If you read manga, you’ve probably heard of Death Note. You’ve actually probably read it by now, and if you’ve read it I’m guessing you loved it. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t. But if you’re not a manga-reader you may not know of the awesome that is the Death Note series, and that’s okay, because this review is specifically written for you (yes, you!).
I’m currently re-reading the series while my friend Jim is consuming the anime (don’t watch the movie, never watch the movie). During our discussions I really came to believe that it is the best manga to use as an introduction to the world of manga. If I were to get someone, anyone, into manga, I would hand ’em a copy of Death Note. I wouldn’t even have to lend them the whole series; they’d come crawling back for more. It’s really got something in it for everyone, and as long as you’re down with the basic concept of manga, which is essentially reading a picture book backwards, then there’s no reason you can’t enjoy it as a work of literature.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, shall we? From the title and cover art, it looks like some gothic-y, supernatural, hellish, could-maybe-be-compared-to-Twilight kind of deal. Trust me, it’s not. There is a bit of the paranormal, there’s a couple of characters who are drawn in a gothic way, and there are references to hell. There are quite a few references to death, putting it Lightly (oh god, brilliant unintentional pun right there), but that’s not what this is about. Death Note is a crime series. It is an intensely clever and brilliantly crafted crime series. The supernatural elements make up about 5% of the actual plot and world-building, they really only serve as a means to an end. But they’re still awesome, and highly creative. But the most important thing going into this is knowing that it’s a crime series, and one that made me, and so many of my friends, actually appreciate crime writing. Cuz that shit ain’t actually our bag.
So let’s sort you out with a summary.
This is Ryuk.
He looks a bit creepy, sure, but he’s actually adorable. He also happens to be a shinigami (死神), a God of Death. The shinigami use a black notebook known as a Death Note in order to kill them and absorb their remaining life-spans. They do this by writing their names, and any other details they want, in their Death Note. An unfortunate side effect to this resulting immortality, the shinigami don’t really get up to a lot these days. They just exist in their realm, occasionally popping over to the human world to suck some more years out of innocents in order to keep up their meaningless existence in a decaying realm. No one bothers to make a nicer existence for themselves, they just gamble, and presumably watch Jersey Shore on repeat all day.
Ryuk, understandably, is bored. So he decides to make himself a bit of fun and “drops” his Death Note into the human world…
…and it’s picked up by this guy.
Light is a high school student, and he is vair vair clever. He is also a psychopath and one of my favourite anti-heros to date. Or, well, okay, he’s a total villain, but he’s brilliant.
Light finds the Death Note and, as soon as he touches it, becomes its owner and is able to see Ryuk, who hangs around him from then on, invisible to everyone else, and impartial to whatever happens. He’s just along for the ride. And the apples.
Light learns about the Death Note’s powers and immediately decides that finding it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He has a strong sense of justice, and wants to use the Death Note to punish criminals and do his best to create a better world. Here’s where the impressive shit comes in.
The Death Note has an obscene amount of rules dictating what you can and can’t do, and also the consequences of using the Death Note. Light has to learn the rules of the Death Note and work around its limitations. And then, naturally, the police get involved, and one super-special-awesome-weird detective named L, who begins to suspect Light of being this mysterious and interestingly named Kira, the supernatural mass-murderer. The game not only becomes about murdering criminals, but how Light works to keep L off his scent, and tries to figure out how he can kill L, first by learning his true identity and also by not leaving any clues that identify him as Kira.
Now, I don’t read a lot of crime novels, that has to be said. I’ve read my share (*checks Goodreads*), apparently 22 books, most of them by Dean Koontz. So I’m not the best person to say why a crime-lit lover would enjoy Death Note. But I can tell you, it is the most clever plot I have ever read. Seriously Tsugumi Ohba and Steven Moffat should get together and write a death-themed, intricate and confusing Doctor Who story arc. That spans ten years. Because that’s what these people like to do to us.
What makes it so perfect is that there is no way for you to ever guess what’s going to happen. And I love that. With the paranormal element of the Death Note, and the rules that only get introduced little by little, you have a very tough time guessing how Light’s going to get himself out of a situation, or how L is going to shed light (*ahem*) on the situation with the clues he has. And sometimes, when you think you may have an idea, in comes a plot twist like a motherfucking wrecking ball on your theories.
I cannot get into spoiler territory here, so there is no way for me to adequately express how incredibly clever Death Note is, but that is why you should read it. Read it if you want a mind-blowingly clever plot. Read it if you want an anti-hero who is actually best described as a villain protagonist who you actually root for. Read it if a tinge of the gothic and paranormal is your jam and would add to your reading experience, but don’t worry if it isn’t; as I said before, it’s only part of the experience. Read it even if you’re not used to manga or comics. Read it especially if you’re into manga or comics. Read it.