Deathnote: The Good and The Bad

The Good

This week, I take you into the world of Deathnote. Here in our Western culture, we have our personification of death in the “Grim Reaper,” that famous guy dressed in black and with a scythe.

For those of you unfamiliar with traditional Japanese culture, their icons for death are gods (plural) of death, called Shinigami. Just as there are many different vampire legends in the West, so too are there different views of Shinigami in the East. In Deathnote, the Shinigami live in a world separate from ours, on a different plane of existence, watching our actions and—every once in a while—coming to our world … to collect.

They function using things called deathnotes, in which they write the names of those intended to die, and then the human dies. So if, say, a Shinigami named Ryuk dropped his deathnote into the human world out of boredom, and a human boy named, oh, Light Yagami, picked it up, the “consequences would be dire” (to quote Family Guy’s Death).

Fortunately for readers, the consequences were indeed dire. After reading the rules of how to use the Deathnote, Light decides to use it to cleanse the world of evil and make it a better place. Opposed by Interpol and the local police, Light gradually develops a [non-romantic] relationship with the chief detective on the case, a young genius codenamed “L”—akin to that of Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

If that grabs at you, or at least makes some vague, pawing motion at your interest, you’ll be pleased to know that Deathnote is very well written. It starts out slow and then gradually pulls you in, eventually becoming the kind of plot where you can’t put it down.

It flows well from start to finish, starting with a bit of Light’s internal dilemma over whether to use the deathnote. When he finally decides to use it, the plot moves along like a high-speed car chase, with twists and turns, moving from one plot twist to the next. Almost every chapter ends with some sort of cliffhanger or new plot revelation, delivering on its promises and then leaving you wanting more.

The artwork is wonderfully done. The world of the Shinigami looks the way one would really expect it to, desolate and barren, which is where we start the series, and it helps set a tone for Ryuk’s behavior.

The Shinigami (yes, there are 2 that are important to the story, and more than that appear) are drawn in a way that makes them both frightening and fascinating at the same time. Expressions convey the emotion of characters extremely well, with the possible exception of the enigmatic Shinigami (as it should be), and the backgrounds are painstakingly drawn in each frame.

All of these facets (detailed art, gripping plot, nice pacing and not too much filler) combine in Deathnote, allowing me to recommend it without reservation.


The Bad

Halfway through winter break from school, I was bored and eager to try something new. I had been stuck in a rut with my current manga series and hungered for something finite. It had been quite a while since I’d finished a series and I longed for the feeling of completion. My search brought up a most interesting manga: Death Note. Despite being weighed down by having to wait until July or so for the ending, I dove into the story knowing that the final volume awaited me sometime soon. Could the enticing plot carry this thriller about a kid and his handy, dandy notebook?

The story, as I mentioned, is definitely unique. A god of death, also known as a shinigami, drops his notebook into the world of humans. Light Yagami, a child prodigy at a nearby high school, retrieves the book. He sees the shinigami when he picks up the book and learns that the book has the power to kill people whose names are written in it. As Light tests the notebook’s power and thinks about how to use it, his actions catch the attention of the police. The result is a cat-and-mouse battle between several factions for possession of the notebook and its immense power.

With a plot like this one, you would think that the story could practically tell itself. You would be wrong. Beyond the plot, the rest of the manga’s presentation is decidedly mediocre. The art conveys the various situations in the plot reasonably well, but does little to appear unique. What hit me hardest though, was the system of character development. I believe character development is a cornerstone for most any manga and I have rarely seen it executed so poorly. At best, everyone in the story is either unlikable or uninteresting. Attempts at development are few and far between and focus mostly on Light. The biggest problem here is that Light is a poorly conceived character.

As a super-smart high school student, Light matches wits with the police at every turn. My reaction to Light’s planning was like watching a video game speed run on the Internet. You are initially in awe of the player’s ability, but doubt quickly rises to the surface and you begin to wonder if the person used some extra means of assistance. Light’s actions so far in the series (as of Volume 9) give the impression that Light is using some kind of cheat code to scam his way past his enemies. It is clear that the mangaka wants the reader to believe that Light might actually be a god because he is capable of nearly anything. However, the sentiment comes on far too strong and serves only to make Light more annoying than entertaining.

Several members of the investigators’ force plan in the same way that Light does. What could work like a chess match between these characters is executed too perfectly for the story to feel realistic. Characters are barely given a reason to go after Light or the notebook beyond a scene or two. The manga also missed a golden opportunity to cover some interesting ethical issues about the punishment of criminals and the role of death in society. Both have been underlying topics, but it would be nice if it took the forefront for just an issue or two. It might even clarify the motivations of several characters in the series.

Death Note is a manga that takes a neat concept and uses it to frame a very unsatisfying story. Generic characters within a generic presentation create a banal, dragging story. The main character only digs the manga a deeper hole through a lack of believability and a bland personality. My only consolation is that the manga ends in July and I will have completed my first manga series in quite some time. Unless the ending ties up the many loose ends of the story and brings forth a wave of solid character development, I would suggest you cross Death Note off your list of manga to read.