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Worlds Without End Blog

Contemporary Fantasy Manga 101: Death Note Posted at 11:42 AM by Glenn Hough


DN1“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” — Henry Kissinger

I give you the case of one Light Yagami. He lives in the Kanto region of Tokyo. His academic talent puts him in the top 1%, in his age group, for all of Japan. He has great prospects for University and careers. The problem is that he’s a young man; he’s bored; he feels contempt for his society and how it functions. Since his father is in the police, the underbelly of Japanese society is very obvious to him. He feels a great yearning to help his society, punish wrongdoers, but he feels helpless. He’s rebellious; his smarts make him arrogant; he’s searching for a cause and his place in the world, as all young men do.

Watch out, he’s going to get his wish.

This is what Viz says about Death Note, Volume 1:

Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects – and he’s bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami death god. Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. But when criminals begin dropping dead, the authorities send the legendary detective “L” to track down the killer. With “L” hot on his heels, will Light lose sight of his noble goal… or his life?

Light tests the boundaries of the Death Note’s powers as “L” and the police begin to close in. Luckily Light’s father is the head of the Japanese National Police Agency and leaves vital information about the case lying around the house. With access to his father’s files, Light can keep one step ahead of the authorities. But who is the strange man following him, and how can Light guard against enemies whose names he doesn’t know?

DN13Death Note began it’s run in Japan in 2003 and in the USA in 2005. Ten years later, the case of one Light Yagami sounds to my ears closer to what’s called “Domestic Terrorism”. By the second issue, Light is more than willing (no longer bound by any moral code what-so-ever) to off domestic or foreign law enforcement agents working the case against Kira, which is Light’s codename. What has started as a method to punish wrong-doers (even if they’re currently sitting behind bars) has turned into a free-for-all. Bodies are piling up in all directions. It certainly didn’t take long for Light to become a power addict.

And yet, the 2003 conception of Death Note is not that of a terrorist. Light (aka Kira) and the master detective leading the charge agains him, known only as “L”, are playing out a classic murder mystery. This is the clash of intellect and investigation that the Japanese seem to love so well. You have very intelligent people clashing wits with each other, dueling to the death as it were with not a bullet in sight. This is Japan after all. The stakes cannot be higher: a death penalty for one, or death from the Death Note for the other.

DN5Some of the popularity of Death Note keys off the, frankly, adolescent wet dream of power unbound and answerable to no one. But since that sort of story of unchecked power would undoubtedly be unacceptable to the Japanese editors (and hence the manga reading public in Japan) it’s a nonstarter. Power like that must be contained, contested, and ultimately (I would suspect since I’ve not gotten to the end of the series) defeated and brought to justice.

Another source of it’s popularity is that of the Shinigami death god, which is a staple of the Japanese folklore tradition. If the word Shinigami sounds familiar, we’ve come across the Shinigami in another manga 101 discussion, the one for Bleach. Ichigo helps out a Shinigami and then becomes a substitute Shinigami at the very start of his long and winding road to herodom in Bleach. This is a classic case where one publisher had a mega hit with a Shinigami based concept (which can’t be copyrighted since it’s folklore) so another publisher looked to their stable of mangaka and floated the idea that another Shinigami based manga would be a hot item as long as they used the concept of the Shinigami in a totally different way. They were right. Death Note was a best seller on both sides of the Pacific. (As a side note, this sort of copycatting goes on all the time in the manga, light novel, and anime industries in Japan.)

DN10As a reader, I understand how the death duel between Light and “L” holds an attraction to it’s readership since it has three very powerful and popular motifs embedded in the text. The manga’s popularity also keys off the fact Light is a teen, highly intelligent, but nevertheless still a teenager. And he has a young man’s flaws. He’s arrogant. He leaves clues with his work, so I assume at a deep level of his fictional psych, he wants to be caught. That would fit with the murder mystery motif and the law and order Japanese mindset. Light is impulsive. He has to act, Now! That’s the impatience of youth. He uses the Death Note constantly, leaving a trail of bodies not only in Japan, but around the world. He uses it like a sledgehammer not like a scalpel. His targets are repetitive; most are already in jail. He’s repetitive in methodology. The Death Note will kill in virtually any way, but Light repetitively does cardiac arrest, over and over again – like a calling card.

DN14But then, this is the Japanese manga market we’re talking about so of course Light has to be young and he has to have those types of flaws, since they caters to the most common denominator of the market readership. If the Death Note fell into the hands of a older man or a woman, you’d have a completely different story. And it probably wouldn’t be the tension filled move and counter move duel to the death that this is.

If I dip into Lit. mode for a moment, I’d say that Light, trying to help society by punishing those whom the justice system doesn’t seem to punish, is trying to be a Light Bringer/Bearer to Japan and the world. Literally a Lucifer. (Lucifer = Light Bringer in Latin.) But in trying to be a Lucifer, a Light Bringer/Bearer, Light has transformed himself into a Lucifer, a Satan, a personification of Evil. Light only has the Death Note after all, and it only does one thing: kill. So anything, any crime, perceived or actual, becomes a capitol offense.

Perhaps the saga of Light shows us how ideals can be twisted so easily, making it not so difficult after all to understand how youth, especially young men, hear and answer the call of Jihad. Fiction has been called the ultimate in magnifying glasses for the Human condition. It exams and presents aspects of Humanity that normally aren’t so concentrated. Light, I think, presents us with a case study. Are we, poor students that we are, ready to learn from it?

Death Note is very much in print from our dear friends over at Viz. They offer not one, but three formats (two different paper editions and a digital edition as well). If you happen to need a free copy, you can check out or

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