Unpopular Opinion: Death Note

Warning this review will spoil the shit out of Death Note, if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first and then read this.  Ah Death Note, it’s a great show.  Let me be clear from the start, I enjoyed Death Note quite a bit and would easily recommend it to most anyone, however, there were also things about it that really bothered me and while I will try to keep this review balanced where I can, I will largely be focusing on the stuff I think Death Note did wrong, so it might seem unfair or overly harsh to diehard Death Note fans.  Anyway time for the plunge.

Now as many reviewers like to point out, Death Note is basically split into two stories, the good one with a battle between L and Light and the not so good one between Light and L’s two successors.  Now by and large this general synopsis is right so I’m left with a question.  Why was the second half necessary at all?  Well it’s because the series moves too fast early on, skipping crucial character development episodes to jumpstart the narrative of L and Light’s battles. The biggest issue I have ever had with Death Note is that Light’s character development basically doesn’t exist.  There is no story detailing a slow descent into madness, or a tragic tale of a champion of the law crossing the line and having that come back to bite him in the ass.  No Light, by episode 1 kills dozens if not hundreds of people and declares himself god of the new world.  Um… fucking what?  You showed us a bored, if intelligent high school student in the opening scenes, and you mean to tell me that he goes from bored high schooler to a self-proclaimed god in five fucking days after killing swathes of people over the course of a five minute montage because he happens to find the Death Note?  This sort of implies that Light was always a crazy motherfucker and he just couldn’t act on it until he was handed a weapon in the form of the Death Note.  You see if Light had actually been developed, if we had seen the transition from intelligent high schooler to batshit crazy murderer, then two big things would have been accomplished, one the development period would have taken up time wasted on the more boring second half of Death Note and two it would have just made Light a more likeable dude in my opinion.  See because there is no context for his turn to evil, and make no mistake Light is in fact evil, I never found Light to be a character I could get behind.  I agreed with some of the ideals Light strived for and I generally believe that punishment today is too light, that some horrible people get off too easy and I live in America, I can’t even imagine living in a place like Norway where a terrorist who killed 70 something kids at a camp doesn’t get the death penalty, the idea that a man who committed such an atrocity isn’t put down like the rabid dog he is bothers me a lot.

But Light’s methods are so extreme that by the end of episode 1 he’s killed more people than the serial killers and major criminals he deemed unfit to live ever did.  See there is a difference between trying to reform legal codes to make punishments harsher and just killing the people you see as problematic, Light for all his talk of justice is one the most unjust anime characters I’ve ever seen.  I felt more sympathy for Makishima Shougo the villain from Psycho-Pass, and that dude facilitated and committed some disturbing and horrific crimes.  But L straight-up massacres anyone who doesn’t fit into his ideal world or anyone who gets in his way, he’s basically just as crazy as all those fascist and communist dictators we in the West look down on for being insane and fucked up.  Why people get behind L at all kind of mystifies me, don’t me wrong he’s a compelling character insofar as he portrays the role he is given very well and does some genuinely awesome, if often ridiculous “all according to plan” things.  But given it’s a battle of geniuses, a certain level of “all according to plan” shenanigans comes with the territory.  But despite all of the things Light does well his base character is a psychotic if brilliant student with a god complex who may also be drunk on the power of the Death Note and as a result slaughters thousands of people, sometimes not even people who anyone could say deserved to die.  By the end Light is the worst sort of monster there is short of being Hitler or that Norwegian terrorist I mentioned before, he commits genocide against an entire segment of the society worldwide.  It doesn’t matter if that segment of society is a an unlikable one and may be filled with terrible people, his wiping it out is nothing less than a societal purge of catastrophic proportions, Light is far and away the world’s worst mass murderer, it doesn’t matter why he murders, at this point he is irredeemable to anyone save those who embrace equally extreme measures.  At this point I think I’ve made it as clear as it’s going to get, I cannot get behind Light for any reason which is sort of a problem when he is the center of the story.  He can be interesting and enjoyable, but ultimately his extremes always drive me to side against him, again this is not where you want your main character to be.

