Why Death Note Is Bad

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.

Hm.

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?

16 comments

  1. Pendix

    “…because what it really wants to be is a competition between two paranoid people with a very high set of stakes between them.”

    Character aside, it also fails at being a good ‘chess game’, as the author is hooked on using Deus Ex Machina to pull Light’s arse out of the fire constantly (writes himself into a corner, then: behold! a new magic rule! aren’t I clever :p). Hell, IIRC, Light only defeats L (in the first half) by using a rule of the book only introduced a few chapters (issues? episodes?) before.

    • Aston Levy

      What really sealed the deal for me on this series being bad is not just how much of an asshole Light Yagami is, it’s how convoluted his troll logic is, Nine times out of ten, his plans rely on risks and guesswork instead of actual certainty, Like with Ray Penber, he stages a busjacking to learn his name and so what he does is he asks a girl out on a date just to show her a piece of paper so that Ray will notice it and he shows his ID to gain Light’s trust. Why did he show his ID with his real name on it, he could have just shown him his badge and then Light’s plan would have been all for nothing, Light had no certainty that he would show his ID when the possibility is more certain that he would just show his badge. He can use the Death Note to control somebody up until the moment of their death, why didn’t he just have the crazed busjacker shoot Penber, there would be no suspicion on him because the busjacker did the deed. He actually exposes his identity to Penber in a crowded subway, yeah because that’s smart, just expose your identity in a crowded area, where someone can overhear your confession and report you to the police. The whole thing was just so ridiculous that I couldn’t keep reading.

  2. BrieflyDefective

    You, also, forgot to mention the fact that Raito Yagami does not have an excuse for his behaviour. He hails from a secure household, and he has a secure attachment, to his sister, and to his parents. He does not feel overshadowed by his sister’s existence, although he admits to feeling moderately bored and lonely, traits that adolescents are inclined to sympathise with. Raito does not find school, or school work, stressful, he does not feel like his parents are being authoritarian, or permissive, and, on the whole, he is taught to have decent morals, which suggests that the author thinks that being a “psychopath,” is genetic, despite the fact that Raito shows more signs of being a narcissist, than someone with AsPD, and, even then, he does not have an environmental excuse for his actions. He is a cardboard character, with all of the personality traits that we associate with a Mary Sue, minus being “evil,” and that’s not to mention how to series, itself, does not present morality correctly, as it is supposed to. The characters resort to vile means to achieve their goals, and their desires, which are generally unrealistic, in the sense that they, either, do not have any realistic reasons for wanting to achieve said goals, or in the sense that their reasons could easily be overcome, with a trip to the psychoanalyst. The creator of the series, then, chooses to try to justify the means of the characters, even though the characters are lacking in any semblance of humanity. Thus, the creator’s characters cannot be subtly sympathetic, whilst leaving whether the viewer should relate to them, as an ambiguous matter. No, you are, either “good,” or “bad.” The only difference is that the author chooses to present “bad” people, in a positive light, which is damaging to his target audience, because he is influencing teenagers in to justifying their negative actions, in the name of being misunderstood, bored or lonely, traits which every teenager sympathises with, as I’ve previously mentioned. The creator, also, refuses to show a spectrum of morality, in that he presents only two note-worthy characters with moral viewpoints. Better still, why do we always have to see morality in characters, who are, either, trying to save or destroy the world, and why do characters with a strong sense of morale have to be narcissists, or do-gooders, as we frequently see, in modern fiction, and why are they usually completely disconnected from the audience, as the writer has not put enough thought into their personalities, as well as their moralities, because he is trying to avoid getting caught, preaching to the viewer? Even the creator of Death Note resorts to preaching his beliefs, through Near, during the second half of the series, and leaves the story, at that, as if there is no longer a spectrum of morality. The message boils down to “be bad, and you’ll receive your due.”

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  4. Stanford

    I love Death Note. It just made me think about what light would do next and how L would reply. The anime is better in my opinion, purely because of the music and voices. I can see where your coming from , but I actually quite like it.

  5. Vicky

    This is an old post, but I came across this after my friend, who normally has good taste, got upset with me once again for making fun of death note, saying that death note is “well written.” And since she took a class in college, she apparently knows better than I do.

    Quite frankly, I love you. Ok, not really, but everything about this evaluation is perfect. I love the description of death note being a series that is trying to appear as if it’s a good series, because it is so accurate. As I was reading it, whatever though or comment I had would magically manifest itself in the next sentence. It’s as if it was reading my mind/predicting my thoughts. The cherry on top was the mention of Liar Game, which I adore.

    As a result, I can’t really add anything else to this. I agree with everything. Which is probably a horrible comment that adds nothing to a conversation, but finally FINALLY seeing someone else with the exact same thoughts about death note as me is so fucking validating and relieving. Thank you, you fine person.

  6. Jessica Jones

    I’ve watched on Netflix this week, and honestly, after it was over, I didn’t felt nothing, literally, nothing. When How I Met Your Mother ended I felt things, anger, sadness, a bit of joy. Or when a movie is over and you imagine yourself in it’s world, Transformers, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, even Twilight, you want to be there, do somthing, have powers. But Death Note? I’d rather be on Yu-Gi-Oh! instead. Anyways, to be clear, there was a point where I just wanted everyone to die, literally, everyone, I just couldn’t like any of the characters, or identify with any of them.

