Death Note Review — Shonen Jump’s Finest?

I wonder how many people were disappointed Light wasn’t a character in that J-Stars fighting game?

Better make sure you’re wearing a seat belt, because this piece of knowledge may rock your world: I’ve never actually watched the Death Note anime all the way through before. I know, how dare I! It’s still the most popular anime on MAL, remains one of the most popular anime in today’s culture, and is continuing to get more interpretations than the Bible – which is kind of fitting given how many people today still worship the notebook’s rules. Hell, I even championed it as one of those anime every newcomer to this medium should watch in order to get a feel for it – although I should point out that I also recommend Aria as well and I still have no interest in watching that show myself. The point is, Death Note has been one of those immortal anime every person should at least get an opinion on from the very moment it finished. You don’t have to like it, but saying you never saw it is like saying you’ve never seen Evangelion at this point in time.

Now there are a couple of reasons why I never got far into the anime. One was that I religiously read the manga as it was getting released in the States and ended up not enjoying it after Volume 3 or 4, yet finished it anyways. Two was I checked out the Adult Swim dub and thought it was so good that I didn’t want to watch the show in its original language, but that was back in 2009-10 when Netflix only had the Japanese version and English dub files were hard to find because every streaming site (especially Youtube) that used it was getting sued for all they were worth. By the time Death Note’s dub hit the platform containing the world’s best TV, I wasn’t really interested in seeing it anymore, especially since the anime is for the most part faithful to what I’ve already read. However, with the show getting taken off at the end of this month and the nagging feeling that there was a noticeable hole in my fandom resume, I burned through the thing with more desperation than Bruce Willis in every Die Hard movie ever.

Now normally I’d describe the plot to you guys, but I think at this point that’s like explaining to people that Lord of the Rings is about a bunch of travellers walking to a volcano in order to destroy a ring belonging to the evil Sauron, so I’m just going to focus on what still matters about the show by current-day standards. Fans who have not seen Death Note in a while will be pleased to hear that the visuals are still good, although the style definitely shows its age at times, especially when you compare it to Araki’s more recent anime like Guilty Crown or Attack on Titan. The English dub is still as awesome as it ever was, with Brad Swaille making the “potato chip” line sound epic whilst still being stupid. And yes, L is still as sexy as you remember him, fangirls. Even when he ends up a corpse, you’ll still find reasons to swoon all over him.

It’s worth remembering before I go on that Death Note is a Shonen Jump anime and like all things from Shonen Jump, it starts off mildly intriguing. The concept of a notebook that can kill by following specific rules that are almost untraceable by the police is something that’ll appeal to most teenage boys, and Light himself is the opposite of most Shonen Jump protagonists like Naruto or Luffy in that he’s a smart dude who has no qualms with killing if it means achieving his dream. He started doing this shit not because of some complicated backstory that can take up more than half a standard manga volume, but because he found his life as an overachieving Asian dull (which is a real thing that happens, as shown in a few studies you can find somewhere out there as well as Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow). It quickly becomes clear you’re not supposed to sympathize with Light when he starts killing off cops and soon-to-be-married couples just because they get in the way of his “criminal sentencing”, but he was still interesting in a “becoming the kind of person he kills everyday” sort of way, especially when paired off against L, an obsessive weirdo who pursues justice relentelessly even if his means are a little questionable but never to the level that Light’s are.

The problem with Shonen Jump stuff though, even in something as relatively short as Death Note, is that there’s only so long they can coast on the goodwill brought about by their interesting starts before they have to start introducing something new to keep things from getting stale. And unfortunately, they seem to be under the illusion that more characters, more concepts, and more energy equals more story, when in reality it’s just piling in more plot than the story can contain. You see, I know a lot of people say Death Note became shit after L died (and it did fall apart faster than any form of apology that comes out of Donald Trump’s fucking mouth, don’t get me wrong), but I got tired of the series way before that point back when I was in highschool, and that was during a time when I genuinely looked forward to the newest episode of Hayate the Combat Butler. More specifically around the time, Misa appeared.

Yeah yeah, I know. Death Note is sexist. The author sucks at writing women. That really smart female detective was killed off really stupidly, and that’s not even getting into what happens with Light’s “girlfriends”. Yadda yadda yadda. But more than that, what I didn’t like about the manga (and the show) after her appearance was how unnecessarily convoluted the mind games between Light and L became. It felt like the writers were just coming up with more and more absurd scenarios just to get a decent length out of the thing, and the appeal of the Death Note lessened when they started making it more available to the cast. You know how Dragonball Z draws out its fight scenes so that a character only throws a punch about three times per episode (at max)? Death Note’s mind games are basically a non-violent (sort of) version of that, and as much as I like Araki, I’ve mentioned before in regards to Planetarian that energy without momentum isn’t going to keep my attention for more than five seconds.

