Anime Monday: Looking back at 2006’s Death Note
Roxy Simons | On 25, Sep 2017
On Mondays, our resident anime nerd Roxy binges through Netflix UK’s anime selection to find the best for you to stream. We call it Anime Monday. With Netflix’s live action Death Note released recently, we look back at the 2006 anime TV series.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the original Death Note anime and manga series. This section is clearly marked.
To create a world of peace would you use violence? You’d hope it wouldn’t come to that, right? Well Light Yagami, the aloof genius of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note, doesn’t quite see things that way. He’s disconnected from the world around him, bored with everything and everyone, and when he looks at society, he sees a civilisation that needs to be wiped clean, freed from their malevolent ways. His warped sense of justice and strong beliefs over right and wrong are a driving force for him when the eponymous book, which gives users the ability to kill anyone so long as they know their name and face, falls into his lap. With this power at his fingertips, and a less than trustworthy Shinigami (Death God) by his side, he knows that he can become the ruler of this new world, and he’ll do anything to make it a reality.
Light kills without a second thought, passing judgement on criminals all around the world, in the hope that humanity will take note and change their ways. With each pen stroke, a person is wiped from the face of the earth, and soon, people begin to notice the curious deaths; he is given the name Kira (a mixture of Japanese and English, meaning killer) and they even start supporting him online, revering him as some kind of new god. Not everyone approves of his actions, though, and a mysterious detective, known only as L, is put on the case by the ICPO. The prodigy, who’s solved every case he’s been given while maintaining his anonymity, quickly understands what it is that Light is trying to do. But, he is equally as adamant that Light’s actions are wrong, that no matter how you try to frame it murder is murder. Almost immediately, L starts to suspect Light and the investigation quickly evolves into a contest between the pair — a battle of the minds to see who will win first.
Both are childish and hate to lose: L explains as much to the police task force upon their first face-to-face meeting, and even in the most unexpected of situations, they can turn a scene into an intellectual battle. Take when the pair first meet: L suspects Light of being Kira and decides to join the same university to investigate the 1 per cent chance that he is the criminal he’s after. From the get-go, he tells Light who he is, trying to gauge the other’s reaction as he does so, and Light – not expecting this turn of events – begins to overthink, carefully considering and reconsidering his words so that he doesn’t implicate himself or say something that ‘Kira would say’. The most absurd part of this is when the pair play a game of tennis, every point has a meaning and Light quickly becomes torn over whether winning the match or letting L succeed would make him more suspicious. Even when Light becomes a part of the Kira investigation, he knows he’s being watched, and it takes all of his energy to keep one step ahead of his intellectual counterpart.
It’s with these two that the narrative really excels, and it’s thanks to their incessant cat-and-mouse game that Death Note is as loved as it is, even after a decade. It’s one of those pairings that work on every level; like Batman and the Joker, they are two sides of the same coin, and in another life, they probably would have been friends. As they go head-to-head, it becomes clear that one cannot live without the other, and it’s their determination to thwart each other that keeps us on our toes for so long. On and on their battle rages, set in an isolated space that no one else can enter: we want L to win, but we also rejoice when Light finds ways to turns things in his favour. It’s a twisted reality that we can’t help but love, and the fact that they can match each other’s pace and constantly challenge one another strengthens the narrative.
Of course, it wouldn’t exactly be fair if we only considered L and Light’s relationship – it only lasts for ¾ of the story, after all. They’re alienated from the rest, so characters such as Light’s father and police chief Soichiro Yagami, Light’s accomplice Misa, and even the Shinigami are necessary to offset their dynamic. Both L and Light are cold and calculative, less human than anyone else in the story, so we need the others to counterbalance them. The Shinigami are particularly interesting to witness, not for their appearance and position in mythology, but for their apparent “humanity”. Unlike Light or L, they are able to emit emotions. Misa is also a noteworthy antagonist, even though everyone loves to hate her, because she’s one of the people in the story that had the most potential to be better. Had she been characterised by more than just her infatuation with Light, if she had been manipulating events so that he was dependent on her, then she could have been a more interesting character than she was.
It’s Near and Mello, L’s successors, who divide the most viewers. When L dies, so too do the last remnants of Light’s humanity – because he has no competition, he begins to see everyone as a nuisance so by the time the pair enter the ring there’s no redeeming quality left, no hope for his salvation. As a result, the story shies away from the head-to-head intellectual battle that it thrived on in its early stages. With Light slowly losing his grasp on reality, we begin to root for him less and less, and, eventually, the story becomes more of a waiting game to see his demise than it is about Near and Mello’s ability to match him. We care less for them, and rather than being driven by a desire for justice, they want to prove who deserves to be L’s successor, so they’re not exactly endearing. Their introduction to the story changes things up in a wholly unexpected way, as the lengths they go to to catch Light just proves that ultimate good cannot win, that corruption is necessary.
Many attempts have been made to recreate the manga’s intense moral drama and high-stakes chase to catch Light on screen, but, for one reason or another, only one version has really been able to get close to the vision that Ohba and Obata set down on paper — the anime adaptation. So, what is it that makes the series succeed where others have failed? The answer, really, is the editing. While Ohba and Obata’s narrative is compelling, it’s the show’s presentation of that story that really helps build the tension and gives the show that added bite. An ominous track, a voice actor’s performance, even the use of colours such as red and blue all emphasise the narrative’s confined yet powerful atmosphere. Certain arcs, such as Light’s plot to put L off his and Misa’s scent by giving up their Death Notes and using a proxy, also work even better than in the manga because the visual medium makes the plotline feel like it’s progressing faster.
Things like this make the anime stand out from the different adaptations that have been made of Death Note. One thing that it can be criticised for, though, is its removal of certain nuances from the original story. While we aren’t demanding a shot-for-shot adaptation, some of the series’ changes diminish the impact of certain scenes – hinting at a chance for redemption, for example, makes the ending lighter than it should have been.
Even when you consider these alterations, though, Death Note stands as one of the best anime series to have been made in the 21st century. It’s a visual feast, thanks to its stunning animation and gritty editing, and Ohba and Obata’s intense narrative and memorable characters only add to the show’s overall impact. This is a crime show like no other, so it’s no wonder people keep trying to go back to it and make their own versions — if you’re going to watch any of them, though, go for the anime: you definitely won’t be disappointed.
Death Note (2006) is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.