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Anime analysis & review: Death Note

Updated on October 1, 2013

Have you ever played chess against a worthy opponent? You have your entire army at your disposal, and so does your opponent. You sacrifice some of your insignificant pawns in order to bring down some of your opponent’s bothersome pawns. Then come your opponent’s tougher pieces, those that hold greater powers of movement on the board. You have to bring them down slowly but surely, at the same time trying to protect yourself as king from being eliminated by any one of them. In order to protect yourself, you have no choice but to risk some of your more important pieces as well.

Now comes the critical moment, when you have to predict exactly to the dot the movements that your opponent is going to take in the next few moves. But your opponent is no fool as well. He, too, seems to be able to predict your every movement to such fine precision, and acts accordingly. To save yourself, you send even your queen to her death, in the process stripping your opponent of more vital pieces. Finally, it’s you versus your opponent, two kings staring piercingly eye-to-eye, as if trying to search the innermost thoughts of each other’s minds, each considering a thousand possibilities in the flash of a second in each’s minds, planning a course of moves to best overtake and checkmate each other. You foresee your opponent’s potential steps and execute a plan. You draw closer to him as he too draws closer to you. Checkmate is nigh, it’s either you or him. You can hear your heart racing and you break a sweat, having never faced such a tough nut before. Perfection is victory; one minor miscalculation and it’s all over……

Can any of you out there relate to having been in such a pinch before? If yes, I’m sure you’ll be able to picture the life of Light Yagami a.k.a. Kira of the anime Death Note as the ultimate chess game of all time unfolding from the very moment L declared war against the self-proclaimed divine custodian of justice.

Before I move on, let me clarify that this anime analysis and review only covers the 2006-2007 anime series.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Light Yagami and Amane Misa, together with the shinigamis respectively associated with them, Ryuk and Rem
Light Yagami and Amane Misa, together with the shinigamis respectively associated with them, Ryuk and Rem

Synopsis

Light Yagami is a young genius and aspiring high school student with a bright future who has a strong sense of justice and abhors everything evil. When he discovers a death note one day, his life changes completely as he learns how to use it to kill anyone by just knowing his or her name and face. Not long after, Light encounters the previous owner of the death note, a shinigami (death god) by the name of Ryuk. Maintaining his composure even in the face of a shinigami, Light reveals his intentions of purging the world of all criminals using the death note, leaving behind only those whom he judges to be honest and kind, subsequently becoming the “god of the new world.”

The sudden, unexplainable deaths of so many criminals of both major and petty crimes over a period of time catch the attention of Interpol and the famous detective, L. L proclaims a war against Kira, Light’s self-proclaimed moniker, and vows to bring him down by all means. Realizing that L will be his greatest obstacle in fulfilling his dreams, Light accepts the challenge and vows to exterminate L, along with all who may attempt to oppose his ideals for a sin-free world. Nonetheless, things soon become more complicated than they seem to be, with the appearance of a second death note and shinigami in the human world, as well as L’s fearless intention of revealing himself in person to the very one he vows to capture……

Light Yagami and the Death Note
Light Yagami and the Death Note
Light meeting L for the first time during the university entrance exams
Light meeting L for the first time during the university entrance exams

Judgment on a rotting world

Drawing parallels from Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, Death Note delves into a somewhat similar core theme, albeit presented differently. The million-dollar question that the very plot of the anime revolves around is this: “Is it justifiable to purge sin with sin?” While Code Geass presents two childhood buddies, Lelouch and Suzaku, waging fierce wars from opposite ends of a spectrum of this argument, Death Note portrays two genius strategists, namely Light and L (subsequently Near), staring intently at each other from opposite ends of the same spectrum, swearing to checkmate the person standing at the other end in the smartest and most cautious way possible.

On this spectrum of argument, Light stands at one end, declaring his detestation for mankind’s inherent nature to sin that has brought about a rotting society where the lawless seem to prevail. Seeing no hope for mankind, his discovery of Ryuk’s death note reveals to him a self-realized responsibility to judge the world and purge it from all lawlessness by passing the death sentence on all criminals, major and minor, using the death note. On the other end stands L/Near, who, although existing to uphold justice in a world of crime, despise the idea of passing the death sentence on all criminals, perceiving it as being tantamount to mass murder. In the anime, we thus see the showdown of all time as both these characters engage in a challenge of strategies, a match of caution and intellect between two great minds paralleled probably only to each other. Somewhat reminiscent of the renowned fictional showdown between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, I’d say.

