Bored with his deteriorating world and the laconic way of his fellows, shinigami Ryuuk drops his Death Note on Earth and watches to see if it stirs up anything interesting. His plan succeeds beyond his wildest expectations when the Death Note is found by brilliant high school senior Light Yagami, who is also bored with a world he considers rotten. Although initially he regards the book as a prank, Light soon discovers, through experimentation, that the book’s claim is true: picture a person in your mind as you write the person’s name in the Death Note, and that person dies 40 seconds later of of a heart attack (although a different time frame and manner of death can be specified). Armed with that power, Light sets out on a quest he sees as noble: make the world a better place by eliminating all its criminals using the Death Note. Soon cast as the mysterious “Kira” (a Japanese pronunciation of the English “killer”) in the media and on the Internet, some take exception to his playing god, most notably the police and the enigmatic master detective L, who resolves to do everything in his power to stop Kira. Light counters by doing everything in his power to prevent people from identifying or interfering with him, even if that means getting rid of people investigating him.
Is Death Note the best new anime series to be released in America during 2007? That may be debatable, but its status amongst the year’s elite titles is not. The rare blend of originality, intelligence, and quality visuals it exhibits allows it to take an interesting horror-story concept, bend it over backwards, and turn it into a good-looking thriller whose intensity matches that of any dedicated action series despite its total lack of true action scenes. It may get off to a humdrum start, but the closing moments of episode 1, where Light declares to Ryuk that he intends to become the god of the new world he is trying to shape, is likely to grab anyone’s attention, and the formal establishment of the duel of wits between Light and L by the end of episode 2 should hook most viewers not already firmly committed. It also stands as a dramatic counterpoint to all the gushy moe content, generic harem romantic comedies, and typical coming-of-age shonen action stories out there.
The commendable merits of the first volume are many, but the pivotal one is the decision by original creators Tsugami Ooba and Takeshi Obata to stand convention on its head by switching the traditional profiles of the protagonist and antagonist. In Light we see a classic diabolical genius, a brilliant young man who gets so wrapped up in his zealotry and self-importance that he decides he is above morality, thus failing to accept that he is turning to the Dark Side. He may be the primary character but he is also the story’s true villain, an approach very rarely used in anime titles. That alone might make him fascinating to watch, but the extreme cleverness and thoroughness with which he quickly learns to exploit the Death Note to the fullest and protect his true identity also shows an impressive and involving display of intelligence, too, something not often seen in the main protagonist of anime series. (Most often the most intelligent characters are in the supporting cast.)
Every great hero or villain must have an equally-skilled counterpart to play off of, and Light/Kira soon finds that in the mysterious L, whose own intelligence and deductive ability Light quickly comes to respect. L’s existence does require a sizable contrivance and uncommonly incompetent performance by the police detectives on the case, and that does stand as the series’ biggest flaw to date, but the intellectual duel his presence sets up with Light makes those considerations excusable. The efforts of the two try to second-guess and deceive or manipulate each other, while also protecting themselves from discovery by the other, generate considerable and compelling tension; seldom have mental duels been so much fun to watch. Next to them, Ryuk serves just as colorful flavor and a sounding board to give Light an excuse to explain what he’s doing.
Death Note impresses no less with a bold visual look courtesy of MADHOUSE, one which eschews most traditional anime stylings in favor of realistic character designs and a dark (but not exactly gloomy) color scheme. Ryuk looks like an evil, twisted clown, but somehow that seems fitting, and all of the character renditions have a depth, texture, and degree of refinement and quality control on par with the top series production efforts to date. Detailed background art and flawless foreground/background integration also contribute to this exceptional effort, as does the timing, framing, and selection of scenes; how many other series can get so much out of meaningful glares, faint turns of expression, or dramatic but not exaggerated flourishes? Smooth, dynamic animation which uses few shortcuts and rarely skimps on detail only further supports the effect. Also worthy of mention is the artistry of the opener, with its meaningful Christian artistic allusions and suggestion that perhaps the prominent presence of apples in the series has a deeper symbolism.
A musical score which mixes electronica pieces and orchestral numbers flavored with dramatic vocal chants also does its part, punctuating key moments with just enough emphasis to hype the scene up without (usually) going over-the-top. The opening theme “The World” by Nightmare gives the series an appropriate rocker opener, and the closer “Aluminia” also fits.
