Rather than being a ‘Whodunit’ murder mystery, Death Note immediately throws you into an intense psychological hotbox. The opponents facing each other in this hotbox are two characters who both believe that they represent the very definition of righteousness itself.
Manga Title: Death Note
Author/Artist: Tsugumi Ohba/Takeshi Obata
Genres: Psychological thriller, detective fiction, supernatural
Raito ‘Light’ Yagami, an honors student ranked highly in Japan and son of a detective, comes across a notebook that’s been seemingly dropped by someone outside his senior high school. Opening the book, he’s surprised to find this disturbing paragraphon the book’s first page:At first thinking the notebook is nothing more than a prank, he takes it home and reads the following paragraphs, which describe the details of how the selected person’s death can be manipulated by writing them in the Death Note too. Still not thoroughly convinced Raito gives it a try, experimenting first on a felon, and next on a random biker who’s harassing a girl he comes across in the street. After the biker really does die in the street from an apparent ‘accident’ – Raito’s doubts about the notebook are completely cleared.
Validating the notebook gives rise to schemes within Raito’s mind, plans about how he can go about rectifying what he considers to be an evil world and become a god in the process. Raito begins his purge by writing down the names of one hundred dangerous lawbreakers, many of whom are incarcerated, believing himself to be untraceable due to the mysterious method the victims suddenly die from if not otherwise specified: a heart attack.
Shortly after, the true owner of the notebook, a shinigami (a god of death or a reaper) known as Ryuuku approaches him, telling him the book now belongs to Raito, and elaborating more on some of the rules regarding the Death Note. Ryuuku is invisible to everyone except the owner of the Death Note and those who touch its pages. He adopts a neutral status about Raito and his mission, claiming he was bored with the life of a shinigami and hopes that this unique human is going to make it interesting for him.
In the meantime, Raito’s initial carelessness is actually what gives L, a famous private detective whose true name and identity are unknown, a major clue as to Raito’s whereabouts and methods of killing.
L is contracted by international officials to investigate the bizarre sudden deaths of the hundred convicts. L’s sense of justice is the converse of Raito’s – he believes in following the law to the letter and any murder, regardless of who is killed – is still a murder. Tracing an invisible thread in the mass of killings, L filters them down to Raito’s location in Japan. Through a clever television broadcast, L also ascertains more about Raito and is able to pinpoint his rough location within Japan.
Instead of running from the threat, the now zealous Raito decides to use L’s closing in on him as a chance to annihilate his opponent. A battle of wits between the two geniuses begins, a battle in which the hunter and the hunted becomes unclear. One thing is certain however, neither Raito nor L will give in until they see that their ‘justice’ is done!
The story mainly follows the perspective of Raito Yagami, thus you’re enveloped early on in his mentality. Raito holds that everyone believes in justice yet no one’s willing to take the law into their own hands, therefore he sees coming across the Death Note as an opportunity to help the world. The main flaw in this plan is Raito himself; he not only wants to mete out justice, but also hopes to be revered as a god for it, which immediately highlights his delusional thinking.
You could say that Raito is questionably conscientious – he feels pangs of conscience on initially using the Death Note however he soon covers this feeling up with his grand designs to cleanse the world. His ideology/delusions and ego overrule his compassion and he follows the path of his own convictions regardless. What’s more, when L issues his challenge over a television broadcast for Raito (who is dubbed ‘Kira’- a play on the English word killer) he takes a sort of relish in the idea of a cat and mouse game with L, confident that he’ll win.
While Raito doesn’t show a scrap of sympathy for those he kills, he seems to be genuinely caring towards his sister and father – relationships that later may end up being a liability for him in his role of Kira.
Ironically L is not so different from Raito. Both possess a strong sense of justice and are ingenious, meticulous men who show little emotion. L has the habit of sitting cross-legged and even meditating when pondering the Kira case. He shrewdly smokes Raito out in the first volume and using his international contacts, including the F.B.I., draws closer and closer to Raito’s position.
Ryuuku, the shinigami whose Death Note Raito lays his hands on is arguable the truly ‘evil’ character in the story. Whilst doing hardly anything other than observing and explaining to Raito the Death Note’s rules, he openly states that he finds humans interesting due to their struggles and attempts to change things. He keeps a number of facts back from Raito to increase the enjoyment of the murder game he’s watching unfold – all to ease the boredom of his eternal existence.
A range of other characters are introduced later, but I’m only going into the first volume here, so I won’t touch on them. Needless to say, the characters introduced later are every bit as fascinating and colorful as our three main ones so far.
The entire concept of a Death Note brings with it an immediate sense of suspense and of delving into the forbidden. Just like opening a grimoire or esoteric spell book, starting to read Death Note is the same as diving into that taboo world. Right off the bat, the tension begins – a tactic masterfully done by Tsugumi Ohba, drawing you into the psyche of Kira and the paranormal killings which he performs. The manga hits on a deeper level when you find yourself understanding both Raito’s motivations and L’s too, growing closer to both of them.
Takeshi Obata’s art, as any who are familiar with his works knows, flourishes on each page – strongly bringing out the atmosphere and emotions of the characters. The story doesn’t let up for one second, and I was biting my nails along with L, pondering what his next move and Raito’s would be, unable to stop poring over the pages of what I can honestly call a modern classic.
I’d heard of the infamous Death Note through the grapevine before I actually read it. At the time I was reading Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Bakuman, and met someone who recommended I read the manga. One of the things the person who recommended it to me said was, “It’s a psychological experience; it gets deeply into your mind.” I honestly couldn’t agree more.