On its own this problem I have with Light, while somewhat off-putting, wasn’t really a big deal, but then we saw the rise of all kinds of Kira supporters in the world of Death Note, which made me wonder the fuck is wrong with these people?  The only Kira supporter I was ever ok with was Misa, because she’s kinda dumb, extremely impulsive, wildly passionate and Kira had killed a criminal who had personally traumatized her.  That is some great characterization right there, as much of a stereotypical dumb blond as Misa is, she also has hands down the best reason to support Kira out of all the characters who do eventually help him.  The college woman turned news anchor in particular bothered me because she was smart and had to know that what Kira was doing was both hypocritical and just plain fucked up.  Why would she support him?  It doesn’t make an ounce of sense for her to do so, and it just one of many instances where Light catches a tremendously lucky break which may or may not be fairly called a plot convenience, and one of the things I really dislike in stories, are plot conveniences that cause peoples to act in way that don’t make any sense.  The other thing that really bothers me about Light in particular are some of the especially ridiculous plans he comes up with.  Case in point the potato chip scene.  Here Light buys a mini-tv and hides it in a chip bag in the pantry.  How? Why?  The bag looked untouched when he opened it so how did he get the tv inside?  And why would he put an expensive item in a place that would raise eyebrows if it was ever found in a place where anyone of his family members and potentially friends they have over for dinner or something could easily find by accident?  It just makes no sense and the fact that we the audience are just supposed to go along with it is one part immersion breaking and one part actually insulting.  Look I get it, Light is a genius trying to outsmart another genius, some crazy and inventive plans will be in play, but there is a limit to this kind of behavior, there is a point where a character has so much luck or foresight or both that it stops being intelligent and starts becoming bullshit.  Now usually, this is isn’t an issue, but it did pop up a few times and it was really bad the few times it happened so I feel it’s worth mentioning.

Now to reiterate, I liked Death Note, I enjoyed it a lot and all these problems I’m listing in no way diminish that, they are personal issues I had that kept Death Note from being the classic everyone makes it out to be to being merely great in my opinion.  In fact I expected the second half of the series to be much worse than it actually was so in that regard I enjoyed the full series more than I anticipated.  But that doesn’t mean Death Note is perfect, and I enjoy talking about the pros and cons of all kinds of anime series, I love discussing a medium I enjoy so thoroughly.  In summary, I think the main problems with Death Note are threefold, first is Light and his lack of character arc that details the transformation from bored high school valedictorian to self proclaimed god of the new world, because he really needs one if I’m to find him at all relatable so I can get behind him.  Second, there are a few instances when Light is too lucky, be it a stupidly complex plan that works flawlessly or his greatest threats walking into him unaware of the danger like the FBI agent’s fiancé who first figured out that Kira could kill others without using heart attacks, or perhaps most annoyingly when people who have no business supporting Kira, since he is you know a prolific and sadly deranged serial killer, decide to support Kira.  And the third problem is the obvious one, the second story, the one after L dies is worse than the original story.  Looking in retrospect I’d say that the ideal Death Note is one without a jumpstarted Light, more even pacing, and a conclusion that ends with Light losing to L instead of making a secondary story of L’s successors whom Light eventually loses to.  Overall though Death Note is good anime and I do recommend it to basically everyone.  Hopefully this post gets people thinking about the kinds of thing certain anime excel at and the things their contemporaries botch by comparison.  Because that’s really my end goal here with this series, as much as welcome discussion of the shows in question what I really want to is to see anime fans thinking more critically about the shows they watch and finding the quality anime as opposed to the merely popular ones.  I think that kind of atmosphere and mindset in the anime community would be a good thing for the medium overall, so here I am trying to promote it.  Anyway hope you guys enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.

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One thought on “Unpopular Opinion: Death Note

  1. You started referring to Light as L at one point, which confused me for a moment. When I watched Death Note I didn’t really feel like I was supposed to get behind Light as a traditional main character, I think of him more as the antagonist if I were to assign him a role. I agree that it should have ended with Light losing to L without the whole successor thing happening.

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