Revisiting Death Note Anime (Episodes 1-3)

Please note: If you haven't read the Death Note manga or seen the anime series, this hub (and subsequent ones on this topic) will contain spoilers. This hub is written as a subjective reaction to the anime, and not as a recap or synopsis. Also, the live-action movies from 2006 differ from the manga/anime significantly, so having seen only those will not prepare you for any spoilers.

Episode 1: Birth

Manga chapter: 1
Original air date: October 3, 2006

The first episode of Death Note is very faithful to the first chapter of Volume 1: Boredom. Artistically, it sets the perfect tone and mood for the series. The main thing to note here is the parallel between the human world and the shinigami realm. Both worlds are rotting and their inhabitants live without purpose. And in each world, someone is very, very bored. As fate has it, these two beings will meet.

The human world is shot entirely in soft focus: it's all glowing edges and soft light. The palette is cool and awash in blues and greys, making the occasional splashes of colour more dramatic, such as Ryuk's bright red apples. The shinigami world, on the other hand, looks like a barren, post-apocalyptic world. Voices echo eerily. Just hinted at in the manga, this episode shows clearly the portal to the human world and Ryuk's headlong descent into it. (By the way, since there are stairs, does that mean that some shinigamis cannot fly?)

My favourite part of the episode has to be Light's frantic death note-writing montage when he realises that the note actually works. The montage mixes images of Light writing and his victims dying. The montage is set to a dramatic choral piece, which reminds me of the Black Mass-inspired music for The Omen. (It's not Gregorian chant, which has neither harmonies nor musical accompaniment, and is performed almost always by male choirs. However, the music at the start of the episode does sound somewhat like Gregorian chant.) While some have criticised this montage as being over-dramatic, I think that suits the tone of the anime, and Light, perfectly. He is the ultimate drama queen, no?

The montage uses interesting visual and cinematic effects, such as light refraction, grainy film textures, handheld camera movement, and so forth. There are even sparkles. (!) Combined with the music, the effect is euphoric and dizzying. It builds to a climax until Light is left limp and panting in his chair. Did I mention that it's also rather sexual? This is definitely how Light gets off.

At the end of the episode, Light and Ryuk face each other, showdown-style. There's a nice shot of Light with heavenly light streaming above him. The apotheosis begins.

Episode rating: A

Light is bored in class.
Light is bored in class.
Ryuk stands by the bowl of apples. Light stands in the background.
Ryuk stands by the bowl of apples. Light stands in the background.
Light writes in the Death Note. Sparkles!
Light writes in the Death Note. Sparkles!
Light: "I am the god of the new world."
Light: "I am the god of the new world."

Episode 2: Battle

Manga chapters: 2-4
Original air date: October 10, 2006

Episode 2 left me feeling underwhelmed, especially after the colossal greatness of the previous episode. The art isn't as impressive as it was last week, and there were too many slow-paced scenes at the beginning. All in all, episode 2 is not as epic or cinematic as episode 1, but it still has some interesting moments, and it helps move the narrative along. We get to see Sayu and Ryuk hanging out at school and in Light's room, and we also meet Soichiro, Matsuda, Watari, and L (to an extent).

This episode starts in school, with Light sitting near the back of the class. (Aside: I don't know how it is in Japan, but when I was in school, the back of the classroom was where all the ne'er-do-wells sat.) When the teacher calls on Light to translate a passage in his text, he gets up, disinterested and expressionless. Then he does it perfectly. Light's not just bored; he's sullen, which is not what I expected after I read the manga. However, it fits. Light is not an extroverted, friendly guy. He's cute and smart, but--despite what the manga suggests--those qualities don't guarantee popularity, especially if you're smart and feel superior to your peers. Here, Light's character seems more realistic in this sense.

The episode speeds through a few plot points, which is no great loss. It does keep the rigged desk drawer plot, thankfully.

I mentioned that the art is not as good as it was in last week's episode, but I'm especially disappointed in the art in the Interpol scenes. The art looks grungy and rather slapdash, and the animation is stitled. I hate the way that Soichiro Yagami looks. His moustache is unbelievable. But at least Watari appears. What's always amused me about him is that he looks and acts like such a tough guy at the Interpol headquarters, but when you see him at the hotel, he's just like Alfred Pennyworth (not that Alfred couldn't kick butt if he had to).

