Graphic Lit: Death Note
A young man walking home from school discovers a small black notebook lying on the ground.
Taking it home, he quickly discovers that whoever’s name he writes in the book will die of a heart attack within 40 seconds, provided he’s seen that person’s face.
Emboldened by his discovery, he decides to begin a campaign against crime, doing away with dangerous evildoers and anyone else he considers unworthy, with the ultimate goal of creating a utopia on Earth — with him as supreme ruler of course.
That’s the basic premise behind “Death Note,” one of the most popular and ingenious Japanese manga currently being published in the West.
The comic, written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata (who also draws the popular series “Hikaru No Go”), has led to numerous cartoon and film adaptations in Japan and has developed a large following here in the U.S., only slightly behind media juggernauts like “Naruto” and “Bleach.”
The young man is Light Yagami, who is not only an ace student, but apparently one of the smartest people in Japan.
Indeed, he’s so smart he’s bored out of his mind, and the notebook’s discovery rejuvenates him with a sense of purpose. The fact that he slowly loses his soul along the way seems of minor consequence to him.
Of course, hundreds of convicted killers suddenly dying of heart attacks doesn’t go without notice, and very quickly an international police force is formed to catch the mysterious serial killer, dubbed “Kira” by the press.
A cat and mouse game quickly forms between Light and the leader of the police investigation, a mysterious, eccentric young man known only as “L.”
L turns out to be more than a worthy opponent to Light, and a further twist is added when Light ends up joining L’s investigation team, in effect attempting to catch himself.
The phrase “Hitchcockian” kept popping up in my mind while reading “Death Note,” in the way that Ohba and Obata keep the readers in constant suspense and even toy with their emotions to the point where they find themselves rooting for a serial killer.
In fact there’s a masterful sequence where Light must try to get rid of a young woman before she talks to the cops that the Master of Suspense might well have approved of.
Considering the high body count, the series is pretty bloodless, suitable for teenagers as well as adults. If anything “Death Note” is an extremely plot-heavy and excessively verbose comic, something uncharacteristic of most manga.
That it’s so readable is in large part due to Obata’s considerable artistic talents. He’s able to keep your eye moving across the page easily, so that even a sequence involving a lengthy discussion among a board of directors seems riveting.
The series is known for completely turning on a dime every two volumes or so, and indeed a major surprise event occurs in volume seven that alters your entire expectations.
Sadly, “Death Note” will be coming to a close soon. The 11th volume just hit stores last week, and the final, 12th volume will be out in July. The good news is Viz should be releasing the Anime adaptation of the manga in the near future.
“Death Note” at times becomes a bit dry, and the whole “He knows that I know that he knows that I know” mind games between Light and L can make your head spin.
In spite of that, “Death Note” remains one of the most consistently entertaining, even addictive manga I’ve read in recent years. It’s a cerebral thrill ride that any fan of the genre will enjoy. I can’t wait to see how it ends.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007