*Spoilers for the Death Note Anime and Manga*
I watched the Death Note Netflix movie so you didn’t have to. So don’t especially if you’re not into Young Adult teenage dramas, a lackluster lead and not enough use of the amazing Willem Defoe. That being said I’m not here to wail on this movie which was, truth be told, entertaining enough for a casual watch but not good enough to be the next dark cult hit, which I’m sure Netflix was aiming for. No, I’m here to discuss the original, and frankly amazing concept that is Death Note, which is written by Tsugumi Ohba with art by Takeshi Obata. First serialised in December of 2003 in Japan’s weekly Shōnen Jump, it was given a critically acclaimed anime adaptation in 2006 after the manga had finished its original run and this was one of, if not the first anime I managed to seriously explore before I was ten, and I cannot overstate its important. Back when most of my friends were only concerned with playing the next game of football, WWE or which girl they had a crush on. Not that I wasn’t interested in those things, I would especially make sure to never miss out on a WWE match, however, I was also sneaking out at 4 AM to catch the early morning viewings of mature or adult anime that very rarely aired during the day and only appeared in the late hours of the night. That was also the time I would indulge in other enlightening anime like the original Hellsing, Black Lagoon, Gantz and other shows besides them, but those are tales for another post. The ritual of sneaking out with senses on full alert to the dark living room gave every second watched a weight that I can’t really describe. I wasn’t just watching for enjoyment’s sake, I was hooked utterly and would absorb every concept, theory and philosophy that I could even barely understand, and Death Note was rife with them.
You see, Death Note has a very interesting premise, and I’m talking both within and outside of the crazy world of anime. Light Yagami, a highly intelligent 17 year old student with a promising future is living an average life. His family is well to do with his father the chief of the National Police Agency, and apart from being adored by his peers and family, he is expected to go to a top-tier university and enter a prestigious job, continuing the family tradition of excellence. On an uneventful day however, a notebook, the titular Death Note falls from the sky and Light picks it up. With the Death Note comes the power over life and death. One can kill whoever they please as long as they write their names in the pages. And while there are many technicalities in the series, we won’t go into them. So Light, our protagonist now turned anti-hero decides to take the role of “saviour”, dispensing justice in whatever way he sees fit. Criminals who are often broadcast on TV begin dying mysteriously at a rate unheard of and rumours of a god-like entity begin circulating and the internet dubs this new figure of Justice, “Kira”, which is the Japanese version of the English word “Killer”, a name Light finds befitting and adopts wholeheartedly. One of the things that makes this show so great is the characterisation of all the various main, side and recurring characters. Not only do we get their personal feelings and emotions, but also their motivations, fears and even glimpses into their daily lives. There are no typical ubermensche as found in most other Shōnen Jump manga at the time. It is a constant game of cat and mouse like an old-school detective movie between Kira and his adversary, L, the enigmatic genius tasked with bringing Kira to “Justice”.
And the quoted “Justice” above is not only quoted, but capitalised because the concept of justice is not universal. We are not put in L, the “good guy’s” shoes for a reason. Even though he is on the side of Law and Order, he is not portrayed as a hero, nor does anyone say he is. He is flawed, and rather selfish, and in his pursuit of Kira, he will often resort to underhanded, unorthodox and even dangerous methods to catch him, not because Kira is necessarily evil, but because that’s his job. Its the task he has set out for himself and the one he intends to fulfill. Kira on the other hand, truly believes what he is doing is right. Kira has the power to kill practically anyone, and whilst most would kill world leaders and use that power for personal gain, Kira does otherwise. He is taking out the trash for lack of a better word, which many people support because they perceive him as a god-like figure doing the work that god isn’t and using his power for “good”. While this only manages to fuel his hubris even more, giving him a despicable god-complex that oft-times leaves him villainous. However, this serves as a good contrast to the virtuous nature of Kira, planting him down in the eyes of the reader as simply a man and nothing more.
So that brings us to the main point of this post, the idea that “Justice” is nothing but a lie. It is something constructed by those who wield power as a means to further their own goals. In Kira’s case, he seeks to create a “perfect world” free of crime, but full of fear that an omniscient figure will get you for misbehaving. On the other hand L serves law and order. He believes in the rules and in the way they are systematically upheld and executed, suffering no vigilante as someone above the law itself. A good way to summarize both L and Kira’s personalities is when L states, “Kira is childish and he hates losing… I’m also childish and hate losing.” This easily cements the way L views the case to catch the most prolific serial killer in human history. L never takes cases for justice’s sake despite being one of the most intelligent detectives alive, he only takes cases that hold personal interest to him, like the Kira case. Each of the main characters has their own idea of justice, but none are necessarily right. Kira views himself as Just, but not evil, and so does L, but that means that there is no right or wrong justice, just the one that prevails in the end. Kira plainly states at the start of the series, “If we catch Kira, he is evil. If he wins and rules the world, then he is justice.” This has forever been one of the most important lines in manga and anime history. It is a truth reinforces the Fallacy of Justice. That Justice is not a virtue, but a tool, and one to be used by the winner, and the strong implement their will in the world.
And as the series progress, one can see this in Kira’s actions more often than not. He strives to achieve his “Justice” through nefarious means, killing anyone who stands in his way. He becomes more ruthless, willing to sacrifice those close to him in order to keep himself safe and carry out his goals. This shows that even if one claims to be just, that might amount to nothing if the means don’t justify the end, and this is another thing that lends weight to the meaning, and meaninglessness of Justice in Death Note.
Death Note was something that opened my eyes to the possibility of different philosophies and ideals. How what can be considered “good” can be twisted and warped by the person’s personality. I learnt to see the world, not in black and white or right and wrong, but in shades of gray. That opened my eyes to a wider world. One of strong writing, opposing ideals, and the use of art to channel them, and I’m immensely happy that I had the chance to start my journey with something as phenomenal as Death Note.
As L so eloquently said, while in my own opinion defeating the point of Justice, “there is no heaven or hell. No matter what you do while you’re alive, everybody goes to the same place once you die. Death is Equal.”