It’s time again to let you, the readers, into the most treasured lock boxes of our hearts and show you those things that we treasure dearly. This time, the spotlight is on one of the best manga we’ve ever read, DEATH NOTE. Another Halloween-y entry! After Thanksgiving. :|
…Just as planned.
Light Yagami, a Japanese high school senior, leads a charmed life. He’s top on the national university entrance exams, girls go crazy for him, he has a warm and loving family, but something’s missing. Light’s just plain bored. School is no effort at all, it seems, and there’s nothing out there to merit his attention… until a mischievous shinigami (Japanese grim reaper) named Ryuk drops the notebook where he writes down the names of those about to die–his Death Note.
The Death Note has rules. You write a person’s name down and he or she dies. No take-backs. The catch is that you must know that person’s true name and face if you want the notebook to work. That way you won’t end up killing everyone with the same name. Also, you can optionally write the cause and time of death and even control the actions of the person you condemn as long as both are realistically possible. Otherwise the person just dies from a heart attack. These aren’t the only rules, however, but they are the central rules that govern the rules of using the Death Note. More are given during the chapter breaks of the manga.
Light happens to be the first human to find Ryuk’s notebook, and upon reading the instructions, decides to test it out on someone who deserves to die: a random thug he encounters. True to its word, the Death Note kills him, showing Light that he can kill people without leaving any evidence that he did it… besides the Death Note itself, of course. This leads him to hatch a plan: he’ll kill the nastiest of criminals in order to teach the criminal element a lesson, and also to help make the world a kinder, gentler place to live.
Obviously, the police are not happy about people, even if they are criminals, systematically dying. Especially when no external cause or link can be found, except for the fact that they were all offenders that had been shown on the news. This piques the curiosity of the world’s foremost criminal investigator, an enigmatic figure that goes by the moniker L, who proceeds to call out this mysterious heart attack killer whom the public have branded “Kira.” What follows is a cat and mouse game between L and Light, who try to outwit and defeat each other. The balance of power is always threatening to tilt away from Light’s advantage and his risk of getting caught becomes more and more dire as plot twists ensue.
The story is absolutely this manga’s shining characteristic. Not only is the premise creative, it’s ingenious. Light isn’t really a hero. He kills people in cold blood, for god’s sake. Yet he’s put forward as our protagonist. And L, who usually would be the hero to root for, is the antagonist. It’s an odd situation that creates a strange perspective on the story. I found myself sometimes forgetting that L wasn’t a villain, since we’re given the most time with Light and his thoughts. It was very canny of the author to give us an unusual moral perspective compared to the simplistic, childish morality often at work in manga stories aimed at young adults.
And the plot twists will keep you riveted. I bought the first two volumes of DEATH NOTE almost a year ago to read on the flight home for Christmas. By the end of the flight, I’d nearly finished the second volume and was a feverish DEATH NOTE fanatic by then. I HAD to find out what happened next! The pacing is wonderful most of the time, and just when you think the story is about to end, you find out that a lot more is in store for Light…
A lot of the appeal comes from watching how Light gets out of the latest trap L sets for him. The situations often seem air tight until Light exploits an advantage that genuinely surprises. The author does a good job at actually making smart solutions to the problems that make logical sense. No perspective seems glossed over and no solution feels like the author cheated to get there. The amount of planning it must’ve taken to ensure the maximum amount of integrity to the story must’ve been immense. And too few authors out there now, especially in manga, do this and don’t rely on deus ex machinas that play by poorly defined rules that change to suit the dramatic needs. A lot of fantasy or supernatural stories seem to think that they can not only bend the rules they set for themselves, but break them or not have any at all. Where does the tension and connection to the story come from then if everything happens in an illogical, arbitrary vacuum?
The characters are also there to lend a human element to all the logic games that Light and L play with each other. Light himself begins to fancy himself as some sort of god, only needing to get rid of L in order to cement his reign as ruler of the world. He’s usually calm, cool and collected, but whenever L gains a significant advantage over him, he reacts childishly, showing how immature he truly is by throwing a tantrum. L is one of the most compelling, interesting and entertaining characters in manga (or anime, for that matter) in some time. He has the look and demeanor of some sort of shell-shocked shut-in weirdo, yet his investigative skills are peerless and has a strong sense of justice. He never wears shoes and constantly eats sweets. He also loves to crouch instead of sitting and handles objects with an unusual delicacy. Watching him probe and test Kira is always interesting, and it’s obvious the artist loves him, always giving him some sort of odd quirk he’s doing in what would otherwise be boring frames of exposition.
