killer-VS-detective begins to unfold, Light grows more and more corrupt under the influence of the Death Note’s absolute power. And only L—the man in the shadows—can put a stop to him.
Death Note is a drama of ethics. The entire story unfolds with many questions and almost no direct answers, allowing the reader to make their own conclusions about the actions of the characters.
From a Christian point-of-view, Death Note holds a lot of symbolic significance. The notebook itself is highly similar to the forbidden fruit in Genesis. Once Light accepts the forbidden Death Note and its power, he gains a new, corrupted perspective of the world and desires to become a god. Genesis 3:5 came to mind here: “The day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
While the writer never condones, or disapproves of, Light’s actions, it’s clear that what he’s doing is wrong. Light begins to lose sleep over his choices and his peace vanishes. In his unease, he even begins to lose weight. There’s also an interesting scene where Light tells Ryuk of his plans to do away with criminals instantaneously, while using the power of the Death Note to methodically kill societal nuisances through disease. “I’ll make this world inhabited only by people I decide are good.”
“You do that… [and] the only one left will be you,” intones Ryuk.
Light’s father is a man of high morals and acts as the moral compass of the series. He believes there is no excuse for murder, and that killing even a death-row inmate before his/her execution should be considered a criminal act. He praises a co-worker for bringing up the unpopular truth that criminal deaths have helped to diminish crime in the city.
Again, looking at Christian allegory and symbolism, it’s not much of a stretch to see L as a Christ figure and Light as a symbol of fallen man (or even Satan). L is seen almost as a miracle-worker, but the police are suspicious of him because L has never shown his face to the public. Never-the-less, he sets out to face and defeat Light. The allegory goes even further when you consider that El is a Hebrew name for God and Lucifer means “light-bearer.” See the connection with the names L and Light now? The Christian symbolism is expanded as the franchise progresses.
Light Yagami clearly has good intentions, but the power of the Death Note corrupts him. It’s a humbling, and frightening, depiction of human nature at its darkest. The lesson here is obvious: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The story revolves around the shinigami (or death gods) and their supernatural notebooks that have the power to kill humans by simply writing their names in the Death Notes. The shinigami themselves live in a hopeless, bleak netherworld and fear death as much as the humans whose lives they periodically take. The shinigami don’t care about humans, or what the humans do. In fact, Ryuk later confesses that the only reason death gods take human lives is because it extends the shinigamis’ own life-spans… and shinigami are terrified of death.
The Death Note has the power to kill in a variety of ways. Any human whose true name is written in the notebook will die of a heart attack within forty seconds (providing the writer has a picture of that individual in their mind at the time). However, the writer can also detail the manner of death within the next six-minutes-and-forty-seconds, causing victims to die of accidents, suicides, diseases, and other nasty things.
God and the Bible are left entirely out of the spiritual equation, despite the fact that these things appear to exist in the Death Note world. For example, Ryuk explains to Light that any human who uses the Death Note can neither go to heaven nor hell for the rest of eternity. A back-cover manga short features a punch-line where Light asks Ryuk, “Since when do shinigami celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ?”
A criminal uses his own blood to draw a pentagram on a prison wall.
As criminals begin to die, the populace dubs the mysterious “bringer of justice” Kira (derived from the English word killer). Websites begin to go online in Kira’s honor. One such site is set up in memorial to “Lord Kira,” with the homepage reading: “The Legend of Kira the Savior… a messenger from hell who will not suffer the presence of evil in this world. You may only enter this site if you believe in Kira’s resurrection.”
Ryuk tells Light about a deal in which Light can gain the ability to see anyone’s true name in exchange for half his life-span.
Given the plot of Death Note, I was surprised by how backseat the violence was. The majority of criminals killed with the Death Note die of fatal heart attacks. One man is hit by a semi, but the results of the blow are only vaguely shown (an indistinctive body with some dark patches on the concrete). Another criminal is struck head-on by a vehicle and killed. We see his outstretched hand in a pool of blood on the road.
Ryuk is shot several times—getting riddled with bullet holes in the process—but doesn’t bleed or die, as he’s a death god. A robber is said to have been stabbed to death in the stomach with a knife. Mentions and discussions of death, murder, and killing are frequent, making the manga pretty heavy in its subject matter.
A criminal hijacks a bus, holding a gun to the driver’s head and threatening to blow it off. He goes on to threaten all of the passengers similarly.
Having seen the anime, I can vouch that the manga is much heavier in the language department. I counted seven uses of d***, four uses of h*** (as swear words, not as references to hell itself), one use each of bast*** and smarta**. Lesser swear words include “gosh” (used three times) and “friggin” and the phrase “screwed up.”
Light is shown reading a magazine called the Sexy Enquirer. His sister later comments that the magazine is “kinda dirty” and asks if it’s the reason Light keeps his room locked. Light claims that he reads the magazine for articles about the Kira investigation.
A motorcycle gang surrounds a woman and makes some come-ons to her. When she tries to escape, the leader pursues her. Light quickly writes the man’s name in his Death Note, ending the chase.
