“Humans are so much fun!” gleefully observes Ryuk, the shinigami, or God of Death, who has oh-so-carelessly dropped his Death Note, the notebook in which he inscribes the names of those who are about to die.
Is it chance that he drops it just where Light Yagami, top honours student at his high school, sees it fall – and just can’t resist picking it up? For inside Ryuk has helpfully inscribed the rules of the Death Note.
Light has everything going for him: the highest test scores in Japan, good looks, and a supportive family, including a father who’s high up in the police. But, given all these attributes, Light is very aware of the high levels of crime in the world. And maybe he’s been a little bored, unconsciously searching for an intellectual challenge. For him the Death Note symbolizes a way to put all the world’s ills to rights. After testing it carefully on a local punk he witnesses attacking a young girl in the street, he decides to put his plan into action. He’s going to get rid of all the criminals. He’s going to become the god of a new and better world. He will become the wielder of ‘Righteous Justice’.
When Ryuk leaves the desolate shinigami world to visit the new owner of his Death Note, Light recovers from the shock of meeting the hideous-looking spectre remarkably quickly. Only the holder of the Death Note can see its original owner, Ryuk tells him, as he accompanies him everywhere he goes. And so begins a bizarre and unlikely partnership, Ryuk carelessly (or so it seems) revealing little by little the pitfalls for a human who uses the Death Note. Light, obsessed with his righteous crusade, keeps Ryuk happy with apples. Apples are a recurrent and potent symbol in ‘Death Note’, scarlet and glossy-skinned, or chewed to the core.
All these inexplicable deaths in the criminal community have been flashed across the media world-wide. Internet sites dedicated to ‘Kira’ (killer) have sprung up. Inspector Yagami, Light’s father, is put in charge of the ‘Kira’ case. As the murders continue, an enigmatic genius, known only as ‘L’ is brought in to help the Japanese police. And thus begins the deadly duel of intellects as L and Kira try to outwit one another. If either one makes the tiniest mistake, it will mean death. Yet Light is confident enough to taunt L with the question, ‘L, do you know Gods of Death love apples?’
With a generous eight episodes in this first release, we see Light make may what be a fatal error. In going after the FBI agents who have secretly arrived in Japan to investigate the murders, he meets one, Raye Pember, who has been shadowing his family. In ingeniously trying to entice him to reveal the identities of his colleagues (Light needs a name and a face to kill) Light is unaware that Raye’s fiancée, Naomi Misora, is an ex-member of the FBI…and once worked on a case with L. Has Light been over-confident – and lost the battle of wits?
Reviewing the TV series of ‘Death Note’ at this stage of the game when the manga has been worldwide phenomenon, not to mention the live-action movies etc., my main task is answering the question, ‘Does it live up to all the hype?’ And yes, it does. The story is so tightly woven that watching each new development becomes nail-bitingly tense. Watching the lethal battle of wits between the two young men, eccentric genius L (‘Call me Ryuzaki’) and cold-hearted model son and student Light is utterly compulsive. Alongside the moments of horror, there are some nicely-judged ironic moments, as the expressions of the faces of the five police investigators in their smart suits when they first meet L face-to-face and see a shambling, wild-haired young man who abstractedly fills his coffee with sugar lumps as he talks.
The creative team have created an atmospheric and faithful rendering of the original manga (story by Tsugumi Ohba, illustrations by Takeshi Obata), sustaining pace and suspense, whilst not sacrificing any of the telling character-building details. Particularly telling are the allusions to Christian religious art in the opening title sequence, based on Obata’s striking covers for the manga; the images of the creation of man and the pieta tell us of Light’s monstrous delusions of godhead. The music from Yoshihisa Hirano (‘Ouran High School Host Club’) and Hideki Taniuchi (‘Otogi Zoshi’) effectively enhances the growing sense of foreboding, alternating between echoes of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, and pounding rhythms and chanting choirs.
The English dub comes from one of my favourite teams, Ocean Studios, and is excellent. Brian Drummond, as Ryuk, is strikingly good; grotesquely funny at times, and chillingly knowing at others. Brad Swaile as Light is also extremely convincing, deftly conveying the young man’s two faces: the one he shows to the outside world, and the increasingly deranged persona he reveals when alone with Ryuk.
I welcome the fact that eight episodes are contained in the first volume (on two discs). This recent practice of issuing eight or more episodes at a time (as with ‘Bleach’ and ‘Naruto’) makes good economic sense as well as giving the viewer a much better idea of a series – and I hope that more companies will adopt this practice. There are good extras as well, including ‘Behind the Scenes’ with Brad Swaile (Light) and Alessandro Juliani (L) and interviews with the Japanese Animation Director and Character Designer.
‘Death Note’ – a cautionary tale for our times? Tense, tautly plotted, and claustrophobic, the TV series captures all the best qualities of the original manga and brings them very effectively to animated life. Not comfortable watching, but challenging and utterly involving. And these are only the first episodes…