Death Note: Before Netflix's film, a look at the original Dexter-meets-Sherlock anime series
The thing about Japanese pop culture is that it never really stays in one medium. If the Japanese like a story, they will transmute it into a movie, a video game, a comic and anything else they can think of. Death Note has followed a similar pattern. It started its life as a manga story in a weekly magazine, after which it was published as a standalone manga comic. It then became an anime television series. There was also a light novel (novels aimed towards a young adult demographic), various video games, four live-action movies, a television drama and a miniseries.
While the judgement on the movie will have to wait, this still is an excellent time to talk about the anime series which found great appreciation outside Japan too. It maintains a cult following in the West, and is fairly popular in India as well.
Dexter meets Sherlock
In a nutshell, the show is Dexter meets Sherlock. It blurs the lines between good and bad to an extent where you are completely okay with rooting for the murderer. Importantly though, it takes the plot to a much higher plane than Dexter ever could, as it shows us the world with an all-powerful vigilante. And while nobody can hope to match Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, the sleuths in the anime are no slouches.
The plot in itself is simple enough. The Death Note is a notebook which gives its owner the power to kill anyone whose name and face they know. The default manner of death is a heart attack but the owner can also specify exactly how the victims die. The notebook also comes with a Shinigami, a death god who stays with the owner as their frenemy.
Now this makes the owner extraordinarily powerful and allows them to commit perfect crimes. No physical evidence and no accomplices means no way for the police to find the killer, right?
Except the show finds ways to keep the police in the hunt. And these ways and the plotline are really what make the show so special. The story twists and turns through 37 episodes (the ideal length for a weekend binge) and we see a world changing before us. Death Note is never afraid to take things to a grand stage, and while the story is helped along by the rather convenient rules of the Death Note, it always remains extremely unpredictable.
The protagonist of the show is Light Yagami, a Japanese student. He is basically the IIT topper of Japan but is also hot. He comes in possession of the Death Note and upon realising its powers, sets upon a warpath to change the world. His clashes with the enigmatic L, the detective leading the chase, form the central plot of the show. There is also the very entertaining death god Ryuk, who apart from loving apples is also one of the best drawn supernatural creatures in animation.
Theme music, animation and language
The show’s theme song is an angsty rock number but it is the background score which sets the show apart. It is used expertly to set the mood as Light and L make their moves in their ever-evolving duel. In particular, L’s theme is an extremely ominous piece of music which can raise the goosebumps of the most stoic of viewers. Light’s theme isn’t too bad either as it conveys the tranquil yet calculative nature of a man who quite simply is a mass murderer.
The animation is a masterclass in what good pacing should look like. Some scenes could invite allegations of laziness as the entire frame stays at standstill, as only the character’s lips move as they explain or question something. In the action scenes however, the “camera” whips about as the speed picks up or slows down as needed. The scenes are drawn with a lot of straight lines and the motion isn’t very fluid, which gives the show an edgy feel.
Take for example this clip which encapsulates the best bits from the show. It’s mostly spoiler-free but does give away minor points of the plot, so watch at your own risk.
The tennis match is reminiscent of the Sherlock Holmes-James Moriarty fight in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows where the battle was as much a mental one as it was physical. The Death Note scene too recognises the importance of speed and is able to use it a tad more effectively by not being bound to the laws of Physics.
Like with other Japanese shows, you have the option of either watching it in Japanese with English subtitles or with an English audio track. And make no mistake, these are two completely different experiences. The Japanese audio is highly recommended as the native voice acting gives it a particular feel which gets lost in the English dub. The voice actors can go a little over the top sometimes, but on the whole, they do a good job.
The ultimate “benevolent” dictator
Death Note is in many ways the story of the ultimate “benevolent” dictator — a person who wants to do good and has extreme power to do so. The power of death. Or more specifically, the power to hand out death with the least amount of fuss and no liability.
With that setup in place, the show is able navigate scenarios with colossal social impact and show us what the world might look like with one all-powerful human meting out justice. That view of the world is at least as important as the actual cat and mouse game between Light and the police. Also, the medium of anime works perfectly for the supernatural story.
The American movie is coming out on 25 August but you would do well to watch the anime series first. Especially for the uninitiated, this is a helluva introduction to the world of Japanese anime.