Death Note: Not Sure What I Think

Bloggified by Jake on Saturday, September 20, 2008

Over the last month or so, I've checked out all the volumes of Death Note from the library and kind of wish I'd stopped around the sixth book. The story starts off promising and earned points for not being the stereotypical manga. I was also happy to find at it's heart its a murder mystery and not just some melodramatic thing about death gods designed solely to appeal to goth kids who still have some cash left over from buying eyeliner and various Hot Topic sundries.

The story is about Light Yagami, who finds a death god's Death Note, a notebook that the death gods use to write down the names of people who are going to die. He decides to use it to make the world a better place by killing off all the criminals. After a bunch of criminals die of heart attacks, the United Nations gets concerned about the mysterious "Kira" (which I couldn't help but think of as "killer" in pidgin English), so they call upon L, the world's greatest detective who has never failed to solve a crime.

L quickly starts discovering things about Kira. Light reveals that much of what L is discovering is stuff he wanted L to know. So there's a constant chess match going on between these two super geniuses and the stakes keep getting higher. There are lots of cool plot twists as Light seems to find himself on the verge of being caught only to reveal that he'd planned to nearly get caught and in fact has been playing L the whole time. And there's one scene in particular that ranks up with "Han Solo shooting Darth Vader's TIE fighter so Luke can blow up the Death Star" in terms of awesome.

Unfortunately, as with many stories that try to have a long, complex game of cat and mouse where the audience only gets little pieces of the mystery (I'm looking at you Lost), there is a lot of milking the story. It begins around the fourth book as pages and pages are spent with L debating if Light might be Kira, but finds proof that he's not, then questions whether the proof was fabricated by Light just to prove he's not Kira. And by the eighth book, when L has been replaced by Near, that kind of internal monologue is about 80% of the story.

Imagine if this scene...

... was 70 minutes long. That's what Death Note becomes once Near enters the scene.

"Takara is the spokeswoman for Kira? Light Yagami dated her in college. Certainly he wouldn't choose her to be Kira's spokeswoman knowing that I would know he dated her in college... unless he knew I would know and assumed I might dismiss my suspicions of his being Kira because I would know he's too smart to pick a spokeswoman with such an obvious tie to Light Yagami. But knowing I would know he is smart enough to pick another spokesperson and that he might pick one with an obvious tie to himself just to get me to dismiss him as a suspect, he would be more likely to pick a spokesperson who did not have an obvious tie to Light Yagami. Unless he knew I would know that he'd know I'd know..." Get on with it! Volumes 8-11 could probably have been condensed into one book just by taking out most of this crap.

Near and his counterpart Mello (the very effeminate dude eating the chocolate bar to the left) also bring the book down by being just weird. L is likewise strange, but we come to meet him knowing he's a super genius who has his odd methods to solve crimes. We're exposed to his eccentricities gradually and come to like the character and accept his behavior. Near and Mello, however, are wannabe L's and as such wind up just being pale imitations, like when sitcoms bring in new, cuter little kids because the kids on the show are getting too old. Or imagine if when Coach died on Cheers, instead of bringing in Woody, they brought in another older actor who said, "Hey, Sam, remember me? Your old pitching coach from Double-A ball? I'm none-too-bright, but I'm kind of a father figure to you and I could sure use a job tending bar." That's Near and Mello.

The story also loses some steam once Light stops using the Death Note himself. Instead, he passes it on to surrogates who write the names for him. This is because Light is heading up the anti-Kira police taskforce and can't risk getting caught writing the names down. Because the entire story is about the cat and mouse game between Light and L/Mello/Near, his arrogance is supposed to explain his decision to head up the taskforce, but over and over I couldn't help but think how much easier his life would be if he just walked away from pretending to try to catch himself and started using the Death Note to actually try to save the world. Instead, he spends six years in a holding pattern essentially trying to get Near to admit "Light Yagami is not Kira" so he can kill him and say, "Ha, ha, I really was Kira!"

And six years? In the story, the rest of the world comes to accept Kira, crime rates drop, wars end, and people worship Kira like a god, but Light and four other cops spend every day trying to figure out who Kira is so they can arrest him. After six years, none of them gives up? After six years, no one suspects maybe Light isn't as brilliant as they all think he is? I mean they don't have one friggin' lead after six years. It's not like they're "just so close." Not to mention that both L and Near spend most of that time constantly telling the other cops, "I'm pretty sure Light is Kira... I just don't have proof yet."

Overall, when things happen in Death Note they are awesome; when nothing is happening--which is often--it kind of sucks. Though early on you'll convince yourself that the "nothing's happening" scenes are part of the dramatic build up, eventually you'll just come to realize the creators must have needed to stretch a 60 issue story to 105 issues.

4 sarcastic replies:

Lucithana said...

Personally for me the series ended the moment L died. Light/Kira won and that was it. Bringing in Near and Mello felt like something the author did when he realized that there were going to be more books in the series and he'd gone and killed of the antagonist far too soon.

Joe B said...

I liked the idea of the orphanage that raised kids to be super detectives, but I never liked Near remotely as much as L, and Mello was way too weird to identify with. Books 8-11 felt like a chore at times, but the last book was very satisfying. You should watch the 2 live action movies. They change the story quite a bit (no Near and Mello), and are pretty fun.

Jason said...

I had read up until volume 6 before I hit a time where the library couldn't get vol. 7 so I just kinda lost interest. I agree that the book is really awesome for those first few volumes, but it does go from "clever" to "stupid" eventually.

I actually watched the first of the live-action movies last night, and it was OK, the only problem is, Light's arrogance is far more annoying on screen than on the page. You want that little fucker to get caught the whole time, plus, they really don't spend much time building up is goal of saving the world, so he just comes off as a kid on a power trip.

Incidentally, you're right, "Kira" is a Japanese bastardization of the english word "killer".

Jake said...

I can see how Light could easily come off that way, Jason. I wondered how others felt about Light because of that. He's the protagonist, but he's also a mass murderer, so there's a morality question.

I have a friend with whom I've had a debate about "The Shield" since the first season. He watches it waiting to see Vic Mackey get caught; I watch to see Vic Mackey squirm out of whatever trouble he's gotten into. He thinks Vic's actions are inexcusable because he's a cop; I see Vic's actions as a good cop doing what it takes to keep crime down by any means necessary. Both of us can't believe anyone would feel the other way.

I wanted him to read Death Note largely for that reason. The ending, where Light gets him comeuppance is pretty cool (if only it hadn't taken so long to get there and if only Near hadn't been the one to finally catch him), and it made me wonder if "The Shield" will end similarly.

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