Monday, April 03, 2006

Opinion - DeathNote

Tsugumi Ohba (writer)
Takeshi Obata (Artist)

“Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects--and he's bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami (death god). Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. But when criminals begin dropping dead, the media dubs the killer ‘Kira’ and the authorities send the legendary detective L to track down him down. With L hot on his heels, will Light lose sight of his noble goal…or his life?” - Summary

Death Note is big hit in Japan, where it is published in Shounen Jump. Given how unpredictable and suspenseful the series is, it’s easy to see why people are hooked. I know I am. These reviews are based on the Viz translations. To date, four Viz collections have been released. Below are the official Viz summaries of the four volumes, but there may be some spoilers in there, so skip the breakdown if you like. All you need to know to follow my ‘review’ is the summary above.

Volume 1 : Boredom
Light tests the boundaries of the Death Note's powers as L and the police begin to close in. Luckily Light's father is the head of the Japanese National Police Agency and leaves vital information about the case lying around the house. With access to his father's files, Light can keep one step ahead of the authorities. But who is the strange man following him, and how can Light guard against enemies whose names he doesn't know?

Volume 2 : Confluence
Light thinks he's put an end to his troubles with the FBI--by using the Death Note to kill off the FBI agents working the case in Japan! But one of the agents has a fiancée who used to work in the Bureau, and now she's uncovered information that could lead to Light's capture. To make matters worse, L has emerged from the shadows to work directly with the task force headed by Light's father. With people pursuing him from every direction, will Light get caught in the conflux?

Volume 3 : Hard Run
Light is chafing under L's extreme surveillance, but even 64 microphones and cameras hidden in his room aren't enough to stop Light. He steps up the game, but before the battle of wits can really begin, a family emergency distracts him. But even though Light isn't using the Death Note right now, someone else is! Who's the new "Kira" in town?

Volume 4 : Love
With two Kiras on the loose, L asks Light to join the taskforce and pose as the real Kira in order to catch the copycat. L still suspects Light, and figures that this is the perfect excuse to get closer to his quarry. Light agrees to the plan in order to have free access to the taskforce resources. But when Light manages to contact the new Kira, he discovers that his rival is anything but as expected. Will Light escape from love unscathed?

There are a couple of truly interesting facets to the series so far. First and foremost, the most entertaining aspect of the series is watching L and Light try to strategically outmaneuver one another and learn the other’s identity. Light can only use the Death Note to end someone's life if he knows their real name and face, so while the reclusive and mysterious police consultant L is trying to find out who 'Kira' is, Light is trying to find out L's identity first. Each knows that losing this cerebral game of cat and mouse will lead to his death, so the stakes are high. Both young men use every means at their disposal to end the game, from media manipulation to putting the lives of innocent people at stake, and its incredible fun just keeping up with their tactics.

For me, however, the most intriguing element of Death Note is how it fearlessly gives us a protagonist that might just fit the clinical definition of a true sociopath. True, Light is trying to create a better world, but I get the impression that this is an intellectual pursuit and not a moral one. Light isn’t above using the Death Note to kill anyone who stands in his own way, even going so far as to think off-handedly that if his family ever found the note, he’d just have to kill them. This is a really fascinating character, one who isn’t doing good for moral reasons, but because it makes sense in a social context – criminals weaken society.

Light’s moral ambivalence makes him a compelling lead for the series. While one can appreciate his brilliance and his cunning, writer Tsugumi Ohba has no problem throwing us curve balls and shocking us with far Light is willing to go to avoid capture and create his perfect world. Indeed, the central question of the series so far is whether or not we are expected to root for Light at all. With every passing chapter, it becomes increasingly obvious that putting any faith in Light’s humanity will go unrewarded.

Light is cold and manipulative, sometimes even frighteningly so, but he is a great central character, matched by the equally interesting character of L. I won’t spoil who L is or how he operates, but he really is a splendid literary invention. A modern day Sherlock Holmes, L is the perfect foil for Light – equally brilliant, equally driven to succeed. In fact, I’m hard pressed to find any real distinction between the personalities of the two except for the presence of a moral line L simply will not cross in order to achieve his goals.

This is a captivating tale told with clean, vivid art work and a sharp sense of drama and suspense. While it may lack tradional action, DeathNote is never less than enthralling. Highly recommended.


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