Death Note is a fable for the powers of faith, and how too much faith in power alone can only lead to destruction. This is also the danger of celebrity. Fans who believe in aggression as power can be seen wielding it against the idols whom they believe are undeserving of their platform. Taking another look at the much misjudged “Second Kira” Misa Amane, a whole new thematic undercurrent can be found in Tetsuro Araki’s seminal anime – the toxicity of fan culture, and how it can lift the venomous likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Katie Hopkins to the fearsome heights of celebrity.
When we first meet Misa no longer masked by anonymity, she is in awe of Kira. She worships him to the point that she believes she’s in love with Light. But as impartial onlookers, a viewer can see that her drive is an infatuation, almost an imaginary devotion based on the idea of Kira. How we are directed to look at Misa from Light’s point of view is from a place of eye-rolling disdain. She doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into, his reasons for creating Kira, all he’s sacrificed to arrive at his current god-like status. Alongside Light, we are looking down from the plateau of celebrity at a wheedling obsessive. However, when you take Misa Misa’s career as a multi-media idol into account, the two Kiras (Kirii?) are thrown into contrast on a much more human level. How they treat their fans, in Light’s contempt and Misa’s compassion, lifts a new layer on the natures of fandom in Death Note.
There is no getting around the fact that fan culture is culture. It’s become the basis of how we interact with all media, and in turn, a breeding ground for hate speech. The digital platforms both Kiras use to forge their mythos put these functions into action, at a time when social media was still in its populist infancy. Like Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, it predicted how social media would be exploited by aggressors. Airing in 2006 as opposed to Perfect Blue’s arrival in 1997, Death Note goes a step beyond to an interconnected global fan culture. Kira says it himself – while the people save face in public, decrying Kira’s actions, behind profiles and avatars in chat rooms they’re venerating him as a vengeful god.
As one of Kira’s most ardent supporters, and aware of his true identity, Misa acts first as a decoy, then as a co-conspirator. Light feigns a growing love for Misa, no other manipulative options open, as Rem has sworn to kill him if he betrays her. But while Misa is smart enough to know none of his affectionate gestures are genuine, she wants to believe in his love as something that can save her. If, for whatever reason, Light had never picked up Ryuk’s notebook, what would she have done without Kira? Might she have stepped up to his missing example in his stead? This self-sabotage, risking her life with or without Light by her side, appears to be her aim. She wants to destroy herself while engaged in a movement that means something. After all, taking her own life in her position, after she’s carefully chosen how she’s appeared to the public for so long, would only become a mark of shame and suspicion after her death.
Ironically enough, it’s a ‘fan’ of hers that scoops Misa free from her mortality. An infatuated death god had been watching her from the Shinigami realm, a parallel to stalker behaviour, albeit on a cosmic level. That is, until he sees her under threat from a drunken obsessive. This admirer from another plane of existence destroyed itself to rescue her, from assault and perhaps from death, with a few strokes of the pen. But Misa must now carry this attack with her every day, as she deals with public appearances and having to force a smile for her fans.
When Misa is detained under suspicion of being the second Kira, as soon as she forfeits her Death Note and loses all memory linked to it, she behaves as though she’s being held captive by a stalker. What’s all the more haunting than her pleas for freedom is the fact that she seems almost calm. Maybe it’s her personal understanding of why an obsessive would go to such extremes, or perhaps it’s her determination to always be kind to the people who made her a star. Something keeps her hanging on to her compassion, until she can’t stand being blind and bound any longer. The sacrifice of her Death Note is about more than supplementing Light’s pride as Kira. She loses the one she loves, desperate not to be a disappointment to him.
This triptych of influence by Kira and Rem through Misa could be considered the crux of the interpretation of Death Note as a precognisant study of fan culture. Though she’s corroding her life for Light’s sake, Rem does all she can to protect her from his influence. Without denying Misa the love that’s bringing her some rare joy, Rem knows his true nature and is prepared to take his life to save her master. Meanwhile, Light’s egomania is a constant threat to Misa’s wellbeing, holding the potential to coax her into destroying herself as his design requires. While Misa is the positive force of fandom and celebrity, hopeful and only lightly armoured against corruption, Rem is as we are, the observer trying to guide reactions away from hatred and regulate ourselves. As the wise witness, she is the key to Misa’s survival. With a subtle guidance, she reminds Misa of her intelligence and power over the situation – the same as our own over ourselves and influencing fan culture.