Wednesday, September 27, 2017

On mass-murder considered as one of the fine arts, part I


DEATH NOTE

Like it needs an introduction?  Part One of a review of my very favorite TV cartoon.  (Part Two can be found here.)

2006-2007
Directed by Tetsuro Araki
Written by Toshiki Inoue et al (based on the comic by Tsuhumi Obha and Takeshi Obata)
With Kappei Yamaguchi/Alessandro Juliani (L), Noriko Hikada/Cathy Weseluck (Near), Nozomo Sasaki/David Robert (Mello), Naoya Uchida/Chris Britton (Soichiro Yagami), Ryo Naito/Vincent Tong (Touta Matsuda), Kimiko Saito/Colleen Wheeler (Rem), Shido Nakamura/Brian Drummond (Ryuk), Issei Futamata/Andrew Kavadas (Kyosuke Higuchi), Masaya Mazukaze/Kirby Morrow (Teru Mikami), Musumi Okamura/Heather Doerksen (Kiyomi Takada), Aya Hirano/Shannon Chan-Kent (Misa Amane), and Mamoru Miyano/Brad Swaile (Light Yagami)

Spoiler alert: severe (no, seriously)
Content warning: unsupportably long even as a two-part piece, but as a hyperindulgent birthday present to myself, that is also several weeks late, could it even get any more "me"?


I.

Okay, I guess I can't say that Madhouse's adaptation of Tsugumi Obha and Takeshi Obata's seminal Death Note comic is the single best television program ever, and I guess I probably shouldn't even say that it's the best anime series ever, either...

...But I sure as hell can think it, and I definitely do.  If pressed, I don't suppose I could come up with any other individual thirteen-hour block of television that surpasses it.  (And, yes, this is even taking into consideration the faltering quality of the concluding third.)  So I'll happily say this next part out loud, anyway: if we turn to genre, rather than medium, if Death Note isn't the best thriller ever made, in any format, from the moving image all the way back to the first cave painting about who stabbed who in the back during the mammoth hunt, then there's something out there I need to see.

That's not all Death Note is, but everything else that's righteous about it is strictly secondary to its thriller plot and to its character study (in this case, the exact same thing), running like clockwork together throughout all 37 of its twenty-minute episodes.  Death Note is "about" all sorts of things, yes, and as the world's grayed alongside me, I've come to appreciate every other little thing it offers: the moral and philosophical interrogations; the social commentary; its parody of anime conventions; its parody of itself; even, to an extent, its occasional descent into the goofiest-ass, often-misogynist farce.

But that's all sauce, not meat.  What Death Note is about, really—and Obha will totally back me up on this one—is the game, and the way that game and its rules, when taken up by a mastermind with a world-sized field of play, wind up generating a pattern of extraordinary sophistication and endless beauty.


And matters certainly become quite fraught with complexity in Death Note: for while any game that's interesting to watch needs at least two players, nothing says that both players need to already know the rules.  Thus layered atop Death Note's first game is a second game—the most important game, in fact, one so crucial that it effectively swallows up the first.  The goal of the first game is for each opponent to unmask the other; the goal of the second is for one opponent to discover the rules so he can show up to play at all.  Death Note defines its two players and their overlapping games with great precision; and if the somewhat-inevitable side-effect of doing so is that every other character becomes a piece, rather than a player in their own right, well, it's hard to blame it for banking on charisma.

Our first player?  Light Yagami, of course: a Japanese high school senior of almost-grating perfection, who finds his boredom relieved the day he comes into possession of the titular Note—this being a notebook used by the Gods of Death to kill humans and, essentially, steal their life force to add to their own longevity.  (Naturally, the notebook comes part-and-parcel with one of these selfsame shinigami, a spectral vision only Light can see called Ryuk.  Unhelpful in principle, and nominally present only to observe, Ryuk winds up answering questions, if asked, and he's at least a little bit willing to participate in Light's game, especially if offered the appropriate bribe—namely, the human world's juiciest delicacies, apples.)  Light soon becomes fluent in all the various rules that bind and empower his notebook.  But the most important ones, of course, are the very first pair: "1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die," and "2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind when writing his/her name."