His proteges, Mello and Near, are similarly idiosyncratic. Mello has a rather volatile, borderline sociopathic personality. He thinks nothing of manipulating people, breaking the law and even sacrificing lives in order to catch Kira. His facial expressions are the best, often giving hilariously overblown reactions compared to the relatively staid emotions of the rest of the cast. And he’s always munching on chocolate bars. I don’t know why that is as cool as it is, but it just is. In contrast, Near is very similar to L, except for an increased ability for Near to trust hunches. Instead of sweets, Near loves to play with toys. There’s nary a panel where he’s not surrounded by robots or dinosaurs or Lego people. Also, it’s odd, but I can’t ever remember him standing. Does he?
The supporting cast is also very good, with compelling (if not sometimes stereotyped) characters. Misa Amane, a bubble-headed Japanese idol, is Light’s unlikely ally and partner in crime, harboring a crush on Light that borders on delusion. It’s hilarious and satisfying to watch Light have to handle someone who isn’t as cool or intelligent as he. Suck it up, Light!
His father, Soichiro Yagami, is chief of police, and the person responsible for instilling in Light the strong sense of justice that eventually creates the monster of Kira. He’s a noble, self-sacrificing man who doesn’t realize that he’s sharing a house with the infamous serial killer he’s trying to hunt down. And he has a bitchin’ mustache.
Aizawa is also a part of the investigation team, and he’s one of the smarter, more independent-thinking subordinates who slowly begins to wonder if Light might really be Kira. He’s sort of a goofy doof in the first half of the series, but after the shift, he’s got a fresh haircut, a fresh goatee and an awesome attitude. One of Magus’ and I’s personal favorite characters to root for, if only because you know he has no chance of mattering in this duel between super-geniuses.
Another great investigation team member is Matsuda. Matsuda is such a feeb. Not only is he extremely gullible, but he is inept at his job (how did he GET on the team?!) and occasionally openly sympathizes with Kira. He often has no idea what he’s talking about and doesn’t take things half as seriously as everyone else. It’s sort of fun, with him and Misa, to see how more dull-witted people fare in this battle of the minds, but occasionally he can be exasperating. And he’s probably got some kind of crush on Light. \:o
Mogi is the big, strong, silent member of the team. He’s sort of unspectacular except that partway through the story, he’s given the role of being Misa’s manager. Seeing him trying to interact with the air-headed, energetic Misa is usually hilarious. He’s also the only other team member to secretly agree with Aizawa that Light could be Kira.
Finally (I’m not gonna go over every friggin’ character), Ryuk the shinigami is an integral part of the cast. He’s always there, hovering around, looking like a zombie goth rock star. He’s nice because he’s not really on anyone’s side. He just put the Death Note on earth to have a little fun. Through him, we learn some rules of the Death Note as well as some information about the shinigami world that becomes relevant as the story goes on. But really, it’s all about the googly eyes.
Complementing the engrossing story and strong characters is the impeccable art. The artist for DEATH NOTE is definitely one of the best working in the manga business. Not only is he able to give great, clean art on a consistent basis, but he’s able to do it while adhering to a coherent panel structure. Too often manga artists sacrifice comprehensibility for huge splash pages or pages with crazy layouts that look impressive, but don’t clearly tell the story. You’ll never be distracted by the art in DEATH NOTE, but that doesn’t mean it’s not impressive. The artist clearly has an impeccable understanding of anatomy and design, creating characters that look unique while still staying within the realm of believability. There’s no retarded costumes or insane hairdos. (Although I’d love to know what kind of product Light, L and Near use to have hair that stays in place like that.) The designs on shinigami showcase that the designer’s pretty creative, however, from Ryuk’s goth-punk look to another shinigami who’s completely covered in jewels… even in his eye sockets. And the little details packed into the panels (such as L’s donut kabob) are delightful. There’s also never a problem when it comes to conveying emotion. Although most characters are fairly reserved, during climactic moments in the story, you can tell what characters are feeling just by looking at them. This was an aspect of the manga that could’ve easily failed, but even during some weaker moments in the story, the art never flagged. The only criticism I can give is that small details will occasionally be forgotten by the artist, such as Inspector Yagami’s mustache and Aizawa’s beard.
DEATH NOTE is such an unstoppable force in Japan that a manga was simply not enough. A live-action movie version was produced to puzzled fans across the nation. Why not an anime? Sure, it has less mainstream appeal that way, but you’d be able to be more faithful to the look of the manga that way. Plus, can Japanese cinema really handle a CG Ryuk with any sort of grace?