  7. Slanda

    And lets not all forget the biggest piece of s*** to hit the plot fan… Light decides to wipe his memory and start over! What the hell, the same character that has been killing thousands of people and thinks of himself as a god just decides to hang it up? The same guy that enjoyed playing this chess game with his opponent and constantly fought his way out of the s*** he got into, just says “hey, I think ill give myself up and stop this rebellion thing. While Im at it Ill throw away my perfect world theory”! I hate it so much!!!

  8. Zach

    I’m sitting here completely lost on how they’re supposed to be so “clever.” LIGHT CAN NOT LOSE. He lives in a world just like ours. No self respecting detective is going to just assume the killer is using magic like holy shit the government actually trusts this guy? L has no idea how, who, or when Light kills them. It could easily be all chalked up to circumstance yet apparently this poor man’s Holmes is still on the hunt??? Let’s pretend they just find him off the bat. So what victim’s names are written in his book? No one knows it is his tool. No one can make a connection. Light has the ultimate tool yet his killings are perfect but L immediately assumes it’s by magic? So much stupid had to happen just for these events to fall into place I don’t even see the point of continuing the series.

  9. Rachel Morgan

    Honestly this is my favorite post ever. I’m just so sick of seeing, literally everywhere, how Death Note is this super amazing anime with the best plot of ever. No it’s not, after I finished i I didn’t go back to it, it didn’t stick, it was just finished. It could have been good, but so much failed in the production of it that it barely had a chance. Why was there absolutely no background for Light? This rich kid whose never had a bad experience, from what we are shown as an audience, just decides to go on a killing spree to become “God” after getting a magical book? That makes zero since, even for a Sociopathic character. There needed to be a reason to get behind but there wasn’t. And don’t get me started on how many people think L and/or Light are one/some of the most smart and strategic anime character/s when neither of them could stand a chance against most strategic planners.

  10. AJ

    I haven’t read the manga, but I agree with all your criticisms of the show. I really enjoyed it up until L died, but that was mostly because L was the only interesting character and I realise that now. My prediction up until then, was that because L was an orphan and taken into custody by a strange organisation, perhaps he was never actually given a name. Thus, he’d be the only character completely immune to the Death Note. If they’d gone that way, they might have even had the organisation be run by some people who KNEW about the Death Note, and were training kids to seek out the owners in secret. That sort of plot would have made so much more sense to me, because the whole time I was just thinking, ‘why is Light even worried? The only evidence against him is a book and nobody believes in magic … just hide it?’

  11. Kashmir

    It was the worst show I’ve ever watched. There is not one memorable moment in the show that I can point to and say “that was a great episode”. And the way Misa is just immediately and hopelessly a slave for Light… seriously? Worst fucking character ever. There’s absolutely no depth to any of the characters, nothing to identify with. A second Kira. The moment that idea was introduced I was done with this show. There’s always some last minute gottcha and some new rule for the death note.

    They could have done so much more with it. It had decent beginnings, there was a lot of symbolism they could have used, but just never did anything with. So disappointing.

  12. Anonymous lil person

    I watched this show in 2016, but a few months later after realising how dumb the plot is, I began to dislike it. Also, I think it was a bad move to introduce that ugly, annoying imbecile named Misa. She is one of the things that ruined this show.

    Apart from the plot, the art style of the animation looks bland at times. Especially with females. No interesting details. (Go watch some 80s/90s OVAs like Angel Cop or Gunbuster etc. and compare the females’ physical details from these shows and Death Note. In my opinion, the females look better and have more interesting and bolder features, despite being in older shows.) They all look like they were made out of the same template. Not to mention that 98% of the characters look emo and dull. I usually avoid looking at any of their faces, unless I want to get a nightmare.

    To put it in a nutshell, this anime (including its themes, and everyone in it) is lifeless and edgy. The vibe it gives is so somber and dull. It isn’t my cup of tea. Light is such a nitwit and a pathetic narcissist, after using the death note against criminals he automatically assumes that he is God, and then we have him rambling for many episodes about this “filthy world” and how he thinks he can change it by killing off every bad person in the world to make his ideal “bright world”. In all honesty, anyone else would figure out halfway through that they will fail doing so. Why is the fandom still alive, despite the fact that the Death Note anime already ended in 2007? Seriously.

    P.S: sorry if I pissed off anyone with this comment, this is the only safe place in which I can rant about Death Note, without being attacked by obsessive fans.
    After all, everyone is entitled to their own opinions!.. And your opinion, sir, is really well-written and sophisticated.

  13. Juan Medina

    Es imposible identificarse con alguno de los personajes, son extremistas, o eres un jodido genio(Kira-L), o un pedazo de zoquete (Misa-Matsuda), es como si ninguno fuese humano

  14. Emdarling

    I’m glad someone shares my same feeling about Death Note. I was 9 episodes in and I already sensed that I didn’t like it for some similar reasons you stated.

    It gets all this hype but Light is sooo unlikable and L while he is somewhat clever I think I mainly liked his VA Kappei Yamaguchi not the character himself.

    I’ve had the manga on-hold for years now. And the anime has been on-hold for a few months now too. Makes me wonder if I should just drop both already.

  15. Melbs

    Here I am in 2020 finally reading this. I’m on vol 3 of the black covers and I am just so bored of the same back and forth between Light and L. I never considered some of the issues brought up by other comments and now that I see those, continuing will be difficult. I am frustrated enough to ask the internet if I am crazy to not enjoy Dearh Note! There is no time for me to absorb the impact of anything that happens because the pacing is so fast! There are no stakes because as soon as a problem is presented, it seems resolved and replaced by a new one almost instantly. I will press on, because my fiend and I are cosplaying L and Light in April… I should know what happens ;)

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