Death Note

Almost anything that features a master criminal fancies itself as a battle of wits between him and the star detective. In practice, all that usually means is the bad guy leaves no evidence, then blunders into an obvious trap by the cop. Death Note actually is a battle of wits, though: the entire series revolves around two people desperate to eliminate each other, but prevented from doing so directly by the complicated mathematics of suspicion, guilt and uncertainty.

It all stems from the Death Note: a book found by a sociopathic hyperintelligent schoolkid that will kill someone if you write their name in it. You have to be picturing their face, and you can specify the time and circumstances of their death. He starts using it to rid the world of violent criminals, but gets into such hot water so quickly that his immediate objective is mostly self preservation.

The detective is never entirely sure if it’s really him doing it, since the flexibility of the book lets him schedule killings of people he’s never met, by natural causes, at times he has a perfect alibi for. But nor can the villain find a good way to kill his rival and get away with it: the two keep manoeuvring so that the villain could always feasibly be innocent, and the detective cannot be safely killed.

It’s a terrifying mind game of questions.
“He’s asking me what the killer would do – do I answer accurately and risk looking like the killer, or throw him off and risk playing dumber than he knows me to be?”
“If he’s telling me that openly, does that mean he knows that I know, or is he trying to find out if I know he knows that I know?”

Luckily, the complexity is kept readable by a completely frank expositional dialogue style, where people actually say things like, “If this had happened sooner, it would have been bad for me!” and “Please could you explain a little better.” You’re forever wondering how the hell the series is going to last more than a couple of episodes further, because massive developments tighten the circle around these two players in almost every one. But it keeps finding clever ways to scupper the dominant player, and luck never sides with either of them too long.

I haven’t finished the whole thing yet, but I can say the first 24 episodes are essential brain fodder. Thanks to Graham and Lisa for recommending it in the pub the necessary five times for me to get around to checking it out. If you’re in the US, PleasingFungus points out that the whole series is available on Hulu for free.

31 Replies to “Death Note”

  1. I have a hard time describing Death Note to my friends. I just give up and say ‘watch it.’ It’s even harder to convince them that an anime is one of the best detective/pshyc thriller I’ve ever seen.

  2. Haven’t seen the anime, but absolutely love the films (live-action, not anime, btw), I’ve heard the plots are very similar but there are differences (addition of a girl-friend for the main character, fairly inconsequential for most of it but does play a very important role in the plot towards the end of the first film).

    They certainly go down amongst my favourites and tend to appear on film4 fairly often so worth watching out for.

  3. There’s a girlfriend in the anime too, of sorts, who fits that description pretty well.

    There’s also a deeply disturbing and incongruous foot massage scene around episode 23 or so.

  4. My girlfriend had me read Death Note. No matter how hard I try, I can’t grasp manga storytelling. The incongruity between successive panels and the speed at which events occur – with colossal logical leaps made in the invisible periods between panels – is too great. I didn’t get very far.

    I’ll give this a try.

  5. It also features the number 1, most dramatic crisp-eating scene in the history of media. Since watching it, my heart races whenever I see a pack of Salt + Vinegar.

  6. This is true. There’s also an episode taken up entirely by one outwardly casual conversation between two people walking along a street, but with hidden high stakes.

  7. Death Note was the first anime I watched as an adult. I have a tremendous soft spot for it, for pretty much all of the reasons you described. Haven’t had much luck recommending it to others – my family despised it – but…

    …also worth noting that it’s on Hulu, which is where I watched it. A bit cheaper than the box set, a bit classier than a torrent. If anyone here feels inspired to watch the series, Hulu would be my recommendation.

    (Oh – also, I very much enjoy your second screengrab. Excellent taste.)

  8. I won’t ruin anything for you, but I’m curious to see what you think of the series in a few more episodes…

  9. Death note is really good for the first 26 episodes, the story has a big climactic, natural conclusion, but then keeps going for some reason (i blame japanese editorial management) and it basically stretches itself until the point of “oh i guess he messed up” like you were mentioning at first. Amazing first 26 episodes, terrible last 13 or so.

