There have only been a handful of times that I have been truly uncomfortable in a movie theater. The one that most sticks in my mind was going to the cheapo cinema for a buck to see Sin City. It was interesting enough, even though it was rather a moral cesspool of a movie and I never plan to watch it again. But what disturbed me was that a dad brought his seven-year-old son with him. The boy was obviously disturbed at the whole thing and asked to leave on a couple of occasions. Father Dearest gave him a tongue lashing and went back to watching. Now I have no problems with adults watching entertainment that's not for children; not everything in life has to be palatable to a preteen. But for me, it's painful when a child's innocence is deadened by a stupid parent who's too selfish to realize that it's his responsibility to guard his kids from this sort of thing, not expose them to it.
In so many words, that's how I feel about Death Note, a 37-episode series from 2006-2007 based on the hit manga that ran in Shonen Jump. The show itself is solidly entertaining, a thriller of high caliber. Episodes fly by, and when my family was out of town recently, I bumrushed the whole thing in two days -- a record for me. The show is defined by high-quality animation (by television standards). So what's the problem? Simply this: it is a show that desperately needs moral underpinning, yet does not have any. That makes it an uncomfortable watch for adults who really start thinking about the program's ramifications. When you think that it was targeted to kids -- young teens who watched it in droves -- you begin to realize just how problematic the series really is.
Death Note tells the story of Light, a strikingly handsome and brilliant young man who one day stumbles across a notebook belonging to an otherworldly creature known as a Shinigami -- a "god of death." Long story short, when you write a person's name in the book according to its specifications, that person dies. Rarely has a "Death Note" fallen into the hands of a human, and no one in the past has used it to any great significance. But Light is different. Light has a unique -- no, make that psychotic -- sense of justice. He believes that he can truly make a better world if he uses the Death Note to kill off the world's criminals. Before long, a string of mafiosos, murderers, and ne'er-do-wells winds up dead in inexplicable fashion. The world knows Light only by the pseudonym Kira, based on a mispronunciation of the English word "killer." But before long, Kira is the one name on everyone's lips.
Having a rampant serial killer on the loose who murders by supernatural means is of great consternation to world governments and police forces, if not average citizens who are aware that Kira is only disposing of criminals, not the law-abiding. Enter L, a genius young detective who has already worked on some of the world's most notorious cases. Unlike Light, L has no fashion sense, cradling himself into a near ball so he can think clearly, and though rail thin, he has a penchant for sweets. Except for their intellects, L and Light couldn't be more unalike. So when Light weasels his way onto the Kira investigation team and becomes L's only true friend, the game is truly afoot.
Death Note's point of view is, of course, that the protagonist is actually Light's Moriarity to L's Holmes. Having a villain as an entertainment centerpiece is nothing new; just look back at Shakespeare's Richard III to see an ignoble main character who addresses the audience as he schemes. More modern examples would be The Sopranos, Pulp Fiction, or even the strikingly similar Showtime series Dexter. Indeed, it is not Light's prominence as a megalomaniac lethario that compromises Death Note as a series. In fact, its viewpoint is so rare in the anime world that it's refreshing.
What makes Death Note deeply problematic instead is its total lack of a moral compass. The manga's creators have said that the intent of the series was never to explore the ramifications of Light's actions; it was to present a dramatic thriller with a cat-and-mouse game. I can accept that Tsugumi Ooba and Takeshi Obata weren't going to create a philosophical manga for Shonen Jump. But Light is presented as a hero. Even members of L's team often admit that they aren't sure if catching Kira is the right thing to do because he's doing so much good at cleaning up the world. L himself isn't interested in the justice aspect; he just wants to get his man.
Death Note becomes not only morally unstable but unrealistic as it progresses. As Kira's work continues, wars stop. Crime plummets. Across the world, people are living in peace. Sounds great, doesn't it? But as we learn within the series, the Death Note only works when its owner knows the name and the face of the person to be killed. Could Light/Kira stop crime in first world countries where the names and pictures of those on trial are published every day? Perhaps. But wide swaths of the planet are not first world. Countless countries around the world, many with some of the highest corruption rates and amounts of lawlessness, are essentially "off the grid." Nobody publicizes when a village is stomped down in some rural part of Africa. Nobody knows the names of the thousands of soldiers in some wannabe dictator's army going around indiscriminately murdering. For the Death Note to work, you've got to have media. No media, no luck. Talk about a logical hole in the plot!
Even worse is that Kira is never wrong. No one wrongly accused or convicted ever dies. Even when he kills off "good guys," it's always to keep from being caught. Only in one fleeting moment of the show do we see the fact that even the worst outlaw has family and friends who care about him. What about the stories of the families of those officers he kills to make good his escapes? Never told. All of this makes it look like Light is not only justified in doing what is morally reprehensible, but deserves his status as a near-god.
All of that is bad, but very little of it is relatable to a teenager. No one's going to be able to kill criminals with a Death Note. Now if the audience were made up of adults, Death Note might be seen as presenting us with a moral conundrum to debate. (In fact, I've had a really good discussion over at THEM Anime on this series, and it shows that adults can have much more stimulating conversations about this show than many others that are just fluff.) However, there's another side of Light's personality that I haven't yet mentioned, one that's very relatable to teens, and that's his willingness to lie, cheat, and deceive in order to achieve his objectives.
Perhaps the best example of this is episode 7, which nearly made me stop watching. By this episode, Light has killed an FBI agent named Ray Pember. His fiance, a former agent, wants to meet with the investigating team to discuss her husband's death. The majority of the episode involves Light walking around with her while the audience hears his inner monologue as he schemes how he can find out her real name so he can kill her. By the end of the episode, he succeeds. Lying to get your way works. Now murder by notebook might be impossible for a teen, but the show presents immoral means to get what you want as very attractive, very successful, and consequence free. If Light is a moral exemplar, which the series does not refute in any way, then why not act accordingly? For an adult with a fully formed sense of right and wrong, the episode was nervewracking and disturbing. But for a teen who hasn't given it much thought? It could seem very appealing.
Before my review sounds completely judgmental, I have to say that Death Note is intriguing and engaging. Despite my lack of warmth for the show as a whole, L quickly became a favorite. His personality quirks and unique style -- and the fact that he is the real hero of the show -- make him a memorable character. There is a surprising amount of humor that lightens the otherwise grim tone (and not in a perfunctory or inappropriate way). The world of the Shinigami itself is creative, and while the show fails to capitalize on it, the "what if" concept of the Death Note is a philosopher's dream. I thought the morality presented was flawed through and through, and it has other problems such as a reliance on overused shonen tropes like internal narrative and an amazingly baffling plot twist two-thirds of the way through that nearly wrecks the final third -- but the curves and turns along the way kept me engaged throughout.
The long and short of it is this: Death Note is wildly inappropriate for the Shonen Jump audience for which it is intended. Middle school and early high school teens are going to have a difficult time sorting out the good from the bad. (Heck, some adults do!) The creators may have wanted to make a simple thriller, but they built a world that cries out for ethical explanations. Giving none is inexcusable. My rating balances the facts: it's an effective thriller, but one that could be morally detrimental to the crowd it seeks to seduce.
Death Note -- violence, profanity, adult situations and viewpoints not appropriate for the target audience -- C+