Review: Death Note – The Series (2006)

Death Note started as a manga, became a TV series, which morphed into animated films and it was also a live action film series.  Word on the streets is that it has been optioned by a US studio for the big budget treatment stateside, but not having seen any of the films, I find it hard to believe that the deliberate pacing and intensity presented in the series will translate well to the big screen.  This isn’t your usual anime fare, to be sure.

Death Note is the story of Light Yagami, a brilliant college student who stumbles onto a notebook on his way from class one day.  The nondescript black book simply has the words “Death Note” on the front followed by a list of rules that detail how writing a person’s name in the book will cause that person’s death.  He dismisses it as a prank at first, but then the idea of the death note nags at him and he goes back to retrieve the notebook.  After some experimentation, he realizes that the book does exactly what it says it does and he begins to plot a way to use it to benefit mankind.

This is heady stuff for an anime series.  In the 37 episodes of DN, a lot of philosophical ground is covered.  Almost every episode brings new dilemmas as the characters scrape the corners of their minds in their efforts to defeat one another.  Light’s competition is a genius detective known only as L who has never been seen and who has never failed to solve a case.  I was riveted by the chess match that happens between them.  The story never gets bogged down in itself or repetitive.  It’s constantly presenting new ideas and new mazes for Light and L to navigate.  Not once was I bored with this intricate web of plot or its presentation.

The character designs are all pretty standard, but most of the characters ring true.  I say most because a few of the characters are the Shinigami – death gods whose sole purpose in life is to mete out death to humans.  The death notes belong to them and it’s through one bored Shinigami named Ryuk (who dresses like an 80’s metal star BTW) that the original notebook comes to be in Light’s possession in the first place.

The look of the series is unique.  We go inside the thoughts of the main characters frequently and when we do so, we suddenly see those characters in a new light — literally.  It’s as if a brightly colored spotlight is shone upon them when we delve inside, and each one has a signature color.  This really helps to show how time stops with an avalanche of thoughts.  In addition, the color palette of the show is muted and realistic, with some artificial degradation, softness, and film grain added to the images in post.  It’s a good looking show that illustrates how a TV budget can still result in some innovative imagery.  It really helps to keep what is mostly internal action feeling taunt.

I was totally wowed by the fact that the show constantly gave me new things to mull over.  Central to this anime is the question, what would you do?  Would you try to save the world, and is that even possible?  Does power truly corrupt the best of intentions?  Very highly recommended.

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