Favoring the English or Japanese dub will largely come down to a matter of personal taste on certain vocal styles, but anyone used to English dubs should find this effort by Ocean Productions to be quite satisfying in general and a distinct improvement when it comes to pronouncing English language names like “Light” and “Death Note” right. Some may argue about whether or not he captures all of the nuances of the original performance, but anime veteran Brad Swaile generally has Light’s attitudes down right, while Alessandro Juliani, who may be better-known to American sci fi fans as CIC tactical officer Lt. Felix Gaeta on the recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, captures the eccentric brilliance of L. Brian Drummond, meanwhile, gives a suiting gravel-voiced interpretation to Ryuk. None of the lesser roles shine, but none can be considered weak, either. The English script varies little, even retaining the term “shinigami.”
The typical Extras include clean opener and closer, production art, and “Shonen Jump Home Video” (i.e. trailers strung together). An included “Behind the Scenes featurette” focuses on English ADR director Karl Willems and Mr. Swaile, whom the featurette reveals could have almost been cast for the role of Light as much for how he vaguely resembles Light as because of his voice. Mr. Willems follows this up with a solo audio commentary for episode one, which stays flawlessly on the subject of the episode material but does not sound as relaxed and comfortable as it should; having one of the voice actors or other production personnel to interact with probably would have helped. A Deluxe Edition which includes a Ryuk figurine is also available, as is a bundling with the first Death Note manga volume.
If you originally got into anime because of how excitingly different it was from the animation you were used to seeing, this is the kind of title that can reaffirm your dedication to your hobby. With the ongoing Adult Swim TV broadcasts and the first DVD volumes now available in North America, everyone should at least give the first few episodes a try and see what the fuss is all about. It may have slight flaws, but any series which assembles all of the various production aspects as well as the first few episodes of this one does deserves a chance.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Exceptional concept, plotting, visuals, and musical support; intelligent, clever, and intense.
− L’s existence is too dependent on improbable contrivances.
L has placed Light’s life under a microscope, and while Light ultimately prevails, the eccentric sleuth still smells something awry. So much so, that he joins the same college and personally introduces himself. The intellectual sparring between the two suddenly takes on a much more personal tone, but just when it seems that something has to give, someone with powers similar to Kira’s besieges a television station. L, faced with two Kiras, enlists Light’s help and Light agrees, hoping to allay suspicions. However, his search for the new Kira turns serious when she—she’s a somewhat bubble-headed girl his own age—starts unintentionally feeding L everything he needs to know to deduce where Kira’s godlike powers truly stem from.
There comes a time in the career of any reviewer when they must grit their teeth, clutch their integrity to their chests like a magic charm, and go forth to buck the opinions of nearly everyone they’ve met, talked to, or read. I thought that that time had come when I felt compelled to give the well-loved SuperGALS! a thorough horse-whipping. However the trepidation I felt then was nothing compared to what I felt when, after being assigned to review this volume, I caught up with the series by renting the second volume and realized to my horror that I hate this series. It wasn’t boredom, pain, irritation, or even a matter of flaws versus merits. It was pure unadulterated loathing.
It’s a difficult reaction to puzzle out and one that usually indicates that a series is actually quite good—there has to be something to a show that can elicit a reaction that strong. And indeed Death Note is strong on all fronts. Its art is beautiful—rich, dark, and dripping with cold alienation. Its movements are clean, smooth and startlingly devoid of budgetary deficiencies. Its soundtrack is bursting with baroque doom, and it is acted to cruel, chilling perfection in both languages (save for a certain weakness in the English supporting cast). It’s written with an intelligence and ruthlessness that shames the vast majority of its Shonen Jump brethren. It builds suspense with masterful skill, seizing the attention at the beginning of each episode, never letting go until there are simply no more episodes available to watch. It is continually changing, always shifting narrative focus or introducing some awful new quirk into Light’s plans. There is nothing repetitive or predictable; every new turn is a surprise, every event the introduction of a new point of interest. Just when you think Light and L’s intellectual battle is running in circles, L personally confronts Light, completely retrofitting their relationship.
