Death Note & Favorite Manga of 2007

Death Note volume 1

This was the year I realized that just because a manga was translated and launched in the US didn’t mean it was great. It used to be that mostly the best Japanese comics made it over, but ever-growing demand means more and more material is coming just because it’s available. Nothing wrong with that, only one has to pay more attention to descriptions and reviews. I became more selective, and I gave up on several long-running series because their volume count exceeded my interest.

Worth Reading

While there were fewer series I decided to subscribe to, I did discover a few new manga series in 2007 that I enjoyed enough to have reread them already:

Beauty Pop — the story of a genius hairstylist and her indifference to family and social pressure

Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs — a natural at taking care of dogs learns life lessons from them

Love*Com — an odd couple (she’s tall, he’s short) struggle though school romance

Still Following

These consistent performers reminded involving this year: Emma and Nana got better with every volume in 2007, while Hikaru no Go and ES stayed exciting with competition and fear of death, respectively.

Conclusions

The terrific Sensual Phrase ended in February with book 18, and my beloved Tramps Like Us is moving towards conclusion in its next volume (#14 due January). Otaku club valentine Genshiken also ended with its ninth book, another series I’ll miss.

Biggest Disappointment

Easily Death Note. I’d wound up collecting all 12 books of the series, and over the Thanksgiving holiday, I started reading them.

Death Note volume 1

Volume one was as involving as they’d said it would be. Super-student Light Yagami finds a notebook dropped by a death god to cause trouble. Anyone whose name is written in the book will die if the person writing it also pictures their face. The art, by Takeshi Obata (Hikaru no Go), is gorgeous in its detailed line, but plot-wise, I’d already seen it on the Cartoon Network airing of the anime series. (It’s written by Tsugumi Ohba.)

What attracted me at first was the ethical question — is it wrong to kill a known criminal? — and the portrayal of a consummate egotist, a pampered child who’s already gotten everything his own way and who thinks he deserves to change the world. His naive beliefs that people will stop committing crimes out of fear and he singlehandedly can usher in a golden age are horrifying in their execution, even though he temporarily makes them feel plausible.

Having the death god as a stand-in for the reader is useful, too, especially when he grins devilishly and says “Humans are fun!” in response to Light’s megalomaniacal declarations. The interactions between the two reveal a lot about Light’s thoughts. Then L, the impressive investigator with mental quirks of his own, is introduced, and it becomes a cat and mouse game of who can out-deduce the other’s logic.

Spoilers follow from this point on.

Death Note volume 2

Volume two confirms that Light is really a villain, as he murders the FBI agents trying to catch him. Meanwhile, we really get to know L as he teases the police assigned to help him. I admire the way he looks like a cross between Light and the death god, with the same wild hair and huge eyes as the supernatural creature.

This is when I started getting annoyed with the series. The female character who comes closest to being fully developed so far is the fiance of one of the dead FBI agents, herself a former investigator. She’s got key information that will make Light a suspect, and by chance, he intercepts her on her way to deliver it. They verbally fence for a while, and then Light finally gains the upper hand, sending her to her presumed suicide. Only we never find out what happens to her.

I thought that was a disappointing way to treat such a great character and the readers, as well. I suppose it’s a testament to the creators that they created a character I missed so much, but the feeling I was left with was that of frustration. Since Light was being portrayed as so much smarter than everyone around him, why should I bother caring about anything, since they’d just end up being steamrollered by his plans.

Death Note volume 3

Volume three kept me interested by having Light and L finally meet, although the psychological gamesmanship at times becomes almost impenetrable, with both thinking ten moves ahead. Another Death Note is introduced, only this one is in the possession of Misa, a young model with a crush on the killer.

By volume four, there’s a lot more talking, a lot less things happening. Plus, Light has cut way back on interacting with his death god, lessening one of the things I found unusual about the series. Instead, it’s all about Misa and her motivations, until the two meet and continue plotting. Well, Light plots; Misa’s just a tool. She’s cute instead of smart, death-dealing eye candy.

Volume five hits the reset button hard, with memories being magically erased. Plus, there’s a pretty significant factual error: it doesn’t matter if there’s a blank in a gun, if you fire it at someone at very close range, it will still injure them. Blanks are more than sound effects. That’s not the only goofy choice: L decides that the best way to find the killer is to be handcuffed to Light at all times.

For the next couple of volumes, L and Light team up to investigate a business that’s using a death note to kill competitors, until in volume seven, the previous status quo is restored. By the time they kill L, I’d stopped caring. There are five more books, and the story jumps ahead four years. I gave up. I did try jumping ahead to the last book, but by that point I didn’t know any of the new characters or plot twists. (And I learned from Wikipedia that Misa’s fate was only revealed in a book about the books. Another example of not tying up loose ends.)

