If you’ve never heard of Death Note, you don’t watch much Anime. If you’re a writer, you missed out on some of the most taught and vibrant story telling in the last decade. In a short time, Anime has come from giant robots and ultra-violence to a place where it must be considered as art in its own right.
The meteoric popularity of this series comes from its tense story-telling and its unique premise. It’s even got real world drama, as countries like China and schools everywhere rush to ban it. You know something is good when the authorities step in to try and control it. Even better, it was written by someone under the pseudonym Tsugumi Ohba, who’s identity is still a mystery.
The story follows a hyper-intelligent 17 year old high-school student and sociopath Light Yagami, who one stumbles across a note book, with supernatural powers. With it Light can orchestrate the death of anyone just by writing their real name in the book. The book was dropped into our world by a rogue Death God known as Ryuk, to entertain himself. After testing the Death Note’s powers, Light launches a grandiose vigilante campaign to rid the world of criminals to create his vision of a perfect, totalitarian society by becoming the remote killer known as Kira (a Japanese corruption of Killer). But the baffling string of deaths inevitably attracts the attention of the police, who turn the case over to the secretive master crime detective known only as L. It isn’t long before the two are locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
The series is filled with brilliant characterizations and quirks. The master detective L eats piles of sweets, stands on chairs and holds phones with the tips of his two fingers, all the while telling us that to sit in any other position would decrease his effectiveness by 30%. That’s good writing. It’s also filled with devastating and tense moments, as when Light races to stop a former FBI agent who’s almost unraveled his identity. He struggles to maintain his cool while he outmaneuvers her armed only with a silver tongue and the Death Note, as she gets closer and closer to the police station. He struggles to uncover her true name, which she has cleverly kept hidden, so he can send her home to hang herself. Lastly, the work never shrinks from the shocking and cutting edge, as in the famous scene of the Gothic Lolita Misa Amane, under restraints while being interrogated by L, recalling images of Abu Gharib.
Much of the tension comes from the interplay between the two main characters. As Light inserts himself into his own investigation and L works to trip him up, it turns into a never ending chess match where you know the writer is seven steps ahead of you but you still can’t figure out which way it will break. The series evokes memories of film noir with its darkly dreaming characters and its cunning. At its best the series rivals the great Alfred Hitchcock for sheer suspense and tension. Highly recommended.