When Light Yagami wins a place at a top university, he is surprised to find that the fellow top-scoring student chosen to give the opening address is the same shambling, unkempt young man he noticed earlier at the entrance exams. It seems that the other elite student’s name is Hideki Ryuga, just like the pop idol… but pop idol he certainly isn’t, either in looks or manner. We know – although at this stage Light doesn’t – that this is none other than L, Light’s nemesis, the brilliant, unconventional young detective brought in by the Japanese police to track down Kira, the elusive mass murderer who is ‘executing’ criminals without mercy. Thus the stage is set for the next round of the epic duel of minds that is ‘Death Note’. And it’s not long before the two are slugging it out on the tennis court, in a match that is just as much to do with the unspoken suspicions
But Light’s moment of triumph is short-lived. He guesses, as video tapes are delivered to the TV studios, that someone else has a Death Note, someone who is so determined to force a meeting with Kira, that he – or she – is prepared to kill to demonstrate the depth of their devotion to his cause. L requests that Light be brought in to the secret base to help with the investigation. Mr Yagami is not at all happy with this arrangement, but Light, seeing it as the ideal opportunity to get to know his enemy better, agrees. Besides, he is more than a little curious to learn all he can about this second Kira.
And so Misa Amane, blonde and petite teenage model, with a fondness for dressing in Gothloli style, makes her entrance. Light is utterly taken aback when she reveals that she has the shinigami eyes; she is the second Kira. Her one desire? To become Kira’s girlfriend. “I’d do anything for you.”
Light, recovering from the initial shock, reckons that he will be able to manipulate her – and then kill her – but he has not reckoned on her shinigami, Rem. It is Rem who, unlike most shinigami, has developed protective feelings for her mortal mistress. And Rem warns Light in no uncertain terms that she will kill him if he harms Misa. Has Light met his match? Reluctantly, he agrees to Misa’s scheme – because, he rationalizes, given her shinigami eyes, she will be able to discover L’s true name and enable him to eliminate L at last. So, he is surprised to find L waiting for him in the college grounds, and even more surprised when L tells him, “It would be a problem if you were Kira, because I feel you’re the first friend that I’ve ever had.”
Has Light underestimated L again? L is, after all, so much more experienced – and, we see here for the first time, prepared to be utterly ruthless when it comes to matters of interrogation.
‘Death Note’ affords wonderful moments of Tim Burtonesque weirdness as Ryuk the shinigami floats like a grotesquely warped black angel behind Light, constantly watching and occasionally commenting in his wry, amused tones that only Light can hear. The little touches in the animation that highlight L’s eyes and hair in intense blue, or Light’s features in lurid scarlet, whenever a particularly significant thought occurs to one of them, are particularly effective. Blue for cold reason pitted against red, the colour of shed blood or hellfire?
The story moves swiftly along, constantly pulling the rug from under the viewer’s feet. One of the most intriguing scenes comes when Rem reveals the secret of how a shinigami can be killed. This gives an unexpected insight into the empty existence of the gods of death and their desire to escape their dusty shadow-world.
There’s no escaping the fact that Light Yagami – for all his good looks and brilliance of mind – becomes a cold, calculating psychopath from the moment he picks up the Death Note. Light wants, above all, complete control over everyone around him; he may kiss Misa but we see that he’s doing it merely to manipulate her. Yet even though Light’s behaviour is utterly chilling, we see so much of the action from his warped point of view that we are unwittingly coerced into rooting for him to get away with his crimes.
However, there comes a telling moment toward the end of the final episode in this set, #16 ‘Decision’ when we see a great change come over Light. Again, the eyes betray everything. But I’m not going to reveal what that change is – or how it has come about. It raises questions, though, as to whether the Death Note exercises a malign influence on any mortal who tries to use it (much as using the One Ring corrupts the wielder, no matter how noble their intentions) – or whether it merely plays on latent tendencies that already exist. If Light hadn’t found the Death Note, what kind of a man would he have turned out to be?
A word of praise here too for the way that the music – from two composers, Hideki Taniuchi (‘Otogi Zoshi’) and Yoshihisa Hirano (‘Ouran High School Host Club’) – enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere. The driving orchestral motor rhythms, punctuated by ominous choral interjections serve to increase the tension and reinforce the sense that there are sinister occult forces at work, lurking unseen. even in the midst of everyday life.
‘Death Note’ raises many uncomfortable questions – which may be why it proves such compelling viewing. The irony is that the character betraying the most human feelings – apart, perhaps, from Kira’s father, the conflicted Detective Superintendant Soichiro Yagami– is Rem, Misa’s faithful shinigami.
A tense and gripping octet of episodes (9-16) in which new surprises and unexpected twists keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. A compelling – though disturbing – volume.