Death Note

Death Note volume 1 cover

The biggest disappointment I’ve read recently is easily Death Note. I’d wound up collecting all 12 books of the series, and over the Thanksgiving holiday, I started reading them.

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.

Death Note volume 1 cover

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.

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.

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.

Death Note volume 2 cover

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.


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