Graphic Novels: Image and Text
15 November 2012
As the esteemed visionary of our generation, Aubrey Drake Graham, wisely observed, “You only live once.” If life itself is therefore priceless, then how valuable would the ability to instantly take it away from others be, and what would one do with this power? Tsugumi Ohba’s manga Death Note is the story of Yagami Light, a brilliant Japanese high school student, who acquires a supernatural notebook, or Death Note, that allows him to kill people simply by writing their names in it. There is a catch, however; the owner of the notebook must picture the face of the people he is trying to kill. Light decides to use his newfound power to kill criminals whom he judges worthy of death. His deeds are soon recognized by the public, and he gains a following of people who support this new deity, Kira (“killer”). Light’s ultimate goal is to create a perfect world of good-hearted people, and he intends to be the god of this utopia, passing judgment upon evildoers. However, Light meets opposition in the form of a group of investigators led by the world-famous detective known as L, who sets out to find the person who is killing masses of criminals. An intriguing story unfolds as Light and L attempt to outsmart each other, further complicated by the appearance of other Death Notes. Full of plot twists and battles of intellect, Death Note is an exciting examination of the ethical, legal, and psychological complexities that arise from supernatural control over life and death. A closer inspection reveals the artist’s excellent use of comics techniques as well as deeper themes underlying the story’s riveting plot.
Death Note features many visual elements commonly found in manga. The precise, detailed drawing style allows the artist to depict fine subtleties in characters’ facial expressions and body language, allowing a wide variety of distinct combinations of feelings to be conveyed. In addition, the manga style often contains effective techniques to portray the passage of time, such as aspect-to-aspect transitions. In many instances, the same image is shown in multiple panels, with only slight differences in perspective; this stretches out a brief moment by allotting it an ample amount of page space, slowing down the action to encourage focusing on minute details. Furthermore, Death Note includes the use of many stylistic conventions familiar to readers of graphic novels. Notably, it frequently features striking backgrounds and strong lines to visually emphasize moods of surprise, action, or other strong emotions.
As you can see, facial expressions are emphasized and backgrounds containing high contrast and repeated straight lines create an interesting effect that represents the tension and excitement of the events in visual form. Death Note also provides a variety of angles and perspectives to maintain visual diversity, often showing close-ups of objects or other points of importance. Again, this kind of technique is common in graphic novels. In summary, the multitude of visual devices employed by Death Note give it many successful ways to clearly tell its story.
The visual style of Death Note involves the juxtaposition of the supernatural upon an otherwise ordinary universe. There is a notably Gothic style present throughout the manga. Gothicism is culturally associated with darkness and the occult because of its relations with punk-rock, which, in turn, is culturally associated with death. In fact, the title is written in a Gothic font to represent the importance death plays in the anime series; after all, the entire plotline is based on a character capable of killing at will.
Death Note is also unique in that it invites the reader to judge what is “right” and what is “wrong.” It raises the question of whether or not killing evil doers is a justified act, but does not give an answer. Light thinks that it is right to kill evil people and acts accordingly. On the other hand, the Japanese police and the detective L mark Light as a murderer who is evil and try to bring him to justice. With interesting, slightly ambiguous themes such as the notions of justice and evil, Death Note captivates the reader and allows the reader to uniquely interpret the story.
Apart from addressing interesting themes, Death Note is one of the few manga that draws heavily from both Western (Christian and Roman) and Japanese cultures. The Shinigami, translated from Japanese as death god or spirit of death, is a relatively modern idea in Japanese religion: it was only introduced to Japanese folklore in the 19th century. It stems from the Western idea of the grim reaper. Japanese Shinigami dictate the lifespan of humans and are responsible for guiding them to the afterlife. According to the author, Tsugumi Ohba, the idea for the Death Note originated from the medium, such as a scroll or notebook, upon which Shinigami recorded the lifespan of humans.
On the other hand, the most obvious Western religious symbols are the notion of justice, the letter “L”, the Gothic font and art, and the apple. In Volume 1, Lights sees himself as a god who has an obligation to purify the rotten world. He believes that he is the chosen one and the only one who can bring peace and justice to the corrupted society.
In this panel, the author depicts Light in a pose that is similar to that of Jesus on the crucifix.
Further along in the story, Light begins to overuse his abilities to crush his opponents, the police and L, who hold different views about justice. The police believe that even if the victims are criminals, the crime is still murder, and that Kira is a vicious serial killer. Light holds the Hobbesian belief that humans are inherently evil and violent and thus require guidance to remain civil. His ideal society where evildoers are sentenced to death is what he believes to be a utopia. However, Ohba leaves it up to the reader whether this world where people live in perpetual fear of punishment is a utopia, or rather a dystopia.
The letter “L” also has significant religious connotations. L is the Roman numeral for 50, and in the Bible, the number fifty represents jubilee or deliverance; In other words, it means liberty and justice. Through the storyline, L acts and serves like the God of Justice who tries to free people from the hands of Kira, or Light.
To support this idea, in Volume 1, L states that what Light does is evil, and he will find and dispose of Light because he is the righteous. Later in the story when he formed the investigation group, he encouraged the rest of the members that justice will prevail no matter what.
“Did you know Death Gods only eat apples?” ----Yagami Light
The apple, the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, is another western religious symbol employed by Death Note. The Shinigami Ryuk only eats apples from the human world. Without them, his body becomes convoluted to the point where he is almost non-recognizable as a Shinigami. The apples that Ryuk eats are analogous to the apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. This apple gives Adam and Eve knowledge, but lowers them from the perfect world of the Garden of Eden to the world of pain and misery of Earth. Therefore, the apple symbolizes not only knowledge and wisdom, but temptation and sin. The powers that Death Note provides cause many temptations for people to use the Death Note for selfish purposes. Even though some people, such as Light try to use its powers to purge the world of criminals, killing with the Death Note can be considered the sin of murder.
In conclusion, Death Note is a thrilling and thought-provoking manga with a uniquely fascinating premise, a pleasantly convoluted plot, and expert artistry. It employs well-known visual techniques to send powerful, engaging messages. Readers are sure to be entertained by Light’s and L’s mental acrobatics as they struggle to outwit one another; at the same time, Death Note invites readers to ponder the morals and ethics of whether humans should ever claim the authority to pass judgement over the lives of others.
Ohba, Tsugumi (w) and Obata, Takeshi (a). Death Note vol 1-7, 13. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2008.