The movie adapts the first half of the first arc of the manga. Most of the details are the same, with the only major changes being the replacement of Matsuda with a female task force member and a drastic redoing of how Light and L come to meet. Other than that, it’s pretty much business as usual. Which means that the only thing a fan already familiar with DEATH NOTE has to obsess about is the actors. Light’s actor is a Battle Royale refugee, bringing his uncanny ability to not resemble the main character in any way to this production, as well. He simply doesn’t look like Light and the hair and makeup people don’t even attempt to try to mimic Light’s manga look. Aside from the physical dissonance, the actor does a pretty good job at Light’s haughty, egotistical mannerisms and his “Kira faces.” L is a far more faithful performance, with the actor looking, behaving and even sounding like L. I know I can’t prove what L sounds like in the manga, but it FEELS right. In fact, the performance was so popular that they’re spinning L off into his own movie sometime soon. I’m eagerly NOT anticipating that.
The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, the only exception being that Chairman Kaga of Iron Chef fame is in the role of Light’s father, Inspector Yagami. While he does a good job with the actual performance, yet again the movie fucks up his looks. HE DOESN’T HAVE A MUSTACHE. WHAT THE HELL? WHAT IS SOICHIRO YAGAMI WITHOUT HIS MUSTACHE?! UNFORGIVABLE. In fact, aside from L and Ryuk, just assume no one in the movie looks anything like their drawn counterpart. Ah, Ryuk. Ryuk looks pretty decent for a Japanese attempt at CG-live action integration… until he moves. His movements are pretty rubbery and fake. The only thing that he can do semi-naturally are facial expressions, which is funny since Ryuk never really changes facial expressions in the manga. Ever.
All in all, the movie is a nice way to get people who wouldn’t be interested in manga exposed to the excellent DEATH NOTE story. But the movie fails for me in one big way: the production values. Nothing feels like it was given any sort of money, given how huge the franchise is in Japan. Scenes that should feel weighty and important feel hokey because it looks like they’re filming a TV movie. They just didn’t produce the movie the way a Hollywood production would have been, with fine film, meticulous lighting, etc. And it shows. It really does feel like a made-for-TV-movie, which is enough to make someone shallow (not necessarily me) completely discount the movie’s artistic credibility. And when the manga’s a widely available, legal option and the movie version is an inferior, Cliff’s Notes version only available through fansubs, the manga has to win, in my opinion.
By the way, there is a second film, DEATH NOTE: The Last Name, to finish out the arc. I just haven’t seen it, aside from trailers and clips. All signs point to more of the same, however.
But of course DEATH NOTE couldn’t avoid becoming an anime some day. So it did! Madhouse, a studio that’s become known for their high-quality animation, produced the animated series and… it sure is animated! And a series! One that’s airing on Adult Swim right now and you can find legal subtitled downloads, coincidentally. Really, it’s the same story all over again, but put to motion and given voices so you don’t have to do all that tiring page-flipping and eye-straining reading.
The biggest advantage the anime has over the manga is the use of editing and music. The montages of Light killing criminals with the Death Note are thrilling and ominous, due in no small part to the soundtrack. The music composers seem to have taken equal parts inspiration from Goblin and the score from The Omen. Whenever the music isn’t an intricate, rockin’ melding of pianos and guitars, it’s a cacophony of ominous choirs and crescendoing orchestras. There’s actually some tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in Silent Hill. Akira Yamaoka would approve.
The biggest disadvantage the anime has, though, is that it was drawn by a team of different individuals instead of one man. The artwork isn’t anywhere near as precise as the manga’s, and is markedly different in style. Characters are frequently off-model and when Inspector Yagami speaks his mustache seems to have trouble keeping up. Some of the less distinguishable characters, like Matsuda, end up looking like generic extras because of the lack of care put into their designs.
The voices in the English dub could also use some work. While most of them are passable, but not exceptional, the only one that stands out as well-done is L. The performance is exactly as dry, monotone and even slightly aristocratic as I imagined L in my head. It perfectly captures L’s character even if you never saw his face. Light is a whole other story, with his voice actor sound a bit young and high-pitched to be a high school senior. Adding insult to injury is that I cannot divorce his voice from the character he played on the stupendous waste of time, Gundam SEED. Bleh. The same goes for Ryuk’s voice actor, where all I hear is Vegeta from Dragonball Z when I should be hearing, say, Beetlejuice (live-action one, not that cartoon shit).
If you can, catch up on DEATH NOTE on Adult Swim and get a free, legal taste of one of the better offerings anime’s had as of late. Just be sure to eventually buy the mangas and experience it the way it was meant once you’re hooked.
11:17pm November 26th, 2007