Perhaps one of the most famous anime in history, Death Note presents the audience with a simple but intriguing premise: Shinigami, or the Grim Reaper, drops ‘Death Note’ into the world of humans. Anyone whose name is written onto this ‘Death Note’ will die, as long as the writer has a mental image of what the person looks like. The writer can choose the cause of death, as long as he writes it down within 40 seconds of writing the person’s name. If the cause of death is not written down within 40 seconds, the person will die of a heart attack.
The ‘Death Note’ is picked up by Light, a high school prodigy. He originally dismisses the ‘Death Note’ is just an elaborately designed prank, but cannot help but be drawn to the book. He tests it out by writing down the name of a serial murderer in Japan who has taken hostage of some kids, and sees his death unfold on live television. Amazed by the power of ‘Death Note’, he begins writing down the names of thousands of criminals around the world, who all die as a result. When asked by Shinigami why he has used ‘Death Note’ this way, he says he wants to create a new world order rid of evil – a world where he plays the role of god, as judge, jury and executioner of who should live and who deserves to die.
Soon, people begin to notice that these deaths are linked, word spreads about ‘Kila’, and the incident is brought to the attention of the International Criminal Police Organisation (ICPO). They hire L, a detective whose identity is unknown to the world but has the reputation of having solved every mystery he has worked on, to crack the case.
Many have praised the series for the complex and ingenious mind games played between L and Light as they seek to find out each other’s identity. We get a sense for this even as early as the second episode when L sets up a live TV broadcast where he appears to address Kila, stating his intentions to bring him to justice. Light immediately writes down his name – Lind L Taylor – into Death Note, after which L appears to die. But all this is a trap designed to prove the existence of Kila and determine the extent of his powers: Lind L Taylor is in fact a criminal on death row due to be executed.
I think what is most interesting are the parallels between L and Light. Both, needless to say, are intellectual geniuses. Both to some degree have god complexes. This is clearly shown in the case of Light seeking to create a new world order over which he rules. But there are some hints that L shares this same quality, as he chooses one of the most public and theatrical ways to ascertain Light’s existence and identity – a public television broadcast – and revels in his first win over Light. And both are self-assured that what they are doing is right. At the end of Episode 2, both L and Light have an internal monologue where both boldly state, “I am justice!” L believes what Light is doing is heinous, whereas Light believes he is only creating a better world for all. But as Shinigami says to Light at one point, by doing what they believe is right – and stopping at nothing to achieve it – will they not turn into evil itself?