Deathnote Volume 1 Review
VIZ MEDIA SEPT 2005
"Start looking around you... and all you see are people the world would be much better off without."
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Contains the first 7 chapters of the 13 part series.
Written by Tsugumi Ohba
Artwork by Takeshi Obata
Approx. 200 pages; Softbound
Light Yagami is a brilliant but bored high school student who is studiously preparing for his college entrance exams and going through the motions of a teenage middle class existence. Absently staring from a window at his school he spots a little notebook lying in the street outside. Investigating, he discovers it is a supposably lethal manuscript used by death angels (called "Shinigami," or 'Death Gods') to kill humans when it is their appointed time to expire. Light assumes it is a practical joke and takes it home. Days pass and he continuously thinks about the implications of the book, even if it is a prank, and has been busy writing the names of particularly violent criminals into the little book (this is an area of knowledge Light knows something about, his father being a high-ranking police detective). One day, returning from school to his home (where he politely brushes off his mother and heads for his bedroom which has become a private enclave from his family since finding the death note), he pulls the book out from his desk, but this time, the Shinigami who lost the notebook appears. His name is Ryuk.
Ryuk, the actual owner of the deathnote, is more interested in alleviating his boredom than performing any duty on earth as a reaper of souls. According to his conversations with Light, the Shinigami from the realm he is from are preoccupied with gambling and sleeping, and view their peculiar labors on earth as a nuisance and something to be avoided. Light, however, is thrilled. There is a catch: Ryuk and Light are connected by the "bond" of the deathnote, and when it is time for Light to die, it will be Ryuk who will write his name down. On the other hand, Ryuk tells Light he need not worry about Heaven nor Hell - - any human using the deathnote is not headed for either place. Light accepts this overview of a Faustian predicament with little comment. He is more interested in putting the deathnote to work immediately toward achieving his plan to "make the world a better place" by creating a utopia through the extermination of criminals. Soon, too, this new better world that Light wants to create is also a place he wants to rule. To all of this Ryuk declares, "Humans are fun!"
This comical vision of the religion "Shinto," or the "way of the gods" seems to be a part of the backdrop to this story of supernatural power and the universal dilemma of adolescence: how to fix the world to suit myself. Though artist Obata has drawn instances of Christian symbology into the tale (crucifixes), the capriciousness of personality combined with divine power is reminiscent of the pre-christian gods (or spirits) of many of the world's cultures. There is a sense of an absolute justice claimed by all concerned in this tale: by Light as he eliminates dangerous criminals, by the police as they attempt to find him, and by the the so-called "Idiot masses" (soon being called such by Light) who are approving of the demise of so many undesirables that have plagued society. The assumption of a state-sponsored system of execution is also assumed within the tale.
People dying in droves, even if they are criminals, brings out a major police effort from around the globe. Light is pursued by the mysterious super detective "L" who is masterminding the effort to stop him, though "L" and his team have no idea who the culprit actually is. The ethics of "L," sanctioned by the international policing effort, includes using captured criminals as guinea pigs, and so "L" is soon able to deduce the general physical region of "Kira," the moniker that becomes attached to this unknown slayer. It is the (unresolved) contest between "L" and "Kira" that occupies this first volume.
Writer Ohba examines the effects within society that this massive die-off is having, the convulsions in international law enforcement, but the main interest is concentrated upon Light's thought, his emotions (which seem to be few) and his reasoning for his actions. As time passes, Light's internal thinking becomes text-book psychopathic, though always coldly calculated as part of an evolving grand scheme to improve the world. His "noble" crusade is mixed with a willingness to delete not only the criminal, but the irritating, annoying and inconvenient (even members of his own family, if necessary). And it takes but a short amount of time for Light to also assume a nearly "divine" estimation of himself. Is this truly Light's nature coming to fruition? Or is Ryuk and the deathnote creating a change in Light?
Ohba has also written a "detective novel" though with the trappings of a supernatural power phantasy. Ohba takes trouble to examine long stretches of deductive reasoning by the characters, and in one case five pages are used to explain how Light has constructed a secret drawer in his desk in which to hide the "deathnote." This is important since anyone else who touches the book will also be able to see Ryuk, the constantly hovering presence that follows Light about, sometimes explaining things, sometimes answering questions, other times responding mutely with complete ambivalence to some outrageous plan that Light seeks to implement in his goal of a perfect world. Ohba is thorough and tries to tackle every logical problem produced by the plot.
Obata's artwork is meticulous and tells the story effectively. There are many "talking heads" in this highly-detailed story which has something like the density of an actual novel. Obata's stylized drawings of hair and eyes plus the hyper-observed images of the urban landscape are all interesting and economically rendered. The black spotting used seems to perfectly balance nearly every page with a 50/50 white to grey to black tone.
From the vantage point of the almost omniscient ability to see actions and motivations, the reader is offered a view of moral relativity in which super detective "L" and the police match wits against "Kira," each side doing what they say is necessary in order to bring peace to the world. Hardly as ruthless as "Kira," the police are still ironically using powers of life and death to seek their goal, and intend to kill "Kira" in the end. The police want to end a situation in which they are not in control of society, but are at the mercy of a hidden, mysterious killer with godlike pretensions. Desperation within government gives "L" and his team of law enforcement personnel (which soon includes Light's father) broad latitude to pursue "Kira" without any strict regard to civil rights. In reverse, ironically, it is part of "Kira's" complaint that no one is actually in control of the "idiot masses" which requires someone like him to execute "justice." Meanwhile, Ryuk the vacationing death-god looking for entertainment finds the whole affair amusing and a game. After Light protests to the television that he is "righteous" after hearing a denunciation of "Kira" by "L" that is being broadcast, Ryuk declares, "humans are a riot!"
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Original page November 27, 2006 | Updated July 2017