4 out of 5
Student Light Yagami discovers a black notebook lying around. It’s a ‘Death Note’ – a book belonging to a Shinigami demon named Ryuk, which he can now see after touching the book – and any name written into the book, if written while visualizing that person’s face, will result in that person’s death.
That’s all you get. That’s all we need. From thereon out, Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata take us on an insane 2000+ page ride, written over the course of about three years.
There are rules to the book’s use which are presented at the beginning of chapters; Light, a meticulous planner and plotter and exceedingly intelligent, instantly decides to use the book to create a ‘better’ world in which there’s no fear of crime or ill intentions, which he’ll achieve by literally wiping all of the bad people off the planet, one-by-one. He learns about the rules, and then further experiments to understand their limitations. His goal is to only kill criminals and the sort, but he knows that the expansion of this project will require sacrifice; taking the guise of an enigma named Kira, he dodges his way around police suspicion – helped and hindered by the fact that his dad’s a cop – while always wiping out any potential threat to his plans. When the Kira killings clearly grow beyond the police’s abilities, crime solver ‘L’ starts up a task force to catch Kira, and he proves to be Light’s equal in all his twisty-turny reasonings…
There are demons and death, but Death Note is almost all based around conversations. There’s no gore. There’s not much action. Artist Obata’s adaptation of Ohba’s Nth level plotting somehow makes this all work, giving characters (and demons) incredibly engaging designs, and finding the perfect pacing and angles for extended dialogue scenes (many of which are just Light’s or L’s internal thoughts) and conversations. Ohba is also generally up front with us, keeping us up to speed on Light’s plans, and how he plans to thwart X, Y, or Z. This means we sometimes go down a rabbit hole of “If this happens then that must happen…” reasoning, which can get a bit wayward, but the miracle here is that an extended manga tale that’s really just two dudes having a battle of wits is thrilling as heck.
A big part of this is that Ohba almost wholly avoids moralizing on the matter. Light is definitely pitched as more of a bad guy than not – he smiles with a mustache-twirling grin when his plans come to fruition – but he’s not cruel, and doesn’t go out of his way to cause harm that’s off his “kill all evil” roadmap. Yes, there’s a concluding speech that makes it clear that the power/actions of Kira are not, in any way, intended to be desirable or admirable, but those who line up to stop Kira also get obsessed with “winning” the fight, subtly showing off the gray areas on this concept without rubbing our noses in it. By keeping the focus on Death Note as a thriller, and not a commentary piece, it gains more strength, and is able to pull off some stunning, page-turning twists – twists which, mind you, still work even if you’ve read this before (or seen the anime), because the characters and worlds of Death Note are so engaging.
The story moves in what I see as three phases, with different foes and thus different mindsets for Light. Things admittedly lose some steam when phase 1 goes to 2, and 2 goes to 3, but in each case, Ohba is in control: it’s a calm before a storm that provides us repeated breath-taking peaks in the story. Although some of the later Death Note rules never really feel all that necessary, and seem to just be included to keep up a shtick started with the first chapters of listing out new rules on the opening page.
Minor gripes, these. Most long-running stories have whole passages that drag, or exist with a “it was better when it started” kind of reaction, readers following along more out of habit than desire. I have no doubt the story of Death Note expanded while it was being written, and I think that’s where you can feel some of the shifts mentioned above, but I love the whole thing dearly, from start to finish. It’s just so devious and so complex and yet so silly and simple at the same time. It’s an accomplishment.