July 3, 2008
Death Note was probably one of the first anime series for which I read the manga first, but that’s the main reason I was disappointed in it.
STORY – As I said in my review of the manga, I find Death Note’s story impressive in many ways, the most prominent of which is its ability to deal with such serious and controversial issues without offending or alienating anyone. The themes in this series are some of the most relevant and volatile ones I’ve encountered in a long time, and I really admire the manga for that. Unfortunately, adaptations of brilliant works will always be subject to comparisons with the original. This will probably be a very comparative review then, and I know myself to be a bit of a purist; that’s my bias. Just keep it in mind, I suppose.
The first twenty-three or so episodes of the anime were wonderfully done as they did followed the manga almost exactly. Sure, there were a few hiccups here and there (for seemingly no reason), but as a whole, I was satisfied. The story was good, and the storytelling was good. But then everything fell apart. The spoiler episode was awful. They tried too hard. They changed too much. One of the most dramatic things about the entire ordeal was that even though there was certainly anticipation, the actual event seemed to come out of no where. It had been sudden and went against all expectations. The storytelling in the manga had been fantastic. The anime made it far too predictable, far too cliche, and it tried way too hard to turn it into a gigantic sobstory. And it didn’t impress me. I know I have a hard time seeing this anime as a standalone work, but even if I hadn’t already read the manga, I feel like I would have thought this important turning point in the series was done in a completely over-the-top and unnecessary way. There were just so many utterly awkward and useless moments thrown in that I was left wondering what the hell the producers had been thinking. Did I dare think anything would improve?
I was surprised to see that the anime was only 37 episodes. The manga was 108 chapters with your very clear halfway point at 58. This translated into episode 25 of the anime. Why compact the last 50 chapters into a measly 12 episodes? I am inclined to think that because the second half of the manga was considerably less popular compared to the first, they didn’t think it necessary to dwell too much on it. This was unfortunate because it means they had to rush everything and consequently seemed to give very little thought to the build up and suspense that was so key in the manga. The last few episodes were a blur, character development was thrown out the window, tension remained low, and the end was disappointingly underwhelming. They once again, tried too hard to make a tragedy out of it when it wasn’t supposed to be a tragedy at all. They changed the final tone of the series and completely ignored/overwrote what two of the characters ended up doing. I’m not so anal that I don’t think changes from the original can be good (indeed, I adored both Death Note live action movies and they were incredibly different), but changes need to be done for a reason, and none of the changes that happened in transition from manga to anime made any sense to me.
CHARACTER – For the most part, the anime remained true to the manga characterizations. Light was as conniving as ever, and L retained all of his endearing little quirks. Because of the condensed nature of the anime though, some of the detectives in the investigation team ended up not as developed or explored as their manga counterparts. The most drastic of the personality cuts fell on Mello though. Near was lucky enough to retain much more screentime than his counterpart and his character was mostly the same as a result. Mello, on the other hand, was reduced to nothing more than a chocolate-munching tool with an incredibly flat personality. And poor Matt wasn’t even explained in his entire five minutes of screentime. Of course, Matt wasn’t all that vital of a character, but if that was the case, why include him at all? No time is better than half-assed time. And considering Mello and Near’s inevitable “partnership,” I felt like he was really cheated out of better development in the anime.
Additionally, because some material was changed from the manga, some characters ended up acting in ways they never did before, and these actions conflicted with their personalities. I still don’t really understand why any of these changes were made other than to force the idea of a grand tragedy, which is kind of silly in the end. :/
Other than that, you can refer to my obnoxiously long section on characters in my manga review.
ARTSTYLE & ANIMATION – Though the anime didn’t quite capture the essence of Obata’s style, it was still well-rendered, and I would consider the animation to be on the higher end of the spectrum for series these days. The details in characters like Misa and Ryuk were well done, and the realistic environment of the world they lived in translated well from manga to anime. It was also interesting (and kind of hilarious) to see the high number of over-exaggeration, over-dramatization, and over-emphasis for some sequences in the series. As the manga had very little actual action, Death Note was destined to be a “talking” anime, but it didn’t seem to want to just take that label sitting down. Indeed, in between the talking, there are wild arm gestures, epic crunching of potato chips, and some of the most ridiculous depictions of the act of writing you’ve ever seen. Seriously.
The most notable art and animation in the series was probably contained in its themes though. Both openings and both endings had a very experimental style to them that I really appreciated. The strong, symbolic colors worked well, and the craziness of some of things (lol, second OP?) really added to the experience. I kind of wonder if the carry-over of Light’s EVIL RED EYES into the actual episodes was a bit overkill though.