It would be easy to point out narrative flaws. Light is unsympathetic and no other character is given enough of a focus to compensate for it. The intricate rules regulating the use of the Death Note smack of American superhero silliness (why does Kryponite hurt Superman? Just because. Why does Light need a name and a face to kill someone with the Death Note? Ditto). While Light’s plots are certainly clever, he also makes fundamental mistakes that throw serious doubt on his vaunted genius. What kind of genius thinks that evil is so simple and rare a phenomena that it can be cured by killing a few evildoers in a world with six billion other potential evildoers? What kind of genius can’t understand that crime is a symptom of social ills, not the cause? L makes similarly stupid mistakes. If he knows that Kira can control people before he kills them, why can’t he figure out that Kira can make them commit suicide? However, flaw-listing isn’t just easy, it’s also cheap. And even worse, meaningless. Death Note’s flaws are easily trumped by its merits; indeed they’re insignificant in comparison.
No, what leaves a septic taste in the mouth—and make no mistake, Death Note will leave a septic taste in some mouths—is something far more fundamental. Something that goes beyond all entertainment value, that supersedes emotions of any kind, makes cleverness and intelligence pale, towers over tension, and overshadows invention: It’s morally repellent.
You could say that we’re not supposed to agree with Light’s sickening course of action or sympathize with the nasty little psycho, and in reply one could counter by saying that placing him in the position of main character forces us to sympathize with him and root for his success no matter how vile he is. But again that misses the point. Light’s actions aren’t where the aftertaste comes from. In part it springs from the series’ often thoughtless treatment of issues of profound moral complexity. As when it forces audiences to consider grey shades of morality and yet builds its questions on a black and white division of the world into “criminals” and “innocents.” Or when it constructs fanciful mind games around the Death Note without even stopping to consider the implications of its ability to remove free will. In part it comes from the callow pop nihilism of making a psychotic villain the hero. But the real filth that sticks like psychological monkey dung to fans of humanistic entertainment is the series’ populating of the world with mechanical, soulless masses of victims searching, en masse, for a higher power to solve all of their problems. Other than Light and L, there are no “real” people in the world, people who have lives, ambitions, and wills of their own. It’s a streak of solipsism so extreme that the series sometimes borders on a masturbatory fantasy for every teenager who ever blithely came to the conclusion that the world was evil just because they felt disenfranchised.
Perhaps Death Note is merely biding its time, allowing Light to pose and gloat over his killing spree until it pulls off some new twist that deals with the icky implications about free will, that proves that it’s Light rather than the writers themselves who is looking at the world with uncritical eyes clouded by nauseating misanthropy, and that gives some indication that humanity at large has real humans in it besides L and Light. It could happen. In fact, this volume itself makes some progress—the bravery and initiative shown by police and citizens alike in face of the second Kira is a step in the right direction—but until it’s willing to treat characters like people instead of marionettes playing parts in some high-concept experiment, it will always be inferior to its similarly sadistic but infinitely more humanistic cousins like Hell Girl.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Dramatic shifts in the series’ dynamic; Light doesn’t kill any innocent people this time; has the power to draw you in and not let go.
− Leaves you feeling like you took a manure bath.
L and the police have kept Light and Misa in confinement for fifty days, but Kira has not stopped killing, and they have not confessed. They pass a test devised by L that requires Light’s father to put his own life on the line and are released. Even so, L does not trust them and places them under twenty-four hour surveillance. Light, he keeps handcuffed to him at all times. Though they have lost the support of law enforcement, the investigative team led by L is soon able to link Kira to the Yotsuba Group. Matsuda, driven by a bout of foolish initiative, sneaks into Yotsuba’s Headquarters and discovers a secret cabal of businessmen who appear to be controlling the Kira murders. Light then gets in contact with one of their number in order to convince him to turn Kira in.
The problem with adaptations is that they tend to reproduce the flaws of their source material, and the Death Note anime is no exception. Like many popular series, the manga continued for far too long, and what could have been one of the greatest plots in Weekly Shounen Jump’s venerable history became a flawed, inelegant cultural product (mis)shaped by commercial imperatives. Viz Media’s fifth Death Note DVD, which includes episodes 17-20, unfortunately corresponds to the weakest of the manga’s subplots.
