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Death Note is Not Actually That Great

Updated on November 22, 2011

Death Note is Not That Great

I was mulling over my opinions on the Citadel of Chaos, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that my thoughts on it were almost exactly the same as my thoughts on Warlock of Firetop Mountain, so instead of putting two near-identical reviews on top of each other we're going to review another series today. Unfortunately, since I don't really have time to read an entire book in one day for purposes of a spur-of-the-moment review, we're going with something I've already read which is actually a manga, but I can't really remember any fiction books I've read lately that I'd want to review, and the non-fiction ones are kind of depressing (though maybe I should do the Lucifer Effect some time regardless).

Anyway. Death Note. It's not that great.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Death Note is about a high school senior from Japan named Light Yagami who finds the titular Death Note lying on the ground. The Death Note is a magical notebook used by Japanese death spirits called Shinigami to cause death to whoever's name they write into the note (unless they're also a Shinigami). Obviously, you must know the person's real name for this to work, elsewise you couldn't write it in the note. You also need to be able to picture their face, so that other people with the same name won't be affected. Things like time and cause of death can be specified, but not if they're completely impossible (Light at one point tries to see if he can get a criminal imprisoned in Japan to die in front of the Eiffel Tower six hours later, but the criminal dies of a heart attack instead). If no time or cause is specified, the person will instead die of a heart attack forty seconds later. Ryuk, one of the Shinigami, has gotten bored and dropped a spare Note on Earth so that he can watch what happens to whoever picks it up. When Light finds it, he decides to use it to save the world by killing literally every criminal on the entire planet.

After hundreds of criminals die of mysterious heart attacks over the course of about a week, Interpol gets together and starts investigating, but since no one follows up on the "supernatural zealot seeking to cleanse the world of the sinful" lead, they're eventually forced to bring in super genius detective L, whose real name and face are unknown. L announces he's going to catch the mysterious killer, now nicknamed Kira (which is basically just the Japanese pronunciation of the English word "killer"), on live television. He also shows his face and declares that his name is Lind L. Taylor, so Light immediately writes his name into the book and kills him.

It turns out, however, that Lind L. Taylor was a convicted criminal, and the actual L was just running this as a test to rule out the possibility of Kira killing people without physically touching them. L is as surprised as anyone to see that Kira can apparently kill at will. It also turns out that the broadcast wasn't actually global, but actually limited exclusively to the Kanto region of Japan, since Japanese criminals seemed unusually predominant among Kira's victims, and the Kanto region had the highest population, so they started there. The real L challenges Kira to kill him, but without a real name or face, he can't. This first ploy sets the stage for the rest of the series, wherein L tries to deduce Kira's true identity while Kira tries to do the same to L. L has the backing of Interpol in general and the Japanese police specifically, while Kira has a magical book that kills people.


There's a thing where I can get some extra money if people buy stuff from eBay or Amazon from an ad linked by my hub. In my totally unbiased opinion, you should probably buy every Death Note anime and manga that you can from either site (or better yet, both of them) before you read the rest of this review. Don't worry, it's all gushing praise because Death Note is the most wonderful thing ever written, it's like pure happiness transmuted into paper and ink. The title was a treasonous lie spread by terrorists. Just go buy the series.

Keikoku Doori

If you're into scheming and counter-scheming, the above summary might have you convinced that no, actually, Death Note really is that great. And while my theme is supposed to be convincing people to pay me for hating their favorite book, I won't say that Death Note is bad, because it's not. It is actually a good series, and even the worth the ~$70 I paid to buy the whole thing (and I'm not just saying that because I just spent a paragraph trying to convince you to do the same thing). But while I've only spoiled the first book out of twelve, I've unfortunately already spoiled the best book of twelve as well. Every book thereafter sees L and Kira making increasingly convoluted and luck-based gambits against one another. On top of this, more and more Shinigami pop into the mix, bringing their Death Notes with them, typically just to deal Kira a trump card when he's been backed into a corner by L, who's massive material and personnel advantages turn out to be worth far more than the ability to kill people with magic and Facebook.

As a few examples, there's the point when the only other human on the planet who ends up with a Death Note happens to be a fervent Kira supporter, the point where an FBI agent with enough evidence to pin Light Yagami as Kira once she compares notes with L just happens to bump into him with his Death Note on the way there, and then there's the memory gambit that ends with the "keikaku doori" moment above. I'm abandoning my policy of trying not to spoil too much here, because the stupidity of the memory gambit's success really needs to be explained in full.

