I have never fully committed to reading Death Note, but I was recently gifted the first six volumes of manga and decided to read them on holiday. If you’re even a little bit into manga and anime it’s very unlikely that you won’t have at least heard of Death Note as it’s very well known and has received multiple awards, meriting its own anime, live action movies and even a musical. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a synopsis below:
Light Yagami is a highly intelligent teenager. So intelligent that he’s bored with life. When he picks up a mysterious black notebook one day called the Death Note and discovers that it can kill people provided he knows their face when writing their name down, he takes it upon himself to rid the world of the immoral, corrupt and criminal. When another gifted teenager who goes by the alias ‘L’ realises what is happening he offers his own impressive intellect to the Japanese police and sets out to track down the mystery killer, who the world calls “Kira”.
Death Note is an addictive read from the outset. Light is a classic psychopath, with all the charisma and hubris that makes his ruthless determination to outwit L and the police to “rid the world of evil” all the more compelling to read. L also has all the appearance and characteristics of an unhinged genius and his tendency to perch on chairs and eat as many sweet treats as he can get his hands on provide much needed visual light relief against the dark subject matter of death and crime.
Death Note isn’t a standard cat-and-mouse story because Light is hunting L as keenly as L wants to catch Kira, and Light isn’t afraid to risk nail-bitingly bold manoeuvres like telling someone he’s the killer only seconds before they’re meant to enact a plan he wrote into the Death Note. L isn’t afraid to use risky and outlandish strategies either, and even approaches Light directly and asks for his help to defeat Kira despite harbouring a suspicion that Light is Kira. The manga also throws other interesting elements into the mix such as Light’s father being captain of the police force, and the unexpected appearance of another Kira.
The stakes get ever higher as L and Light battle for the upper hand which means some improbable plot devices are used, but L and Light’s intricate thought processes add gravitas which help keep the narrative grounded as they constantly analyse and dissect how Kira would act, L to catch him and Light to avoid suspicion.
Light’s relationship with Ryuk, the shinigami accompanying the Death Note is also enjoyably unique, with Ryuk standing back and silently watching Light’s decisions with the Death Note, occasionally revealing something about its workings, or just comically twisting about if he’s denied apples for too long (apples are like crack to shinigami). It’s refreshing to see that despite the shinigami having terrifying appearances, they are rational, feeling creatures and sometimes seem more human than the humans.
Death Note is an absorbing read that proves itself worthy of its cult status with all the melodramatic plot twists and intellectual ponderings that only the best of manga can pull off.
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When I originally heard of Death Note it reminded me a lot of one of my favourite anime, Code Geass. Both stories feature two lead characters with opposing morals, one of whom has a supernatural element to help them fulfill their goal. I think one of the reasons I prefer Code Geass is that the central characters are given strong backstories and motives for their moral stances, so if you like Death Note, definitely give Code Geass a try.