About seven years ago, I read all of Death Note in one sitting and then, fuelled by the irritation such an activity had given me, decided what I most needed to do was talk about it incoherently for a few thousand words and several dozen pages. This was not exactly a very well-rounded, reasonable criticism, but since at the time the culture around me was seized by people who very much believed in Death Note as an actual good piece of media, I felt it important to strike back by posting my opinion someplace they’d never read it. Over the years since that single monster post, however, I’ve become more thoughtful, more reasonable, and I thought that perhaps I’d been unfair to Death Note.
I went back and had another look, double checking major story beats that my memory had thrown up. Let’s look anew at Death Note with fresh eyes, and see if it does yet enrage.
Well, that didn’t take too long.
Death Note is not a good series. It is, however, excellent at pretending to be a good series. This is the difference between being a lightning bolt and being a good photo of a lightning bolt. The two are impressive in very different ways, but you can’t deny that one of them has much more tangible impact.
Death Note is the story of a terrible person being terrible. It is the story of Light Yagami, whose problems start with his name, as he is given godlike power, and then, with no moral complexity or consideration, leaps headlong into maniacal delusions of godhood, literally cackling in his mind at the power he now has over life and death. It frames itself as a cat-and-mouse game between two people with the introduction of L, a person whose name is equally stupid and pretentious, but then, that’s okay, because names are important in this series.
There’s a lot of little things in this series that bother me. I say little things because they’re not important to the plot, and because the writers clearly don’t care about them. Thing is, if I told you a story had problems with women, with ideas of identity, with the moral complexity of killing and righteous violence, with authoritarianism, with character voice, with planning, with plot, with scale, with the fundamental assumptions about human beings, you would probably not think of this as ‘little things’ that are a problem in this series. Indeed, a list like that, you might imagine, is pretty much all the things, and being bad with them is a big deal. Still, Death Note isn’t a story that cares about being bad at those things. Those are all things to push aside, because what it really wants to be is a competition between two paranoid people with a very high set of stakes between them.
If we set aside all of those things that bother me and just look at Death Note in that context, of a story about two people trying to outmanoeuvre each other with the highest of stakes in the way, it’s still a bad series, and it’s bad because the storyteller can’t even manifest two characters. In the anime of Death Note, the internal narration between Light and L is handled by showing the screen change colour from red to blue – which is a visual shorthand so you know who’s talking at the time. That is to say, they could have two characters talking, with voice acting, and there was a very real chance you wouldn’t know who was talking. Light and L are both a pair of immoral sociopaths who care about their own cleverness and about the game between them infinitely more than the greater context of the world. It is a matter of ego, of proving superiority – and that’s it. That’s all there is to it.
It’s watching one character play chess with himself. There are no stakes in this fight, because there is nobody to cheer for. When two more opponents are introduced, they are just as materially identical. There are some differences in basic method, but they’re all the same basic person. You could almost have done something interesting with that idea – but nope, the story just considers all four of the main antagonists as interesting enough to carry everything.
If you think about the tension in this world, it is meaningless; if you think about the after-effects of the story, the meaningless stakes, then you are presented with a narrative that says nothing and goes nowhere, with no people worth mentioning.
That said, I found myself, shortly thereafter, quite enjoying a series which had a small cast of very clever people trying to outmanoeuvre one another around enormously high stakes. That series was Liar Game, and all it had to do to be good was make the characters in the story behave like actual humans, and allow people to be different to one another.
Update: Hi there, people! This is a note from 2017! If you’re interested in this piece, please do feel free to check the rest of the blog out!
Update Again: Iiiit’s 2019 and this is still going.
Hey, if you like this piece on Death Note, can I recommend you find out what I thought about the live-action Netflix movie?
Update, 2021: GO OUTSIDE YOU FUCKING DORKS