Awesome pronoun work there, Ryuk.

If it doesn't take Light long to test the limits of this artifact, it takes him even less time to figure out exactly what he's going to do with his newfound power: he's going to remake the whole of humanity to his specifications, one name at a time, until he can at last preside over the utopia he wants.  Soon, he's being whispered of on the Internet as "Kira," the corrupted Engrish word for "Killer."  It's a name he's happy to accept—as the self-styled God of the New World.

For some reason, Death Note fans persist in the myth that Death Note is a story about how absolute power corrupts absolutely, an idea not borne-out terribly well at all by the show we're actually watching.  It's worth remarking, anyway, that between our first introduction to Light Yagami and the closing credits of the first episode (which takes about twenty minutes and encompasses maybe one whole week of Light's life), the precocious little bastard hasn't just declared his grandiose ambitions—he's already adopted his preferred divine title.  And he has all the choral backing on the soundtrack he needs to prove he means it.

In time, Light shall find ways to make use of the more esoteric rules of the Note, too, such as its ability to specify a cause of death, and thus control a victim's actions in the period leading up to their demise; or the "Eye Deal," that allows a human to perceive the world through the eyes of a God of Death (and hence know the name of any face they see, without ever needing to be told), in exchange for half their lifespan (a deal that, notably, Light himself refuses to take, over and over again).  And, please: let's not even get into the mind-boggling ins-and-outs of what "ownership" means in the context of the Note, or the rules about how ownership interacts with an owner's memory—a nice little logic puzzle if there ever was.

Likewise, it's best to ignore the fact that a tool designed for a clique of invisible gods to slaughter humans for metaphysical food also comes with a surprising number of entirely superfluous add-ons.

However, until the day of his final ascension, Light still faces all the dwindling forces of the status quo: the Japanese police force (including his very father, Soichiro Yagami, one of their high-level officials), along with every other law enforcement agency on Earth, including the American FBI.  Above all of them, however, is his true nemesis, the world's greatest detective, an eccentric prodigy who fortuitously happens to go by a codename, "L."

This game gets complicated beyond belief as our two players spar and eventually collide, their every interaction a test of wills and brains alike.  (And for the audience, too; watching Death Note weekly during its first run must've been straight-up aneurysmic.)  But maybe what Death Note does best of all is to craft a scenario where you wind up rooting for both of them: I'm not sure there's any clearer-cut case of the diabolical ways that a fiction can get you to identify so strongly with two protagonists, each one dead set on taking the other down.  (It turns out that the one the audience is really meant to root for all along, then, was Ryuk.  For like him, we were bored, and now we're not, and it's certainly best that Light and L keep being interesting.)  Maybe it's simply all in the surpassingly clever way Light and L's deadly pastime is structured.  After all, theirs is a war fought by radically asymmetric means in both directions: sure, Light's up against the full power of the state, led by the smartest man in the world; but it pays to remember that L is, after all, a committed rationalist confronted with the godlike power of a magical killer notebook.  In their divergent ways, both hero and villain become the underdog.  Both hero and villain command respect.

And those would be L and Light, respectively.  In case that needed clarification.

Because, you know—it might.  Light certainly has his partisans, too, clearly engaged in their own grand game, called Willfully Missing the Point.  But enough people have arrived at the conclusion that Light was right that it's worth taking a minute to remark how easily they overlook not just the slaughter, but almost all of the specifics of Light's war against society, too, which serve mostly to underline that his most prominent trait is narcissism and his greatest flaw is childishness.  (Death Note, in terms of its morality play, amounts to one very unsubtle test for any viewer's latent fascism.)  But forget that: the only reason there's a war at all is because Light turns a game of world domination, heavily tilted in his favor, into a life-or-death game of Clue, which he could actually lose.