On top of that, I found Light’s treatment of Misa to be too unlikable to find him interesting anymore. It really became clear at that point that he was just a serial killer and whilst that might have been fine if the series wrapped up one or two episodes later after that turning point, it went on for another twenty-four. Twenty-four episodes I was struggling to pay attention to because all I was seeing was empty energy the likes of which people complained about in Kill la Kill’s last arc, so I ended up leaving the show on and reading One Piece manga all the way through the memory loss arc and anything involving Near & Mello, only to pay attention again at the final episode, which I’ll admit was an improvement on the manga’s finale in that it ended right when the show was at its strongest, and I liked the religious bent given to Light’s eventual fate.

However, I still stand by my opinion that Death Note remains as one of the essential anime every newcomer to this medium should watch, even through my tedious grind. It’s one of the best entries into Shonen Jump stuff you’ll ever see (apart from Fist of the North Star) as well as an over-the-top anime that’ll appeal to Western sensibilities the most so as to ease you into what the East considers entertaining, along with just, y’know, looking good. And for better or worse, this is likely the best adaptation of the manga you’re ever going to get given how godawful the movies, TV drama, and inevitably the American Netflix adaptation are. Not sure where you’re going to watch it now that it’s getting taken off of the legal streaming circuit, but that’s your guys’ problem. All I can do is continue to keep this franchise alive by talking about it for better or worse.

Minor Quips

  • I don’t actually know if fangirls still find L sexy, but I’ve been around the Internet enough to make an educated guess.
  • Never actually saw the live-action Death Note stuff, but they must be pretty bad if even the fans don’t like ’em.

8 responses to “Death Note Review — Shonen Jump’s Finest?

  1. My biggest problem with Death Note is its overly talkative dialogue that makes the Monogatari Series blush…

    …. and oh, I have no qualms about the death of L. His replacements are just that bad. I am okay with the show actually ending at episode 26 so I find the remaining too dragging for my taste. Lastly, yeah.. the show treats women badly. Gah.

  2. I actually really liked the live-action Death Note movies. Granted, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a hardcore Death Note fan, and maybe you have to be to hate the movies? I dunno, I just really like Matsuyama Kenichi’s work. That was brilliant casting right there.

    • The movies imho have that quality of anime-turned-live action that just makes them look less flashy and more goofy because high production values anime looks far more stylish than low production values live action TV. Said this, there’s some good acting in those movies, and frankly I think the ending of “The Last Name” is actually amazing, far more clever as well as more significant and poignant than the one of the manga. In general they did an excellent job of remixing the source material by keeping the good stuff while cutting out a lot of chaff, both for dramatic as well as runtime necessity. The way they condensed the Yotsuba arc by replacing the council with the lone Kyomi Takada was also pretty good. The first movie’s ending is less strong but also provides an interesting way of exploiting the Death Note rules that the manga never went into.

      So yeah, in general, I don’t hate the DN movies, I actually like them quite a bit. But it’s undeniable that compared to the bombastic direction and super-sleek Obata-style artwork of the anime they look positively underwhelming, and I think that’s what makes them so reviled.

      • Agreed that the ending of the second live-action movie (which, let’s face it, counts way more than the ending of the first anyway) is far, far better than the anime/manga ending.
        Imo I don’t think the visuals of the movies are all that bad though. They perhaps haven’t aged especially well and they can’t compare to the visuals in any decent-budget Hollywood movie or a high quality anime work, but Japan has just never had that kind of budget for their film industry (and probably never will). As far as Japanese live-action goes, I’d say the production values were above average.

      • Yeah, I agree on that, but as you said it’s still much inferior than what we’d see in a Hollywood movie. By comparison, the Death Note anime was very good looking even in absolute terms for a serialised TV animated series. Granted, anime usually ends up having lower FPS counts than western animation (except for the occasional burst of sakuga, which Death Note had even though it wasn’t an action series), but it has a bag of visual tricks to compensate for that. Anime in this sense can have a very unique feel. On the other hand, a movie is just a movie, and comparing it with the other movies we see most often is inevitable.

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