Soichiro Yagami and members of the Japanese National Police Agency investigating Kira's case
Soichiro Yagami and members of the Japanese National Police Agency investigating Kira's case
L in his characteristic awkward sitting position
L in his characteristic awkward sitting position

Selfishness vs selflessness

I can’t help but realize how similar Light is to Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series as well in terms of character. Light as Kira possesses a combination of a deadly power and gifted intellect that draws so much fame and even a cult following that exalts him as divine ruler over a new world. Even those who outrightly disagree with his ideals fear his prowess and influence, choosing instead to cooperate with him or at least stand back and do nothing to oppose him, much against their will. And just like Voldemort, Light has as much mercy towards his followers as he has towards his enemies. As selfish as it may sound, his very existence very much resembles a chess game, where his sole purpose is to protect himself as king, even if it will cost him all his other pieces including his queen (represented by Kiyomi Takada, his former girlfriend and “goddess-to-be” of the new, sinless world).

On the other hand, we see L and the members of the Japanese National Police Agency working under Soichiro Yagami showing such willingness to lay down even their lives and families in the name of justice. Being involved in investigating Kira’s case and thus opposing his ideals, they know the dangers they will be putting themselves into just to purge the world of an obsessed murderer. L and Near, in particular, are well-aware of the imminent dangers they are exposing themselves to just by tampering in Kira’s plans, but their sense of justice to see a mass murderer stopped prevails over their desire to continue living undisturbed in a world fearsomely controlled by a mass murderer.

Hence, we see striking similarities and remarkable contrasts between Light and L/Near: both have a strong sense of justice and an intense desire to uphold righteousness in a crooked world, but each has different ideals as to how justice and righteousness should be upheld and judgment executed upon the lawless and the unruly.

Misa showing her immense affection for Light in front of L
Misa showing her immense affection for Light in front of L
Near, L's successor, in his characteristic hair-rubbing gesture
Near, L's successor, in his characteristic hair-rubbing gesture
Light's symbolic death in the middle of a flight of stairs
Light's symbolic death in the middle of a flight of stairs

Comments on the anime

Truth be said, I’m no big fan of shinigami-themed animes. I find shinigami-themed animes to be somewhat spooky and filled with taboo, as if shinigamis are not matters that one should tamper around with, even in fiction. But truth be said, I know a great anime when I see one as well. Death Note has clearly outdone most of its contemporaries in the world of anime. Unlike a whole lot of animes out there, Death Note explores a deeply psychological plot and a highly questionable ethical dilemma in a dark and somewhat taboo-filled manner. The story opens interestingly with an object of death previously unheard of in the human world, and the dark plot slowly unfolds as the rules of the death note become revealed one by one. The plot then expands and turns in a more engrossing direction with the appearance of L, Amane Misa and Rem, who prove to be stinging thorns in Light’s initially perfect plan. L’s death and Near’s subsequent pursuit of Light further thicken the plot, keeping viewers absorbed to the storyline right up to the ending. In all honesty, not one episode passed when I didn’t have even a slight adrenaline rush; every episode kept me in much suspense, absorbed in the storyline wanting for more and waiting impatiently to watch the next episode to see what happens next.

Commenting on the graphics, I’d say Death Note has not disappointed me in this aspect as well. In fact, the artists behind the anime’s graphics have done well in portraying the characters in such a realistic fashion that brings out their true nature and intents. True to its dark psychological plot, the characters in the anime are designed with a touch of seriousness and a shade of darkness around them, bringing out the mood and impression that the plot is intended to deliver. Of course, in a plot with a heavy theme like this, exaggerated body parts and excessively watery eyes would be absolute no-nos, and the anime’s artists have done well to realize this. The musicians behind the anime’s background music also deserve commendation, as the overall mood of the story is well-enhanced with the appropriately “dark” music embedded in the anime’s many suspense-filled scenes and intriguing events.

To mention in passing, I found two things in the anime to be highly symbolic as well. The first is the fact that Light’s surname is Yagami (夜神) which, although being a common Japanese surname, is not written in the conventional kanji characters for this surname (八神). Light’s surname in kanji, which literally means “god of the night,” reflects his desire of becoming a god by the dark means of killing and purgation by death. The second is the scene when Light died in the middle of a flight of steps after Ryuk wrote his name down in his death note, which is symbolic of the fact that users of the death note can neither go to heaven nor hell after they die.

As much as I dislike shinigami-themed animes, I must say that it would have been utterly foolish not to consider this masterpiece of a plot for a prestigious award, at the very least. Nevertheless, the judges of the 2007 Tokyo Anime Award have evidently proven themselves to be no fools, bestowing this Oscar of animes to, amongst others, the deserving title of Death Note.

Death Note OP 1 - the WORLD

Death Note ED 1 -Alumina

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