Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Death Note

I'm reminded of the Danzig song, "How the Gods Kill." When you get think about it, the power to choose life or death, deciding who lives and who dies, is a power some would say is best left to a higher being, someone or something above the fray of petty human affairs and not susceptible to whims, impulse, or corruption. When a human being comes to possess a great and terrible power, there is always a potential for a great and terrible corruption.

Based on the manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, Death Note is an anime series that explores what happens when this power of the gods ends up in the hands of the human. It leaves no stone unturned. At times, Death Note is fantasy horror, morality tale, police procedural, coming of age saga, family drama, teen romance, and an examination of the nature of power and corruption, with a few dashes of whimsical and dark humor thrown in for good measure.

Death Note centers on Light Yagami, a bright high school student in Japan who comes across a "Death Note," a notebook from the world of the Shinigami, the Gods of Death. Anyone whose name is written in the notebook will die, and after trying the notebook out and meeting its original owner, a Loki-like Shinigami named Ryuk who dropped the notebook into the human mostly out of boredom, Light decides he will cleanse the world of evil by eliminating those he deems morally unfit to live.

As the world's criminals begin dropping like flies, the governments of the world contact the enigmatic detective known only as L. Working with a special Japanese task force, which includes Light's father, a police detective, L. realizes the mysterious killer known to the world as "Kira" is operating in Japan. What ensues is a battle of wits between two brilliant minds, a chess match between two geniuses where the stakes are the world.

Fantasy movies, especially ones involving devices, often lay a groundwork of rules for how the device or scenario must work, and observant viewers can tear a movie apart if it violates the rules it establishes or derail it by raising hypothetical questions the story never addresses. For example, in Gremlins, when does the after-midnight rule stop taking effect? Aren't we always after the previous midnight?.

Death Note is the most thorough, stringent, and observant follower of its own rules I've ever seen in a work of fiction. The series goes to great lengths spelling out what can and cannot be done with the notebook and dramatizing it through Light's experiments. The notebook itself contains rules and Ryuk, when he feels like it, will offer some explanation, but he admits even he doesn't know the full nature of the book. The early part of the series is built on Light figuring out just what this notebook is capable of.

When the world becomes aware of Kira and L. begins his investigation, the series becomes centered on the battle between Light and L. It isn't long before L. suspects Light, and he tells him to his face and brings him on board the investigating team. L. works to provoke Light and gauge his reactions to his hypotheses, ideas, and plans while Light works to cover his tracks and learn L.'s real name so he can eliminate him, although if he takes him out at the wrong time, he'll be exposed. Each player is working to stay three steps ahead of the other.

The dichotomy of Light and L. drives the show. Light, at least to us and Ryuk, is a hot-headed, petulant, and childish egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, but on the surface, he's charming, a young man with a bright future who everyone likes. Frequently, we see him with a red coloring scheme to reinforce the fiery personality within him. How dare anyone try to stand in his way? By contrast, L. is cold, rational, and somewhat dismissive of human interaction. He uses people along the way and seems to have little grasp of social norms, coming off as kind of rude. He's young, too, despite his reputation. He always sits with his feet crouched under him and is seen eating only junk food, though he's gaunt and pale. His color scheme is blue.

There are other characters, and the series, to its credit, gives time to them and their stories without losing track of the main plot. Light's father becomes torn between duty and family, especially when it really looks like Light is Kira; Matsuda, a young detective on the team, is regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the others and becomes to determined to be useful; and Aizawa, another detective, wavers on his choice between doing what he thinks is right - staying on the case - and protecting his family -when the Japanese police force stops supporting the team financially.

Things get even more complicated when another Death Note turns up in the hands of Misa, a model who idolizes Kira and falls in love with him from afar. She's guided by Rem, another Shinigami with more of a moral code than Ryuk; she wants to protect Misa.

Death Note is filled with moments of horror (Ryuk's first appearance in Light's room) and paranoia (the investigators never know when death will strike). There are also moments of levity and humor (Ryuk becomes addicted to apples and goes through withdrawals without them). It also has poignancy, especially when Rem explains how Shinigami can die. She tells the story of Gelus, who fell in love with a human; it's a one-scene flashback, but it's incredibly moving, then frustrating when you realize the person he sacrificed himself for, even after learning what he did, is too stupid and self-centered to appreciate it.

Death Note is an imaginative and thoughtful series, exploring the nature of life and death with right and wrong. The visuals are strong, and the plot is layered and full of twists and surprises. It covers a lot of ground but rarely loses focus.

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