The power to take life has always been a contentious concept for any civilized society to address, let alone attempt to implement and practice under the pretense of some moral, ethical or religious framework. The fundamental question always remains about how we, in all of our imperfectness, can accurately judge if someone else is qualified to be put to death. Entire societal systems have often wrestled with this question, facilitating ways to comprehend the reasons why putting an individual to death is a necessary action or not, even if all the members of that society do not completely agree with such implemented measures. This argumentative reflection surrounding the concept of murder is complex in nature, with a vastness between what is perceived as “right” and “wrong” when addressing the practical application of putting someone to death. The aspect of moral relativism is consistently present throughout human nature, but in regards to death, do we ultimately have the right to judge one’s actions and enforce their ultimate demise?
Based on the manga from writer Tsunami Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata, Death Note attends to the various degrees in which one can justify murder and the moral relativism that encompasses the pursuit of justice. The series follows Light Yagami, a genius high school student who stumbles upon a “Death Note,” a notebook that can kill anyone whose name is written down in it as long the writer can see the individual’s face. Upon testing it out, he meets Ryuk, a Shinigami who dropped the notebook into the human world because he was bored. Light continues to use the notebook and slowly begins a crusade to rid the world of all evil people, fashioning himself as the new living “God” and taking on the moniker of Kira as he starts the process of killing anyone he chooses. Kira’s killings soon catch the attention of Interpol and “L,” a mysterious detective who is very intelligent and has solved every case he has taken on. The two begin to relentlessly pursue one another in hopes of discovering the other’s identity and exact their personal form of justice.
What makes Death Note so compelling is the moral relativism surrounding justice that is persistent throughout its enormous cast of characters, in particular among Light, L, and others. This relativism offers a fantastic reflection of our humanity, and as the viewer, we become invested in the decisions and reactions many of these characters convey when dealing with their desired notions of justice. The varying degrees in which justice, and its association with murder, can be understood differently by a diverse range of individuals makes for an interesting interaction with the viewer. The philosophical differences expressed between the characters will mostly likely situate the viewer towards one philosophy surrounding justice over that of another. There is no clear-cut “good” or “evil" character within Death Note, as each character offers us considerable insight into the immense complexities that can arise from vigilante justice and how the pursuit of that particular form of justice can be interpreted and put into action in a multitude of ways.
Ohba simplifies this complexity by showcasing it through a methodical game of wits that take place between series’ characters, with the visible results providing the twists and turns necessary to keep the viewer anticipating the next revelatory event. This approach produces a narrative which is more accessible, easing us as viewers into the complicated schemes from which the characters produce and find themselves in. It makes for some exciting, nail-biting moments that will keep you on the edge as you see who can outsmart who in a high-stakes battle in which defeat usually results in death. While this approach surely raises Death Note to a level of unpredictability, this approach also lends itself to a narrative that can be highly unbelievable at times as well. These moments of implausibility are visible through many of the actions taken by the characters as we see them making seemingly impossible predictions that often defy the scope of human intelligence, strangely veering on the side of being omnipotent in their ability to gain the advantage over their opponent. Moments near the end of the series, such as Light's ability to foresee greatly into the future and instances of happenstance may distract from the viewing experience. These moments become a larger staple as the series advances, where unlikely events occur only to reinforce a false sense of high intelligence amongst many of the characters and their foreknowing actions.
This handling of character responses and motivations makes for some truly engaging exchanges throughout, especially for a series centered on the psychological evaluation and interpretation established through the interactions of its characters. In its most basic function, the narrative primarily consists of characters talking to themselves and singular exchanges, with little physical action taking place outside of those exchanges. By essentially boiling it down to a game of cat and mouse in order to build suspense, the concept of death is but a mere stepping stone to advance a narrative whose premise plays upon the various degrees of justice. This odd decision seems to be what Ohba is striving for - that death is ultimately trivial due to its conclusiveness - but it lends the series a dark and brooding atmosphere at it nears its conclusion that many viewers may find utterly depressing or fascinating, depending on who you ask.
One other aspect of the narrative that may be off-putting to viewers is the way in which it switches up halfway through the series, including a time jump that shifts the focus away completely from the one-on-one duel between Light and L. By expanding the narrative in this matter, the dissociation between the previous narrative arc and the series’ latter arc is considerable abrupt, both in tone and focus. In comparison to the comical and playful elements visible in the initial arc, the latter half of the series is much darker, brutal and chaotic. This may be in order to reflect the mayhem created through Light’s continued goal to become a new “God,” but it unfortunately makes for a greater disconnect for those viewers looking to find any of the lighthearted affairs noticeable in the Light and L arc. With the introduction of the Yotsuba Group, Mello, and Near, the amount of characters that are introduced continue to increase and the narrative becomes increasingly entwined. This is where the elongated form of the manga is perceivably more suitable for such a narrative framework, especially since people and events can be further elaborated upon rather than be in the confines of a 23-minute animated episode. The narrative appears rushed at times here, with the development of many characters lacking and being severely undercut by plot advancements that simply cast them aside.
Ultimately, Death Note still remains a greatly captivating series mainly due to its distinct premise and direction. The strength of the series is how its characters uniquely evolve over time, in particular through the eyes of the anti-hero Light. Is Light truly an antagonist or a protagonist? It is not so surprising to see Light resort to deceitful measures to accomplish his goal of becoming a living God, with some viewers agreeing wholeheartedly with his expression of vigilante justice. On the other hand, many will agree with L and others in their pursuit of a more traditional form of justice. What is to a greater extent even more interesting is that many viewers will agree with aspects from both. For a series whose focal point is justice and its association to death, the complex array of feelings regarding the differing motives and applications of justice makes for a series that does not simply want to appease one side over the other. There is no definitive answer that Death Note offers towards how we should view the pursuit and application of justice - especially that of vigilante justice - delegating its real power as a series that is courageously willing to avoid succumbing to a dualistic worldview and encouraging a relativistic one. This honest approach in turn produces a series that is uniquely unafraid to showcase the complexities of human understanding - and how our personal interpretations of justice can often go horribly awry if given absolute power to enact them.