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Death Note is the second manga series that I started at the recommendation of Sanada (the first was Saiyuki ... thank you thank you, Sanada-san!!!). She also warned me that Death Note wasn't likely to appeal to me the way that Samurai Deeper Kyo or Saiyuki had, and she was 100% right. The series is worth reading, but this is an affair of the head, not the heart.

Light Yagami, a high school student who is just finishing his final year, is academically brilliant, socially charming ... and bored by life and by his fellow human beings. One day he finds a mysterious notebook inscribed with instructions that will allow its owner to use it to kill people. Light assumes that this is some kind of joke, but he can't resist experimenting with the Death Note, using the names of a couple of criminals - who die, just as the instructions promised. Light quickly decides that he will make the world a better place by killing off criminals. But this is the 21st century, and his actions don't go unnoticed. Soon he's playing cat-and-mouse with the police and with a brilliant criminologist known only as L - but who's the cat, and who's the mouse?

This series is basically a fantasy, but it's set firmly against the backdrop of current technology and sociology. Of course the police notice what Light is doing - and to up the ante on the game, Light's father is Chief of Police. Of course the media reports breathlessly on every new death, and the public can't stop talking about the vigilante that they dub "Kira" (Engrish for "Killer"). The timing of a series of e-mail messages (or possibly FTP transactions) becomes a crucial clue at one point, as well.

By the time we're well into Vol. 2, Light has become one of L's principal suspects. By the end of Vol. 3, things have taken several additional twists. Light is enrolled at university, and one of his new classmates is ... L, who reveals his identity in the hopes of either forcing Light into an error or (if he's in fact innocent) coopting his keen intelligence for the investigation. And another Death Note seems to have come into play: "Kira" is making new demands and threats - but Light has nothing to do with any of it.

Several Digressions on Light (and a Little About L)

In The Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship encounters the powerful elf queen Galadriel, Sam the hobbit suggests that she should take the One Ring, and use it to "make some folks pay for their dirty work" (IIRC - wording may not be exactly right). Galadriel answers that it would start out that way, "but it would not end that way, alas!" (ditto). She refuses the Ring, and notes that thereby she has passed the test set for her.

Light Yagami would have failed the test, and taken the Ring - in a heartbeat.

Light is very interesting but (to me) pretty repulsive as a character. He's a complete sociopath in many ways - utterly disconnected from other human beings. It's all too easy for him to make the switch from killing criminals to killing the FBI agents who are on his trail. His main opponent, L, is a little twisted also, but in a rather different direction. He has a number of personality issues that make me think he's meant to have Aspergar's Syndrome or some similarly "functional" form of autism: his eyes are always wa-a-ay open like he's just seen a ghost, he doesn't meet other peoples' gazes very often, he can't sit in a chair in a normal fashion (instead, he crouches like a gargoyle) ... but he still seems connected to other people, even if it isn't a very close or warm connection. I imagine that this is on purpose: handsome, suave, charming Light-the-Sociopath vs. disheveled, twitchy, weird L-the-Humanist.

I keep coming back to Light's personality and the way his mind is put together. I'm strangely reminded of Danny Saunders, the Hasidic teenager in Chaim Potok's The Chosen, who at the age of 4 read and memorized a religious book telling the story of a man who'd undergone Job-like torments. Danny was absolutely unaffected by the poor man's troubles in the story - all he cared about was showing off his reading and memory. His father, a rabbi who wanted a son who could follow in his own footsteps as counselor to and spiritual leader of their community, realized that he'd have to take rather severe actions if his son were to grow up as anything but a brain without a heart. In Light's case, the father would instead have celebrated his son's intellectual achievement and encouraged him to do more, and better. And so now we have Light, who could well be the person that Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax was thinking of when she said "Sin, young man, is when you treat people as things."

Some other random thoughts: I find myself wondering about whether the name "Kira" has some sort of connection to Light's name - I think I remember that kira means "sparkling" in Japanese. And I also wonder whether the Death Note is writing itself in response to Light's input. Will the second Kira's Death Note contain the same rules?

