Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Death Note is Kind of Trash

I wasn't really into anime when I was growing up. I watched localized successes like Sailor MoonPokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and checked out an issue of Shonen Jump once, but in general I was turned off of anime and manga by obsessive weebs. However, in the last few years I've been trying to get more cultured and have been checking out some of the big names in anime. One of these big names that I was sure I would like is Death Note. I mean, the whole premise it's right up my alley: a notebook which kills anyone whose name is written in it? A cat and mouse game between the holder of the book and the detective hunting him down? A creepy demon monster following the protagonist around? Sign me the hell up. Hell, I was so certain that I was going to enjoy Death Note that I picked up the Blu-Ray set so I could enjoy it all at my leisure. I don't tend to buy Blu-Rays blindly, but when I do it tends to work out splendidly for me (see: John Wick, The Raid, The Conjuring, etc). It has probably been two years since then and over the course of a few days I finally decided to sit down and watch Death Note in its entirety.

...and it kind of sucks. Like, I kind of want to just give away my Blu-Ray copy now, I disliked it that much.

It's actually was surprising for me. I've heard a lot of good things about Death Note, some people going so far as to say that it's one of the absolute best animes, so figured it would be a slam-dunk for me. Don't get me wrong - the first 10ish episodes are quite enthralling as Light learns how to use the Death Note, L tries to discover Kira's identity, and Light tries (poorly) to cover his tracks. However, it quickly starts to go down hill with only occasional moments of excitement. Hell, my disappointment was so surprising to me that I had to look up other reactions to the series to see if I was totally alone in my assessment. From what I've seen, most fans of Death Note will admit that the series drops in quality around episode 25 (some even agreed with me, that around episodes 10-15, the series' quality definitely begins to decline). Considering that Death Note is a 37 episode-long anime, even if you think it's good overall it seems like the popular opinion is that ~1/3 of the series is not great. And, if you agree with me that the series drops off quickly, it's closer to 2/3 of the episodes being pretty shitty. Again, considering this has a good reputation, I feel like I need to explain exactly why I disliked it so much. And, in case it isn't obvious, spoilers incoming.

First of all, let's talk about those first 10 episodes that I did like and why they worked well. The premise of Death Note is fascinating - Light Yagami finds a notebook which will kill anyone whose name is written in it. The rules of the Death Note are also quite intricate and restrictive, crafting plenty of tension throughout the narrative (particularly the detail that the user can sell half of their remaining lifetime in order to see their prospective targets' real names). This set-up naturally causes the viewer to think about what they would do if they had the Death Note and how they would use it. It also helps to make Light interesting because he has a very particular way that he intends to use the note to make a statement as "Kira", the self-proclaimed god of justice, while also coming up with clever precautions to avoid ever being caught with the book. However, when the detective L enters the picture, the ease with which he is able to quickly narrow down the scope of the investigation is fascinating, largely because of the way it is written. L's deductions in this early part of the series are based on clear evidence, and it's easy to see how L could come to the conclusions he does - he's just noticing details that other people would easily overlook. Furthermore, his hunches and evidence are often confirmed because of mistakes that Light makes. This makes for a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in the early episodes, as L tries to narrow down his list of Kira suspects, while Light desperately tries to cover his tracks and tie up any loose ends.

This tension begins to break around the time when L decides to confirm his suspicions and confront Light in-person. While at first this is interesting, and in order to keep the plot going it was kind of inevitable, the narrative really starts to slow down and become far less interesting at this point. It turns out that Light and L just aren't very interesting characters in their own right. Their opposed philosophies are interesting to see clash, but when they have to interact with one another we see that there isn't a lot to either of them. Even worse, their interactions are painfully repetitive - we see the same kind of scenes of L putting Light into a loaded situation, and then having Light debate about how best to respond without putting suspicion on himself, over and over and over. These moments also solidify that Light isn't nearly as smart as the show wants us to believe. Sure, he's clever, but waaaay too clever for his own good. Instead of trying to counter L head-on and remain as aloof as possible, if he'd just consistently act naturally and stop trying to thwart the surveillance on him, he wouldn't be drawing suspicion on himself. Hell, the fact that he has FBI agents killed after they spy on him was just an idiotic move - it makes it obvious that Kira was indeed one of the people being watched, narrowing down the suspect list significantly. They suspected that Kira had access to police records, but why not deflect that suspicion, rather than confirm it? For that matter, why doesn't Light engineer scenarios to deflect suspicion onto other people? All that Light ever does is thwart L enough that he can't definitively say that Light is Kira, which just makes him look even more suspicious when it happens over and over again.

