by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
Viz Media, Volumes 1 to 12 (and including 13 'How to Read Death Note')
Review by SF Winser
Death Note is a gothic, supernatural detective novel done as manga. Its plot twists and turns like an offramp designed by a stoned dervish on a rollercoaster. The amount of plot twists, backstabbing and plotting that occur necessitated the creation of volume 13 'How to Read...' which has some nice interviews and chapter breakdowns of the plotting that doesn't always get pagetime enough to easily follow. How the hell anyone followed the plot when it was a month-per-chapter serial in a manga magazine is beyond me. I started to get worried if I had more than a gap of a week between reading entire volumes. It's a series that you must dedicate yourself to reading through in one go.
The basic idea is that there is a team of police trying to track down the world's most prolific serial killer who is killing people by some unknown supernatural means. They are assisted by the enigmatic 'L', a secretive and Machiavellian private detective who mostly communicates via computer screen and whose face has never been revealed.
The first twist – and it's not really that major – is that the main character in the series, Light Yagami, IS the serial killer. He's a college student who finds a Death Note, a supernatural killing tool that is possessed by a deceptively dumb and bored Shinigami/Death God. It's not so much a twist as it is the basis of the entire story. We always know that Light is killing criminals using his Death Note. He wants to make the world a better place. But the detectives – with whom he sometimes works – never know the devil in their midst. Or do they? Maybe someone suspects? Or are they wrong? No, no one suspects. Yes they do. Crap! Now they're dead.
NOW no one suspects.
The real fun of this book is the plotting and counterplotting of serial-killer Light and super-detective L. Both brilliant and both playing mind-games with the other for their very survival. Imagine Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at a Masquerade Ball where they each have a poisoned cup of wine and have to trick the other into drinking it – once they find out which partygoer is the real enemy. But they have to realise that if they're too smart about it, their foe will figure them out before there's a chance to get away alive. It's a vicious and dramatic counterplay that lasts for entire volumes and... well... let's say you won't see the outcome of THAT little battle coming. The new and inventive ways Light creates to get away with his mass-murder are brilliant and of headache-inducing complexity.
No, the real fun is the artwork that is rather stylistically dark yet somehow hyper-real at the same time. In particular, the character-design of L and his poses/acting. They're brilliantly weird and affecting. There are some nice biblical artistic references that are sometimes important, sometimes deliberately obscuring and every so often just chucked in because manga artists think biblical references are cool.
No, the best fun is the constant moral questions thrown at the reader. Light's a GOOD guy. No he's not, he's evil. But he's trying to make the world a better place and succeeding! But his methods suck, so does he still count as a good guy? And will he kill innocents to protect his new world and is he justified if he does so? If the world were to get worse by stopping him, would it still be the right thing to do? Has Light been corrupted by an evil power and if so, is he still evil? I know that this book gets the odd bit of flak from social commentators for promoting an obsession with death and the occult. That's very much missing the point. There's more than a bit of philosophising about good and bad, right and wrong. To do that, the creators needed to take the book to some dark places. And the conclusions the creators tend towards are usually pretty moral high ground kind of stuff. Most people reading this book will come away better people even if they also want to wear too much black and get tattoos of Death Gods eating apples on their arms.
Sometimes the plotting gets too obtuse, some of the motivations are a little laboured and there's the odd bit of fan-service artwork thrown in. Light's Goth-Lolita 'girlfriend' is disturbingly dumb and submissive (in many senses of the word). She'd be bad enough to get the creators accused of sexism if it weren't for the fact there are many equally smart women in the books. Or are, until being a smart woman anywhere near Light gets them killed. There are some almost silly plot points – a tennis match!?!? What the hell? The ending, if it hadn't been so natural and well set up from the very beginning would be almost classic deus ex machina. Like, with actual gods.
Still, there's a reason why this is one of the more popular manga series out there. It's stylish, smart, deep and very well done. It's a lot of fun and it doesn't go for the twenty-million-billion-and-a-half volume running time of some other popular manga series. A definite bonus. It has a beginning a hyper-convoluted middle and a properly planned ending. It's certainly one of the better manga series that I've read.