It’s difficult to imagine that Death Note is celebrating its 10th anniversary, crystallised as a modern classic before its 39-episode run had even finished airing. The series might be closer to the turn of the century than not, but its themes and struggles remain unquestionably relevant – a fact helped in no small part by this impressive Blu-ray release.
Death Note was a cultural milestone, igniting anime fanaticism in the west that arguably hadn’t been seen since Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. Its success may be due to the series embracing noir and detective tropes whilst doing away with conventions that characterise other shows, namely their protagonists. Light Yagami is an exemplary student, note perfect academically and with a social life to be envious of. Even before he picks up the Death Note, his ego is palpable and his moral compass is wayward (to say the least).
For all intents and purposes, as soon as Light picks up the Note, he is the villain of the piece. You are forced to identify and exonerate his motives as he begins by killing criminals, then starts slaughtering anyone who stands in his way. It’s a moment where an anime gained real power outside of itself, people even in the western world arrested for writing in their harmless replica Notes.
It’s Ryuk, the bored god of death, who lets the Note fall to the human world. His blue-lipped mouth in a permanent, impish grin, in contrast with Light’s sociopathic tendencies, he is the more human character. This is the spirit level of the philosophical conundrum central to the series; is Light’s behaviour inherent, or simply enabled by the Death Note’s power? Assuming it’s the former, one wonders what would become of Light if he had never found the Note. Perhaps he would have become a lawyer, or worse, a politician. After all, such is his ego that he becomes an icon of righteousness to pass judgement and stamp out evil, aiming to become God of the new world.
The media brand him Kira, and even before social media had taken off, he goes viral with a website and fanbase to match. This parallel makes the HD rerelease with its sharper animation all the more apt and refreshing. It’s most noticeable in the characters, and though some directorial choices ground it in the early noughties, the overall impression is as modern and refined as the show ever was. There is still trade-off here, as the early split-screens show the commonality between Light and super detective L, while certain frames look poor without being reanimated completely. But underneath all the stylistic quibblings, Death Note has become an appropriate fable for our time. As Gregorian chant sects in a post-hardcore and synth score make epic the benign act of writing, a meditation on the power of the written word recreates itself, for those who have seen social media become monstrous.
A war of intellect, both adversaries claim to embody justice rather than being its instrument. In L, we have Sherlock Holmes reimagined as a grungy monkey, with a taste for sugar rather than opium. In Light, we have a woman-hating egotist who can still face the world with the righteousness of a gifted and talented charmer. It’s in their relationship with each other that the tension ascends the melodrama of a police chief’s son wanted for serial murder. They each face internal conflicts, as Light becomes L’s only friend, and the aspiring god who holds the detective as the only mind he can admire is racked by guilt and regret, if only periodically. In the end, L is the final test Light must surpass to prove his worthiness as a god. He uses anyone he considers weak, the idol Misa, an FBI agent’s fiancée, even his own mother, to further his cause. Death becomes par for the course, and L’s is his trophy.
The show does strain under the weight of its own mythology after Light does away with his foe. But certain performances carry off the intensity of the story, especially Mamoru Miyano’s as our anti-hero. Smirking in baritone as Kira, or light and breezy as the above-average high-schooler, despite all the arguably deserving and the few innocent dead he’s left behind, you’re still rooting for him by the end and that’s the show’s greatest strength.
English dub; Death Note: Relight OVAs.