Death Note: A Lesson in Disappointment

Death Note is by almost all accounts fantastic, and a classic. For 25 episodes it presents a dark tale of two masterminds playing the ultimate game of cat and mouse, fighting not just for the lives of thousands, but the very concept of justice. It’s tightly written and plotted, and stands as a premier example of how to do lightning-fast pacing. The only issue is that Death Note goes on for 37 episodes, not 25.

death note | Death note light, Death note l, Death note
Two sides of the same coin: Light (left) and L (right). Artwork by Death Note illustrator Takeshi Obata.

Two caveats before we begin: obvious spoiler warning for the majority of Death Note, and this is a review of Death Note’s fatal flaws as an anime, not as a manga. I have only read part of the manga, and while I’ve been told it’s mostly a faithful adaptation, I am unwilling to critique something I have no experience with. I don’t know if you needed spoiler warnings for a show that ended in 2007, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you were very busy, and give a brief summary.

Death Note is the story of a high school student, Light, who finds a notebook, and is told by a shinigami, or god of death, that it has the power to kill anyone whose name is written in its pages. Light, a genius and idealist, takes this as an opportunity to mold the world to his liking, killing criminals and undesirables until he can take his place as the god of a world where only the pure, hard-working, and honest are allowed to thrive. He takes on the mantle of the serial killer Kira and inserts himself into the police task force dedicated to catching the murderer, meanwhile befriending the world’s foremost detective, an eccentric young man known only as L. For about two-thirds of the series, Light and L play life and death mind games, each trying to uncover the identity of the other.

And these mental battles play out until Light tricks a shinigami into killing L, successfully clearing the board of anyone who would oppose him. The story flashes several years forward, where Kira has dropped crime rates globally, and world police organizations are helpless to stop him. However, it is revealed that L had a successor, a boy named Near, who was raised in the same orphanage as L, where they seek to train orphans into becoming masterclass detectives. Near succeeds where L failed, capturing Light in a warehouse where he is shot and killed by police. Near defeats Kira in less than half the time it took L to get killed by him.

The ending was and still is controversial. It derailed the forward momentum of the story, undermined all of the series’ character work, and it’s just plain lazy. It feels as though the writer wanted Light to win and kill L, but simultaneously didn’t feel right about ending the story with the mass murderer triumphing. Still, it’s more complicated than that, so allow me to address these points individually.

Pacing is one of the most important yet underrated aspects of any story. How does each scene flow into the next? Is this a quick-paced tale meant to leave the audience on edge, or a slow thoughtful drama? Death Note had exceptional pacing, where each episode presented a paradigm change in Light and L’s relationship and the progress of the investigation. It’s the peak of shonen battle formula, where neither party can obtain the advantage for long before circumstances change and everything turns on its head.

The story naturally moves towards Light killing L, but at no point does it feel like it was given to him, or that he was ever fated to do so. The way L’s death is handled is masterful, serving as the culmination of everything the series had been building towards. It’s organic, but more importantly, it was earned. Light struggled and worked towards this end goal for what feels like ages, and it’s an extremely cathartic moment, even if it’s technically the side of evil winning. Still, it is mountain of a climax, and the sort of thing that the series couldn’t hope to top coming after.

When L dies and the series moves its focus to several years later, L’s successor Near is introduced, and he might be one thing that sinks the series. There’s another potential heir to L, the brash Melo, who isn’t very memorable but does a serviceable role for what the writer intended. Near, however, is nothing except a counterfeit L. His personality has only some surface level differences from his predecessor, and the cheapness of such a bait-and-switch shows.

Near | Death Note Wiki | Fandom
Near, L’s successor. Artwork by Death Note illustrator Takeshi Obata.

L had a consistent and compelling personality, as well as a fascinating dynamic with the other characters, especially Light. We see his struggles, his thought process, and get to know him on a level as intimate as we know Light. Then, he’s killed, and almost immediately replaced with a child who uncovers Kira’s identity and kills him in fewer than 12 episodes. What? Seriously? What happened to the carefully constructed and ideologically charged narrative between Light and L? Are we just going to throw that out? Apparently.

When creating an antagonist, you don’t need to hold onto the same villain for the entirety of the story, especially your story is arc-based like most anime. However, it is important that your villains serve as foils for your protagonist, and represent an opportunity for their development. L is everything Light is not, and vice versa: disheveled and childish versus put together and wise beyond his years. What does Near have that L did not? What are you accomplishing by making the villain another immature and eccentric genius detective when you just killed off the last one? L serves a definitive purpose even outside of the movement of the plot; he’s actually a more mature and composed person than Light, just Light is better at putting on the front. L immediately pinpoints that Kira is a petty child with a god complex, and the way these two interact is the heart of the narrative. Near has nothing to offer by comparison.

And lastly, it is lazy writing. Near discovers Light’s identity quickly and backs him into a corner with relative ease, while L was uncertain up until the end, and never dreamed of being able to capture Kira with so little difficulty. A new character is introduced and solves the primary conflict as soon as he shows up. That undermines the principle of earning each story beat that the series had championed thus far.

L and Light had good chemistry, and they had to. This story would not work if we were not deeply invested in the two having a close friendship that exists in spite of and because of their roles as antagonist and protagonist. That’s why Near’s victory feels hollow, because he stands on all of the legwork that L did, while having done nothing himself. L and Light managed to make a simple game of tennis into a debate between two intellectual titans. Near never even attempts to replace what they had, and the anime suffers for it.

And I haven’t even brought up the silly ideas that are brought in so late. There’s a secret orphanage for raising detectives, and one of the alumni are the teenage head of the mafia, while the other is smarter and more accomplished than L despite being nearly a decade younger. This is some bananas writing that I’ve seen few people even address, much less call a problem.

While I decided to name this series a Lesson in Disappointment, Death Note doesn’t have a clear cut lesson. It has multiple defects, whether they are undermining the previous work of the writer or being unable to recapture the emotional heights the series topped repeatedly. Ultimately, I think Death Note is a very good anime, which I make a point to never rewatch all the way through. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or just call me a sad weeb with no life. At least we can agree the Netflix movie is bad.

Why 'Death Note' Is Guilty of Whitewashing | IndieWire
Netflix’s adaptation was a jumbled mess, and only marginally better than the live-action Ghost in the Shell film.

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