Erased and rewritten.

Death Note Vol. 5 (of 12, or thereabouts)


Really, this is one of the better installments of current internet manga favorite du jour Death Note, written by Tsugumi Ohba with art by Takeshi Obata. In fact, I don’t even feel the need to stop calling it ‘Death Note,’ even though you can practically hear the story transforming into something that it’s never been over the course of these 200 pages.

Let me explain.

Death Note has an already famously catchy premise - supernatural death entities called Shinigami have these notebooks called Death Notes, you see, and everyone whose name gets written down upon one of those unlimited pages dies. But the Shinigami are nearly immortal, and very, very bored, and it’s almost inevitable that one of them should chose to ‘lose’ their Death Note in the world of humans, thus allowing the hapless human finder to see the book’s Shinigami owner, and gain control over the lives of countless people. Ryuk is a Shinigami who pulls this very stunt, and his Death Note ends up in the hands of one Light Yagami, genius student and budding megalomaniac, who decides that the petty concerns of revenge and money-making are beneath him - he’s going to use the Death Note to erase all of the criminals and villains from the world, and lead mankind into a brilliant new future under his wise, benevolent-to-the-righteous gaze.

You’d think there’d be a measure of moral ambiguity inherent to that approach. You’d be quite wrong. Sure, Light quickly gains a devout internet fanbase who dub his anonymous presence ‘Kira’ (derived from ‘killer’), but no time is wasted in establishing Light himself as a cackling, manipulative sociopath extraordinaire, instantly willing to try and kill a mysterious, also-brilliant detective that’s been recruited to stop Kira spitting in the face of the rule of law. That detective is known only as ‘L,’ and it turns out that he’s a young man too, and much of the series is about the resultant game of cat-and-mouse that develops between him and Light. Hey, did you notice that the names ‘Light’ and ‘L’ seem kind of similar? That’s because the killer and the detective are classic similarly-matched polar opposites, equally phenomenal but on opposite planes of law and personality.

None of that is what really powers this book, though.

The true effect of this story, the potential for addiction, comes from the way writer Ohba constantly introduces new rules into the use of the Death Note itself, and new complications into the activities of everyone. It’s an exercise in constantly ramping up the stakes in Light and L’s face-off, adding new and more tricky twists almost chapter-by-chapter. What if the Death Note could actually program people to do what you want them to before you kill them? What if a Shinigami can give a human the ability to instantly see people’s names, without looking anything up, in exchange for half their lifespan? What if L puts a bevy of cameras in Light’s home? What if Light’s father, the police investigator in charge of the Kira case, begins to doubt his own son? What if almost all the police quit the case? And so on and so on and so on.

As the old saying goes, if American comics are about getting someplace, then Japanese comics are about the trip there. Which is to say, manga tend to be less tethered to the beat-by-beat demands of ‘plot’ in the US comics sense, opting instead to focus on character and the like. Death Note proves to be a potent departure from that old truism - I can hardly think of a more plot-heavy comic than this. Death Note is virtually all plot, all play with the premise, all new obstacles and variations. The characters are, to put it charitably, underdeveloped for most of the material released thus far, with Light being brilliant and crazy and L being brilliant and eccentric and Light’s dad being really driven and Ryuk… well, Ryuk doesn’t really do anything, which is admittedly the point. He just observes, offers helpful exposition and revelations as to new Death Note rules in the early chapters, then relaxes into the role of pure comic relief for everything after Vol. 1 thus far, save for a few flights of activity. He’s actually a rather charming character, as is L, though that’s almost entirely thanks to artist Obata - if these characters are decidedly lacking in depth, they’re at least shaded well in a visual sense, L given big bird eyes and tons of eccentric postures and movements, and Ryuk looking pretty awesome just standing around with his evil goth clown face and leather get-up. Almost everything fun and appealing about these characters comes from their visual presentation, which might just be a side effect of Obata looking for somewhere to channel his energy with all the scenes of talking and plotting that Ohba whips up - it is a credit to Ohba, though, that such a dialogue-thick book doesn’t grind right to a halt. The plot keeps on steaming forward.

And every volume of Death Note adds its own special evolutions to that plot. Volume 1 introduces some of the players, with almost every chapter bringing up a new ‘rule.’ Volume 2 sees more complications arise, with most of the mystery surrounding L revealed and Light himself coming under intense suspicion. Volume 3 sees L reveal himself to Light, attempting to get close to him by applying to the same college as him, among other tests - also a second Shinigami shows up with a second Death Note for a second Kira. Volume 4 has a lot of fun with that idea, revealing the second Kira to be a none-too-bright Kira fangirl, infatuated with Light and generally throwing a wrench into the carefully orchestrated proceedings by simply not being as smart and Light or L. Other things happen; there’s a sort of standoff at a television station, and emotional manipulation, and the creation of an elite L-allied unofficial police task force (Light’s father on it). Characters come and go.

