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For those…I guess…two of you haven’t seen it yet, Death Note follows teenage protagonist Light Yagami after he picks up a notebook of death dropped by a shinigami named Ryuk (think a Japanese grim reaper, something that looks like God created everything you ever did wrong in your life in a physical form in order to punish you) and begins using it to kill all “bad” people from the world, at least, people that he considers bad. (This includes policemen assigned to investigate him). He dreams of “fixing” the world to suit his own legalist idealistic narcissism, and L, the world’s greatest detective, dreams of knocking this sociopathic upstart with a God complex down a few pegs.
Death Note’s popularity is as explosive as the show itself, and its fans are as melodramatic as its two deuteragonists. But if the insane hype doesn’t scare you off, you will want to check it out, because Death Note is a show that for once, isn’t over-rated (at least, mostly, and I will get to that in a moment).
Light is the valedictorian at Daikoku Private Academy, a genius despite the fact that he looks like the lovechild of Zac Effron and another Zac Effron. Unlike most brilliant characters who are clearly smarter than the writers who created them, Light and L sprang from the original manga written in fine detail by a guy for whom I can only assume rubix cubes and The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles are child’s play, and instead focuses on rubix dodecahedrons from the fifth dimension, while solving said crossword puzzles in classical Greek. Some people even speculate that L, even smarter than Light, is actually based on the manga author himself, and given his ability to keep track of one important fine detail out of twenty bazillion, I’d believe it. The writers of the show did an excellent job of capturing this intricacy in the show, and the anime contains even more capacity for all of its delightfully histrionic silliness. Yes, potato chips and penmanship have never been so EPIC!! Seriously, I could give this show a good review based solely on the fact that it is the easiest thing to make fun of…I think, ever. But all of this cheese is clearly intentional and becomes a point in its favor rather than a flaw, which brings me to what I mentioned earlier about the show being ALMOST not over-rated. This is some of the best that shonen has to offer, but really, that is all it is: shonen. In fact, even though most of what the characters are doing is TALKING, it has more in common with shows like Naruto, Hunter X Hunter, Bleach, Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho, and One Piece than it does with any of the more mature psychological titles like Paranoia Agent or Monster. That’s right; the only fights going on are mental and verbal ones (except for that wonderfully homoerotic bondage fist fight between Light and L. And I’m no genius mastermind, but I could have told them that trying to have a Capoiera match while chained together was a BAD idea,) but this is just as much a flashy smack fest as any of the previously aforementioned titles, albeit an intelligently written and well-paced one. To give the show false credit as “deep” would be to miss the point entirely; it’s not taking itself seriously, and it doesn’t expect its viewers to, either.
Light and L are the chess masters at play here, and all of the supporting characters are nothing more than their pawns. None are unrealistic, and some are very funny, (love you, Matsuda!) but don’t expect any depth or development, and unfortunately because of this, when the focus is taken away from Light and L in the second season, the series is barely recognizable from the great work it was in the first season. It saves itself, though, with a series finale so jaw-droppingly awesome that I went back for a re-watch as soon as was over.
Technically speaking, you can’t really say that Death Note has great animation, because it’s rarely showcased, as none of the characters ever SHUT UP. Really, I find it hilarious how beloved this show is when you consider that the best episodes, and indeed, all the episodes in the first season, are when Light and L are…talking. Hang out with some Death Note fanatics and they’ll all jump on the couch and pump their fists in the air, screaming, “YEAH! LET’S WATCH DEATH NOTE! LET’S WATCH THE EPISODE WHERE THEY’RE…TALKING! YEAH!” Don’t be concerned if visuals are important to you, though, because Death Note is gorgeous, with intricate, faux-realistic Gothic-style character art and background designs. The editing is nothing to sneeze at, either, and although it isn’t the first show I would give to a film class to analyze the cinematography, (that would probably be Cowboy Bebop) it does a really excellent job with lighting and masking to set the mood. On the sporadic occasions that the animation actually is at work, I get the feeling the animators were giggling as they presented us with the most over-the-top bout of junk food eating and, well, writing that I’ve ever seen.
For the voice acting, you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, whether you choose the dub or the Japanese. The astoundingly prolific Mamoru Miyano is at his best as the charismatic serial killer Light, absolutely mesmerizing. For the dub, Brad Swaile probably realized how good Miyano is, because for the first few episodes he sounds like he’s trying to imitate his Japanese counterpart, sounding uncomfortable and forced. But after a while he seems to find his stride, and by the end, he’s also quite good. Is he as good as Miyano? Eh, no, but he really is good, fans who say otherwise are being way too harsh. But for L, though, Alessandro Juliani is a thousand times better than his Japanese counterpart, who quite frankly sounds flat, sometimes playful but never coming near the subtlety in Juliani’s performance. Both tracks are excellent, so just go with your own personal preference.
I do recommend this series, but don’t take it too seriously. Also, there are some people who won’t be able to get past how shallow the characters are, and how morally reprehensible the show can be as a whole. In reference to Light especially I find it astounding how much a murderous, manipulative, egotistical, unfeeling grade-A DOUCHE BAG can get away with in the eyes of his fans as long as he is good-looking, interesting, and well-dressed. These despot-idolaters keep insisting that he’s an anti-hero, not a villain, and that he has good intentions. Listen to him call himself GOD in episode ONE and try to tell me about his “good intentions.” If you can get past that, though, give Death Note a look, and prepare to enjoy a thrilling, funny, intricate, and disturbing ride. I’d give it three and a half “BRILLIANT DEDUCTIONS!” out of four.