Light Yagami has joined the Japanese police force as part of L's special investigative team. L openly suspects Light of being Kira, and has for some time. Light's obsessive girlfriend and accomplice, Misa, has recently been pinned as either an accomplice to Kira or else as Kira herself. This obviously draws even more suspicion onto Light. So he comes up with the memory gambit.

First, he tells L that he thinks he might be Kira subconsciously, because he kind of believes in Kira's ideals a little bit. Note that the idea that Kira might be right is a running theme of the manga, and practically every character struggles with this at some point. There is absolutely no reason for Light to believe that he is the one whose subconscious supernaturally murders criminals all the time. Light is more than smart enough to figure this out, so the fact that he even brings it up and then insists that it is true is jaw-droppingly suspicious on its own. But L is more than happy to have him confined and observed.

Second, Light gives Ryuk (his Shinigami friend who can only be seen by those who've touched the Death Note) a hidden instruction to transfer the ownership of the Death Note to someone else, someone who's greedy and will use it for personal gain. Because of Death Note magic, this means that Light loses all memory of having ever possessed a Death Note. At which point he immediately acknowledges how jaw-droppingly stupid the idea of his being Kira without his knowing is. Meanwhile, with the Death Note only being able to kill people up to 23 days after the time of writing and Light and Misa both being confined, the murders stop.

This is the most open and shut case you could possibly ask for. It's already been proven that Kira kills using apparently supernatural means. He killed Lind L. Taylor basically just through magic. It's also been proven that when you lock up Light and Misa, the killings stop happening after a while. And then when they resume, they're of an obviously different style with an obviously different motive. Ultimately, they take Light and Misa out under some highway, where Light's father, the head of the investigative team, pulls a gun on Light and tries to kill him to spare his family the dishonor of a criminal execution or whatever. Turns out it's a blank and it was all a test, and they decide that Light and Misa can't be Kira or else they'd have stopped him from shooting. Because the supernatural murder method about which you know almost nothing can't possibly require some kind of talisman to perform?

Regardless, L agrees to let Light and Misa go, but keeps Light chained to him at the wrist because the Death Note creators are way into bondage, I guess, and then they investigate the new Kira who works for some company called Yotsuba and is knocking off the competition. After they catch him and recover the Death Note, Light comes into contact with it again and this restores all of his memories to him. He also kept a piece of it hidden in his watch so that he'd be able to hold onto those memories even after the Death Note itself is taken as evidence.

Note: The Death Note was taken as evidence. This was part of Light's plan. That after drawing incredible suspicion onto himself, he is also going to hand the exact method of murder over to the police. Which completely invalidates the method whereby he was cleared, since obviously neither he nor Misa could've written anything in the Death Note while in that car. He's had Ryuk add a few more rules to the Death Note's instructions, including one that says if you kill someone with it, you have to kill someone else at least once every 13 days, or else you'll die. And no one on a team full of professional investigators thinks that maybe the instructions written on the Death Note in English so that humans can understand how to use it by a trickster death spirit who just wants to see people wreak havoc with each other might have been false.

To recap, Light's brilliant plan is to draw more attention onto himself by making a clearly idiotic psuedo-confession of guilt in the worst attempt at reverse psychology ever and then get himself cleared when the Death Note is later recovered and has a certain rule written in it, which he assumes everyone will automatically believe is gospel. He has no answer as to what he'll do if his watch is broken and has to be replaced, or if they just execute him as Kira anyway once the killings stop, or if they don't let him back onto the team before they catch the new Kira, since that's the only chance Light will ever have to touch it. These are just the most obvious failure points. There are actually more.

Light Yagami.  Not pictured: Realism.
Light Yagami. Not pictured: Realism. | Source

Sociology Does Not Work That Way

The premise of the story early on is just that Light Yagami goes nuts with the power to kill anyone he wants at his fingertips, and becomes an insane zealot. By the end, five years have passed (most of it offscreen between the memory gambit arc and the Mello arc), and apparently Kira's strategy of killing anyone ever accused of a crime has worked. Governments stop posting the names and pictures of their suspected criminals after a while, but people keep sending him the information.