At its base, the series is a straightforward tale of good versus evil. L is the good guy; Light is the bad guy. If this were an ordinary, cookie-cutter iteration of that sort of plot, the story would be told from L’s perspective. But what makes Death Note so interesting is that it is told from the villain’s—Light’s—perspective instead, and it is his character that is thoroughly developed, nuanced, and fleshed-out. L, by comparison, is pretty one-dimensional. It’s kind of like the original Star Wars trilogy told from the Emperor’s perspective, or the Harry Potter series told from Voldemort’s. Even so, any astute viewer knows that good always triumphs over evil in the end (the Japanese taste for shades of moral gray aside), which naturally means that Light is doomed.
Up until this volume, Light’s descent into the Abyss was a well-paced, finely-crafted piece of narration. But now, Light has given up the Death Note and forgotten his Kira “calling,” and the plot as it should have been has screeched to an awkward halt. Of course, the point of the Yotsuba&! Group subplot is to forestall the aforementioned inevitable for as long as possible (the conclusion of a moneymaking series), and the obvious foot-dragging quickly wears on one’s patience. And sure enough, two of the episodes here focus primarily upon the development of supporting characters Aizawa and Matsuda, which, though interesting, is not strictly necessary. It would not have been missed had it not been included in the first place. The Yotsuba&! executives likewise exist primarily as filler material, and their personalities are hardly developed at all. Character-wise, the most enjoyable moments involve the interaction between Light and L, and watching the two rivals beat each other up while handcuffed provides some vaguely amusing comic relief (not to mention a healthy helping of rich fodder for yaoi fangirls).
Without a doubt, however, the high point of the anime is its distinctive aesthetic. Though the quality of the animation per se is about average for a TV series, MADHOUSE (Ninja Scroll; X) does the gothic fantasy/horror look better than pretty much anybody, and they were the perfect studio to bring Death Note to life. Character designs are invariably pitch-perfect, and the palette is gloomy yet decadently saturated. The anime’s two opening sequences, both of which appear on this DVD, are deliciously disturbing—and well worth watching just by themselves on the basis of artistic merit.
Both the Japanese and English language voice casts are convincing, albeit in their own unique ways. Most viewers will probably find that they prefer one over the other. The latter does not seem to have been chosen specifically to copy the former’s execution, and interestingly, with the notable exception of the brilliant Kappei Yamaguchi as L, the English voice actors average significantly longer resumes. The two most important the extras on the DVD, a behind the scenes documentary and a commentary track for episode seventeen, spotlight them…though having Death Note interpreted by people who are not especially close to the anime in its original Japanese production context seems of dubious value. (Other DVD bonuses include production art and trailers.) The dark, angry sound of the soundtrack is likewise appropriate, though the head-banging, punk sound of the opening and ending themes will undoubtedly sound like undifferentiated noise to many.
Anyway, Death Note continues to be a good series—arguably one of the strongest to have appeared at the beginning of the 21st century—even if it does start to go rapidly downhill from here and never quite lives up to the promise of early episodes.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : C+
+ Plenty of creative ambition, not to mention style to burn.
− The highest concentration of weak episodes to be found anywhere in the series’ run.
NOTE: This review strongly alludes to a major spoiler for a key event within this span of episodes.
Higuchi is dead, but the killings continue, leaving L perplexed about what is happening. He has little more time to figure it out, however, for thanks to Kira’s machinations, his fate has been sealed. In the wake of his passing Light takes over as L to pretend to continue the investigation, while two new figures arise as aspiring replacements: the temperamental Mello and the brilliant but blandly odd Near. Several years later, events force the Death Note the task force possesses out of their hands, and cause the death of a task force member, but time has also strengthened Kira’s influence on the world. Another Shinigami eventually comes looking for his absent Death Note, while at the same time the dangerous competition to see who between Near and Mello will catch Kira first heats up.
