“The human whose name is written in this note shall die.” With these words, Death Note (Ohba Tsugumi and Obata Takeshi) cemented its place in history. We have since seen live-action Japanese films, a drama series, an anime, a musical, and even an American Netflix adaptation, although perhaps the less said about that, the better. The original manga remains the most impressive entry in the franchise, and last year saw the release of Viz Media’s ambitious All-in-One Edition. Now, then, seems the perfect time to revisit the manga and discover why it has stood the test of time.
Bored yet brilliant high school student Yagami Light has his life irrevocably changed when he finds a strange black notebook. At first, believing its insidious instructions impossible, he soon realises that he can use the so-called Death Note to rid the world of what he deems evil. Joined by the notebook’s owner, a wisecracking Shinigami (God of Death) named Ryuk, and hunted by the world’s greatest detective, known simply as L, Light sets out to become the god of the new world he plans to create.
Death Note’s protagonist is far from typical. Instead of the brash and boisterous characters that head so many shōnen titles, Light is cool and calculating. He has no qualms about using the notebook’s destructive powers to further his cause. Gradually, Light is drawn further down the path of obsession and insanity, but from the very beginning, he displays few, if any, heroic traits. This continues to be a rarity in shōnen manga, so Death Note still feels fresh in its decision to focus our attention on a protagonist whose motives and actions are, at times, downright evil.
Light’s rival is also atypical. One might expect L to exhibit heroic traits to combat our villainous protagonist, but he is instead a socially inept, reclusive genius. He, like Light, wants justice for the world, though of course their views on what justice means are wildly different. However, he does not seem to want to capture Light (or Kira, as his followers have dubbed him) solely because it is the right thing to do. L’s motives are ambiguous, to say the least, and it is unclear whether his persona is a result of his background, or instead carefully cultivated. As such, L remains a compelling antagonist.
Another character we must mention is Misa. She is one of Kira’s loyal followers, and once she meets Light she dedicates her life to serving him, with the help of her own Death Note and Shinigami, Rem. Many fans complain about Misa, but I feel she is one of the most important characters in the series. Through her, we experience the absolute power and influence Kira/Light has over everyone around him. Her treatment, however, is not perfect, and while I enjoy the character, it would be remiss of me not to mention Ohba and Obata’s poor track record with female characters. Death Note’s transgressions are easy to ignore, but in Misa, we see the beginnings of a greater problem, exemplified in the rampant misogyny of Bakuman., and the needless fanservice in Platinum End. Of course, Death Note is not the only shōnen title to treat its female characters poorly, but as this continues to be a problem in Ohba and Obata’s work, I feel this instance cannot be dismissed as poor judgement.
At times, Death Note struggles to balance its genres and themes. The series relies on the intrigue of the supernatural detective elements of the story and lets the more interesting ideas languish in favour of telling an admittedly thrilling cat-and-mouse tale. Ohba and Obata manage to escape the repetitiveness that other shōnen mangaka revel in for 70 volumes or more, but I would have loved to see a deeper exploration of the philosophical questions raised by the premise and characters. This shortcoming is only natural, considering the series’ demographic. Perhaps if Death Note had been published in a seinen magazine, these themes would have been explored in further detail.
This All-in-One Edition is beautiful, but if you have never read Death Note before, then I’d recommend picking up the lovely two-in-one Black Edition volumes. Otherwise, Viz Media’s new release is the perfect collector’s piece. The colour pages are missed, and the slipcase is somewhat flimsy, but its tactile nature coupled with the reinforced spine makes it a handsome addition to any library. Obata’s art is phenomenal, as usual; despite the series’ marked lack of action sequences, every page thrills with kinetic energy, even when most pages are comprised of characters’ thoughts and conversations.
The Death Note All-in-One Edition is the perfect reminder of how impactful the series has been. After over a decade, the story remains thrilling, the characters remain compelling, and despite the aforementioned issues with the plot’s identity crisis, and its treatment of Misa, Death Note itself remains a great manga.