Um, Light Yagami is one guy, with his girlfriend/obsessive stalker Misa helping him out. He also picks up a grand total of two other supporters with whom he actually communicates towards the end, and his communication is excessively limited as his few remaining enemies have him pretty much completely surrounded and under constant observation at that point (although they're on the verge of being declared criminals for hunting Kira in an increasingly pro-Kira world). So how does he tell the difference between someone legitimately accusing someone else of a crime, someone mistakenly accusing someone else of a crime, and someone just making things up? Even if he does have a bunch of supporters who investigate these things and publicly post their results so that he or Misa can just look them up, he's still bound to hit lots of false positives. Ultimately, all he's done is reinvent the legal system except now the penalty for everything (including, for example, harassing a girl on the subway) is death, and a jury of your peers has been replaced by a jury of internet detectives.

And towards the end of the story, this has apparently actually worked in reducing crime levels. There's all kinds of moral agonizing about whether catching Kira is really the right thing to do when he's ended all wars and dragged crime down to almost non-existent levels. And they might actually have a point about wars, because being able to kill Hussein and Ahmadinejad would've ended the Iraq-Iran War in a hurry, but crime rates? Seriously? "Hey guys, I have this awesome idea. Let's wear masks." Problem solved.

None of this would bother me so much except that Death Note is very explicitly for people who think about these sorts of things, hence why the entirety of the action in the series is about trying to discover someone else's identity before they can discover yours. Ultimately, I think the problem is that the creator is utterly in love with Light Yagami. He genuinely believes that Light's "kill all bad people" approach could work just with the ability to kill criminals at will (which, keep in mind, almost all governments already have if they really wanted to). It's why Kira gets tens of millions of fanatical supporters, but L's only support seems to come in the form of government funding. It's why Light gets to have a seventeen-year old super model girlfriend who is utterly obsessed with him and constantly trying to arouse his sexual desire (with no apparent success). It's why last-ditch gambits that should have been the final nail in Light's coffin instead reverse the game completely, and are treated as though they're brilliant.

And that's the reason why Death Note is more popular than it should be. That's why instead of being thought of as decently written, original, and at least trying very hard to be intelligent and succeeding fairly often, it's hailed as the most awesome demonstration of applied game theory ever written. Because everyone wants to be Light Yagami. Light's character traits are pretty much limited to being an evil genius; everything else is a facade and we rarely glimpse his true self. This makes it easy for nerds, the vast majority of whom like to think of themselves as evil geniuses, to project themselves onto him.

Kira is a wildly popular character because he's Bella Swan for maladjusted nerds.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 13 months ago from Illinois

      I kind of agree with you on how the gambit pileup gets a bit ridiculous. However, I think what you say under "Sociology does not work that way" is the point the show is trying to make, that one man should never have the power of life and death over everyone else, and that accused persons deserve the right to a fair trial. As much as we might initially sympathize with the desire for justice, Kira becomes too unforgiving and harsh, which is just basically fascism.

    • profile image

      Laguna 2 years ago

      "And they might actually have a point about wars, because being able to kill Hussein and Ahmadinejad would've ended the Iraq-Iran War in a hurry."

      This makes you just as intelligent as the people you think are less intelligent than you.

    • profile image

      Kira 3 years ago

      All of this is quite interesting.

      So no support?

    • profile image

      Lynn 3 years ago

      Even if you said, wearing masks will solve the problem, those criminals will bound to appear on the news unmasked. Light would then kill them. That's how he started killing at the beginning anyway. The criminals went down because of fear. It's obvious no one wants to die so they don't cause any trouble but of course there are still stubborn people, I mean there are 6 billion people in the world! Even one part of the show Light said that even though the criminals went down the world is still filthy. In a way, I kind of support and don't support Kira...

    • profile image

      Donathon 3 years ago

      Are you 13 years old? The only crimes that go punished are those that are broadcast, criminal faces are constantly showing up on TV. A lot of your reasoning for disliking the series is extremely flawed and shortsighted

    • profile image

      Ananimus 4 years ago

      I'm not sure when this was posted, but I did google search "death note...not that great". And I loved the show when I saw it. It is flawed though in lots of ways, which is sad because everybody WANTS death note to be the greatest manga/ anime ever. It suffers in that peculiar way of something that is incredibly ambitious but only good enough to live up halfway to what they promised.