Wednesday, September 25, 2013


This summer I finally got around to watching Death Note, which has been on my To-Watch list since freshman year. To compress the premise into the smallest space possible, Death Note is about a high school senior named Light Yagami who finds a mysterious book called the Death Note. According to the instructions, any person whose name is written in the Death Note will die. Light uses it to kill criminals, envisioning himself as the god of the crime-free utopia he'll create.

At the beginning of the show, I immediately identified with Light: like me (or, more accurately, me during freshman year before I was sick/alternate-universe me who was never sick in the first place), he is a high school senior at the top of his class with occasional narcissistic tendencies. Light's almost immediate (i.e. within 20 minutes of airtime) sanity slippage made it so I couldn't identify with him as much anymore, but I was intrigued by his character. To be honest, I'm even more intrigued in hindsight when I reflect on how my opinion of Light changed over the course of the show. The rest of this post contains spoilers, so here's my cue for a jump break.

The most captivating part about Death Note is not just its moral ambiguity, but its protagonist ambiguity. We start out with visionary-honor-student-utopian Light on one side, against the mysterious, faceless, unknown super-detective L. At this point, Light enjoys allllll the ethos, because (1) he was introduced first (2) L hasn't even appeared onscreen anyway (3) Light is astonished that the Death Note actually works, and is at first disturbed by the fact that he has killed two men, showing that he isn't cold-blooded [yet] (4) Light originally emphasizes his intention to create a better world for everyone [as opposed to his later obsession with becoming the god of the new world] even if it means sacrificing his own sanity and/or soul. Even with his dark nickname "Kira," we don't really see him as a "Killer" yet.

Gradually, as the plot advances and the point-of-view shifts, the narration stops favoring Light over L. As soon as L actually appears onscreen, he begins gaining ethos. However, his character is still in the context of a villain for several episodes until Light joins the Kira Investigation Task Force, when Light and L begin *sort of* working together (even though it's continually emphasized by both characters [out loud by L, but only in inner monologues by Light] that they are working against each other). Then, when Light forfeits ownership of the Death Note, losing all his memories of being Kira, and the Task Force is investigating the Yotsuba Group, Light and L truly are on the same side; to be honest I almost forgot that L was the designated villain until Light regained ownership of the Death Note. Of course, all this time L is gaining character development/ethos/fangirls, too.

Meanwhile, Light is actually losing ethos with the audience. At first, he only kills criminals, but as the police pursue him he begins killing non-criminals with more and more screen time, making his morals appear increasingly questionable to the audience. Light's first attempt at killing "L" (only the decoy Lind L. Tailor) didn't strike me as very evil of him, since L/Tailor was blatantly trolling Kira on TV and therefore appeared villainous. However, Light begins to look a little twisted when he kills Raye Penber and the other FBI agents (especially by revealing his identity to Penber before he dies), and even more so when he kills Penber's fiancée Naomi Misora. The difference is that they both have backstories (Misora even more so than Penber) and are at least one step away from the current big bad L (two steps away in Misora's case — she's a civilian!), so from Tailor to Penber to Misora, Light's killings are less and less justified.

Finally, after losing and regaining the Death Note, Light succeeds in getting L killed. I was still in the Like-You-Would-Really-Do-It mentality here, so I was actually shocked. Especially since Light and L had been actually working together on the Yotsuba Kira case and I had momentarily forgotten that Light and L are mortal enemies/Light is a serial killer. For a second I was hoping that Light's feigned display of emotion over L's death was real; y'know, maybe he had a what-have-I-done moment, realized how much L meant to him (given that so far L was Light's only intellectual equal in the entire world), and truly regretted his death. Up until that point, I had considered Light a protagonist, but as soon as he cleared up the ambiguity with his psycholoquy I said to myself "Light, you jerk!" and didn't like him anymore.

Blah blah blah skipping most over the second season because I don't like Near (IMO L>>>Mello>Near)

The second-to-last episode features the final showdown between Light and L's replacement, Near. Both of their master plans have been explained, and the episode ends in a cliffhanger: do they all die (Light wins), or do they not die (Near wins)? The pause between the penultimate and ultimate episodes gave me time to think, and I realized I didn't know who to root for. I couldn't decide whether I wanted the designated antagonists — Near, the rest of the SPK, and the Task Force (besides Light) — to die or not. I think I already knew they wouldn't; Death Note is the kind of anime that you just know will end in tragedy (i.e., the protagonist [Light/Kira] does not succeed), and it would be too hard for the writers to make a believable utopia (dystopia?) to end the series with anyway. But that doesn't change the fact that I didn't know whose side I was on; I didn't like Light OR Near. So, I just watched the final episode and wasn't surprised when no one died at the appointed time. But later in the episode, after Matsuda shoots Light and Light's running away, broken and dying, I realized I was sad. But for whom? I didn't like Light. Why was I sad at his death? I realized I was sad for the old Light: young, forward-thinking, and almost innocent. The one I had originally identified with.

This is why Light's character made such an impression on me: at the beginning of the series, I was unmistakably on his side, but by the end, I was undeniably against him. The fact that the evolution of his character so drastically changed my opinion of him intrigued me, and also apparently turned this short assignment into a huge essay oh my god why did I write all this O_O

EDIT [8/4/2014, after rereading the post]: HOLD ON no, better question, why am I questioning why I wrote all this? This is totally Dr. Preston's philosophy in a nutshell. If you read and write and learn and think about things you ACTUALLY care about, you can learn to critically think and analyze things *because you're having fun.* And I was! I had a GOOD TIME writing this post. I had a GOOD TIME writing about Beowulf and Mario. Ditto for my Adventure Time vocab fanfics! "The system" has skewed my/our own view of learning so much that even I questioned myself upon realizing I devoted an hour of my time to writing an extended essay that wasn't required for a grade. I hope this is a thinking pattern that I can break— not just for my sake, but for the next generation of OSL'ers I'll be TA'ing for this year, and for anyone who has (or will discover within themselves) a passion for learning as I and my classmates have this past year.

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