The slowing of the tension is bad enough but it's around this same time when Death Note really starts to go down hill with the introduction of Misa Amane. In theory, the introduction of Misa could have been brilliant - most importantly, she has a second Death Note, which opens up the potential scale of the narrative immensely. Furthermore, she's a Kira copycat who wants to meet Light, the shinigami Rem is in love with her, and she's made the shinigami eyes deal so she can see peoples' real names. Unfortunately, the writers of Death Note haaaaate her and her introduction has very little actual bearing on moving the plot forward. Misa is portrayed as being a complete idiot who is a constant burden and liability for Light. She's completely devoted to Light, insisting that they should be a couple and does whatever he tells her to, despite the obvious fact that he doesn't care about her at all. She's also a professional model, which seems to have been done for little more reason than to make her seem more desirable for Light, to justify how she can be dumb and successful and to have the characters fawn over her. The thing is, the show tells us that Misa is an idiot, but I didn't always believe that she was. She actually manages to outmanoeuvre Light and the police on occasion, in part because they underestimate her, which made me wonder if we are meant to think that she was actually far more clever than people give her credit for... but no, these moments are few and far between, and whenever they do happen, they are almost immediately followed-up by something that shows that they really do think she's a complete moron.

I will give the show some credit, Death Note mostly shirks away from the ridiculous levels of fan service which are so common in anime. However, it's not like you can't have fan service and well-written female characters at the same time, and in Death Note the female characters are written horrendously. There's the aforementioned Misa, who is literally treated as an expendable pawn by Light. She spends the entire series unwaveringly devoted to Light, never realizing that he's manipulating her, even when he cheats on her (instead, she gets jealous and takes out her frustrations on the other woman). It would be one thing if the narrative made it obvious that the way Light treats Misa is awful, kind of like how it clearly disproves of his use of the Death Note. However, it never makes any sort of commentary on their abusive relationship, and the fact that the narrative constantly reinforces that Misa is just a dumb person only good for manipulation is troubling, especially when it also reinforces that Light is brilliant despite the boneheaded mistakes he walks into.

Other than Misa, there are a handful of female characters with any sort of importance to the narrative. First of all is Sayu, Light's sister. She appears very briefly as a young girl during the first few episodes, but when she suddenly appears grown up later in the series it seems like she might be getting a more prominent role going forward. How exciting! ...except, no, you didn't think that the writers would give a female character an important role, would you? No, they just wanted to remind us she exists and make her intriguing so that way they could have the mafia kidnap her, have her be traumatized to insanity and then be left broken as she disappears from the story for the rest of the series! Holy shit! The other prominent female character is the "other woman" that I mentioned earlier, Kiyomi Takada. She appears early on in the series as a love interest for Light and he actually seems to be legitimately interested in her too, unlike Misa. Later in the series, she returns and becomes Light's new love interest and closest follower. However, she's jealous of Light's relationship with Misa, which causes her to confront Misa and argue about who most deserves Light's affections (considering that this is probably the only scene in the series involving two female characters talking to one another, that's a hard Bechdel fail). However, it turns out that Light has been playing Takada hard, because he uses his close relationship with her to get her to kill his enemies and then commit suicide in order to deflect suspicion off himself! That's... brutal, holy crap. The narrative definitely does not condone this, but the fact that this is just another female character manipulated, abused and then written out is not a great sign. It's a pattern which, even more than the goth aesthetics and morbid subject matter, makes Death Note feel like it was written by and for teenage edge lords, because it's the only role which women are able to fit into apparently.

Now, to be fair, there are two female characters in Death Note that I would be remiss to neglect mentioning. One is Rem, a shinigami who loves Misa and who tries to protect her from Light's Machiavellian scheming. She's actually pretty interesting, but disappears for a large chunk of the story and is ultimately manipulated into committing murder-suicide by Light in order to protect Misa. Perhaps my favourite character in the whole series though is Naomi Misora, a former FBI agent whose fiance is killed by Kira. Misora is so interesting because she's just a regular person who makes the obvious deduction that Light's attempts to cover his tracks are suspicious, causing her to realize that he is likely Kira. I'd argue that the single best episode in the whole series revolves around Light chatting with Misora and desperately trying to figure out her real name so that he can kill her before she reports her knowledge to L. It's such an intense episode and Misora's character is just so well-written that when she is finally tricked into committing suicide, it's heartbreaking. Again, this is yet another female character manipulated and violently written out of the narrative. It would probably be palatable if Misora and Rem were the only female characters treated this way, or if there were other female characters with some importance to the plot who got to play a role in the story, but as it is it's pretty easy to accuse Death Note of being misogynist (or, at the very least, having poor representation for women).

While the female characters get treated the worst, pretty much every character is wasted in Death Note. When L dies, he gets replaced with Near, who is like a carbon copy L but with even less personality and screen time, and who seems to just know things because it's more convenient for the writers than showing how he deduced it. He's also harried by Mello, an angry teenager who wants to prove himself a better detective than Near... which he does by basically becoming a poorly-fleshed-out gangster. Then there's Mikami, who gets a terrifyingly evil and fascinating introduction which suggests that he could become even more of a dangerous fanatic than Light himself, but the narrative completely loses interest in exploring his character almost immediately. Most crucially, I didn't even find Light or L particularly compelling. Like I said earlier, their philosophies are far more interesting than the characters' actual personalities, which never really change substantially unless the writers force them to. Hell, I was calling bullshit when Light loses his memories of the Death Note and suddenly is fighting to stop Kira - he simply lost his memory of the book, are you telling me that he no longer agrees with his own philosophies and thinks that Kira is doing good? That was a bit of narrative convenience which did not make sense and was clearly just done to force Light and L to work together (again, revealing how little personality the pair have together for several episodes).

On a similar vein, there is so much wasted narrative potential in Death Note. It would have been so easy to deflect the perception of misogyny in the series with some more clever writing. For example, take Misa Amane: the narrative really runs out of things for Misa to do about 20 episodes in, meaning that she spends about half of the series doing absolutely nothing, because they wouldn't just let her character grow or change any. Would it have been so bad for her to realize that Light was manipulating her and then throw his plans into disarray? It would have been way more engaging than having Light go head-to-head with Near, which just comes across as a boring retread of his relationship with L. Or what about Misa's shinigami eyes? She ends up taking the deal twice, quartering her total lifespan. You'd think that this would have some sort of big narrative consequence, like suddenly dying at an inopportune moment when Light really needs her... but, nope, she makes the deal and it literally never comes up again. Hell, the elaborate uses of the Death Note aren't really explored all that much. Early on we get some clever ways to use the Death Note, such as when Light tricks Raye Penber into killing himself and the FBI agents, or when he kills criminals every hour for 24 hours to send a message to L. However, the series very quickly moves away from exploring the Death Note, shunting it to the background in favour of trying to deduce Kira's identity while we're told killings are continuing. Perhaps the most clever idea here is that Light plants fake rules in the Death Note to confuse investigators and throw them off his scent, but this also just means that the Death Note itself goes missing for several episodes while the body count rises uneventfully. Even later on when Light takes on an even more extreme disciple, Teru Mikami, he is only concerned with writing as many names as possible, rather than dealing out sadistic punishments for them.

Hell, even ignoring all the wasted narrative potential, the narrative we get itself is just underwhelming. After those first ten episodes, here are maybe three or four interesting plot points, stretched thin between a gulf of uninteresting filler plot. These moments are: the way that Light resumes his role as Kira after wiping his memory of the Death Note, L's death, the death of Light's father, and Light's brutal betrayal of Kiyomi Takada. Again, that's four interesting moments spread out over the course of the last 27 episodes of the series, which is just way too much filler in-between. Hell, I didn't even care for the ending all that much either. By the ending, Light's convoluted plans have just gotten ridiculous, so it might have been fitting for him to be brought down by something deceptively simple, or to assume he had control of the situation and implicate himself. I mean, he practically announces that he's Kira to the police when he believes that Mikami is on the other side of the door, so if the police had intercepted Mikami prior to this moment and even replaced him with an imposter, Light would have screwed himself over due to his arrogance. Instead, Light is foiled because it turns out that his new rival, Near, is even more of a convoluted thinker. While it is kind of nice to see Light visibly devolve into a whining brat at the end, the way that they brought it about was just lazy, in my opinion. By ending it this way the writers just confirm that they really do believe that Light is as smart as he thinks he is, but Near's just smarter, so he's the only one who could actually bring down Kira. Considering that Naomi Misora nearly had him dead-to-rights only a few episodes in, this clearly should not have been the conclusion we're meant to draw from the narrative.

This also brings me to a weird aspect of the story. Light declares early in the series that he's going to use the Death Note to bring justice to the world and establish himself as its new god. It's a dark goal, but you could see it for a chaotic good character. However, he then quickly uses it to kill people who oppose him, including a criminal who he thought was L and the FBI agents who are observing him, revealing that he is an egotistical hypocrite who believes he's solely qualified to decide what is just. As a result, you'd think that L and the police would then be the moral foil to this idea, pitting the law against Kira's sense of justice. However, maybe I just don't know Japanese law, but L uses some extremely shady, extra-judicial means to try to prove his case. First, he puts several cameras and microphones all through the Yagami house, including the bedrooms (this also results in spying on Light's mother and little sister). Later he arrests Misa, blindfolds her and then isolates her so that she can't have access to anyone (including a lawyer) for more than a month, effectively torturing her in order to get a confession. He does the same with Light, although at least in Light's case he volunteered to be put through this torture first, so... that makes it okay, I guess? (Hell, the fact that he's so desperate to prove his innocence that he's willing to be put through torture is a pretty big red flag that Light has something to hide.) Oh, and then when they have absolutely nothing to go on, L bluffs that he's going to execute Light and Misa, then allows Light's father to kidnap them both and then threaten to commit murder-suicide in a last desperate bid to get a confession! HOLY SHIT!!! Yeah... so, again, I don't know Japanese law, but I'm pretty sure that at least some of that is straight-up illegal, which goes against the whole concept of a moral and ethical high ground that the police have in this universe. Instead, it just turns into Kira's justice versus L's nebulous justice, with the police stuck working with the one who claims to be on their side.

So, as you can see, I really did not like Death Note. It's a great premise which is squandered on poor execution, and I don't understand how people can be so forgiving of it. I mean, just take a look at Code Geass: it's clearly inspired by Death Note, taking a similar premise, structure and tone, but it follows-through on the narrative potential far better. This is primarily because the writing and characters are so much stronger... so I guess what I'm saying is that you should watch Code Geass instead because Death Note is kind of trash.

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