So I can’t recommend this title, because the promise of the stunning early books is wasted, I assume just to keep the series going.



16 comments

  • Jordan Peacock

    You beat me to the punch. Death Note was by far my most disappointing read of the year; I too, saw the potential of the initial storyline, and kept with it only to be bludgeoned by excessive explanations rehashing every point and counterpoint. If the plot had respected the audience enough to follow what was going on, it would have been a third shorter.

    Thank you for the recommends; at least I know that the disappointments need not be typical.

  • Interesting observations about Death Note. I remember when the female FBI agent was sent off to her apparent death thinking, “She can’t be dead!” and trying to think of all kinds of loopholes around the rules that had been revealed at that point. I think reading American superhero comics had conditioned me not to accept any off-panel death (or even any on-panel death, nowadays).

  • Lyle

    For what it’s worth, I had a very different reaction to Misa. I always thought she was just as smart as Light, but grew up learning that being smart wouldn’t get her as much as being cute. It’s been a while so I can’t pinpoint the instances, but there were moments I thought she showed hints of being able to plot as well as Light, but had far less discipline in sticking to one of her schemes, eventually taking a detour or shortcut. I probably added depth never meant by the writer, there, but Misa was my favorite character for that interpretation. (The idea that she would have had the discipline if she had ever been rewarded for being a smart woman, is one I’m sure I inserted… tho it’s probably was inspired that her scheming was all about getting her man.)

  • John, yeah, I think my expectations were affected by the other comics I’d read as well. But regardless, even if she didn’t come back, I thought discarding her without revealing her fate was a bad choice. Then I found out Misa was treated the same way, eventually.

    Lyle, there are periods where Misa is very clever, but Light always comes in with a “but you didn’t think of THIS!” I like your interpretation much better.

  • Ed Sizemore

    I’m sure they mentioned in the manga that Naomi, the female former FBI agent, had disappeared and the family couldn’t find the body. In fact, I’m almost certain they mention it again in a later book when they are revisiting some of L’s deductions.

    What stuck in my craw regarding Naomi was a conversation she had with Raye. He tells her that she is the better analysis, but got her to quit the Bureau because they were getting married. They never explain why a women intelligent and determined enough to join the FBI would so readily give up her career for marriage.

    Now I understand this is a Japanese manga and that her actions are the expected norm for a Japanese female. But this is a woman living and working in America, so it’s hard to believe she would just cave in to traditional Japanese expectations so easily. Especially, since it appears she really enjoys police work.

  • I was also really fond of Misa. Despite seeming a fairly one-dimensional addition to the series at first, she grew on me and I appreciated her role as the most developed human cost of Light’s crusade. Her devotion to him approached genuine tragedy in the scene in which she makes her second deal with the death god and all the sacrifice that that implies, while Light continues to think of her only as his tool. That she’s abandoned in the final volumes and her fate is left out was a betrayal of both the character and reader.

    Lots of other loose plot points and points resolved insufficiently. An all-around unsatisfying ending.

  • Which reminds me of something… If she does two deals, her lifespan is cut to 1/4 of what it originally was. Let’s assume that it was a relatively advanced 80. That means she’ll die at 20… which means that before the series jumps ahead 4 years, she was 16. Which makes her modeling career and her constant attempts to get Light into bed a bit odd, right?

  • I think that the deal halves your remaining lifespan, not your total lifespan, so if she was going to live to 80 and was about 20, it would take half of 60 years, so she’d have 30 left, then the second deal would take half of that, leaving her about 15, so she presumably has about 10 years left to live at the end of the series.

  • gia

    It’s so nice to have someone else who agrees with me on Death Note!

    My biggest issue is that the author never really delivers on the initial promise, which was an interesting debate on whether killing in the name the greater good can be justified in manga form.

    Instead the story just devolves into what felt to me like the author going “LOOK WHAT A GENIUS I AM! I invented this giant complicated maze and now I’m going to get out of it!” (“…By changing the maze as I go along,” no less.)

    Meh. Death Note isn’t horrible, but it’s decidedly overrated in my book.

    I do have to give credit to Ohba and Obata for creating some fantastic characters, though. I adore L. And Death Note has inspired some of the best fan-created works (in terms of doujinshi, goofy comics, etc) I’ve seen lately.

