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Death Note (2003-2006)

Following my review of Fullmetal Alchemist, I thought I’d do a small series reviewing some of the great (and not so great) Manga I have read.

Death Note was the enormously popular series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata for Shueisha publishers (Viz Media in United Kingdom). It is largely a detective mystery following college student Light Yagami after he finds a Death Note, the book of a Shinigami (Death God) with the power to determine the death of any person. I truly don’t want to give any spoilers, so all I can safely say is that Light enters a battle of wits with International Detective ‘L’ and a lot of people die. Seriously. The body count of this series is unreal.

I say ‘largely a detective mystery’ because I’ve been trying for the past day to classify Death Note in my mind. Really, it’s a psychological thriller, action, romance, tragedy, all thrown together in a detective story. And it is unlike anything I have ever read before, manga or otherwise, because it is able to balance all of these genres so well. But more than anything, it’s very dark. Not ‘Human Centipede’ dark, but the kind of psychological dark that feels like you are watching a human personality being put through a wringer, waiting for something to snap. All of this is a very round about way of saying that it is ****ing intense (emphasis required).  

In the 21st century I think it’s a real challenge to be held in suspense by a plot, and big reveals can feel very tired. Yes, there are some gems, such as ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ and ‘Game of Thrones,’ but over the course of Death Note’s 108 chapters it would take an incredibly jaded and cynical reader (much like I think myself to be) to not be gripped the entire way through. The pacing and contrast between the slow, quiet beginning and thunderous finale is stretched out at just the right level, and I would beg anyone who doesn’t know anything about Death Note to not search it and read it in an insulated bubble, because the halfway climax was so shocking and divisive for its fan-base that a large percentage of fans refused to read the second half of the manga. And, in my eyes, the finale of the series is so jaw-droppingly cathartic that I could swear it had been lifted straight out of a Greek tragedy.

The illustration deserves equal praise to the plot, as Obata is able to create iconic, memorable characters, and an atmosphere that is so layered with intensity, that I feel frightened to think about the man hours he put in. The supernatural characters of the Death Gods feel supernatural, and provide great contrast with the human characters without taking away too much focus, and the angling of the frames in intense areas of the plot is effective in creating a tight, claustrophobic feeling that mirrors the mood perfectly. I could go on to complain that Ohba eloped with the novel out of graphic novel, and as a result the frames can get very text heavy and sometimes distract from the artwork, but that sort of criticism is but a tiny dormouse clinging onto the back of a roaring lion with a jetpack and laser eyes.

Death Note L Manga Light I am L

I could go on and begin nit picking, as that would more or less be my job: Some of the rules of the Death Note feel like arbitrary padding, the slow pacing to some can feel dull and protracted compared with popping Ritalin, and compared with the Inbetweener’s Movie the plotting and counter plotting can seem wilfully complicated. But frankly, I just don’t want to criticise Death Note. If you like detective mysteries, you will like it. If you like psychological thrillers, you will like it. If you like mystery, suspense, and the paranormal, you will most likely like it. Don’t watch the Live Action film first as it leaves out a lot (despite it still being one of the few good live action manga adaptations), and after you read the manga watch the anime. It’s just good, damn good. Damn damn good good damn damn damn good.

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