So, within weeks of being handed the perfect weapon, Light neatly falls into L's very first trap, solely because the detective has offended his sense of godlike dignity by pretending to go on live TV to tell Kira what he already knew, that the governments of the world were after him.  Light (who will go on to fairly live up to his claims of genius) makes one of his very few strategic mistakes here, and by far his worst, when he rashly kills the stand-in purporting to be L.  In fact, this trap turns out to be a whole series of traps, by which L proves a number of very important things—that Kira's method of killing is supernatural, but requires a name and a face, that Kira lives in the Kanto region of Japan, and (not least) that Kira is easy to goad—but most importantly of all, it proves that Kira is not God, and that catching him can be done.  Of course, L had guessed much of this already, because he's intuited something that only he could: that whoever Kira turned out to be, he's so much like him that only he could (or even should) catch him.  And Death Note is happy to run with the one of the oldest themes in fiction, while freshening up its corpse so thoroughly that you actually don't notice any of the smell wafting off it, because Death Note is blessed with two of the most brilliantly-conceived mirror-image antagonists you'll ever meet.  There is, ultimately, only one critical distinction between them: L never thinks of himself as flawless.

And so it goes, to the point that Light, insulted and injured alike, braves discovery in some terrifically foolhardy ways just to get close to his enemy, in order to get his identity and kill him.  L follows suit, to the point that the Kira investigation's no. 1 suspect becomes the Kira investigation's no. 2 detective—and that's when things really get fraught.

Well, giving us a little hope for our future, L has probably beaten Light in the popularity war amongst the series' fanbase, and for good reasons beyond morality: he's one of the grandest creations in anime, or anywhere.  He is, with a certainty, my own personal favorite sleuth.  He even makes it easy to dismiss one's piddly objections to the existence of a boy detective (raised in a school for boy detectives, no less, in an odd but mostly-invisible second Big Ask that this show about a magical notebook of death makes).  That's because it's so easy to love the living hell out of this weird kid with his impending case of type 2 diabetes and his inexplicably incorrect way of sitting in a chair.


Yet Light and L continue fascinate the most in their interaction: the way each side of this battle puts new, informal rules upon himself, the way each thereby reveals their fundamental similarity of character, albeit twisted at such crucially different angles.  For his part, Light continues to hew to a certain value of "morality" that mostly serves to mask his real desire, to win the game on his own terms—he eschews, for example, going through various regional phonebooks to simply force every government on Earth to do whatever he wants—but it's increasingly clear that Light's forebearance is less because he cares about "innocent life" as such than it is because he wants to beat L personally.  L, for his part, is ruthless and transparently doesn't care one whit about due process, but easily admits that pride is at least part of the reason he needs to beat Kira with ironclad, courtroom-quality evidence, rather than, say, having Light shot, and apologizing later if he turned out to be wrong.

But the contrasts stack up as we go, and become more salient than the similarities.  One of the vanishingly few ways that Netflix's dreadful American adaptation proved itself even slightly valuable was in highlighting (by its absence) just how central the L/Light dynamic was to almost everything that makes Death Note good; and, also, how much intention went into its creation.  Without American Death Note, and its desperately-dull American Everyteen, I'm not sure I'd have ever grasped what The Real Death Note was trying to say with its Light Yagami.  I was always marginally aware that Light was, in some respects, a jet-black inversion of a lot of usual shonen anime tropes—they're always teenagers, always male, always chosen, and usually pretty damn noble, even if they're complicated, and Light is neither noble, nor (when you get right down to it) actually complicated, at least not in any discernible way.  But Death Note goes a little further than usual.  Light's certainly not on any Campbellian journey, as such stories typically come, even on the other side of the sea.  No, he's already the very stereotype of perfection, as society (especially Japanese society) would prefer to have it: incredibly studious, incredibly industrious, incredibly athletic, incredibly handsome.

There's a stray line in there somewhere about the fucker even doing all his chores, which is why it's so unusual when he complains about it, apparently for the first time ever, at the age of seventeen.

