It was through Hikaru no Go, still my favourite manga of all time and unlikely ever to be toppled from that spot, that I first encountered Death Note. Back when the translation group hadn’t finished with Hikaru’s adventures in board games and subtextual homosexuality yet (indeed, they never would finish it), they scanslated and released the one-shot pilot of Death Note, which was the first work Hikago's artist Obata Takeshi had done after the series finished. It was a good idea: a schoolboy finds a mysterious notebook, and after using it as a diary, discovers that it kills anyone whose name is written therein. A Shinigami (God of death in Japanese mythology – very much a vogue subject in manga and anime at the moment…see Bleach, Shinigami no Ballad etc) appears, explaining that it is his notebook, and the boy has to explore the moral ramifications of his actions.
It was a good enough one-shot, though in a very poor twist, the moral core was ruined by the inclusion of an eraser that could bring people back to life, which ensured that it had little scope for a series proper. Therefore, when the main series began, big changes were made. I read the first chapter and (simply because of convenience) didn’t go back to the series for many months, but I’m glad I did. I found the eraser gone and the central character now an older teenager (raising the target audience) who became intoxicated with his power and aimed to become a god. Pitted against him was L, a mysterious figure who solves mysteries and captures elusive criminals when international police forces fail. All very over-the-top, but all very cool. L of course turns out to be another teenager (with a great character design), and the main plot becomes a battle of wits between the boy with the ‘death note’, Light, and super-detective L.
This format gives a very interesting dynamic to the story: we see things through the perspective of the ‘bad guy’, who has very good reasons to believe he’s in the right. The detective story happens with us already knowing everything Light knows, so other characters struggling to figure things out are seen from a very different perspective than in most crime fiction. With cliffhanger after cliffhanger, the story is a compulsive page-turner, not always well-told (lots of plots get abandoned, lots of deductions are very far-fetched), but always readable, and impressive given that chapters have to be turned out weekly. However, it was always in my mind that it’s very easy to string together a supernatural mystery when you are making up the rules that have to be figured out for no other reason than because that fits your purpose as a storyteller.
The major flaw of the series is how talky it gets. Characters expound, speculate, pontificate, preach and explicate at great length, often with huge leaps of logic and rather unlikely trains of thought, but this does help give the impression of great intelligence, and the backbone of the plot is the clash of superior minds. Halfway through there comes a major twist, which upends the whole story, and to be honest, it would have been better if it ended there, for everything that happened subsequently trivialised, recycled or failed to live up to what went before it, though some interesting new character designs appeared.
I’m excited by the prospect of a movie, and not just because Ryuk (the shinigami) looks so damn cool. Condensing the plot (of the first half, undoubtedly) into a single movie will keep things brisk and action-packed enough that it will likely be a ‘greatest hits’ of the manga. And that suits me fine, because the action scenes, moments of high tension and revelations are what made me keep coming back to this manga. Not on a par with 20th Century Boys, which uses similar tricks to stay addictive, mostly because the characters were all quite one-note (ha! Pun! Light, after all, has two notes!), but the novel concept of watching a villain side-by-side with a man who wants nothing more than to figure out a way to expose him is what will always endure in my mind. Impressively different.
(originally written 15.6.06)