If a modern canon were developed today, the manga series Death Note would be on the short list for inclusion. This twelve-volume series by Tsugumi Ohba with art by Takeshi Obata has enjoyed massive international success, with millions and millions of copies in print. A television anime series of the original story exists, as well as expansions on the story in both print and televised formats. For years, Death Note has gripped its audience by showing us a world where Light, the main character, believes he is creating a utopia.
Fair warning: massive spoilers for the manga ahead. If you haven’t read the series already, I highly recommend looking at your local library for copies. VIZ Media, the publishers of the series, have Death Note available digitally on their manga platform and on ComiXology.
Light Yagami is a high school senior who is bored. Though he gets consistently high marks on every exam and has his life planned out, there is something missing. When Ryuk, an equally bored shinigami, drops his Death Note in the human world, Light finds a higher purpose and an outlet for his boredom.
The series follows Light as he graduate high school and enters life as a young adult. During this time, he uses the Death Note to gradually kill criminals publicized on television and Internet. The rationale, according to Light, is that he is creating a better world, one in which a higher power (himself) can pass judgment on those who do evil. Light becomes committed to this ideal, believing 100% that he is the righteous user of the notebook.
Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.
Light himself is a fascinating manga character. Many times, manga introduces a main character that is normal under every circumstance with the exception of something unique. For Light, that is his mind. Early on, Light is shown as a man possessing a mind that far exceeds the rigors of his current environment. He is bored; he’s been bored for years. Light’s devoted his life to playing the part of the perfect son with the perfect grades to achieve his goal of joining the National Police Academy with his father. Light’s first interaction with the Death Note is met with skepticism. Granted, it is hard to believe that a notebook has supernatural powers, especially the ability to kill anyone with just a name and the image of a face. That skepticism doesn’t last long as Light’s own narcissism and self-righteousness leads to his tragic downfall.
What pushes Light to finally use the Death Note is ultimately the boredom he has in his everyday life. When Ryuk meets Light and asks him about his possession of the Death Note, Light flashes a page full of names. In a smug manner, Ryuk reveals to Light that he should not “think that any human who’s used the Death Note can go to heaven or hell” (Ohba, 2003, 24). One panel shows Light slightly taken aback; the next shows a more mischievous and sinister Light. At first, readers can see some hesitation in Light’s decision. He wrestles with the morality of the killings at first, but ultimately believes that the only purpose of the Death Note is to shape the world in a better image, dictated by Light, of course.
The first volume of Death Note briefly shows Light doubting his role as the owner of the Death Note. However, Light quickly overcomes his doubts. Light works to harden himself, consistently reminding himself that he needs to do this work because no one else is suited to carry out the executions. By the time the first volume ends, Light is committed to becoming the savior of the world. In his own words, “Start looking around you…and all you see are people the world would be better off without” (Ohba, 2003, 36).
It’s difficult to pinpoint what cause Light to behave the way he does in Death Note. Throughout the series, Light cites that he is trying to create a perfect world, one ruled by a presence that carries out justice. After society notices a pattern with the deaths, the unseen killer is dubbed Kira. This flies in the face of how Light sees himself. “Savior of society” and “killer” don’t really go hand-in-hand, but Light intellectually rationalizes that they do. In short, the good of the many outweigh the good of the few. What are a few criminals to society as a whole?
Light, acting as Kira, is met with mixed reception at first. Fear is a gut reaction. With an unknown source meting out punishment, there are no second chances. Judge, jury, and executioner are rolled into one man. As the series progresses, it is evident that society, Japan especially, craves the protection that Kira offers. Execution without prejudice ensures that people work to follow the laws. The members of the NPA’s investigation team even admit that crime has decreased since Kira came into play. L, a freelance investigator and the top professional in his field, is doubtful about the good that Kira can bring to the world.
Society, and Kira’s actions, represents an unsophisticated form of morality. Kohlberg theorized that children develop their moral thinking in a series of steps, the higher ones often not reached by every person. As the child learns, they operate under an obedience and punishment framework: If the child misbehaves, they will be punished. Therefore, they work to follow the rules to avoid punishment. Light’s actions through Kira embrace this childish approach to morality. With no concern for the individualism of a person’s actions or their reasons, Kira eliminates anyone who breaks the law. Light believes that by working steadily to kill off what he believes to be the worst criminals, the only people left would be those to fear or agree with Kira. His consistency in punishment and lack of hesitation leads L to initially believe in the third volume that Kira has believed himself to be at a divine level, above even wrestling with right and wrong decisions.