There's not a single flaw in the man's body or mind—to any outside observer.  But then we know the real Light, along with the sociopathy resting in his heart, the God complex stirring within his soul, and the vile way that even something as morally upright as his sexless work-before-play attitude actually manifests all sick-and-twisted-like, as a confirmed belief that women are merely creatures who possess one more psychological weakness by which they can be manipulated and used.  (It says something that, as a narrative creation, this mass-murderer of unprecedented porportions only loses our sympathy completely once he starts draining the very souls out the two women that wind up his accomplices, who gave him everything and got absolutely nothing in return, or—at best—a pretense of affection so lazy that it almost certainly couldn't have really fooled them.)

And then there's L: a lonely rider upon the spectrum who barely knows how to talk to other human beings, let alone how to manipulate them emotionally, always unkempt and underdressed for every occasion, looking like he might even smell, and (while no anime character of any importance is ever actually drawn this way) he's arguably meant to be frankly ugly.  Shown both, you'd trust the man who's mastered society's codes of presentation, cracked its barriers to success, and (oh yeah) happens to be the son of the deputy chief of the Japanese police force; you might be less inclined to believe in the hobo who, in one his choicest moments, either uses a groping to cover up a pickpocketing, or uses the pickpocketing as an excuse for the groping.

Though he bristles at being labeled a pervert, you know our high-powered genius must at least suspect she's right.

That's the most abiding irony of Death Note, then, that the "perfect" is inhuman, the "weird" humane, after his fashion, or, in any event, at least recognizable.  The irony compounds when it comes to pass that L too falls into Light's orbit of superficial charm.  Death Note is pleased as punch to play this as an unrequited gay crush—though, again, we're in anime territory here, which means that gay coding is generally meaningless (it pays the bills), and, as usual, you mostly bring out whatever you brung in with you.  Still, no matter your orientation on the matter, Death Note pushes it into the realm of the tragic.  Light becomes L's first and only friend, despite their sub rosa enmity, and L truly must love him in his own limited, imperfect way.  The strange part about that is the reason for it: by the dubious virtue of being Kira, Light has become the first human he's ever been able to see as an equal worthy of his fullest respect and affection.  Throw in some misplaced yet somehow awfully evocative (and pretty much avowedly erotic) New Testament symbolism, and you have one of the saddest moments in animation history waiting for you.

But, before we get there, it's worth admitting there is at least one fundamental weakness to Death Note's overarching story, and it's an inevitable one: it's that, fantastic elements aside, the story still needs to take place in a world not too unlike our own.  What that actually means is that its world reacts to the story's events in ways not remotely like our own.  Thus Death Note asks for your willing suspension of disbelief in some truly huge ways, even bigger than its basic premises of magic deathbooks and billionaires who collect smart orphans; committed to its suspense-building (and indifferently-committed, if at all, to anything you'd call "hard speculative fiction"), Death Note requires you to accept certain things that don't stand up to even mild scrutiny.

Just for starters, the genuflection of world governments to L's methods in tracking what amounts to the very platonic ideal of The Terrorist is, let's say, optimistic for a show made in 2006.  Likewise, the media's sleazy collaboration with Kira is a broadside of bitter satire—and one that seems like it ought to run into a brick wall of a restraining order inside a couple of weeks.  Finally, it's scarcely worth mentioning at all the lack of forensics that goes into L's Holmesian deductions, since Death Note plainly doesn't find the idea of de-anonymizing Light through technology remotely interesting.  Assuming we'll be happier, too, if we don't sweat the small stuff... maybe it's even right.

Because if you take away the unrealistic aspects of Death Note, you're not left with much of a Death Note worth watching, inasmuch as our theoretical Realistic Death Note ends with Light Yagami getting stomped on by an airstrike by roughly episode three.

The essence of Death Note turns upon its twists, and ultimately, upon its narrative brutality—its cruel willingness to overturn the gameboard for good.  And never, ever is this more amply demonstrated than the moment it commits the ultimate transgression... and lets its hero lose.

Continued

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