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Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: Death Note


Mystery thriller with supernatural elements. 37 episodes, aired in 2007. Available on Hulu.

Bottom Line:

Death Note is an intelligent mystery show asking at its heart, if someone could kill at an arbitrary distance without leaving any evidence behind, would it be possible to catch him? But rather than merely contenting itself with that question, Death Note attempts and delivers on one of the most riveting Sherlock Holmes stories produced since Arthur Conan Doyle's, and easily rivaling many of the original tales in its own way. Note does this by telling the story almost entirely from the point of view of our Moriarty, Yagami Light, as he and the great detective L face off. Watching the two push and feint is constantly tense and their well reasoned and often unexpected moves are constantly shifting the state of play. Viewers more invested in the game than the characters can stop watching at episode 26, however, as it provides a fairly satisfying ending that is undermined by the substantially lower quality of subsequent episodes.


This show plays up the dark, gothic feel rather heavily, and I can respect the aesthetic choice even though it is not my personal style. The visual are superb overall, and the nighttime scenes (of which there are many) strike the right balance between dark ambiance and realism. I ended up skipping the intro songs, because it isn't my sort of metal, but they were technically proficient and probably enjoyable to people who are into that. The rest of the music rarely graduates above suitable, though the sounds and visual effects accompanying notebook writing are a nice touch that help characterize the power rush of undetectable murder. 

The most gothic element are the shinigami, literally death gods, the Japanese Grim Reapers, who spend most of the show in the background or absent entirely, appearing as needed for the appropriate plot points, and even then behaving in a more benign fashion than their monstrous appearance would suggest. If anything, the overall subtlety of the gothic elements serves to make the darkness, both thematic and visual, seep into the realism of the world, leaving the viewer with the nagging impression that darkness is not a style affected for the show, it is the general nature of the world.

Yagami Light:

First the name. For those that did not catch it, Japanese names (and most words) are written in ideograms that, unlike English words, do not directly specify a pronunciation, and indeed most Japanese characters have two or more radically different pronunciations depending on context. A particular premium is placed on having a unique name, making the situation even more complex in this instance. Thus in Japanese people will often specify both how their name is written by referencing the most common meaning of a character and announce how it is pronounced. When our hero writes his given name, he uses the single character for moon, 月. Normally, when seeing this character alone, you would say tsuki (for fans of Bleach, when it is part of a compound word it is pronounced getsu). Instead, however, our hero pronounces it lito, りと, or more properly as Light, since this is straight-up English here. Our hero is moon-light, and as full as poetic significance as that could possibly be, which is why closet goth Misa gets all excited when she finds out.

Linguistic fun aside, Light is the reason Death Note is such a marvelous show. It is always enjoyable to watch a brilliant, suave, athletic man move at the height of his ability, and, since his point of view dominates the story, that is what we see. Death Note can be enjoyed on exactly that level, as two brilliant minds facing off, and at this level of the story are two compelling narratives about how to catch the perfect criminal and about the ethical use of that power.

But if we take our deconstructivist elevator down another floor we can really see the depths of Light as a character. Realize that the POV of Light is showing us what he thinks of himself and that our story is told by an unreliable, or at least self-aggrandizing, narrator. Now, he is certainly suave and brilliant as his plethora of lady-friends and criminal activities indicate, but he is also arrogant, impulsive, and self-centered. We can see that most of his troubles come less from the brilliance of L and more through the costs of his incautious hubris. On this level we can also see Misa as the Id holding him back and Takada as either his Superego or as a figure to which he unconsciously aspires.

Two Parts:

If this review is sounding less than effusive, that is because I am coming off having watched the last part of the show, with the skillfully built tension of part 1 a distant memory. At the end of episode 25 there is a grand climax. The opening of episode 26 recapitulates the climax, and then spends half the episode allowing you to recover by playing a clip show of the highlights in the back and forth thus far between L and Light. The second half of the episode could easily pass as an epilogue, if not for the wholly gratuitous reveal at the very end. Everything from episode 1 up to the last two minutes of episode 26 is a brilliant and tense standoff. Everything after that is a slow slide into banality which undermines our characters in a desperate attempt to clearly mark evil as evil and good as eternally triumphant. 

The quality of plot and dialogue diminish in part two, and the tension is almost completely absent thanks to thin, new characters, poor pacing, and weakly motivated attempts to raise the stakes. But the biggest problem is the biggest new addition, that of the character Near, or N. Superficially, the viewer can see what he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to be doing. The problem is that Death Note had up to this point led us to expect stunningly clever lead men whose case-breaking intuitions are well motivated. And then we are given Near and told to just accept that everything he says is right just because the plot tells us it is. At one point, Near decides that there is probably a connection between Takeda and X-Kira. In this situation, we would expect L to have Takeda monitored and have some scenes of him digging into her past, only to find a hidden clue a few days later. Near, however, watches Takeda on TV, thinks, "she must be in contact with X-Kira", then his eyes turn blue for dramatic effect and he looks over to another TV where a man is announcing his sympathy for Kira. From this, we are suddenly shown (whether it was for some reason on at the same moment or if Near finds it soon after in some archive is unclear) a clip from a news show where the two of them are in the same room. This scene is absolute bullshit, both from the preposterous level of coincidence and then again from the fact that Near draws the inference that these two otherwise unrelated people are connected.

The fact that he happens to be right is completely beside the point. We have at that point gone from a show where two people are making deductive leaps and backing them up to a show where one of the main characters owns a copy of Death Note in his DVD collection. This is not the only failing of the latter third of the show, but it is indicative of the lack of respect given to the formerly well characterized and thought out story.


When I saw Death Note the first time, it was a revelation. Since then I have seen Naoki Urasawa's Monster, which is substantially better. Also slower, darker, and more mature, so if you want to try for a light, more conventional mystery, the unfortunately too short Un-Go might brighten an afternoon. Finally, if you liked the tone, glamor and gothic elements, but wish everyone wasn't so intelligent all the time, Black Butler might suit (I have not seen Black Butler II, so no recommendation there).

Final Note:

Death Note is an suspenseful mystery that does really neat things by adopting the villain's perspective. It can get your heart racing with a few well placed words and a lingering image in a way few other shows can. Unfortunately, the quality declines terribly in the mostly superfluous last third of the show, detracting from the carefully built characterizations that preceded it. At the end of the competition, I think it is safe to say that the other show from the villain's POV, Code Geass, is overall more enjoyable.

Purely from how much I enjoyed it, I give Death Note episodes 1 through 26 a 9/10 and the final third a 4/10, giving a holistic 8/10 to the show overall.

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