One criminal is a drug addict. Upon touching a piece of the Death Note, the criminal sees Ryuk and opens fire on him. An on-scene FBI agent assumes the criminal is hallucinating on PCP.
Other Negative Content
Death Note is dark. It’s built entirely around a series of heavy themes involving death and murder. Though careful readers will pick up on Light’s flawed and immoral logic (and the subtle way that the manga emphasizes it), Light is still portrayed as the protagonist. The story is about him. He gradually progresses from a would-be hero ridding the world of criminals, to a criminal himself—prepared to kill off anyone who stands in his way, including his own family (as he states at one point). Quite frankly, it’s a disturbing transition, and some readers may be unsettled by it.
Though L is set up to be the heroic figure who will stop Light, L himself appears to be a bit shady. He sets up a death-row inmate as his stand-in on live TV in an experiment to see how Light kills. Light does kill the inmate, and L informs him of the body-double. That being said, the criminal was scheduled to be executed at “that exact hour,” regardless. The ethics of this situation are left up to the reader to debate.
One rule of thumb in story-telling says: “Consistence is key.”
Death Note masters this rule beautifully. In fact, the entire volume expresses a unified presentation effort. Everything from the character designs, to the script-writing, to the shading (especially the shading), brings out the dark, thematic tone of this manga.
Since I’ve already harped on it some, let’s talk about the shading. Death Note uses a dramatic combination of light and shadow in order to add emotion and intensity to its darkest—and most thematic—moments. As Light contemplates the power in his hands, or considers the cursed state of the world around him, his face darkens in shadows, reflecting the sinister thoughts of his mind. Fierce characters like Ryuk are enhanced by these shadows, whereas enigmatic figures like L are made to look mysterious by contrast. It’s an overall clever use of the light spectrum, and it plays well with the dramatic depth of the story.
We aren’t given a very deep look at the rest of the cast, aside from Light and Ryuk (who has no facial expression, so he’s a bad example for this), but based on the current sampling, the characters are very dynamically cast. Light features a variety of expressions, looking innocent—almost childish—at one point, and appearing sinister—almost evil—the next. There’s a wide variety of expressiveness to be found in him, and, visually, this gives him a feeling of evolution and dimension.
The plot is an ethical mass of complexes, and I don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Death Note challenges readers, at every turn of the page, to decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong. The manga asks a lot of deep, heavy questions, and offers little to no answers (subtle ones, at best). It’s a great discussion-starter, with the potential to be a classic, due to its undying themes.
The translation itself is fine, though I feel the anime brushed away some of the rough edges in the dialogue department. There are no grammatical issues or translation errors here, but all the same, the dialogue feels a bit awkward at times. Having seen the anime and read the manga, I prefer the anime’s wording in the majority of places.
Perhaps the biggest gripe I have about this series—technically speaking—is its lack of character backstory. This is only the first volume in the Death Note manga, but only the barest of details have been given about who these characters are. At the moment, they feel like very well-crafted, convenient plot elements that are helping to push the story along. I’d like to know more about Light’s background: Why is he so quick to accept the power of the Death Note? Why does he feel it is his personal duty to rid the world of evil? What past experiences have molded him into this being that he is?
And since we’re discussing Light right now, that’s my other complaint. Light seemed to progress a tad too fast for me. I expected to see a much longer, more painful struggle with the possession of the Death Note. Instead, there’s a brief, one-to-two page scene where Light’s conscience flares up over the fact that he’s taken two human lives. The brief struggle is quenched as Light justifies his actions as being for the good of all mankind. Next instance, Light is killing criminals left and right. I would have preferred to see a more steady progression here, with a believable, meaningful reason behind Light’s ultimate decision. Again, a more fleshed-out backstory might have solved this problem.
To avoid re-stating some of the things I’ve already said, let me wrap this up briefly: in reading the first volume of Death Note, you’ll be entering a deep, dark, ethically-driven game of cat-and-mouse… without any guidelines besides your own morals.
Death Note isn’t a series that holds your hand. It tells you a story, gives you the facts, and lets you come to your own conclusions. This is further complicated by the fact that the protagonist is, in all actuality, the villain of this tale. It’s a unique twist, to be sure, but it makes for some pretty dark and heavy reading.
Based on just this first volume, I wouldn’t recommend the manga to anyone under sixteen years of age (unless they were mature enough to handle the content). Young readers may jump into the story with the mindset that “Light’s the good-guy.” And, aside from that, there’s a good helping of language, a dash of sexual content, and a lot of dark themes and violence (both implied and literal) scattered throughout.
The anime felt less edgy to me, as some of the language and other objectionable content found in this first volume was removed from the animated version. If you find that the manga puts you a tad outside your comfort zone, then I encourage you to watch the anime instead.
For a Christian reader, Death Note falls into a strange place. It puts some ethical questions on the table, making it a joyride for the philosophical reader, but there’s quite a bit of muck to wade through along the way. It’s certainly not a franchise for children, pre-teens, or even young and immature teenagers, but older teens (16+) and adults should be able to read it with discernment… and probably some disquieting feelings, too.
Stick around for future reviews of the Death Note manga. Volume #2 is next!
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