BY JOHN CARTER JR
(Spoiler Warning! This piece contains spoilers for the Death Note Manga and Anime adaptations)
Originally serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump, Death Note quickly became one of the most popular and iconic Manga Series particularly of its generation. It would soon after be adapted into the widely popularized Death Note Anime series. The series grew to have numerous spinoffs, film, video games, music, and television adaptations. The characters have even been featured in the recent Weekly Shonen Jump Smash-like crossover Jump Force. The biggest perpetuating factor in the popularity of Death Note is not summed up to magic death god shenanigans but is directly linked to the battle between Kira and L, more particularly the battle between two distinct ideologies. More than even that however, the battle develops into something a bit more personal and it could even be stated that at the end of it all it wasn’t about the death note or genius’ or even about whose ideology of justice was the right. The battle was simply the means by which two humans attempted to understand each other and most specifically themselves and how one realized that long before the other.
The series follows Light Yagami, a high school student who stumbles upon a Death Note or notebook of death. This book, while probably could be used to take notes for class, also had the ability to kill any human whose name is written in it. Upon discovering the reality of the Notebook’s ability, Light (in order to diminish his cognitive dissonance for using the notebook) develops a God complex and becomes “Kira”. Believing that he needs to rid the world of evil, he takes up the mantle “God of the new world” and begins his killing spree. This idea is the basis or foundation of his philosophy of justice. Due to the position he was given and the already established intelligence he was able to not only convince himself of his approach but as well as the Shinigami, Ryuk, who dropped his Death Note. At the very least Ryuk recognized the entertainment value in Light’s goals. Ryuk becomes an especially interested spectator when the world’s greatest detective became involved.
L, the world’s greatest detective (later to be revealed to Lawliet) becomes directly involved in the Kira case when he suspects strange forces behind the deaths of numerous criminals, particularly in relation to those whose identities were made publically available in Japan. Through his connective and deductive reasoning skills, L is able to use the limited amount of information to identify the specific region of Japan Kira is located and furthermore is able to identify a very specific suspect in the first few episodes of the show. Demonstrating his ability to connect clues he determines who he believes Kira to be and as the audience knows he is right. This suspect, in particular, is none other than our protagonist Light Yagami but in order for L to stand up against a supernatural threat, he needs many people.
Death Note isn’t completely a battle of intelligent minds, if that were the case L certainly would have won due to the number of strong minds on the “good” side, the times L almost caught Light if it weren’t for the Death Note saving him, or Light Manipulating a less perceptive Shinigami to sacrifice herself (RIP Rem). Overall, Death Note can be described as a battle between great minds with one having a distinct advantage over the other, what Light has over L is simply the knowledge and the power of a supernatural force. This proposes the question, “if it is so one-sided, then how is the story so interesting?” To that my answer is this, what makes Death Note so intriguing to most audiences is the ability to prevail against impossible odds, the intimacy of understanding someone so completely but knowing that they must die in order for you to live, and the confrontation of ideas (specifically justice).
In Death Note there are many perspectives of morality given (L’s, Light’s, Mello’s, Near’s, Matsuda’s, Sochiro’s, Misa’s, and so on), this is particularly in reference to death and whether or not it is okay to kill someone if they are “evil”. The problems throughout the series are summed up to be what and who are evil (and good). This becomes a more fascinating issue when we begin to dissect the true purpose for these ideals to have manifested. In the first Death Note Relight Film, L has a beautiful monologue that mirrors the events of the original show. L says:
“There are many types of monsters in this world, monsters who will not show themselves and who cause trouble. Monsters who abduct children, monsters who devour dreams, monsters who suck blood, and monsters who always tell lies. Lying monsters are a real nuisance. They are much more cunning than other monsters. They pose as humans, even though they have no understanding of the human heart. They eat, even though they’ve never experienced hunger. They study even though they have no interest in academics. They seek friendship even though they do not know how to love. If I were to encounter such a monster, I would likely be eaten by it because, in truth, I am that monster.”
Here L alludes to his battle with Kira. This clearly represents that Light and L are the same, that they are both extremely powerful minds who would only be defeated by meeting each other. More importantly, it illustrates why these two would be the end of each other. The anime often presents the allegory of the death sentence as the key theme in the battle of justice, but it is a red herring for the true theme of the story. We as people put up facades every day, whether it is to major extremes or is on purpose is besides the point we just do. L and Light, in particular, lie not only to others about who they are but to themselves. Earlier I mentioned how Light tries to reduce the dissonance he elicits by killing others by manifesting this god persona. This is one of the first signs of him lying to himself for his own needs. L, on the other hand, takes the approach that killing criminals is wrong but only in an attempt to provoke Kira or when explaining his intentions to the NPA task force.
While it is true that Light and Lawliet both individually have developed their ideals concerning justice, As Kira and L to the public they use this perspective to not only fuel the power/support behind their cause but to also give validation to their actions. When performing as these characters (L and Kira) the original perspectives of justice are amplified. A question might be “but why go to such lengths then, what is the point”. For Light originally it was to resolve not only his dissonance but also his boredom and the same could be said for L concerning the boredom. Throughout the story, Light and L are able to predict each other move not just through perfect detective skills but through the fact that they understood each other. They were essentially the same in the eyes of each other. L for example says:
“Kira is childish and he hates losing… I am also childish and I hate to lose. That’s how I know.”
and when being confronted with his potential demise or Kira’s L says:
“It’ll be lonely, won’t it? You and I will be parting ways soon.” referring to the idea that they meet what we all desire in life with another person, to be understood and to be appreciated for that.
What may have been started as a means to ease boredom with the world became their only shot at understanding themselves. On the surface, L and Light used their understanding of each other to their advantage, in particular to through each other off they would expose the facades in grandiose manners so others could get a glimpse of the truth but never getting the whole story. When L called Kira a Murderer over television this caused a newfound dissonance in Kira’s God complex, this causes Kira to react irrationally and impulsively in order to maintain his perspective of being a God but also leaving him exposed to the public (and L) as a human who isn’t perfect. Before L’s death, he (as his true self from in my opinion) asks Light:
“Tell me, Light, from the moment you were born, have you ever actually told the truth?”
This is the clearest examples of the deep personal confrontation Lawliet and Light had with each other and specifically that desire to understand themselves. Even in the end however Kira, as expected, Lies to Lawliet who is still being viewed as L, the detective.
Light and Lawliet become so wrapped up in their battle and facade persona’s that it catches up with them. Kira truly believes that he is the God of the new world and the original Light is so suppressed, he is so convinced of his Godhood that he tricks a Death God (RIP Rem) into sacrificing herself to kill of L. In Kira’s hubris he not only kills L but also the only person who truly understood him (Lawliet), after the rise of Kira and the world is finally becoming what Kira foresaw Light becomes bored. He attempts to ease his boredom with his fight with Near but his hubris gets the best of him. Kira/Light misses L/Lawliet. While Near sees Kira for what he has done as Kira, he doesn’t understand him as L did, this focus of catching a killer instead of wanting a friend/to understand yourself is what caused Kira (and therefore Light) to die. L realized the depth of the meaning of the fight long before Kira did. It may have been the one moment the “Lying Monster” finally was honest with himself.
“You’re not Kira, that is… it’d be a problem if you were Kira…because I feel you are the first friend that I have ever had”– L