Death Note started out as an immensely popular and highly-regarded series, but as often happens with series that achieve such a great degree of success, some elements of anime fandom have gradually turned on the series over time. In some cases this is a knee-jerk response to the popularity of the show from the minority which disliked it, while in others the phenomenon represents flaws in the series gradually starting to show as the initial ardor towards the series cools off. This series is partly an example of both. Some fans have definitely become disgusted with the high degree of overly dramatized sensationalism that others love about the series (though in truth Death Note cannot hold a candle to Code Geass on that point), and this pair of volumes shows the series’ biggest flaw in all its ignominy. That flaw has a name:
In fairness, Near is hardly the entirety of the problem here, but he sits at the core of what is wrong with the last third of the series. After establishing the initial presence of the Death Note, the series steadfastly built itself around the conflict and mind games between Light/Kira and L, and when that crucial conflict was in play the series shined. When it wasn’t – as was the case during the Yostuba Group arc – the series tanked. L’s final episode, despite a blatant and overplayed allusion to the Garden of Gethsemane from Jesus’s story, briefly returns the series to its glory before drifting through a mostly recap episode and then time-jumping five years forward, where the series’ downfall begins.
The downfall is not immediate, and at first it looks like the series might hold its own by continuing with its trademark exaggerated melodrama. As time passes, though, what the producers have done becomes progressively clearer: they have taken what made L into L and split part of it off into Mello (who gets the occasional emotional side and food fetish), while Near became the other part (the purely analytical side). In the process they broke one great character down into two decidedly mediocre descendants, and in this case the two halves most definitely do not equal the whole. Near may quickly prove quite capable as a foe, but his opposition to Kira lacks the edge and tension that L brought to the conflict. His presence feels too much like an attempt to provide a surrogate for L because the writers could not come up with another worthy opponent, and that can leave a sour taste in the mouth.
At about the same time the caliber of the series’ dramatic flair starts to go downhill. A certain amount of exaggerated drama is perfectly acceptable as long as it is handled well, as it is in episode 25 and in the earliest stages of the series, but around the beginning of volume 8 (episode 29) the series starts overdosing on it. Bringing a helpless American President into the picture only exacerbates the problem as it rips up the already-shaky underlying premise of the series: that no one but L or his replacement could track Kira down. (The oft-stated complaint that people would not idolize Kira the way he is in the series carries little weight, especially if one looks on Kira as a cult figure.)
The series does have its good points through this run, however. Sidoh’s presence provides a bit of levity in a series that takes itself much too seriously most of the time, Light’s manipulation of Rem despite his knowledge of being manipulated is sadistically clever, the handling of Soichiro brings a proper resolution to his story, and Light being forced back on guard by renewed internal suspicions renews a tension that should never have been allowed to pass. Getting to see Light’s sister Sayu all grown up is an added bonus, as is the interesting use of an insert song in episode 25. These episodes also maintain the high level of distinctive artistic quality that has been nearly as much of a watermark for the series as its title notebook, including several especially nice choices of shots and visual effects. The signature grandiose sound of the series also continues, hitting some high peaks in places while sounding overblown and overwrought in others. Hard-core metal opener “What’s Up People?!” continues through these episodes, as does second closer “Zetsubou Billy,” both by Maximum The Hormone.
Whatever flaws may be found elsewhere in the content, the English dub is not part of them. The core cast does an excellent job of infusing their respective characters with a proper tone that does not stray much from the Japanese originals, and the English script stays remarkably tight. Regrettably the most distinguished performance – that of actor Alessandro Juliani (Lt. Felix Gaeta on the new Battlestar Galactica) as L – lasts for only two episodes before bowing out with the character, but none of the performances are bad, and Samuel Vincent’s whiny interpretation of Sidoh is a hoot. While this dub may not quite make the cut as one of the elite, it should be plenty good enough for anyone who normally at least tolerates dubs.
Extras on both volumes includes additional installments of the “Behind the Scenes” pieces seen in previous volumes, limited sets of production art, and an English audio commentary for one of the episodes which involves ADR director Karl Willems with a rotating set of English voice actors. In volume 7 Alessandro and Colleen “Rem” Wheeler talk about episode 25, while on volume 8 Cathy “Near” Weseluck (probably most famous to American fans as the voice of C-ko) joins Mr. Willems for a discussion of 30. Neither impresses.
In retrospect, perhaps the most interesting thing about episodes 25-32 is the way they unobtrusively foreshadow later events. (For instance, if you have already seen the end of the series, listen carefully to what Matsuda says through this run.) Although this run initially marks a step out of the Dark Age into which the series had fallen, the reprieve proves only brief. These volumes may have some strong content, but on the whole they stray far from the series at its best.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Episode 25, artistry, English dub.
− Exaggerated dramatic flair becomes overblown at times, Near.