I should clarify straightaway that this review is NOT of the recently released live action anglicized Netflix adaptation (which take it from me would be a total waste of your time) but is instead focused on the original anime.
I’ll be honest I put off watching Deathnote for a long time. What kept me from it was a mixture of things. The first was my fear that it would be overwhelmingly depressing (a fear that turned out to be unfounded), the second was my fear that it would be overwhelmingly graphic (also unfounded). But perhaps what I feared the most was the glorification of the villain which I’ve noticed can often happen in anime’s that have such a dark theme. Usually overtures are made to excuse or explain away a the main characters abhorrent behavior a to make them more relateable to the viewers. I have little to no patience for that kind of storytelling. I prefer to understand clearly what is evil and what is good from the outset. Excusing a bad person’s bad behavior seeks to normalize violence and without a movement towards redemption, it’s a story telling method I personally find extremely distasteful.
So you’ll all breathe a sigh of relief when I say that Deathnote not only laid my own personal hang ups about the show to rest, but also surprised me with it’s message. In fact I felt it was very timely since much of the show deals with understanding problems with taking justice into our own hands and understanding the problems with appointing ourselves judge and jury towards the our fellow imperfect human beings. It seems that the information age has furnished many with the opportunity to decide if a human being is guilty or not guilty just by reading about them on the internet. For some, the internet has even become a vehicle for self-appointed arbiters of justice to exercise this hunger for satisfaction for wrongs (perceived or actual) inflicted upon them by others. The results of which are very mixed, and very often leading to much suffering upon the part of those who are targeted by these self-appointed judges.
But let me back up a bit and give you some initial information about the overall premise and the characters involved. The basic premise is that the Shinigami (death gods) have notebooks, and writing the name of any human being in the notebook will cause that human being to die. There are a few rules and interesting caveats to this power but that’s the basic gist. A shinigami named Ryuk happens to drop one of these notebooks into the human realm and it’s picked up by honors student and academic genius, Light Yagami. Light is very reminiscent of many of the current generations who feel that the world is on fire, and that there is little to no way to salvage it without taking action through violence. Light decides after testing his power to end the lives of others that the notebook was given to him to punish evil-doers and eradicate criminals from the face of the Earth. A noble goal initially but the inherent weakness of Light to the notebook’s absolute power over life and death slowly reveals the show’s actual message.
That message is that absolute power, corrupts absolutely. It’s an old adage but I felt it was fitting considering the kinds of excuses Light makes for himself when he kills not only criminals but eventually lawful citizens who seek to thwart his brand of “vigilante justice”. He is not sympathetic as a character, and it’s made very clear this person is a sociopath, and a megalomaniac. A refreshing thought, that people who take the law into their own hands, and appoint themselves above the moral and physical laws of the universe are not heroes but instead are monstrous perversions who undermine the very nature of the spirit of Justice they hope to uphold.
Of course every villain deserves a hero, and Deathnote provides a fantastic hero in the character L, a brilliant detective hired to suss out the identity of Light and put his reign of terror to an end. I don’t often recommend the English dubbed versions of these shows because I often feel they are lacking in quality, but the English dub for Deathnote is phenomenal, particularly the characterization of the eccentric L. L is perhaps one of the most engaging and interesting characters in any anime I’ve ever seen. He easily tops the list as one of my favorite characters of all time. I enjoyed watching his mind work, as the game of cat and mouse between him and Light intensifies.
L says very early on that Light’s desire to wreak vengeance on criminal types was a sign of a “very juvenile sense of justice” which I thought was striking, since the idea that simply punishing any and all criminals with a swift and untimely death might to some to seem acceptable and maybe even deserved. I felt that L understood more deeply than Light the nuances and checks and balances that are needed to be in place to establish guilt or innocence. L also seems to understand the possibility of redemption and overcoming one’s past, something that Light ( who prefers to deal in moral absolutes) tends to ignore.
As a Catholic watching this show I was reminded over and over again about the necessity of allowing God to mete out justice on His own. That the action of trying to decide and inflict punishment on those who do wrong or do us wrong is a quick an easy path to emotional and spiritual corruption. It doesn’t take Light very long to decide that he himself is on par with a divine being. The moment he does so his initial perception of justice is irreversibly altered. Instead of becoming something that remains in line with the very system he seeks to uphold, Light very quickly degenerates into meting out what he calls “justice” (but is actually just revenge) to those who neither deserve to die, nor bear any true stains of immorality. The value of their human life is cheapened as Light views them as obstacles to a hazy “better future” where criminals cease to exist. In a sense his will replaces any semblance of true morality, and killing becomes Light’s moral good, while trying to keep someone from murdering others is then seen as an evil worthy of death.
There is also an interesting dichotomy in the appearances of the two characters. Light, a handsome, young, charismatic honors student outwardly looks like the pinnacle of human achievement, a desirable young man who would (without his monstrous secret) be quite a catch. L on the other hand is shown as being scrawny, eccentric, odd, seemingly untrustworthy and a bit of weirdo, but it doesn’t change the fact that L’s message about the purpose of justice and morality is 100% accurate.
I could continue on for pages and pages about this show, but I highly recommend that you seek it out and watch it for yourself. You can find it streaming on Hulu.
Have you watched the show? What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments below.