MUSIC – I was incredibly pleased with Death Note’s soundtrack and especially the music for its openings and endings. It isn’t often you get some of the harsher jrock stuff in anime. As Death Note presents itself as a fairly serious series, it was interesting to note that the wildness of its theme songs suggested at least a little bit of self-mockery. Then again, maybe that’s just the impression I get as an American viewer; certainly the Japanese don’t always realize that their use of Engrish is often hilarious to us. Already a fan of Nightmare, I was very happy with the first OP and ED themes; “The World,” especially, seemed to work well considering the themes of the series; there is a tension in the vocals that parallels with all of the drama and suspense in Death Note, and “Alumina” offers a more mellow and uncertain mood at the end of each episode. The second pair of themes by Maximum the Hormone were also pretty brilliant. Of course, “What’s up people?” has become infamous in itself for its refrain and near-psychedelic animation sequence, but really, I think the song works well for the latter portion of the series, and the “Zetsubou Billy” is a good follow up for “Alumina” as well. It’s pretty rare to see a group do both themes for a certain cluster of episodes, but I really think this set-up works great.
The rest of the soundtrack is impressive because, once again, it’s able to capture the mood and themes of the series very well. L’s theme is mysterious and a bit badass, and there is a slew of crazy dramatic orchestral and opera pieces that I think is incredibly appropriate for Kira’s executions. What is with this association with classical music and death? In any case, this dramatic music, coupled with the animated over-emphasis of certain motions, makes even the most mundane of action sequences fun to watch (if not a bit silly), It definitely succeeds at entertaining you anyway.
VOICE ACTING – I watched 1-25 and 36-37 subbed, and then followed the entirety of the dub as it aired. Let’s talk about the sub first. The hilarious implications of Yamaguchi Kappei being the voice of L aside, I really enjoyed the Japanese cast for Death Note. Light’s voice fit well with what I’d expected, and Kappei really did a fantastic job with L, though I thought would be tricky not only because of his unique personality and quirks, but because his age was largely unknown. I also really liked Ryuk’s and Rem’s voices as they were both rather strange and unique and thus fitting, considering their supernatural existence. Misa was maybe too genericly “cute,” but she didn’t really have that complicated of a personality to depict anyway. The investigation team also had some great voices; Matsuda in particular had a wonderfully appropriate voice and was fun to listen to.
Now, the dub. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get over the absolute hilarity that is the fact that Brad Swaile is Light Yagami. For the Gundam Wing fans among us, yes, that means that your pacifist Quatre Raberba Winner is your megalomaniac Kira. Of course, Quatre did go crazy for that one episode, so maybe it isn’t so farfetched after all… In any case, because Swaile didn’t really change his voice for the role, I had a hard time un-hearing it as Quatre and thus had the persisting impression that Light sounded far too innocent and nice, even when he was having one of his monstrous monologues. L’s voice I was pleasantly surprised at because I’d never imagined they’d be clever or insightful enough to give him the slightest British accent. His age also remained appropriately ambiguous, and I appreciated the efforts to make him sound socially awkward as well. Was it as good a performance as Kappei? No, but I still found it rather impressive.
Ryuk and Rem also had pretty awesome dub voices, while Misa fell into the trap of having an annoyingly high-pitched, cute-girl voice, though I’d blame her general personality for that more than her voice actor. Most everyone else, including all of the detectives, Mikami, Takada, Near, and the SPK, had good, solid, and appropriate dub voices. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for poor Mello who gets cheated again. Considering the otherwise decent dub cast, I was really surprised (and actually somewhat shocked) that Mello got stuck with some kind of stupid jock kind of voice. Seriously, what the hell happened? His voice was nasally and obnoxious, and it really sounded like his actor was trying too hard and failing miserably with every attempt to sound badass and/or serious. Matt also got a mediocre voice, but hey, he got like… two lines, so whatever, I guess.
OVERALL – Honestly, if you count them, there aren’t all that many changes between the anime and manga, but what did change was very significant. It’s the little details that entirely change the way you might look at something. Some characters didn’t get their final words; some characters did things they never would have done (and didn’t). I’m indignant on these characters’ behalf. Maybe I’m fixating a bit too much on these details though. Most of the story did remain intact, and the technical aspects of the show (animation, art, music, etc) were certainly impressive. In the end, I suppose how much you enjoy this depends a lot on whether you’ve already read the manga and how much of a purist you are.