Death Note is one of the most famous anime series of all time. It began life as a manga in 2003 written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. From there came the anime series, four live-action films, assorted live-action TV series plus – at time of writing – an impending English-language version by Netflix and helmed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest).
It was a sensation and has become one of the first names mentioned in listing classic anime series, but what is perhaps surprising is that it features remarkably little action.
The set up is that Light Yagami, a super-intelligent but jaded high school student finds a black notebook. A notebook that apparently, if the owner writes the name of someone in it, then kills the named person. It is the death note of a Shinigami, a God of Death who “accidentally” dropped it in the human world.
Rather than using it for petty vengeance, Light decides to use it for societal punishment. He believes that, if he killed every criminal using it without revealing his identity, the Old Testament-style threat would erase crime altogether.
But he reckons without the mysterious, faceless super-detective L, who makes it his mission to unmask Light and immediately begins rapidly tightening the net.
It is this battle that is the heart of Death Note. Whilst its core morality question is raised frequently, the focus is unwavering: it is about the two sides manipulating each other. They set and spring traps relentlessly, dancing around each other. L seeks the proof that will comdemn Light while Light need L’s true name in order to kill him with the death note.
The main methodology behind this is a set of rules within the notebook for its use, leading to a barrage of cliffhangers of the “how is he going to get out of this” variety that makes the series hugely watchable. The story is primarily shown from Light’s side, causing the viewer to have sympathies despite his mass-murder spree. Similarly, L shows a cavalier attitude to the lives of those around him, deeming them often sacrificial in a Machiavellian approach.
The result is almost split allegiances on the part of the viewer, which heightens the tension as the two circle each other in steadily tightening orbit.
The anime is not perfect; some of the actions are ludicrous and there are multiple silly moments. One example is when Light and L play a game of tennis. Light reveals he is the high school champion of Japan, which L responds to by saying that he was the British junior champion…which surely would be sufficient knowledge to obtain L’s true name, even beyond the laughable set up. The Shinigami themselves and their world also do very little despite their iconic look.
The biggest issue, though, happens with a dramatic change in story around two-thirds of the way through. Whilst the series regains its feet for a bravura climax, the loss in momentum for several episodes may well cause many viewers to drift away.
Death Note is a great success for intricate plotting. While its nature of being mostly people in rooms talking has meant the manga and anime are far more successful than live action versions, the tension and twists make it hugely entertaining. Far more than its simplistic concept, Death Note is a terrific and justifiably adored piece of work.
The extras are a two-part OVA, which is basically a re-edit of the entire series into an abbreviated version. This still hits all the key beats, but unquestionably is inferior for all the jettisoned detail, especially around characters. The result is an interesting extra, but one unlikely to have much rewatch value.
- Death Note Movie 1 & 2 Collection
- Death Note Box Set (Vol 1-12)
- Death Note Relight 1 – Visions of a God