This ain’t your little brother’s anime.
For anyone who believes anime is nothing more than cartoons for little kids, let me present Death Note, a cerebral series that tackles issues of ethics and morality. Based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba, what sets this show so far apart from other anime is the fact that the protagonist is a murderer, killing not for profit but because he imagines himself fit to pass judgment and reshape the world.
As the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Death Note dives head-first into the age old question of whether the ends truly justify the means. It’s a serialized 50-episode series that fully embraces its long-term plot arch and story structure, making it an addictive (if exhausting) anime.
Death Note closely follows Light Yagami (Brad Swaile), who discovers a notebook dropped by a Shinigami (essentially a god of death) in the human world. He soon discovers that writing someone’s name in it causes that person to drop dead shortly afterward. With a newfound sense of purpose, Light sets about murdering criminals around the world in an attempt to eliminate evil. However, he soon finds himself pursued by a mysterious, yet brilliant (if not eccentric), detective simply known as “L” (Alessandro Juliani). Arrogant with power, Light enters into a game of chess with the detective, keeping his alias as the killer “Kira” secret as the two engage in a battle of wits.
On Light’s side is the owner of the notebook, Ryuke (Brian Drummond), who mostly remains a mere spectator in the events unfolding, rarely offering help. Light also finds aid in a young girl (Shannon Chan-Kent) who has found herself in possession of another Shinigami’s Death Notes and who is in love with Kira. Light and L circle each other like sharks trying to stop one another or die trying, and with a Death Note involved, rest assured one of them will.
What is so incredible about the series is how well the characters work together. While Light is technically the protagonist, it’s hard to tell whether he is a good guy or not. Really it’s a choice left entirely up to the audience as he manipulates people and murders without hesitation. Opposite of him is L, a detective with so many strange quirks it’s almost impossible to relate to him. Still, the viewer must choose whom to root for as the traditional roles of hero and villain are turned on their heads. The situation is confounded even more by the fact that Light and L actually become close friends. It almost becomes heartbreaking to watch the two clash over preconceived notions of morality. However, it’s never boring. Even though Light is painfully aware who L is from their first meeting, the two constantly stay on their toes and the show remains highly intelligent and brilliantly thought-out. It’s easy to believe these two are perhaps some of the brightest minds in the world.
Death Note is conceptually driven, utilizing a large amount of dialogue and voice work to explain the intricate plots the two main characters attempt in order to entrap each other. This never detracts from the show’s highly addictive nature, and it only serves to enhance the crisp, detailed animation and gothic imagery. Even though most of the murders simply occur from writing a name in a notebook, director Tetsurō Araki uses intense visuals and montages to makes the series feel as though it’s packed with action. The voice acting is strong, never overly emotional even as the characters struggle to hide behind their poker faces. This is a welcome change from a genre known for its shouting characters and cliché imagery.
For those looking for a mature series that isn’t just about characters glowing and hitting each other, Death Note offers commentary on society and what lurks at the core of humanity. It explores the concept that morality is simply a product of society and a product of its rules. It’s philosophically on-par with shows like Ghost in the Shell, only it never tries to force theories on the viewer. However, one’s mind can’t help but wander while watching it. As brilliant as it is, though, it’s also mentally exhausting, probably not something that will be enjoyed multiple times. Still, it should be enjoyed at least once.