Today (August 25th, 2017) Netflix released their live action version of the popular Japanese manga Death Note, a detective psychological supernatural crime drama. Quite a mouthful, no? The franchise has already spawned an anime, three Japanese feature films and a live action television series. As I said, it’s popular.
Now while this year’s Ghost in the Shell was a mostly faithful adaptation of the anime source material, from the trailer and clips Death Note looks like the usual Western anime bastardisation. I will be watching (ugh) and reviewing the film but I wanted to do a review of the anime first. Is it any good? Is it worth your time checking it out? So glad you asked the questions I wanted you to ask. Without any spoilers here is my Death Note anime review in four slices:
#1 Throw the book at ’em!
There is a lot of anime out there. A plethora. But in the midst of super powered ninjas, giant fighting robots and stretchy pirates Death Note is one of the most unique. The story centers on a genius student named Light Yagami who finds the eponymous book which can kill people if you write their name and think of their face. The book was dropped onto Earth by Ryuk who is a a shinigami, gods of death that use the Death Notes to extend their life.
Now you would figure that the main character would start using the book to kill bullies or people that mistreated him and his family. But this is anime, not Hollywood folks. Instead of a narrow personal vendetta Light starts using the book to kill criminals as part of his plan to usher in a new world with him as a god. Talk about delusions of grandeur. When criminals start dropping like flies – the primary way is via heart attack – the authorities figure out there is a vigilante involved, dub him “Kira” and start hunting him. Light’s main rival is the mysterious, eccentric and expert detective known only as “L”; more on him later.
#2 Through shinigami eyes
The animation in the series is well done overall. The colours are muted to go with the dark tone, there is some gorgeous imagery and hyper exposed hues during intense scenes. The mental battles between Light and L are imagined in surreal, brilliant settings and there are a number of dual shots which work for the most part. There was one scene where the faces of some officers disappear inexplicably but otherwise I could find no glaring errors. Between scenes there are the rules of the Death Note which are both informative and a cool aesthetic choice. The designs of the shinigami are a standout of the series and they all have their individual, odd look. Ryuk, who loves him some apples, is the most memorable of the gods of death with his Joker meets goth rocker aesthetic and freakish unblinking eyes.
For the music Light’s evil theme – usually played when he’s about to kill someone – is operatic and haunting. The first opening theme “The World” is chilling and beautiful but they replace it for the second arc with the heavy metal “What’s up People” which involves the singer shouting at the audience repeatedly. It is not only jarring but does not even fit with the tone of the show. The first theme was fine guys. If it ain’t broke…
#3 Light, L and the rest
Most anime have a protagonist that you can root for throughout. Death Note is odd where the protagonist is also the antagonist and instead of rooting for him to win you are waiting for him to get caught. It is a strange experience but enjoyable sensation. And while you may like Light for about the first half of the first episode you will quickly realise that this suave, handsome, intelligent young man is a twisted, egotistical, manipulative megalomanical bastard. But you do give him points for being so darn clever. Ryuk gives him advice about the Death Note but he is mostly a casual observer and commentator.
On the opposite side of Light is the investigator L. And he is one weird dude. He always looks catatonic or on drugs or both. And he also has one heck of a sweet tooth. Like Light, L is incredibly clever and the battle of wits between the two is the highlight of the show.
There are a slew of other characters and they are all interesting in their own way. And then there is Misa, pop idol and Light’s love interest. By the gods of death she is annoying. She has little agency, zero self respect and is also petty and whiny. In a show with brilliant characters she stands out like a Vulcan at a Wookie party. And, my apologies, but you will have suffer through her. The show has just a couple of strong female characters and they do not get enough screen time to make an impact.
#4 A most tangled web
One of the major differences between Death Note and most other popular anime is a focus on mystery and suspense over action. There is very little “action” in the show and all the tension comes from Light’s attempts to kill people and the authorities attempts to catch him. There is a lot of build up and slow burns that may turn off casual viewers but the patient viewer will be rewarded.
There are shinigami and supernatural elements but these are secondary to the crime drama elements. It is about the cat and mouse game, the intrigue and the machinations. This show requires you to pay attention to keep up with the twists and turns of which there are many. In terms of length it is only 37 episodes so it does not require a two year investment like the 700+ episodes of a Naruto/Naruto Shippuden per se. The pace of Death Note can feel plodding at times but it is always interesting, intriguing and has an immensely satisfying conclusion. And it is definitely one of the most unique anime experiences ever.
Rating: Death Note gets 4.5/5 juicy apples.
For more Tv Anime and my review of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress you can click here.