Death Note (2006)

5 out of 5

Directed by: Tetsurō Araki

“Nah,” says me to a recommendation to watch Death Note, articulating my assumptions – based on its gothic font styled title, its high school angst premise of a note you can write names in to kill people, and some bondage-clad demons – that the show was aimed toward a particular Sandman-reading, eyeliner-wearing demographic with which my high-falutin’ self dareth not associate, too busy am I using made-up archaic English.  And especially since my not-favorite director Adam Wingard is helming the soon-to-come Netflix film version: this can’t be for me.  But aw heck.  Assumptions.

It’s not necessarily that the plot extends all that far beyond what I’d understood; there’s definitely a touch more mythology to the note (-book)’s functions, but at the end of the day: write a name in it, and a method of death if you’re so inclined, and it shall occur.  And I wouldn’t argue that the series dips too deeply into any mind-blowing psychology relating to life and death, beyond providing in-context acceptable justifications for its characters’ actions.  But Death Note was hands down one of the most consistently gripping and surprising series I’d watched, without really falling back on any forced tactics that wouldn’t stand up on a second or third viewing, and mainly for one basic, over-arching rule: it played fair.  It set its terms and abided by them on almost all fronts, not trying to randomly wedge in subplots for padding or “trick” the audience beyond fairly established expectations.  Its lead character and manipulator and owner of the titular note, Light Yagami, is able to preposterously predict the behavior of those trying to track down his secret persona as punisher of the (as he determines) guilty, ‘Kira,’ but again, within the series’ context, it keeps his personality consistent from the start.  While at 37 episodes, there are several thresholds crossed where it seems like a stretch to perpetuate the cat and mouse – Kira’s main pursuant comes in several flavors, whether it’s the police, or super detective ‘L’ – the show always patiently finds a way to re-build the tension by letting us follow the threads and thoughts that brought us from A to B to C.  Light has a goal, after all, of using this Note to rid the world of all its ruinous persons, and his long-game plans take into account that that’s not something that can happen in a week or a year or a twelve episode season, so allowing time to pass and events to ebb and flow makes sense.

Along the way, and adding to the series’ sense of fairness, are the natural (again, in context) complications that arise: those whom become obsessed with Kira; other Death Notes floating around.  The latter is where some of the interesting mythology comes in, associating the notes with “Gods of Death” called Shinigami, which aren’t just your garden variety shadow clad tricksters, but rather have their own personalities and quirks, whether its Light’s note’s bemused Shinigami Ryuk, or some of the more reserved Shinigamis that pop up later.  Giving these characters actual interesting roles to play smartly combos with the rules to which the notes are beholden: the sort of consistent randomness to these rules (that is: individually they seem odd, but as a whole, their oddness is their similarity) would seem like artifice if the gods were one-dimensional plot devices; giving their world and existence – though unexplored – hinted at depth suggests some ununderstood logic behind the rules.  But again, most importantly, even these are presented fairly: a rule isn’t whipped out at random to retroactively justify something.

Accepting that most of what I’m praising is story based, and that it’s apparently a faithful representation of the source text, then it could be said that the manga (which I plan to check out) is responsible for the show’s quality.  But certainly there’s a skill and dedication to presenting the material in a manner which does it justice, and director Tetsurō Araki does just that.  While the pontificating on justice and life and death isn’t exactly deep, I never felt like that was the show’s intention, to moralize; moreso it seemed like Araki wanted to present all of this as a study on humanity, and how perspective rules all: what’s right to one person is wrong to another, and vice versa forevermore.  Beyond the can’t-wait-to-watch-the-next-episode thrill of seeing how Light and L square off, this concept equally kept things engaging, realizing you’re inevitably rooting for a villain… but then wondering if things wouldn’t be better off with these people…

But whether you’re in it for the ponderin’ or not, Death Note’s initial anime outing is gripping and exciting as all Hell, reminding me once more to kick my biases to the curb.