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Full Series Review: Death Note
Plot Summary & Themes (This part does NOT discuss the ending or contain spoilers.)
This review will take care to NOT contain spoilers, except in the section marked "The Ending", obviously. Do not read the "The Ending" section of this review if you have not seen the end of the series.
Nearly all human cultures have rituals and beliefs dealing with death. In many religions, the idea of the afterlife gives people hope that life can continue beyond death. But what would it be like to meet death, to talk to it, even, temporarily, to control or become it? What would you do if you had the power to kill almost anyone?
Student Light Yagami is given such a power in the form of the titular Death Note, a magic notebook made by shinigami (death gods). If a human writes another human's name in the death note, that person will die. They must also be picturing their victim's face, to differentiate between humans with the same names.
For Ryuk, the shinigami who leaves his Death Note in the human world for anyone to find, giving humans this power is a game. By doing this, he hopes to manipulate the human who finds it into providing him with some entertainment. Since Yagami is the son of a police chief, he has a strong sense of duty and justice. He feels that the criminal justice system of Japan is far too lenient on some criminals, and so the Death Note gives him the power to dispense justice by killing criminals whose names and faces are made public by the media.
However, in doing this, Yagami becomes the criminal himself, and becomes chased by a master detective known by the alias L. L specializes, it seems, in unusual or supernatural crimes. As L and his team try to hunt down "Kira", as Light Yagami is dubbed by the media, Yagami tries to evade suspicion, but also, to create his ideal world, in which there is no crime. As the show continues, the power of the Death Note clearly seems to corrupt Light Yagami, who started with a very strong sense of black-and-white morality, but over time, becomes not beyond killing people who disagree with him and using people close to him as pawns.
The anime offers insight about a lot of important themes. It seems to bring up mass media and pop culture in a critical way. It primarily deals with the morality of killing and discusses whether killing is ever justified (like the death penalty). It also deals with the corrupting nature of power, how an ordinarily good person could become a complete monster because the power they wield makes them feel god-like. Moral ambiguity is also an important theme here, not only with the villain-like protagonist and his psychology, but L too resorts to increasingly unorthodox and sometimes inhumane practices in his attempt to hunt down Kira. This seems like it also lends itself to a discussion of political policy and the questioning of how far states should go to chase and punish criminal behavior. In the end, does L become like Kira in thinking that he is God?
Light Yagami: A young student who wishes to become a police officer in Tokyo because his father is the chief of police. He finds the death note, and when he discovers that its power is real, he becomes "Kira", as he becomes known in the media, and sets out to create a new world with no crime or violence by making everyone fear him.
Misa Amane: A pretty girl who pretends to be a ditzy blonde most of the time, but is actually fairly cunning. She admires Kira when she hears about him and falls in love with Light. Light, however, seems to not truly return Misa's love, but Misa becomes a tool he uses to further his own agenda and to stay a step ahead of L. Misa at one point becomes a "second Kira", possessing her own Death Note, which she uses to help Light with his plans.
L: The eccentric detective, whose real identity is hidden so that Light Yagami is unable to kill him. Without L, Light Yagami would have taken over the world, unhindered by any government authority. However, L's lack of regard for authority, dedication to finding the truth, and brilliant deductive reasoning skills makes him quite a worthy foe for Light.
Kiyomi Takada: A woman Light dates briefly, but he is just manipulating her, like he does with Misa, to use her intelligence and position as a reporter to his own ends.
Teru Mikami: A man who worships Kira and becomes another pawn of Light. He loves Kira because he was bullied at school, and considers the world to be full of corrupt people who need to be erased. He's like Light, but even more fanatical about purging undesirable people.
Soichiro Yagami: Light's father, who ends up leading the police's task force to capture Kira. He considers Kira to be nothing but a murderer, and is unsympathetic to him, like L. However, unlike L, Soichiro seems to prefer doing everything "by the book". When the Japanese government, with pressure from the President of the United States, eventually officially gives up on searching for Kira, Soichiro is faced with a dilemma between doing what's right and following the law. Since Light knows him very well (obviously), he sometimes manipulates him into making certain decisions about how the task force will operate.
Ryuk and Rem: Shinigamis, Ryuk who gives Light his death note, and Rem who gives Misa hers. There are other shinigami, but Ryuk and Rem are most important to the plot. Although Ryuk views Light and other humans with bored detachment and sometimes condescending amusement, Rem has deep feelings for Misa and wants Misa's happiness and safety above all else. As such, Ryuk and Rem form an interesting dichotomy; male and dispassionate vs. female and compassionate.
Other characters are impossible to talk about without giving spoilers, so I won't discuss them here. There's also the task force members, but I felt like as individuals, they're less important than other characters.
The Art Style
I love the designs in this show. Each character has a sleek, modern look and clothing that has a sort of Hot Topic aesthetic. The fashion designs for this show are top notch, with the artists going above and beyond what most animators/manga writers do in terms of varying the clothing the characters wear for different settings and using different clothes to express the characters' mood. White, red, and black dominate the color palette of the show, and these colors are commonly used in an important symbolic way. Light Yagami shows his intellectual and studious side with white button-down shirts, but moves to more black attire later. Misa's outfits get increasingly sexually provocative as the show progresses, showing her increased desperation for Light's affection despite his cool detachment. The anime creates mood through the use of lighting and contrast, and many scenes of importance take place at night, giving the anime a shadowy mood, similar to that of Batman: The Animated Series or other stories that take place in Gotham.
The Ending and Review:
Warning: SPOILERS Ahead!
So, eventually Light succeeds in killing L. But wait, there's more! L leaves behind a successor, a kid known by the code name of Near. His brother, Mello, refuses to work with him, and ends up involved with the yakuza (Japanese mafia). Near persists in continuing the work of the task force, and, as Light becomes increasingly smug and reckless as a result of having vanquished his main enemy, Near eventually exposes Light as Kira to the task force. This is after Light has become such a complete monster that he even had been responsible for the death of his own father, Soichiro, and seemed to show little remorse. Light flees when found out and begs Ryuk to help him, but he dies of a gunshot wound instead. Since it is said before that a human who uses the death note can neither go to heaven nor hell, it is implied, but not overtly stated, that he will become a new shinigami, as will Misa.
Ok, so I felt, as I'm sure many other fans did, that this ending was kind of bogus. It felt like they rushed it, and that Light ends up doing some sort of uncharacteristic things and screwing up just so they can rush to an ending where he finally gets caught. It also seems a bit cliché for a story that seems so radical in having a more or less sympathetic villain as the protagonist, to have to have an ending that reminds the audience, hey, now, do not do this cool thing. While I like the message and themes explored by the show, for me, the fun of it was watching the Xanatos Speed Chess between Light and L. Near and Mello were not real replacements for L, and seemed to pander to this show's "angsty emo teen" target audience, because they seemed to be more style than substance. Many fans seemed to think that it was unrealistic for Near to have been a match for Kira on his own, and some coincidences in the final 5 episodes or so seem too plot-driven to be reasonable. Overall, I enjoyed the show, and I think that it's good for the intellectual viewer interested in questions about justice and morality; but it's also a show about two genius intellects trying to out-fox each-other, which makes the show intriguing as well. The show definitely keeps you guessing, and provokes thought.