Ace high school student Light Yagami and shinigami Ryuk have one thing in common- both are bored out of their minds by their current lifestyle. Desperate for a change of pace, Ryuk decides to stir up some entertainment by dropping his Death Note –a notebook that enables the user to kill someone by writing down their name- into the human world, and as it turns, Light is the one who picks it up. Equipped with this new power, Light decides to use it to create a better world by executing known criminals- an act that draws the attention of not only the police, but the enigmatic and brilliant detective known only as L. Each committed to their own idea of justice, Light and L now engage in a battle of wits with each other, one where the wrong move could mean death…
Upon first hearing the premise of Death Note, it may be natural to approach it with mixed feelings; whilst the complexities and manoeuvrings of two opposed geniuses must surely make for good reading, just how long can the story last before it just plain runs out of ideas? This was one of my reservations when starting the series, but as it turned out, I needn’t have worried- for the first seven volumes anyway.
A story of two halves, Death Note makes a strong start in its first arc, beginning as a simple competition of sorts between Light and L, but soon expanding to involve other characters as their manoeuvrings become more complex. Admittedly, there are several points where the story seems as it is about to run out of steam, but each time it cleverly avoids this fate by coming up with something new whilst never seeming forced or contrived.
Even the best of stories can sometimes go on too long, however, and such is the case with Death Note. To mention any details about the second arc would be to give the game away, but suffice to say that whilst this part of the series is not entirely without merit, it is several grades below the preceding arc. In an attempt to outdo itself, these later chapters seem committed to making everything bigger, better and more complex than before, but the result is that the elegance of the first half is lost, in favour of schemes so grandiose and convoluted that they run the risk of collapsing under their own weight. Nonetheless, by the end there are a couple of neglected or unresolved points that would have been interesting to explore.
Regardless of their individual quality, both arcs of Death Note do have several things in common, most notably the sheer volume of exposition contained within each page. Compared to the average manga series, the word count per panel is very high, so much so that it could be argued that Death Note should have foregone the manga format and been published as a novel in the first place. Naturally, with Takeshi Obata of Hikaru no Go fame handling the artwork, the visuals are distinctive and aesthetically pleasing enough that it would be a shame not to have them, but certainly a more text-skewed medium such as the visual novel seems like the optimum choice for the series.
Although it could hardly be accused of being a typical Shounen Jump series in the first place, Death Note goes one step further by dispensing with the usual spiky-haired hero and placing an anti-hero in the leading role. Despite the moral ambiguity of his approach, Light’s goal does seem noble enough at first, but as the killing of criminals becomes only secondary to his own self-preservation, he degrades into more of a self-serving villain.
Whilst Light is undoubtedly the star of the show, there are a number of other recurring characters, each of them well-defined but not particularly developed. By his very nature, L is a secretive person who therefore can never move beyond an idiosyncratic foil for Light, whilst other characters such as Light’s devoted and hardworking father or the naïve yet enthusiastic Matsuda barely move beyond their simple starting personalities- in fact, some of the characters are so generic that it is hard to even remember their names. That being said, with the focus so tightly on events rather than characters, having such an undeveloped cast doesn’t really feel like a drawback for the series.
Whilst it undoubtedly loses ground towards the end, at its best, Death Note is a compelling series that makes a refreshing change from the usual brand of series published in Shounen Jump. It may be far from perfect, but the schemes and manoeuvrings of the first few volumes alone justify giving it a look.