July 2, 2008
I’m glad I waited until this series was finished before I started. Considering I finished all 108 chapters in less than twenty-four hours, I’m not sure how I would have survived if I’d started earlier.
STORY – Morals and ethics are serious business, and it isn’t often that they’re addressed so directly in a series. The lines that people draw vary greatly from individual to individual, and the last thing any writer wants is to severely offend any portion of its potential readership. I found it incredibly impressive then, that Death Note could so effectively address such a controversial issue — capital punishment — without alienating anyone in the audience. Wrapped up and packaged with some rather generic supernatural elements, Death Note may not seem like anything particularly special at first glance, but the eerie realism in the rest of the world begs the question, “What would you have done?” And I find that connection one of this story’s greatest strengths.
Despite the flexibility of his manga though, Ohba’s personal morals and overall message is clear. All the same, if his primary intention was for readers to think and contemplate the issue, then he certainly succeeds, regardless of whether individuals agree with his views or not. He doesn’t offend them with his opinions, and that’s good enough. Death Note’s story progresses rapidly and quickly spirals into a very involved suspense; it’s a tension-filled chess game that the protagonist and antagonist carefully play (which character is the protagonist depends entirely on your point of view). Yes, there are many more words than actions, and yes, it can be frustrating, and even comical at times, how long the chains of “I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew” become. But these words and lengthy passages of expository serve their purpose and keep you on the edge of your seat, and it’s obvious from the beginning that this isn’t your generic shounen title.
Sadly, I’ve found that a lot of readers stopped halfway through the series, citing that the tension ramped off severely after the major spoiler. While I understand their position, I would disagree and honestly applaud Ohba for breaking through everyone’s expectations with said spoiler. If anything, the uncertainty that’s left behind and the vague impression that there’s already a winner in the battle for justice makes the latter half of the series that much more interesting, even if the absence of certain things may be a blow. The stakes are higher. It’s the last stretch of the race. Up until the very end, Ohba is able to keep the ultimate victor a secret. Those last forty seconds waiting for the last few names written into the Death Note to die? Killer. You’ll breeze through the pages, but your heart will still be pounding afterwards. And it’s all worth it in the end.
CHARACTERS – Death Note had a fantastic cast of characters, and you really find yourself emotionally evolved. You feel for them. You love them. You hate them. You hate them. I find it to be a sign of incredible character writing and development when you can come to hate a characters as much as I hated Light Yagami. Mediocre characters just don’t invite that much attention. So I didn’t hate Light because he was a bad character; I hated him because of his personality, his morals, his reasons and logic, and the way he used his intellect. It didn’t start off that way though. Light progresses a lot during the course of the series; his arrogance heightens, and his character warps. In a way, it was incredibly realistic and fascinating to watch as his personality and growing neuroticism turned him into a sociopath (not to mention frustrating, when certain things about him are revealed). It was also kind of scary. Seriously though, there’s no denying that Light is a well thought-out character, and as much as I love to hate him, I can’t help but think he’s the most well-written character in the series.
L, as the antagonist/protagonist, is just about everything that Light is not, but that isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem. As noted by several of the series’ other characters, L’s tactics can be rather questionable, and so even though his ultimate goal is to defeat Kira/Light, even his morals are not spotless. This adds another degree of realism to the story and provides for a very interesting foil. Additionally, L’s personality quirks are some of the most interesting and endearing ones I’ve ever seen, though this may serve to cancel out the previous realism points for some people. As much of his past remains mysterious for the duration of the series, L’s personality does not seem to progress or change as much as Light’s. Still, the way he adapts and reacts to each of Light’s changes definitely keeps things interesting.
The rest of the cast seems to be scattered across the moral spectrum, providing readers with many choices as to who to sympathize with or to relate to. Detective Soichiro Yagami is likely the most moralistic of the lot, though not unrealistically so. His relationship with his son is fun to follow throughout the series, considering their vast differences. Most of the other detectives are also clustered on the “ideal” end of the spectrum, though there’s enough variation and personality quirk that they manage to establish meaningfully different personas (ie, they’re all definitely different characters, even though their roles are fairly interchangeable). Misa’s morals are more difficult to assess as they seem incredibly flexible; rather than morals, her character is defined by her utter infatuation with and devotion to Light. I find this interesting mainly because it started off as an infatuation with Kira, but once she learned of Kira’s identity, her affections were transferred to Light as Light rather than Light as Kira. Because of her lack of a moral standing and the one-dimensional nature of her “love” though, it’s incredibly easy to lose interest in Misa, despite her importance as a tool in the grand scheme of things (this is also true for Takada and to some extent, Mikami). The lack of development in her “love” is also what made Rem not-as-interesting to me.
Now, Mello and Near. I kind of feel like Ohba tried too hard to mirror the quirkiness of L’s character, what with Mello’s apparent obsession with chocolate and Near’s with toys. Still, both of them grew on me, and I was satisfied enough with the way they played their parts. And finally, there’s Ryuk. What’s there to say? As probably the only character with no real ultimate goal, he serves as kind of an objective bystander throughout the course of the series. He doesn’t care one way or another as long as things are “interesting.” Because of his attachment to the Note given to Light, he does end up helping Kira now and again, but I don’t think that hurts his objectivity all that much in the end. In a series rife with moral and ethics, it was ironic to have the character that started it all so removed from all the conflict.
There were no useless characters in Death Note. All of them contributed in one way or another to the series as a whole, either by offering a variation in moral standing or by acting as a tool for another character to use. Sure, there were a few generic archetypes (the butler, the love-stricken slave, the vengeful widow), but I suppose there just wasn’t enough depth to go around when the two main characters take up so much of the spotlight. God, I ramble a lot.
ART – Obata draws beautiful stuff, no question about that. From his wonderfully detailed backgrounds to the wide variety of character expressions (including Light’s five hundred different creepy smirks), this artist’s incredible prowess is evident throughout all twelve volumes of the series. Angles and perspective are expertly rendered and the meticulous attention he pays to each character definitely makes up for the fact that there are a lot of talking heads in Death Note. The human world is wonderfully realistic while the shinigami world offers everything you might expect from the supernatural. Character designs vary from being very simple — Light and L — to being very complex — Misa and the shinigamis — but all are well done. It’s an incredible treat to go through this manga as the artwork is definitely up to par with the sophistication of the story.
OTHER – I’ve yet had a chance to read Viz’s translation of this, so I can’t really say much about its English adaptation unfortunately. :( I’ve heard pretty decent things about it though. Will definitely edit this section when I finally pick up the series though.
OVERALL – Death Note has probably impressed me more than any other manga I’ve read (which isn’t any incredible number, but still). Its degree of sophistication in all categories, story, characters, and artwork, is incredible. The story is significant; the characters are engaging; the artwork is beautiful. It’s like hitting the jackpot, and I really feel like this is one of those titles that almost anyone can enjoy; better yet, I feel like this is one of those titles that can act as a gateway for the not-yet-a-manga-fan, encouraging them to explore the media further. Yeah, there’s a lot of hype around Death Note, and they’re definitely milking it for what it’s worth (an anime, three live action movies, video games, and several spin-offs, all in the course of what, two or three years?), but for once, I think this series deserves every bit of attention it gets.