“Sometimes, the questions are complicated – and the answers are simple”: A Review of ‘Death Note’

Image result for death note
Character from left to right: N, Ryuk, L, Light Yagami, Misa Amane, Rem

‘Death Note’ is a Japanese Manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It was originally published in 12 volumes and has been reprinted into 6 books, which include two volumes each, called the ‘Black Edition’ which is what I’ve been reading.  It was adapted for television into a 37 episode anime series in 2006-7 of the same name. Last year it was adapted into an American Netflix original film, which we won’t talk about, in fact we’ll try to forgot about that mess. ‘Death Note’ is the first anime series I ever watched approximately 18 months ago now, and since then I’ve been hooked and watched countless anime series and films (I think I might do a post here in the future about my favourite anime series and films). It seems very fitting therefore that ‘Death Note’ is now the first manga I’ve read and I will be going on to read many more.

‘Death Note’ has a relatively simple premise, a shinigami called Ryuk (a God of death in Japanese folk lore) drops his death note into the human world and it is picked up by Light Yagami, a high-achieving student. The death note gives the user the power to kill simply by writing the name of someone whose face they know. Light decides to use the book to shape the world into his image of perfection, he wants to implement justice and destroy evil. Of course the death on mass of criminals does not go unnoticed and a task force, led by the mysterious and intelligent ‘L’ is set up in pursuit of ‘Kira’ (the name that is given to the mysterious force that in casting judgement on the world by the public).  The manga was banned in schools in Shenyang in 2005 because school children were fashioning their notebooks after the death note and writing the names of teachers and fellow students in their pages in the style of Light; the ban extended to others Chinese cities, possibly out of superstition at the inclusion of shinigami in the text, but also out of fear of the moral questions that the narrative provokes.

‘Death Note’ is a uniquely interesting narrative in that there isn’t a distinctive sense of good-guy vs bad-guy, each side believes that they are acting in the name of justice but understand this concept in opposing lights. The difficulty in determining who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist in this manga is reflected in the use of dark and light in the artwork by Obata, shadows are used to great affect to demonstrate when a character has fallen too far into their egotism and sense that they are victorious or righteous. The quote I’ve used in the title of this review is from L, and emphasizes what the manga represents – interesting and, often difficult, questions about morality and justice.

‘Death Note’ is a fast-pacing and gripping story, populated with interesting and thoroughly human characters. My personal favourite characters are Ryuk the sarcastic God of death, and Misa Amane a super kawaii and fiercely loyal young actress who is Kira’s greatest admirer. The action of the series takes places over 7 years and it is interesting to see the character change and progress over this time; from the way the younger characters grow up and begin to present themselves as adults, to the greying hair of the police chief, it feels as though you go on a real journey with these characters. You truly feel the struggles they experience and sympathize with the moral questions that are presented to them. The ambiguity of good and evil, as I mentioned earlier, makes it very difficult to pick a side through the narrative. Despite his literally mass murder of criminals, which later extends to those who get in his way, and manipulation of those around him, there is something enigmatic about Light Yagami. It is difficult to root for those who are trying to defeat him because of how interesting his character is, you want to see whether he continues his mission of justice or if he is destroyed by the death note that he thinks will turn him in a God.

The anime does bring some interesting visuals that aren’t present in the manga, notably it heightens a dramatic tennis scene through the use of opposing monochromatic colours on either side of the court, this is not to say that this scene is lacking in drama in the still image. The layout of each page is carefully managed to lead your eye across the frames and make you read with the momentum to match the drama. I would definitely recommend this manga to anyone that has some apprehensions about the genre, although it took a little getting used to to read the book right to left (as the original Japanese edition was printed) this became easy as I was sucked into the plot and the visuals. Reading this manga was similar to reading a play, as it is mainly dialogue, with some internal monologue that is provided in the text, but the experience was thoroughly enriched by the artwork. Unlike reading a play where you must picture every character for yourself which can feel sometimes like a chore, which takes away from the enjoyment of the plot, manga provides you with visuals. This is not to say that it gives everything away. It is up to you as a reader to interpret the characters facial expressions and intentions, which in this narrative filled with deceit and mystery is not always easy.

Overall I’d give ‘Death Note’ the manga a 4.5/5 rating. Please feel free to recommend me mangas that I should check out and share your thoughts about the series in the comments section below.

One thought on ““Sometimes, the questions are complicated – and the answers are simple”: A Review of ‘Death Note’

  1. This was one of my more favorite animes in high school. I did not think the subbed movies they did we’re terrible but I refuse to watch the American adaptation of it. Though the Fullmetal Alchemist and Bleach live action movies were okay.


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