What’s interesting about this approach to crime and punishment is the bogus statement Light gave to L during the hunt for the first Kira. When L asks Light who he thinks Kira is, Light claims that the actions of the Kira can only be done be a young person, from late elementary to high school. The actions are idealistic, and are lacking in any direct personal achievement. In admitting the predicted age to L, Light inadvertently keys readers into his immature moral development.
Light’s approach to morality isn’t his only downfall. It is evident early on that he is not above manipulating those close to him to gain something. His manipulation is especially troubling when it comes to women. Within his family, Light is careful to act as the perfect son. He does so not out of love for his mother, but to deflect suspicion and retain freedom. He shows no genuine interest in dating; he uses a female classmate in a scheme to learn the name of an FBI agent tailing him, and his dates in college are mainly to keep up appearances. Later, he continues to manipulate and use women as an adult. He even uses porn magazines as a way to show he is a “normal” man. The reader can easily see that Light feels no romantic inclinations towards the opposite sex.
What’s most disturbing about Light’s manipulation of people is his relationship with Misa Amane. Misa is an up-and-coming idol who comes into possession of another Death Note. She becomes obsessed with finding the first Kira after learning that Kira executed the murderer of her parents. Light doesn’t recognize Misa as a confidant, or even a romantic partner (much to her disappointment). Instead, Light views Misa as an incredibly obedient tool that he can use to further elude the police and continue to remake the world in his own image. He sees nothing wrong with the emotional abuse he lumps onto Misa, even after warnings from the shinigami who is attached to Misa’s Death Note. In fact, Light uses the kindness of the shinigami towards Misa to further his own plans and eliminate his biggest obstacle – L.
Readers cannot ignore the religious imagery throughout Death Note. Every cover of the 12-volume manga series features a character with a cross in the background. Light is often depicted as carrying a scythe; the kanji characters for his name literally mean night god. With savior and sacrifices thrown around in the series, it’s not too difficult to make that leap to Christianity. The religious implications within Death Note reach further than just Christianity. Frohlich (2012) explains that Death Note deals primarily in apocalypticism, the dealings of the end times. Apocalypticism refers to the judgment on humanity at the end of time. Frohlich further asserts that the use of apocalypticism thinking is an antisocial rationale for pseudo-righteousness that can be used to punish those with whom a leader does not agree. The judgment Light carries out as Kira is beyond repentance and redemption. There is no escape from Kira’s punishment.
Light acts as a righteous knight, an individual charged with performing the dirty work of society. Light views the Death Note as a tool. Others are not a positive about their thinking. The investigation team is aware that there is a person out in Japan that has tremendous power. Light’s father comments, “The real evil is the power to kill people. Someone who finds himself with that power is cursed. No matter how you use it, anything obtained by killing people can never bring true happiness” (Ohba, 2003, 125). Like a white lie that leads to bigger troubles, every name Light writes down in the Death Note takes him down a road he can never recover from. In Light’s case, the absolute power of the Death Note absolutely corrupts him.
Light does not see himself as a corrupted individual. He relationship with the Death Note is one of sacrifice. Through believing himself to be the only person capable of this burden, he’s forsaken his planned future, normal relationships with others, free time, an emotional connection to his family, and, eventually, his soul. For Light, the Death Note is the only future he has.
Light may not be a typical manga hero, but his plight in Death Note grips the reader almost instantly. What would we do in Light’s shoes? How would we use the Death Note? Would you stop an unknown serial killer if their murders led to a safer society?
Here’s the kicker: Is killing ok if it might lead to a better society?
Death Note was written for an older teen audience. The themes present in the series are heavy, but they are important for readers of all ages to consider. Death Note is also an exercise in perspective. The readers are exposed to both Light and L’s side of the investigation, and later Mello and Near add their viewpoints. Where one side may see the world in black and white, the other operates in the subtle shades of grey. Without coming out and saying our main character is good or evil, readers must make that decision themselves and be willing to adjust their position as Light descends into darkness.
Though written for a high school audience, Death Note has been challenged in the school system around the world. Many parents and educators find that the content is too violent (though there is little gore, blood, or overt violence). Concern probably stems from readers mimicking Light’s actions and creating their own version of a Death Note. These Death Notes don’t result in anything more than an empty wish; however, when students are writing down the names of other students, uproar from parents is expected. As with any challenged book, younger readers should be encouraged to read alongside an older reader so opportunities for explanation and discussion can occur.
As far as a single manga series goes, Death Note hits all the right notes. From its tragic main character to the intricate investigations to the sophisticated rules, this one manga series has become a staple in many readers’ libraries. It’s easy to see why. Even after multiple reads, Death Note continues to be surprising and fresh. Small details, especially concerning Obata’s masterful artwork, become more and more telling of the direction of the story. And Light, the man who wanted to create a better world, will always break our hearts in the end.