the Little Red Reviewer

Deathnote, by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

Posted on: November 27, 2010

This review only covers the first 6 or 8 volumes of Deathnote, because that’s how far I have read. 

Light Yagami is a normal high school student with a normal life. His father is the chief of police , his little sister drives him nuts, and he’s worried about exams. Depressed by what he sees as a rise in corruption and crime, he idealistically wishes he could something about it, and that something should be done about it. 

Meanwhile, in the spirit world, Ryuk realizes his deathnote is missing. He must have left it on earth last time he was there! If a human touches the notebook, Ryuk won’t be able to get it back until the human dies or voluntarily gives it back! If the other Shinigami in the spirit world find out he’s lost another notebook, he’ll really be a laughing stock! Ryuk decides it’s time for an extended vacation in the human world. (Shinigami are death spirits who gain strength from the deaths of the living, be it a natural death or not) 

And who should find the notebook but Light? In the manga, each chapter starts with another “Rule” of the Deathnote. Early on, we learn if you write someone’s name in there and a time of death, that’s when they will die. You also have to know what the person looks like, and you can add in other details as well, such as how they die. Ryuk tells Light much of what the Deathnote can and not do, and although Light keeps waiting for Ryuk to be all judgmental, Ryuk just says he’s there to watch, to see what will happen. Light immediately pays much more attention to the local and national news. Someone arrested for some horrific crime and the person’s photo is shown on tv? They mysteriously die of a heart attack in jail. 

The police, and Light’s father begin to suspect something is going on when so many criminals, heavy crime and petty, quickly die in jail, when they’d had been perfectly healthy the day before. They come to believe a single person is responsible for what is happening, but how to catch the person? Light makes sure he puts timing details into future entries in the Deathnote, so the deaths happen in the middle of the night, while he’s at school, while he’s out with his friends, so no one could ever find out it’s him, who is cleansing the country of crime. On TV the mysterious killer is known as “Kira”, or in Japanese, “Killer”. 

The police bring in the brilliant investigative detective, L, to assist them. No one knows L’s real name, or how he works, they just know he’s never not solved a case. A cat and mouse game ensues, and L learns the killer is someone close to someone involved in the investigation. Light figures out this L guy is damn good, and that he better get rid of him. 

For me, the best part about Deathnote is Light’s relationship with Ryuk. He’s pretty much stuck in the human world for the time being, and no one can see him except Light. Ryuk has a great sense of humor that balances out Light’s dead seriousness. And who knew Shinigami loved apples so much? If only Ryuk wasn’t so freakish looking! 

As Light’s god-complex starts to get out of control, Ryuk just stands by and watches. He not like what’s happening, but he’s bound by the laws of his kind not to do anything about it. Ryuk even teases Light with promises of additional Shinigami powers that aren’t available to regular humans who have the Deathnote. 

Regardless of the implied violence and death, Deathnote is surprisingly completely appropriate for teenaged readers. Most of the violence and death is “off camera”, you see very little of it. And Light’s just killing off bad guys, so it’s OK, right? 

The best thing about younger readers reading Deathnote is they can’t help but start to ask moral questions, and this is a good thing. If you have the power to kill someone who did something horrible, should you do it? If you have the power to change the world, shouldn’t you do it? Of course people wouldn’t understand what you were doing, so shouldn’t you keep it a secret like a superhero wears a mask? Questions like that. 

It’s good stuff, so don’t freak out too much if your high schooler wants to read this. Grown ups will get a kick out of it too.

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1 Response to "Deathnote, by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata"

Deathnote is an interesting series. You are right about the moral questions facing the reader as much as the characters themselves. Does it force us to pick sides? Light is a killer, despite his ‘moral code’, similar to Dexter and others.

This series reminds me of a highly intellectual crime procedural, or even Sherlock Holmes since Light and L are basically two towering intellects doing battle. But who is the good guy and who is the bad?

Your synopsis is well written (and spoiler free!). You’ve made me want to pick up this series again!

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