Judge Adam Arseneau needs to know the exact spelling of your name, please.
The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
If ever there was an anime sensation, Death Note would be it. A steamroller pop culture success, the manga became popular in Japan similar to how the psychiatric meltdown of Britney Spears became popular—beyond all rationality, people were just plain obsessed with the thing. Perhaps the idea of a high school student being able to kill indiscriminately appealed to the Japanese psyche or something. Whatever the reason, almost immediately Death Note sprung a full anime series, video game adaptations and not one, but two, live-action adaptations. It remains extremely popular in Japan as well as in North American as one of the best-selling series in the last decade. Finally released on our shores, Death Note: Volume 1 will no doubt serve many as their first introduction to the weird and wonderful anime series with one of the most original premises in recent memory.
A high school student named Light finds a small, black nondescript notebook lying on the ground one day. Curious, he examines the book. Festooned in an elaborate script and entitled "DEATH NOTE," the book describes exactly how the tool should be used: the human whose name is written in this note shall die. Dismissing the book as a novelty, like a chain letter, he discards the book, but his curiosity eventually overwhelms. He takes the book home and tries it out—and, to his surprise, it works exactly as described. Anyone whose name he writes down in the Death Note dies within forty seconds of a heart attack. He can even specify the exact manner of their death if he so chooses.
Light soon realizes the notebook is not of this world, and his suspicions are rapidly confirmed by the laconic arrival of Ryuk, a troublemaking Death God. He dropped the Death Note on Earth out of boredom, to see what would happen if a human picked it up. As luck would have it, Ryuk could not have picked a more interesting human being to receive his unearthly gift. Overwhelmed with the power and thrill of being able to kill indiscriminately, Light soon realizes the book was fated to arrive in his hands. It falls to him to purge the world of its undesirable elements, to enforce a new order upon humanity with his pen doling out justice. Soon, the criminal elements of the world will dare not step out of line for fear of dying from an invisible blade striking them down. And as a handsome and brilliant high school student, who would ever suspect him?
"Episode 1: Rebirth"
Good premise, eh? Right out of the gate, Death Note gives us a compelling premise and interesting setup—if you had the ability to kill anyone you chose, without the fear of getting caught, how would you use the ability? Would you seek out petty revenge? Would you lock the book in a drawer and never use it? Or, like Light, would you use it to right the wrongs in the world by terrifying the undesirables in the world into conformity for fear of being magically slain? As the bodies begin to fall throughout the world, both the criminal elements and law enforcements soon realize these mysterious deaths have great significance. Soon, the public gives a nickname to the mysterious murderer of the evildoers, "Kira," a Japanese mispronunciation of "killer." Light likes the name, which should tell you all you need to know about him.
The thing about Light is…well, he's kind of an asshole. He would be the penultimate villain in the series, and arguably he is, except…he's the main protagonist. He's the main character. It is very weird. The dude would be perfect in like the Junior Hitler Youth League or something, except that he's Japanese and a cartoon. Narcissistic, sociopathic, and just a bit insane, the Death Note awakens something dark and devious inside him, and he soon starts viewing the world's inhabitants around him as beings of lower worth. He will prune their numbers, deciding who should die, and begins systematically murdering the world's criminal population one at a time. His intentions are good, but then again, back to that Hitler thing again—that jerk probably thought he was on the right track, too. To center an anime sequence around such a fascinating, disgusting, and compelling character is a daring move, but one that pays off—Death Note ends up one of most original anime currently on the market. Well, except for the whole "death god" thing. Death gods are the trendy thing these days. If another anime has the word "shinigami" in it, I'll scream.
As the introductory installments to the adventures of Light and his murderous campaign to purify the planet, we experience but a tip of the iceberg in terms of the excitement that awaits viewers. Light is first elated by his newfound abilities, but soon realizes international attention will be focused his way unless he deliberately and meticulously covers his tracks. The difficulty of this task is compounded by Ryuk's devious and painfully slow revealing of additional rules and regulations regarding use of the Death Note, and by the presence of FBI agents in Japan investigating the mysterious "Kira." Unfortunately for Light, he has attracted the attention of a mysterious and enigmatic investigator known only as "L." A legend among law enforcement, his identity is entirely shrouded in mystery, but he shows up and offers his services to various police forces around the world to solve high-profile and baffling crimes. He always, always gets his man.
Soon, this duel of personalities between L and Light rapidly develops into a full-blown, cat-and-mouse style face-off of wits and pure brain power as each try to outthink the other. We slowly learn more about the mysterious L, but that will have to wait for further episode installments. In Death Note: Volume 1, all you need to know is that L is one smart dude, and his attention focused on Light means trouble for the young murderer. This is like the first gripping pages in a masterfully penned novel, where you can already see how terribly focused and unproductive your next few days of life will be, reading at a fevered pace.
The transfer is clean but problematic, with an excessive softness that blurs and distorts the picture. It is so prevalent that it is difficult to determine whether the effect is a deliberate stylish choice by the creators or an error in the transfer. The former seems more likely…but one cannot help but wonder. Colors are muted and rooted in the earth tones, in shades of brown, green and beige throughout. Black levels are more like brown levels. We only get stereo audio options, is a bit surprising for modern-day anime, but the low-key series performs well enough with two channels. The English dub is surprisingly good, with good voice actor and character pairing (except for Ryuk) but the Japanese still wins over. Bass response is moderate, dialogue is clear, and the creepy score accents the subject matter perfectly.
In terms of extras, we get a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with interviews from the English voice actors and footage from the recording session—a nice feature to have for fans of the series, but I would have been more interested in seeing one with the Japanese voice crew. In addition, we get the expected production art, clean opening and ending (does anyone actually view these?) and a surprise in the form of a director's audio commentary track on "Episode 1: Rebirth." Not bad for a single-disc release.
Pound for pound, Death Note delivers satisfaction like few other titles. Fascinating in moral complexity, taut in narrative, and constant in white-knuckle tension, viewers will soon find themselves pounding their fists on the walls, cursing the languid release schedule of anime titles in North America. This is the kind of series you want to marathon your way through, because the agonizing wait will kill you dead worse than any Death Note ever could.
If you have not partaken yet, you are missing out on one of the best series in recent memory. This one should skip to the very front of your queue.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
• Behind the Scenes: English Voice Actor Interviews and Recording Sessions
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