Imagine that you hold the ability to kill any person on earth simply by writing down their name. Would you use this ability to exterminate your worst enemies, rid the world of criminals and terrorists, or choose to avoid this dangerous power completely?
In Tsugumi Ohba’s Death Note, Death Gods named Shinigamis possess notebooks called “Death Notes” which hold exactly this aforementioned killing power. Whoever’s name is written down in a Death Note will die within 40 seconds. When high school student Light Yagam, discovers a Death Note dropped by Shinigami Ryuk in the middle of the street, he is initially shocked by the concept presented by Ryuk, who brought the Death Note into the human world in search of entertainment. However, Light’s awe soon turns into excitement as he hatches a plan to rid evil from the world by killing notorious criminals with the Death Note. With his ingenious mind and the extraordinary power of the Death Note, Light initiates a criminal holocaust to make the world a safer place. Although Light’s intentions causes global crime rates to drop by seventy percent, governments are concerned about an anonymous killer who is taking the law into his or her own hands and try desperately to find the unknown mastermind. While investigations aim to bring down Light, governments around the world are unable to discover the killer themselves. That’s when L, a mysterious master detective, brings his remarkable reasoning skills and flawless service record to the case. A cat-and-mouse thriller between Light and L ensues.
Overall, Death Note could be considered one of the few brilliantly-plotted manga. The story moves very quickly from one plotline to the next and often incorporates side-plots to intensify encapsulating themes of danger, betrayal, and good versus evil. The book’s narrative structure also allows reader to see the story unfold from every character’s point of view. Generally, detective stories would be spoiled by this type of narrative approach, but that is not the case in Death Note. Though the reader follows the thoughts of both the protagonist and the antagonist, Ohba creatively filters these thoughts so that the plot still unfolds dramatically. Light only ever hints slightly at what his plans entail and L keeps most of his deductions and reasoning to himself.
As Death Note progresses towards the halfway point, the story begins to fall victim to several over-complications. When more and more Death Notes begin appearing in the human world, the story begins to resemble those of other mediocre manga filled with coincidences and seemingly impossible events that the reader is not prepared for. At this point the plot definitely takes a turn for the worse in terms of suspense and ingenuity, and the reader is left to debate the benefits of continuing.
After a volume or two, Death Note does seem to pick up again, but with the advent of a slew of new complications and characters, the narration certainly needs to be enhanced for the story to continue making sense to the average reader. At times, rereading passages becomes a habit as the only way to follow the plot is to read it two or three times. However, the story does conclude with an intense and dramatic climax filled with everything characteristic of a traditional “nail-biter”. Death Note may seem confusing at times, but the story as a whole is worth getting lost in.
The beautiful illustrations in Death Note are one of the highlights of the manga. They bring Death Note’s thrilling story to life through realistic depictions of the characters and backgrounds while reflecting the themes of the plot as well. One of the most amazing things to witness while reading the manga is Takeshi Obata’s, the artist, ability to bridge the worlds of reality and fantasy through his artwork. Although shinigami, with their ghastly faces and bodies, such as Ryuk have little resemblance to humans, they seem to blend in with the rest of the human world in Death Note. This is achieved by personifying these fantasy characters through realistic facial expressions and interactions between the shinigami and the real world. For example, nothing makes Ryuk seem more real than seeing his desperate face as he begs Light for an apple and then ravenously gobbles it down with great satisfaction.
Obata creates through his illustrations an authentic Japan that the reader can almost step into and experience first-hand. Although Death Note takes place in a completely black-and-white world, the detailed backgrounds and objects make up for this lack of color. The level of detail seen in everyday things such as newspapers, computers, and the city of Kanto itself is almost enough to convince the reader that a Death Note could truly exist in the real world. The author uses sharp, defined lines to draw the characters and objects related to the plot while implementing rougher lines and more shading to depict the environment, background objects, and even clothing. Thus, the illustrations forces the reader to focus on aspects of the comic that are important to the story while still providing a realistic backdrop to the plot. Emanata are used sparingly, but effectively in Death Note. Small sweat beads to represent nervousness and quick lines radiating from a character to represent shock are examples of how Obata can depict emotions through graphic symbols in his artwork. Furthermore, the addition of verbs that represent sounds such as “crumple”, “slip”, and “rustle” combined with onomonatepia such as “screech” and “splat” allows the reader to not only experience the world of Death Note through sight but also through sound.
Besides providing realism to the world of Death Note, Obata’ elegant drawings reinforces certain themes of the storyline. One of the themes that appears throughout Death Note is the battle between good and evil. This is represented by the contrast between black and white or dark and light in the illustrations. An example is when Light and L are shown facing each other after their first intellectual battle. While Light is completely drawn in white, L is heavily shaded. This pushes the reader to believe that what Light is trying to accomplish is good, while L, the antagonist, is evil. Furthermore, Ryuk’s deep black clothing reminds us throughout the manga that in the beginning he did say to Light, “When you die… I’ll be writing your name in my note-book.”
In conclusion, Death Note is a beautifully-drawn manga with a unique and original plotline that will have you constantly on the edge of your seat, awaiting the next move in the intellectual battle between L and Light. Although this is a shonen manga targeted towards adolescent males, Death Note’s complex plot often seems more suitable for adults. The mangas resembles an intricately woven web due to Light and L’s constantly intertwining plans. However, at some points the web just becomes too thick and it almost seems impossible to follow the plot threads. Despite this, Death Note’s realistic illustrations and thrilling plotline makes it a series that every manga and detective story fan should investigate.
Ohba, Tsugumi, writer and artist. Death Note. Eng. adapt. by Orangtangerine.tk. Trans. Masterkeaton. San Francisco: Viz, 2003. Electronic. Chapter 1.