Of course, it's not long before Light loses his cool again. He's super-confident--and scary--when he kills Lind L. Tailor. He looks and acts much more crazed here than in the manga--which might suggest that his downfall wasn't really as gradual as some believe. Was he a nutjob all along? (I say yes. If he hadn't found a death note, his craziness would've manifested in other ways.) Light's writing is depicted in slow motion, with suitably creepy sound effects. There's a short reprise of last week's choral piece as well, as if to underscore the craziness. This part is well done.

However, L puts an end to all that. I never tire of reading L's smackdown in the manga, and I love it here. It is worth it just to see Light so upset. He almost looks like he's going to burst into tears at some moments. But back to L, who is as mysterious as ever. The hair is lovely--it has just a tinge of blue. Also, his seiyuu sounds pretty close to what I'd imagined, if younger than expected.

Some shots in the anime are almost exact replicas of certain manga panels. Shots such as the one of L and Light vowing to destroy each other (see below) translate easily into cinematic language: the split-screen is used often in movies and TV, but works very well here. So, a nice end to a so-so episode.


Episode rating: B

Ryuk and his apple.
Ryuk and his apple.
NPA chief Yagami Soichiro (Light's dad) and Matsuda.
NPA chief Yagami Soichiro (Light's dad) and Matsuda.
Light writes Lind L. Tailor's name.
Light writes Lind L. Tailor's name.
L and Light. The game is on!
L and Light. The game is on!

Episode 3: Trade

Manga chapters: 2-5
Original air date: October 17, 2006

This episode is a slight improvement over the last. There's not a lot of excitement, but this is Death Note, after all. Most of the action occurs in the way of internal monologues--and speaking of which, we have them by the bucketload in this episode.

In episode 1, Light was pretty bishi-fied. Now, he only looks wide-eyed and cute when he's acting the part of the perfect son and student. The difference is most apparent in his interactions with Sayu near the start of the episode. This is consistent with his depiction in first few volumes of the manga, too. He made the same wide-eyed, innocent face with poor Naomi.

Matsuda is the best thing in the NPA scenes. He's so endearing, with his straight-from-the-heart outbursts. Sure, he's not the most tactful person, but he's earnest and means well. His character design improves on the manga, I think. He looks more adult (as he should), yet somehow still naïve. Matsuda's an underrated character; he's much more than just the comic relief of later chapters.

Now that we know the connection between Kira and the chief, Light's situation seems even riskier. Ryuk, who always makes comments about the deceptively 'normal' Yagami family, gapes as the Sachiko and Sayu praise Light at the dinner table. The family members are shown in off-kilter, skewed frames, undermining the family's superficial normalcy.

It seems that the animators aren't yet tired of montages of Light's judgments. This time, a mini-montage is interspersed with scenes of Light at school, showing his 'normal' day while Kira's judgments occur. The best school scene takes place in the cafeteria. Kids are talking and eating in groups, but Light sits at a little table by himself. Ryuk might be floating around, but I think that Light's the kind of person to always eat lunch alone, even pre-death note. And as a bonus, when Light rips open a package of cake, it cuts to a close-up of a convict ripping his own shirt in Kira-induced death throes. Way to go with the heavy-handed imagery!

Ryuk is creepy, but this is a good thing. I think he's more than a lazy trickster, don't you? His shadow (see image below) scares the crap out of me. It also reminds me of a part in the live-action movie. Overall, the visuals and the composition during the scene when Ryuk explains the shinigami eye trade are good. The anime continues to use shots that are practically ripped from the pages of the manga: compare some frames with some panels side-by-side, and they're almost identical.

Episode rating: B+

Light looks so innocent--acting like the model big brother and student.
Light looks so innocent--acting like the model big brother and student.
Mysterious detective L.
Mysterious detective L.
Light learns about the eye trade from Ryuk (right, in shadow).
Light learns about the eye trade from Ryuk (right, in shadow).
Light's full name and life span, seen from Ryuk's perspective.
Light's full name and life span, seen from Ryuk's perspective.

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