And yet, the parts I liked best of these books were those with the characters doing character things. It swiftly becomes apparent that you shouldn’t read too much Death Note at once, because its problems become plainly apparent. All plot complications aside, it’s really a rather repetitious series, with Light and L constantly failing to gain the upper hand for very long. There’s a number of lengthy, self-indulgent scenes of Light and/or L considering the possibilities, trying to puzzle out whatever their nemesis is thinking at any given point in the plot - it happens enough that I have to wonder if that’s Ohba and Obata’s deadline crunch strategy, filling up pages easily with characters thinking about the plot itself whenever space needs filling post haste. There’s also recurring moments of self-congratulation, as L and/or Light often verbalize how awesome such-and-such a plot contortion is after it happens. At least Ryuk gets thrown into a background panel every so often to get a laugh. At one particular moment in Vol. 4, L tells Light that he’s really his first and only true friend in the world, and Ryuk wears the most wonderful expression of half-disbelieving surprise on his face, as if to say ‘yep, I can hardly believe this book either, folks!’

But then, there’ll be great, fun little bits with Light and L scoring twin perfect scores on their college entrance exams, and having to lead the class together. Or the two of them having a tennis match, attempting to find meaning in the every move of their opponent. It's here that the characters seem like characters, in both writing as well as art, rather than well-rendered stand-ups to run through writer Ohba's clever maze of twists and fake-outs. And don't get me wrong - it's often a great maze, but it could be better with the addition of a livelier cast, or maybe a theme that serves as anything more than a giggling excuse for amusment. There's hardly any real questions of morality or anything in Death Note - we're always invited to root for Light or L, or maybe both, and thrill to the both of them stomping all over polite society's boundaries in their mission to beat one another. Again, it often works - I get a kick out of Light's ultra-blunt analysis of various situations, utterly oblivious to any feelings he might be hurting, pretty much every time - but the entertainment never lands without a curious sense of something missing. You're left extra hungry as the next volume looms far away.

But then comes this volume. Just as the plot shifts with each volume, so it goes here, though to a larger extent. Finally up against the wall, Light makes the ultimate gamble: he relinquishes ownership of his Death Note, thus losing his memory of everything directly Death Note-related while retaining everything else. Now he really does think he's innocent when he talks to L, and there's actually a little work done with his character - Light can't believe that he'd be capable of all the things he's done, that he'd never cross the line if handed a Death Note (not that he knows what a Death Note is anymore). He's still kind of a dull character, but at least now there's a second dimension to him. L can't believe that Light could suddenly seriously think he's not Kira, so he has the two of them handcuffed together (thus opening up a goldmine of yaoi fan fiction possibilities). Misa, the second Death Note holder has also lost her memory (and her Death Note) and is also sticking around, since she wound up leaving a bunch of evidence linking her to the case despite her lack of memory as to anything. And now a third Kira has popped up, a corporate raider determined to use the Death Note for pure financial gain. Only our varied heroes can stop him! From the seat of their brand-new headquarters! With the help of Light's dad! And the other background detectives who suddenly have personalities! And a master thief! And a master con-artist! They have a fucking helipad!

And in that that way, Death Note retains its premise and characters, while transforming into an almost new story, a more classically heroic, more character-driven one, though writer Ohba always retains the right to somehow give Light his memory back and toss a wrench into the proceedings. This seems normal to me, as plot shifts have been this book's bread and butter so far, and the moral ambiguity never really registered. The characters haven't changed all that much, as there was frankly little present to change. It's just now we get a bit more of them. We get more typical subterfuge and added layers of humor, and I've gotta say that Ohba is good at it. The whole sequence with Matsuda (in the last four volumes I couldn't even remember the background agents' names they were so grossly undefined as characters) sneaking into Kira 3.0's corporate base, with Misa eventually showing up for an impromptu modeling audition ("I'm Misa-Misa! I won't do anything involving nudity, but swimsuits and lingere are fine! Thank you for considering me!"), is genuinely excellent, as is Light's and L's fistfight/test of devotion.

Hell, just as L made his first-ever friend, Death Note manages its first-ever moment of honest-to-goodness emotional impact, with Aizawa sitting in the park with his wife and kid. That's not the kind of thing this book used to do, but it suddenly seems interested in adding layers of other stuff beyond plot complications. Which is good, though I can see how those addicted to the former stance of the title might be dissappointed.

It is feeling like a different book now.

But I think it's a better book too.

And yet, as all things change in this title, so it might turn back at any time, at the whim of the (demi)gods...