  • I know other people who hate all of Death Note after volume 7, but I still like it. It *does* kind of jump the shark at that point, and it’s never quite as good afterward, but it’s still full of plot tension and crazy “super-genius” plot mechanics throughout. All manga are full of after-the-fact explanations and convoluted logic, this one is just better than most. And talk about a grim ending — what some Christian manga reviewer obliquely referred to as “it is notable that at the end of the series the manga’s cosmology is essentially secular.” (Hopefully that’s not too much of a spoiler…)

    About the FBI agent in volume 2 — I agree that her fate is frustratingly ambiguous. My guess is that the author was keeping open the possibility that she might reappear later, but then forgot about her, or couldn’t figure out how to bring her back. Death Note is generally lacking in strong female characters — Misa is pretty annoying and ditzy. My theory is that the author was trying to make Light increasingly unlikeable by showing him manipulating every woman he encounters. I mean, they immediately establish that no human being except L and his proteges is equal to Light mentally, so the only equal relationship Light could get into would be one with L, and that’s where the yaoi dojinshi comes in. :/

  • About gia’s comment about “can killing for the greater good be justified”… well, no, the manga doesn’t really debate this. But come on, when it comes down to it, this is Shonen Jump — Dragon Ball isn’t a philosophical manga about “is there a limit to human endeavor” either. You pretty much know from volume 1 that Light is the bad guy. It’s just a cat-and-mouse mastermind-vs.-mastermind game, and in that way, it’s well done.

    Actually, there *is* a certain discussion of moral gray areas in the manga, such as the idea of sacrificing criminals to draw out Light (inconsistently used in volume 1, and then suddenly a big moral no-no for the heroes later). Personally I suspect that Light’s dad and the other detectives are portrayed as being such goody two-shoes (“No! We can’t carry guns!” etc.) because of editorial pressure to have a clear “good guy” in the manga, since it is a fairly dark series. The kids-murdering-people content was enough to alarm authorities in China, after all, and I’m sure some American censors would find it uncomfortable as well.

  • gia

    @Jason: I’m not saying that all manga has to have a deeper meaning. I mean, if you look on my shelves you’ll find, for example, Vampire Knight and Dazzle– neither of which is exactly deep and meaningful, but each perfectly enjoyable.

    But I *do* think that there was sort of the promise of more dialogue on the subject of justice than was actually delivered. A manga doesn’t have to be deep to get me interested, but if it starts out smart and devolves into an increasingly lame cat-and-mouse game, I feel it’s perfectly permissible for me to feel disappointed ;)

  • David

    Death Note was better through what it said subtly than through what it was showing up front. I thought it was awesome. If Death Note ended at the “first ending”, then you wouldn’t see how a world with “justice” would be like. I mean the initial setup was weird for being a dialogue about whether or not it is correct to kill for justice. Light’s first kill was an innocent person. Also, the main initial plot is about two people trying to outwit one another. If they wanted to go for the approach of justice, they would probably show more things from the point of view of criminals or people who are related to criminals or people wrongfully accused, etc.

    It’s interesting because it shows the vagaries of justice and the people involved throughout the side and how they react to the positions they’re in and their moivations, etc. Look at the way the two presidents reacted. Also look at how corrupt Light’s people get. Also look at his followers as well. It’s pretty interesting, and also a little crazy that it was on Jump.

  • Clown Grin

    Never having read the manga itself, I can’t really judge it, but the anime is definitely worth watching. I’ve also heard other people who’ve said the anime far outstrips the manga, because the added elements of music and animation creates much more suspense. Naomi’s death was really amazing in the anime – the fear expressed in her eyes when Light revealed himself to be Kira was horrifying.

    (also, to answer a question about Misa’s lifespan – Jealous died when he lengthened her life, so the rest of HIS lifespan was added onto Misa’s as well – and his could’ve well been 100 yrs or so)

  • Yumiko

    Although I do love the Death Note series, I have to admit that after volumne seven, although I grew attached to a couple of the new characters introduced, the story line was pointless. The main plot was supposed to be a battle between Kira and L, deciding which was justice for the reader, really. After L died, it wasn’t even a fight between Light and L’s sucessors. Near finds out who Kira is very quickly, and the game turns into a more physical battle. I suppose they tried to turn it into a mind game by showing Near’s thoughts on the matter, but I had to read them three times before understanding them fully…
    Plus, Light made that huge tactical error (especially when it got dangerous), destroying his own purpose: he had no heir to the title of Kira. Mikami was much too involved to be safe. After he was gone, everything was back to the way it was before him. Eliminates his purpose. Some super-genius he was.
    Still, I wasn’t really disappointed by the series. It’s probably one of the best. (And my dad will still talk about how L and Naomi aren’t dead…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *