Anime Reviews: Death Note
Some Basic Info About This Much-Lauded Series
Title: Death Note
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 37 episodes
Air Dates: 10/3/2006 to 6/27/2007
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, mild language, brief suggestive content)
Summary: Light Yagami is your typical super-intelligent prodigy who sits at the top of his class and attracts women with his dashing good looks, but something bothers him. As he looks at the world around him, all Light can see is a world that's rotting from the inside out, and he yearns for someone or something to change it. During English class, Light notices a notebook falling off the roof, and when he investigates a few hours later, he discovers this isn't any ordinary notebook. Enter the Death Note, an inconspicuous black notebook with which you could kill any person you want, so long as you know their name and face. At first hesitant, Light begins to use the notebook to eliminate the world's criminals in the hopes that this is what it takes to make the world a better place, but little does Light know that various international organizations are onto him--particularly the world-famous genius detective known only as "L."
The Good: Incredible production values; enthralling characters; genius set-ups
The Bad: The final third fails to live up to the episodes prior
The Ugly: Mello is an ugly orange stain on the series' good name
What's my history with Death Note?
As with just about everyone else on the planet Earth--at least, among the anime community--Death Note came up on my radar almost immediately after it was announced. It was dark, bombastic, and guaranteed to hook the Hot Topic crowd with its abundance of dark colors and 90s-fashionable aesthetics, so naturally, I didn't want anything to do with it at first. It looked like just another piece of yaoi-bait for the fangirls to drool over. Eventually, the series' popularity and omnipresence online forced me to cave and give it a shot, and boy howdy, was it a ride. The story of Death Note, as a piece of pop culture, is a tumultuous one, filled with baffling mistakes and hilarious memes that persist to this day. But is that all it is--mistakes and memes? Well, that's what I'm here to discuss!
Death Note is beloved by the anime community. Why is that?
First off, in terms of production value, Death Note is covered with money. Like, it oozes money. It births and excretes delicious money. Out of every orifice. Yes, evne that one. And that one. Because of all this money, seeping out copiously in glorious rivers of cash, every technical aspect of the series is a wonder and a marvel; from the incredibly gorgeous art style to the slick animation and the egregious sweeping camera shots to the blissfully intense soundtrack and masterful voice acting in both the English and Japanese...this is what happens when you throw money at a project, ladies and gentlemen: you get a product that pleases all the senses, all the time. Bold intensity and bombast are the name of the game, and director Tetsurou Araki is a master at creating tension and hyping up even the most mundane of activities (like, say, taking a potato chip and eating it).
This series very easily could have been handled in a traditional dialogue-heavy-anime fashion, but by God, we have all this money to spend! Hire the best voice actors you can find, and have the characters make grand gestures in various camera angles! Get three separate zooming shots on Light writing in a notebook! I want circling action shots on that car yesterday! And not only do the characters look and feel alive and full of zest, their motivations, their philosophies, and their faults add extra dimension to the drama, particularly during the many, many scenes where Light and L are sizing each other up to determine what the other is thinking. Even side characters like Matsuda, Chief Detective Yagami, Aizawa, and Mogi get plenty of time to shine in the series' idiosyncratic, grandiose style, and there's absolutely no slacking in giving them each enough personality to have a tough time picking a favorite. Some will say the characters felt stiff and lifeless, but some people also say mint is a good ice cream flavor, so maybe some people are just born to be wrong.
To add even more tension to an already maddeningly-intense series, Death Note author Tsugumi Ohba once mentioned in an interview that the methodology behind the series (and the most fun aspect of writing it) was to back Light into a corner, with seemingly impossible odds mounted against him. Then the folks working on the manga would brainstorm ways for Light to make it out of his predicament, whether it be something simple or an all-out Triple Xanatos Gambit of a grand plan. Needless to say, this means the amount of suspense present in the series is almost overwhelming, and many times you'll find yourself trying to figure out how in the hell Light's gonna get out of this one. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and it's around episode 25 where said good things mostly end for Death Note.
What glaring issues spell out the series' demise?
Well, there's only one major issue that bears mentioning: Without giving too much away, at the two-thirds mark, Light wins a critical victory and finds it much easier to go about creating a new world with little risk of anyone getting in the way of his grand plan. That is, except for a handful of lame new characters who fail to imbue the series with the life it once had. Enter Mello and Near, characters who come from the same place as L, and the two of them are meant to augment the already-existing task force assigned to catch Kira. Mello works with the agencies of the underground, while Near works primarily with the United States. At first they seem like an interesting pair--Mello is rash and emotionally-driven, hell-bent on surpassing L and catching Kira purely for the glory of it, while Near is extremely detached and sees this caper more as a challenging game he intends to win for the sake of his own intellectual vanity.
Problem is, they're neat ideas with extremely poor execution. Where there was once nail-biting tension in the dialogue, there is now only dry back-and-forths between Light and his new supposed opposition, and you never feel for a second that Light's in any of the danger that the series wants you to believe he's in. So if there's no chemistry between Light and his new threats Mello and Near, and if there's no tension in their dealings and encounters, then there's no point in watching any of it except for the realization that, if you must know how it all ends, you have to keep soldiering onward. When an entire third of your series is demoted to being a mere chore, that's a pretty big problem.
So, what's the verdict?
But really, as yawn-inducing as the final third is, Death Note never loses its sense of flair nor its grandiosity, so it's not unbearable to sit through those subpar later episodes. Actually, I'd still recommend watching the series in its entirety because of the fact that, if you stop at that last great episode, you'll have no closure to the story whatsoever, and this is a story that will have you demanding closure. This is a series that, despite its tripping and stumbling, nonetheless has become so ingrained in the anime culture that you'd be out in the dark if you haven't seen it already, but more than that, it's just a damned good time. It may not be subtle and it may not always be brilliant, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a TV series anywhere near as fun to watch.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. Death Note is a slick and stylish thriller with phenomenal directing and intriguing ideas, even if the later episodes lose sight of what made the series so engrossing to begin with.