While the choice to kick off our review segment with the fan and critic favorite Death Note may come across as clichéd and dated, it dawned upon us to pick and start with the classics of anime that recent fans and followers may have not necessarily picked upon yet. Which is ironic, as this is most likely one of the select few that has been embarked quite often as a rite of passage for many converts who have continued to tread this medium since. And yet even for those who have been acquainted with this incredible hallmark of accomplishment within the genre, it’s worth the nostalgic trip into perhaps the greatest critique of the human psyche; a psychological soul trip masquerading as a thriller detective, drama-caper series.
Nearly a decade has passed since its inception but its stronghold as one of the most accomplished works of art that has inspired a rather protracted Hollywood adaptation, 3 successful Japanese live action films, blockbusting manga sales and various video games, is still yet to be one-upped.
Death Note centers on the life of a precocious and prodigious student name Yagami Light, who is bored with the mundane of everyday life, the atrocities of human beings and the state of human existence where evil seems to hold sway of the world. A righteous individual, he has a chance encounter with a Death Note; a supernatural notebook that kills anyone whose name is written in it, and decides to use it upon criminals in an effort to cleanse the world of all the wrong and to create a perfect world. Together with the progenitor of the notebook, a Shinigami (death god) by the name of Ryuk, he picks up the pace of these ‘judgments’ to an extent where his actions get noticed, and the world calls its most gifted and eccentric detective, L, to hunt down this unknown menace. This results in a game of cat and mouse and one-upmanship with devastating consequences to those caught in their path.
The brilliance of Death Note is that is all sounds so simple yet is explored with a sense of grandeur reflecting the world at large - rich and varied characters and an incredibly paced story with nail biting cliffhangers, depicted in beautifully drawn out, languid, dreamy scenes. Tetsuro Araki resorted to keep the deep seated philosophies and clashes of morality at an almost subliminal level, choosing to highlight instead clever word play, impeccably written dialogue, setting up crazy scenarios only to have them reversed at every turn and beautifully rendered frames of slow-motion and interplay of musical brilliance. That, in a nutshell is Death Note, its underlying complexities only more apparent to the viewer in progression, from a singular stand point; simply a work of art that supersedes the medium, a rare occasion where even live action fails to surpass its quality and body of work.
What starts off as a rather simply story line, ages like fine wine as and when the supporting characters and self-created situations arise from the usage of the Death Note and the extent Light goes to cover up his tracks. This is a mind trip – there are times when the genre treads into elements commonly used in horror, dark comedy, romance, suspense, friendship, drama, poetic justice, tragedy and even slice of life in delightful boughs and sachets at regular interludes. There are times when the thrill and adrenaline of the unknown is so overwhelming and almost nerve wrecking that you cannot but resist the preview of the next episode.
Toshiki Inoue’s writing has been top notch - apart from being one of the most well written in recent memory, I am yet to discern a loop hole or plot point that was not well dressed, rehearsed and executed with perfection – they will come at you like an avalanche and leave you intellectually breathless. While a more seasoned critical viewer may point to a weaker third act, in light of the sheer brilliance of penultimate and ultimate cuts, I beg to differ: no other anime has managed to build up the tension and story to a precipice where it delivered unequivocally and on a satisfactory note.
There are marginal differences between the anime and manga adaptations, just like all other series, but in this instance the ending and treatment of the anime outshines the original material. Viewers would be better suited to stick to the animated version that offers an incredible visual feast to accentuate the philosophical debate on show.
Considering that the excessively explored theme of an infallible hero’s fall from grace has been done over and over again; Death Note infuses all sorts of multi-linear story elements to let this drift into epic territory. The attention to detail and clever, spontaneous and unexpected turn of events is what makes this narrative simply top notch and engaging. To say that is this is a ‘Catch me if you can’ with a supernatural element is a huge understatement, although the intellectual battle between two geniuses is the central ploy of the series and is a protracted act that stretches across a good two thirds of the story.
It is almost a routine in this medium to have strong lead characters around whom a web of weaker, dull and underdeveloped characters revolve. Death Note is the sterling exception – almost every character, minor or fleeting, provides moments of depth, meaning and perception in his own subtle ways. Since justice is one of the major themes that intertwines all their opinions and fate, each present their own take, adhering to what they deem as just, with wonderful outcomes.
Kira /Lighto is probably one of the most worshiped and mesmerizing characters of all time within anime, a champion of good, who ironically deviates towards the evil he is meant to destroy – but there will be several quirky characters who have all been equally idolized. The sleep deprived, genius world beating detective, L with his chocolate themed idiosyncrasies also comes in as one of the most unique creations of the genre, and exemplifies the rare circumstances in anime inhabited by two exceptionally strong characters at odds with each other. Ryuk and Rem, the former being one of the most entertaining of the Shinigamis; acts as an excellent, if not too helpful foil to Light, whereas the latter is a more serious and loyal ally of Amane, bringing more human traits to the show than the beings they are depicted to kill.
From the entire investigation team, who all have their own personal reasons for pursuing justice, to the victims and their circumstances – everything is explored and developed to a point where even the minor characters shine during their impromptu entrances and exchanges with the lead cast. You have the morally astute, law-abiding father, Soichiro Yagami, who is a decorated old school cop with the highest regards to honour, the comic relief and goofy Touta Matsuda, the afro infused and serious Shuichi Aizawa, the silent and imposing Kanzo Mogi and the dependable Hideki Ide form the core of the investigating team driven to their wits against the Death note killers.
