Death Note Review

By | Sunday, October 28, 2012 Leave a Comment
I've been so enjoying Bakuman that I went back to pick up the creative team's previous well-received effort: Death Note. It's only twelve volumes, so it seemed like an easy investment -- not too much of a cash outlay, plus a pretty strong creative team if their later work is any guide.

The basic story surrounds a brilliant teen-ager named Light Yagami. He one day discovers a notebook entitled "Death Note" with several rules written on the inside. In short, it says that writing someone's name down in the notebook will kill them. Yagami, skeptical but curious, tries it out when he catches a news broadcast about a terrorist who's taken several people hostage. Proving that it works, he decides that he is going to make the world a better place by killing all the really evil people of the world. Police and governments don't take kindly to someone setting themselves up as judge, jury and executioner (as Yagami makes no effort to conceal that it's all the work of a single individual) and a number of task forces are set up to apprehend this unseen killer that's been dubbed "Kira" by the media.

Much of the story then revolves around Yagami continuing his efforts while hiding his identity, and the world task force headed up by the mysterious genius known only as "L." Yagami and L are both pretty evenly matched intellectually, and there's an ongoing game of out-guessing each other. Yagami eventually wins, even managing to take the title of L for himself, but L's true successors (both geniuses themselves) then come out to try to catch the still-enigmatic Kira. Now Yagami/L/Kira must outwit two opponents, who are themselves in a race to see who can catch Kira first.

(For those of you who have read it: yes, I know I'm leaving out an awful lot, but we're talking about almost 2,500 pages of story here! Plus, I don't want to spoil some of the particularly clever twists that occur throughout the series.)

As in Bakuman, artist Takeshi Obata does a fantastic job throughout the series. Though the story is largely cerebral, he continues to find ways to make people thinking look engaging and dramatic. He also, as in Bakuman, defines a decently sized supporting cast in a definitive manner, making distinct individuals out of what could be seen as broad descriptions. By that I mean that there are several "30-ish year old male with dark hair and a medium build" characters that could be confused with one another, but Obata's illustration style ensures that no confusion ever takes place.

Regarding the story itself, there are few things that strike me. First is that Yagami is almost always shown to be several steps ahead of everyone. While that would be seemingly easy to do from a writer's perspective -- Tsugumi Ohba could just make Yagami 'predict' the logic other characters use -- the way this unfolds in the story is frequently very cleverly relayed. There are several instances, even early on, when Yagami is shown performing seemingly random acts while talking with other characters, but readers then only learn the significance of those acts several chapters later. It would be easy to show Yagami think of something and then act on it immediately, but that Ohba himself thought to plant story seeds quite significantly in advance shows him to be a very thoughtful and deliberate storyteller.

Another thing that I find striking is that, especially towards the end of the story, several characters are shown thinking and plotting based on what they think others will do and say. They're almost re-acting to actions that actually reactions to other actions, none of which have actually happened yet. This could have quickly devolved into something akin to "Well, I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew..." And while it does skate close to that on a couple of occasions with quite a few exercises in logic, Ohba never takes to it quite so pedantic a level. And the only times it really gets close, it helps to showcase Yagami's own mental state and he becomes increasingly desperate to remain anonymous and continue his role as Kira.

The series, as a whole, poses some interesting thematic questions about justice. And despite providing a pretty clear story resolution in terms of who holds the moral high ground during the climax, the denouement brings the question back into an area of ambiguity. Overall, I found it to be an incredibly well-written and highly engaging series. I understand Bakuman has recently wrapped up in Japan, and I'm eager to see what he comes up with next. (While I continue reading the English translations of that series as they're still coming out here in the States, of course!)

I happened to read the "Black Edition" version of Death Note, but you can of course purchase the shorter, individual volumes if you prefer a smaller initial sample. I strongly recommend the series as a whole, though, and the box set edition will provide you with the entire story for the cheapest price. Whichever version you might prefer, it's a fantastic series and I can easily understand why it was made into an anime and a series of feature-length movies.
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