Top student Light Yagami’s life changes forever when the death note literally falls into his hands. The terrible book gives anybody the power to kill anyone simply by writing names. As long as the owner knows a victim's true identity and face, whoever's name he writes in the death note will die almost instantaneously from a heart attack. After some initial tests, Light quickly overcomes any hesitations he has and decides to use this opportunity to rid the world of all criminals. Proclaiming himself the "god of a new world," he passes final judgment on a rapidly-mounting procession of alleged murderers, rapists, and thieves whose names and faces he learns from the media.
The death note comes from a barren, ruined dimension that's home to the Shinigami, a race of immortal, demonic "death gods" who control all humans' life spans. It turns that one of these Shinigami, Ryuk, grew so bored in his immortality that he dropped the notebook into Earth just to see what a human would do with it. Once he finds Light, Ryuk starts following him around simply because he think his megalamanical scheme is an entertaining diversion.
Light's father, Soichiro, just happens to be a police chief. While his department at first considers all these sudden heart attack deaths to be unrelated, they soon suspect the cases are the work of a serial killer the media has dubbed " Kira." And, just as quickly, the police realize their unequipped to deal with a case like this. Their plight then draws the attention of L, the mysterious world-renowned detective who only communicates through computers and proxies.
L and Light enter a cat-and-mouse battle of wits that rages for years and goes through many role inversions. Their conflict gets even more complicated as other death notes, master detectives and "Kiras" enter the fray in what steadily escalates into something resemble a cold war.
This show's got some serious moral complexity. Light's most assuredly the protagonist, but whether he’s the hero and L’s the villain, or vice versa, really depends on the viewer's own ethical compass. There’s also an extensive number of cops, feds, gangsters and task force agents who come after Kira over the course of the series. Indeed, it seems like Light's only ever limited by how quickly he can write names into the death note. Still, here are five most important characters...
A world-famous master detective who operates under a colorful alias,
possesses a vast fortune and works (unofficially) with the police and a supremely-capable butler, L might as well be Japan's answer to Batman. As hard as it may be to believe, out of all the people in the world, this calm (but fidgety,) brilliant (but socially-awkward) recluse with an insatiable sweet tooth is the greatest threat to Kira's "new world."
Oh terrible irony. This police chief, the head of the task force investigating Kira, is totally unaware that the killer's living in his own house. Sochiru is Light's dad but, unlike his son, he's a true blue hero who puts his life, reputation and sanity on the line time and again to uphold the law.
What Can This Be Compared To?
DEATH NOTE’s really almost in a genre of its own, freely shifting between horror, crime, mystery, suspense, espionage and dark fantasy. There are certainly elements that invite comparison to other works, but there’s nothing this can adequately be compared to in sum. I found the whole show to be quite novelistic, actually, in that it starts with a provocative idea and then takes it as far as it can possibly. Tonally, I felt its visceral approach to magic and its free-flowing plot were quite reminiscent of Stephen King’s work. Beyond that, the suspense elements make it feel like a serialized Hitchcock movie, the crime elements recall ZODIAC or SEVEN, the mystery elements seem like they're from an updated SHERLOCK HOLMES adventure (or a striped-down BATMAN story) and the intersection of punk rock-style dark fantasy and urban realism reminded me of Neil's Gaiman's SANDMAN.
To get a little more theoretical, I see this whole thing as something of a spiritual successor to Mary Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN, in that both are Promethean, vaguely-Kabbalistic cautionary tales about the dangers of perverting the order of nature. Instead of a scientist perverting the act of creation, DEATH NOTE about a kid stealing the right to judgment. If Frankenstein's Monster is a golem for the dawn of science, then Kira’s a monster for the internet age.
What You Need to Know
Produced by Madhouse and Tetsuro Araki, this series adapts Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's hit Shonen Jump manga series. It was actually turned into a trilogy of blockbuster live-action films before this show was ever made. While all of these follow roughly the same story, there are key differences between each iteration.
What Should You Watch?
This is a recent series, so it’s pretty easy to find. The collections aren’t as piecemeal as some of these other series can be. There’s Box Set #1 and Box Set #2 and new copies of both each run for a little under $30 on Amazon, meaning you can get all 10 discs for about 60 bucks altogether. You can also watch every single episode for free on Hulu if you so choose.
I watched the dub of this and found the voice acting to be really exceptional - - Brad Sweill and Alesandro Guiliani, in particular, do some amazing work as Light and L, respectively. One of the nice bonuses in the box sets are video interviews with basically every voice actor. They’re well-produced and put a human face on these talents you’ve been hearing. It’s also quite intriguing to hear them talk about their craft and see them at work in the studio.