Anime Reviews: Death Note
This epic cat-and-mouse thriller is enthralling in its bombast, but makes several grievous mistakes in its final stretch.
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
If you've been into anime for any length of time, chances are you've heard of Death Note. If you haven't seen it, you may recognize it as that one anime that looks like it was funded entirely by the Hot Topic crowd, but fear not! What we have here is a legitimately good anime! It often finds its way onto peoples' Top Anime lists, and if we were going by the first two-thirds of the series, every single nomination would be entirely justified. Where did Death Note go wrong? Before we get to that, let's see where it went right.
First off, Death Note is covered with money. It oozes money. It births and excretes delicious money. Because of all this money, 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. And because the technical aspects are bold and intense, it makes it easy for the characters to follow suit.
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! Not only do the characters look and feel alive, but their motivations and their faults add extra dimensions 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 it's nearly impossible to not have a favorite.
To add even more tension to the series, Death Note author Tsugumi Ohba once mentioned in an interview that the ideology behind the series (and the most fun aspect) was to write 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 Gamble 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.
Without giving too much away, at the two-thirds mark, Light wins a critical victory over L, and no longer has to worry about anyone getting in the way of his plan to cleanse the world. That is, except for a handful of lame new characters who fail to imbue the series with the life it once had. 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 newcomers 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.
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 the subpar episodes. Actually, I'd still recommend watching the series in its entirety because of the fact that, if you stop at the final great episode, you'll have no closure to the story whatsoever. If you're even remotely into cat-and-mouse mystery thrillers, then this is the anime for you.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. Death Note is a slick and stylish thriller with phenomenal epic sensibilities, even if the later episodes lose sight of what made the series so engrossing to begin with.