  10. Death note is definitly a great series. After the first 26 episodes, the show gets much worse though. It improves some after a few episodes, but I was dissappointed with the last episode.

    If you’re going through an anime phase Tom, I’d strongly recommend Ghost in the Shell (the series) and Cowboy Bebop. GitS should be watched subbed, but Cowboy Bebop’s dub is arguably better than its sub.

  11. If you enjoy Death Note, you should watch Code Geass.

    Here is a summary as to why:

    Many parallels could be drawn between the two series.
    Code Geass ends up being slightly less clever, as the protagonist does not have a single brilliant enemy. There are many battles of wits, but spread over more people.

    But Code Geass does have Mecha.

  12. Oh dear, you’re just coming up to the part where it gets notably less good.
    Everyone hates ladies night…

    I’d second recommendations of both ‘Code Geass’ (if you like scheme/counterscheme action, and don’t mind some occasional silliness) and ‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’ (if you like intellectualism and buddy-cop-show-esque crime-fighting intertwined with massive conspiracies).

  13. I agree with Palpatine, Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex are very good animes. Smart too.

  14. While I did enjoy Code Geass it just didn’t do it for me like Death Note did. Now Monster on the other hand, while long, is a dark and conspiracy laden as they come with brilliant pacing and characterization.

  15. Oh no, you’ve done it now mate:

    Look, I don’t mind anime or manga. Some of it is actually good, like Death Note. Unfortunately like with most things, most anime and manga are terrible.

    Now that you have admitted to liking at least one series from Japan, be prepared for a swarm of anime fanatics descending upon your blog, chanting “one of us, one of us”.

    Anime and Manga were okay, until they were ruined by the fanatics who give it a very bad name.

  16. I wonder if it is like Naruto in that you get filler episodes that repeat everything and then the actual plot moves forward after every 2-3 filler episodes. Then when the plot actually does move forward it gets stretched on and on forever.

    The writers hoping that the audience are so invested in the characaters they have created that people will just keep watching, like some comfort blanket.

    Manga and anime, what geeks think are passable but what programes like Eastenders and Coronation street have been doing for decades. After Akira and Ghost in the Shell, it’s all downhill.

  17. Largely, yeah. It was funny to read an interview recently where some anime director talked about his new project having a ‘more Western’ focus on plot. Some gems do slip through though; mostly manga, where the corporate involvement is so much slimmer.

    Also I’ve seen Akira twice and don’t like it so there.

  18. @TooNu: I think that’s pretty much a reality of serial content. You either come up with amazing new developments every week, or you pad them out.

    You see, the need to create new and interesting material on an ongoing basis can be taxing. If you can’t manage to keep up the pace of the new content, you might find it easier going to space out the actual content, and then add new information at a pace you can manage as a writer.

    It’s because of the serial nature of the entertainment. Trying to write something new and exciting week after week until the end of time is a lot to ask, so it’s often a necessity to spend an episode either side of a proper development just reiterating, having the characters react to it and anticipate the next thing.

    You know, because of the episodic nature of these shows. Being serial entertainment programmes. AM I HAMMERING THIS JOKE IN HARD ENOUGH.

  19. It took all the force of your recommendation to get me through the first eight bars of the unbelievably terrible theme song. A little warning next time!

  20. First half; brilliant. Easily one of the best manga/anime series ever.

    After the real turning point in the series – and if you’ve seen it, you know what it is – it’s utter tripe. Complete shite. I couldn’t read more than a few volumes after that, and considering it’s only a few volumes long after the middle bit… well, that says a lot.

  21. @DoctorDisaster
    If you think the theme tune for the FIRST half of the series is bad, wait till you pass the halfway mark. *shudders*

  22. You’re right, I can’t imagine this “worse theme song.” But I like the show thus far, so I look forward to hearing it with guarded skepticism and a little thrill of dread.

  23. I think I’ll be the outcast here and say that I actually very much enjoy the second opening song, and I’m not even a metal head. It just grew on me in this really odd way.

    In other news: Death Note is brilliant.

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