One cannot equally forget the contradicting successors of L; Near and Mello who both share a clash in ideology, mutual resentment and ego – each going their own drastic, opposite ways to capture Kira. My favourite is perhaps the faithful, air-headed and cuteness personified Misa-Misa, a dedicated girlfriend and supporter of Light, who is ready to sacrifice her own life at his beck and call. Her quirkiness is infectious, and she is perhaps the most delightful member of the cast. And who can forget the unintentionally hilarious Teru Mikami, the man with perhaps the most explosive mind-orgasms and pseudo-lightsaber writing skills? Every one of them add great colour and texture to this show and augments its addictiveness.
Speaking of video, you could be forgiven to presume the show doesn't look too shabby for something over a decade old. For something that aired in 2006, much prior to the high definition or 720p craze that has permeated ever since, the animation still looks crisp and A-grade; beautifully drawn out and artfully animated. A lot of effort has been poured into backgrounds, atmospheric effects and shadows to highlight emotions of eeriness, intrigue and sombre moods.
The most exotic scenes are the fusion of colourful interplays, each character gets his distinct colour hues and gradients that reflect their traits during freeze-frame, dramatic moments. For a series filled with an almost dream state, slow and character perspective point-of-view shots, the fluid camera angles really complement the action when things need to move along fast, while also making full use of the colour canvas to deliver outstanding vibes. There is an almost seamless transition between plodding scenes and fast moving ones that is executed with such finesse, that you have to simply marvel at the talent behind the drawing board.
It’s not a surprise that some of the most iconic scenes of the protagonist and his endeavours have often been parodied and alluded in several other shows. It’s a shame no Bluray edition of this exists. Surely, the creators must justify the cultural significance of this series and have one put out.
The work of Seiyus here is simply astounding; each and every one of them bring an incredible range of voice acting to breathe life into these vibrant characters. The work of Mamoru Miyano as the protagonist and anti-hero Yagami light is sheer wickedness in his range of emotions denoting sinister chuckles, hysteric muttering and manic laughter.
Kappei Yamaguchi also steals the show with his rendition of the sugar junkie L, whereas the lesser known amongst the ladies, Aya Hirano delivers a cute and adorable Misa Amane. Every other character also delivers a diverse range of depth that differentiate them and their perceptive effectively.
OP and ED
For a series this epic and revered, you would expect the OP and EP to be memorable, which is sadly the opposite in this case. Although the opening and closing theme songs highlight the generally rock infused score of the whole show, the heavy rock songs and animation themselves are nothing great, if just barely enough to suffice as one.
The real hidden gem of this show is its music, and at times you have to wonder the genius that is Yoshihisa Hirano and Taniuchi Hideki. The duo whip up a simmering cocktail of music that simply transcends genres. Whereas Light’s savage slaughter is often accompanied by what is undoubtedly the most epic orchestral pieces ever made, L’s playful timbre is a fusion of uplifting piano and strings. Mello and Near each have their exceptional rock infused variants, while the thrilling and eerie, off tempo and moody theme permeates the entire show like a rich layer of cake. This show would not be what is it sans the music, and is one of the prime examples of the medium that is imprinted deep in resonating memory because of its soundtrack – which is world class.
There is a wonderful theme for every situation, given its gravity and significance – hell, even the seedy and poorly made Sakura Television broadcast music has a matching, badly and cheaply produced synth piece. The OST of Death Note is perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the genre, if not the very best, as it is hard to recall any thing of its range and impact.
There is a disturbing, subliminal critic of the human condition, hidden deep within this visage of a regular supernatural thriller. We all share our own perceptions of the truth, as there is no such thing as a universal truth: it’s all about perspectives and justifications. The fact that anyone of us could be Yagami Light is truly frightening: we all put up appearances for appearances’ sake, wear masks to conceal our darkest, most innate desires – while expecting honesty from others. We would easily claim the high moral high ground in any situation, apply it hypocritically and have all come across people that we would have justified with the best of our reasoning that the world would be better off without. Added to the fact that the grotesque aspects of murders – blood, pain, fear and anxiety is far removed by remotely and discreetly killing people anonymously with a Death Note – the fact remains that every one of us would try it, embrace it and claim that only we would be fit to assume burden of such power.
Mikami literally reveres Kira as a God – his justification that evil needed to be eradicated became vindicated of his later actions. Therein lies the dilemma – the fine line between justice and vigilantism, good and evil, apathy and remorse. These are some of the themes presented in the show that truly elevate it above all other genres. While you are simultaneously cheering for the fate and deeds of the anti-hero, you are equally repulsed by his choice of actions, some of them more ghastly but not completely unthinkable if the roles were reversed. Given how everything was presented in the most eloquent and beautifully encapsulated way, this show is right up there with live action drama series from around the world.
In an age where, as connoisseurs of the medium, we are constantly getting heat as anime fans, defending the art form against haters and critics; labeling it as a delayed adulthood cartoon for adults, with perversions and gore, ecchi and underage girls – a show like this comes along once in a generation to state the contrary and rise above the realm of mere art, into a symphony of human spirituality. This has been a flagship since, and although there are quite a few before it and after it with equal rights to the throne; Death Note is an example of technical finesse, perfect execution and a dream marriage of concepts, mythology and escapism - the novelties of which has made anime a unique sub-culture in our times.
Story: 10/10 | Characters: 10/10 | Animation: 9/10 | Soundtrack: 9/10
Pros: Epic, dramatic story, nicely developed characters, wonderful script, animation with soundtrack, evenly paced
Overall Rating: 9.5 Hi10z
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