Hi Tay! As I said in my last review, I'll just be reviewing whatever I've read last, which happens to be Death Note this time. Due to the ubiquity of Death Note, I figured that most of you will know the story of Light and L by now so I thought I'd change things up a little bit. I'll be reviewing the manga as usual, but I'll also be comparing it to the anime along the way, meaning that if you've seen or read one, you can see if it might be worth checking out the other, plus hopefully people can chat about it below. If you're completely new to the world of Death Note then you can see if it's your kind of thing and learn where to start!
Author: Tsugumi Ohba (Writer), Takeshi Obata (Artist)
Volumes: 13 (12 + "How to Read" Special Volume)
Genre: Detective, Suspense, Supernatural Thriller
The story of Death Note deals with top student Light Yagami, who comes across a notebook, dropped by a Shinigami, with the power to kill whoever has their name written within it. Light is finding school life far too easy, and mostly due to boredom, decides to use the Death Note to kill criminals and try to make society a better place. However, things don't stay so easy when a mysterious detective calling himself L tries to hunt Light down and put a stop to his killings.
The plot of Death Note revolves around the cat and mouse chase between L and Light, and the element that makes this manga so engrossing is waiting to see how the two of them will try to outthink the other. The series uses some masterful tactics that are not only clever and interesting in themselves, but also bring the story forward and leave the reader dying to know what will happen next. I mentioned last time, in my review of 20th Century Boys, how that manga hid information to keep the reader hooked. Death Note does almost the complete opposite, by giving you most of the information from both sides but it still leaves you wondering what each side is going to do to advance their plans.
Honestly, the anime is an almost perfect adaptation in regards to the plot and misses very little out. There are a few small points throughout that are missed, but very little is changed (especially in the first half) and there is no filler. The anime also has fantastic music, and the pacing is rather good, adding to the atmosphere and helping to build the suspense.
Death Note is driven by the lead two characters and thankfully these two are fantastic. L is usually the favourite and it's easy to see why once you've seen him in action for a few chapters/episodes, as a lot of fun comes from his uniqueness. The artists clearly put a lot of thought into L's mannerisms and habits and these add to his personality, from the way he holds his phone and his choice of food, to the his detective prowess.
Light is also a strong character, looking like the perfect young man from the outside, but hiding the burden of the Death Note and how it's affecting him. Light is a character that can either be taken as a charismatic and charming anti-hero, who is just going the wrong way about achieving a naive, though noble goal, or can be taken as a terrible villain and mass murderer. L and Light's characters complement each other and it's when they bounce off one another that Death Note really shines.
The supporting cast are diverse and often brilliant in different ways. Ryuk, the playful Shinigami with a fondness for apples, springs to mind first due to his dual nature of being a friendly god of death while occasionally showing his disregard for the lives of humans. The police force Light work with also help bring the story to life: including the righteous Chief Yagami, the inept Matsuda and the vigilant Aizawa.
Takeshi Obata has clearly put a lot of hard work into most of the character designs. All of the main and secondary characters are so different from one another, while being kept realistic to fit in the mostly down-to-Earth setting. This contrasts well with his wild shinigami designs, which really show off his imagination, with each design reflecting their distinct personalities. Obata has been praised for his research of modern fashion, and the way he applies this to his work, and this helps to really keep to the tone of the manga whilst displaying the personalities of the characters. There a couple of designs that felt a bit similar when it came to minor characters (a couple of Light lookalikes etc...) but his use of clothes really helps to set them apart.
I feel the manga does trump the anime slightly in regards to the characters. Small conversations, unnecessary to the plot but great to show off the characters, tend to have been trimmed out for the anime. Nothing major of course, and some may think that having each character voice acted makes up for this (I'm a dub watcher and Death Note is definitely one of the better ones!).
Due to the fact that Light's crimes could be seen as noble in intention puts everything in a morally grey area. In the accompaniment volume ("How to Read") Tsugumi Ohba says that he wanted Death Note to be about its entertainment value, and that he didn't want it to preach to the reader. This leaves it up to the reader to decide who is right and who is wrong. There are no strict "good guys" or "bad guys" but complex people who are affected by the death note in various ways, who each have different feelings towards Light's crimes because of this. This helps to create human characters that we can empathise with but also leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions in a way that stories with a strict antagonist do not.
Death Note is often criticized for its second half. Some of the more prominent characters no longer appear, with new ones coming in that take centre stage. Not all of the characters change (Can you tell I'm trying hard not to spoil anything?) but it seems a lot of people feel it has a weaker cast from this point on. Personally, I quite like the new characters. I feel that one of them in particular is the kind of person we've yet to see up until that point and brings a freshness to the plot that couldn't have been caused by anyone else. The more prominent of them all does seem a little like more of the same, though they do have stand out moments where their personality shines ("Never flown alone"). My problems with the second half don't stem from the character changes, but have more to do with the fact that the introduction of this second arc undermines everything the first half really meant. It suggests an inevitability that affects how tense the rest of the manga is. This all being said, the plot, tricks and twists are just as good in this half - in fact some of the better ones happen towards the end.
In the anime the second half is where most of the trimming happens. I can understand why, given the criticisms, and they haven't cut anything crucial but if you want the full picture then the manga is the way to go.
I couldn't recommend Death Note enough. It's a manga/anime that I think is almost universal in appeal and even people who aren't fans of manga/anime should try this out in one of those forms. It relies little on cliché and those esoteric nods to anime culture, but just tells a great story and it's uniqueness is what really stands out. Suspense manga aimed at the shonen audience are hard enough to come by, but from the characters, to the story, to the art, to the fact that it can make you beg to know what Light or L will come up with next, Death Note just really needs to be seen.
As for the format? Well if you have yet to see Death Note at all, then I suggest the manga first, but only just. This isn't the way I experienced it but to get the subtle things that you lose in the anime make it worth it. Of course then you get to watch the anime (maybe wait a while and try to forget some of the twists and turns!) and see it brought to life in full colour, with voice acting and with a soundtrack that is perfect. However, if you go for the anime first you won't miss out on too much really. Seen the anime and are thinking of picking up the manga? If you can't stand the same story twice, you won't get too much more so it might not be for you, but if you loved Death Note as much as I have then it's certainly worth it for those extra snippets and to see where it all began.
If you are picking up the manga there's a box set with all the volumes including the "How to Read" book. This volume is great for fans of the series, with extra info and lots of great interviews, plus the pilot chapter which is a completely different story. There's a lot of recap in the first sections though that I found dull. You can also get the "Black Versions" which are 3-in-1 volumes and I think the beautiful full colour cover art is inside should you choose to go for those. Of course you can buy all twelve volumes separately which might be best for someone unsold on the series.