I'm going to keep reading this series because it appeals to the part of me that used to like to read police precedural mysteries, like Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" stories. I want to see how it all works out. And it does have interesting ideas - just look at how much babble I've produced here! But I don't love this series the way I've loved the others.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
meganbmoore
Apr. 12th, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Death Note is interesting in that it's protagonist is uteerly and unrepentantly evil(he starts out a good guy but is utterly evil eventually) I love the extreme levels of logic in it, but it does it's best to alienate you when it comes to getting attached to characters...you just don't trust it.
chomiji
Apr. 13th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC)

Yeah, it's a pretty bleak, nihilist outlook that's presented. I think it says something that the characters I've liked best so far are the doomed FBI agent and his fiancee, whom I'm sure is going to come to a sad end (if she hasn't already). But I do like a mystery - although not as much as I like some other things - so I'll stick it out and see how everything pans out.

meganbmoore
Apr. 13th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
Let's just say that of the characters left who I'm fond of, you've only met 1, and that 1 is probably the only character I'm fond of who will make it out alive.

And the FBI agent's fiancee is cool.
chomiji
Apr. 13th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC)

A couple of people have said that the latter part of the series isn't as good ... I think Sanada said something like, "When you get to the part where it seems like it should end - let it."

meganbmoore
Apr. 13th, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
I agree on that, though I still like it after that point, just not as much. It feels like it was meant to end then, but didn't. Actually SDK felt like that to me, too, around the Sea of Trees arc, except there, it got worlds better when it kept going.
(Anonymous)
Apr. 13th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)
I *love* Death Note! It's on TV here in Japan right now!
It's SO good. I completely agree with your assesment of Light, Cho. I won't spoiler anything accept to say that the film version is actually grittier than the manga.
Light is a good person corrupted. I think that in some ways he is an indictment of the Japanese education system: the "perfect" student without a soul, he is quickly swayed by the power of the Death Note, A power that the true owner either can't, or has no interest in controlling. (Ryuk has to be the oddest comic relief I have seen in a while.)
chomiji
Apr. 13th, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)

Wow, the manga is already pretty gritty ... . I'm glad my analysis worked for you.

Yeah, I didn't even mention Ryuk! How'd that happen? I think I had him in my original summary, before I got into my theories about Light, and then when I tightened up the summary ... I lost him. Ryuk is rather grim kind of comic relief - except for the business about the apples! I'm pretty sure he's hiding things from Light, and Light doesn't seem to be as suspicious about that as he should be.

So who's writing me from Japan? I can think of a couple of people who it might be - not that it matters. It's always good to meet new folks with the same interests.

- Cho

ipperne
Apr. 15th, 2007 03:34 pm (UTC)
Funny, When Mangismo(danish publisher) announced that they would start on Death Note when Gravitation was finished over the summer, I just thought "Yeah Whatever" because what they said about the series really didn't sound like something that could be the next thing I would read.
But now, after reading this, I am actually looking forward to the release, (Not that I want Gravitation to end, but there's only 12 vols, so there's no way around it) if nothing, then just to give it a try. Thanks
chomiji
Apr. 17th, 2007 01:55 am (UTC)

Well, glad I helped, then!   :-)

sanada
Apr. 17th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)
Light is the "ideal" high-acheiving Japanese teen coming from the "ideal" ambitious family, so in with the crime drama is a scathing criticism of Japanese society and values... ugh, I actually went to high school with a girl who reminded me a lot of Light. Absolutely brilliant, spoke half a dozen languages fluently after going through the top-level educatonal machine in her own country, top grades in everything (and endless whining if she didn't get 100% or if someone beat her on a test), full scholarship to MIT that she turned down because it wasn't good enough, wealthy, indulgent parents who gave her whatever she wanted as long as she got the best score... but even though she was unfailingly polite, there was something horrible and smarmy about her that you could just *feel* before even getting to know her. I always ended up paired with her for class projects (I'm not sure what the teachers were thinking...) so we'd chat a bit, and she was frankly rather scary. She idolised Ayn Rand and claimed to be a Communist (and she would have fit right in with the Gang of Four) and no matter what great proletarian reasoning she had, her basic idea was to create concentration camps for all of the people she personally found undesirable... I think she eventually succumbed to educational burnout, but still, a very unsettling person.

I think Death Note had a real opportunity to bring some shockingly radical ideas to the pages of Shounen Jump, the most mainstream-of-mainstream manga publications. Unfortunately I think it fell bit short of my admittedly high expectations.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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