Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 27th 2007
Bored with his deteriorating world and the laconic way of his fellows, shinigami Ryuuk drops his Death Note on Earth and watches to see if it stirs up anything interesting. His plan succeeds beyond his wildest expectations when the Death Note is found by brilliant high school senior Light Yagami, who is also bored with a world he considers rotten. Although initially he regards the book as a prank, Light soon discovers, through experimentation, that the book's claim is true: picture a person in your mind as you write the person's name in the Death Note, and that person dies 40 seconds later of of a heart attack (although a different time frame and manner of death can be specified). Armed with that power, Light sets out on a quest he sees as noble: make the world a better place by eliminating all its criminals using the Death Note. Soon cast as the mysterious “Kira” (a Japanese pronunciation of the English “killer”) in the media and on the Internet, some take exception to his playing god, most notably the police and the enigmatic master detective L, who resolves to do everything in his power to stop Kira. Light counters by doing everything in his power to prevent people from identifying or interfering with him, even if that means getting rid of people investigating him.
Is Death Note the best new anime series to be released in America during 2007? That may be debatable, but its status amongst the year's elite titles is not. The rare blend of originality, intelligence, and quality visuals it exhibits allows it to take an interesting horror-story concept, bend it over backwards, and turn it into a good-looking thriller whose intensity matches that of any dedicated action series despite its total lack of true action scenes. It may get off to a humdrum start, but the closing moments of episode 1, where Light declares to Ryuk that he intends to become the god of the new world he is trying to shape, is likely to grab anyone's attention, and the formal establishment of the duel of wits between Light and L by the end of episode 2 should hook most viewers not already firmly committed. It also stands as a dramatic counterpoint to all the gushy moe content, generic harem romantic comedies, and typical coming-of-age shonen action stories out there.
The commendable merits of the first volume are many, but the pivotal one is the decision by original creators Tsugami Ooba and Takeshi Obata to stand convention on its head by switching the traditional profiles of the protagonist and antagonist. In Light we see a classic diabolical genius, a brilliant young man who gets so wrapped up in his zealotry and self-importance that he decides he is above morality, thus failing to accept that he is turning to the Dark Side. He may be the primary character but he is also the story's true villain, an approach very rarely used in anime titles. That alone might make him fascinating to watch, but the extreme cleverness and thoroughness with which he quickly learns to exploit the Death Note to the fullest and protect his true identity also shows an impressive and involving display of intelligence, too, something not often seen in the main protagonist of anime series. (Most often the most intelligent characters are in the supporting cast.)
Every great hero or villain must have an equally-skilled counterpart to play off of, and Light/Kira soon finds that in the mysterious L, whose own intelligence and deductive ability Light quickly comes to respect. L's existence does require a sizable contrivance and uncommonly incompetent performance by the police detectives on the case, and that does stand as the series' biggest flaw to date, but the intellectual duel his presence sets up with Light makes those considerations excusable. The efforts of the two try to second-guess and deceive or manipulate each other, while also protecting themselves from discovery by the other, generate considerable and compelling tension; seldom have mental duels been so much fun to watch. Next to them, Ryuk serves just as colorful flavor and a sounding board to give Light an excuse to explain what he's doing.
Death Note impresses no less with a bold visual look courtesy of Madhouse, one which eschews most traditional anime stylings in favor of realistic character designs and a dark (but not exactly gloomy) color scheme. Ryuk looks like an evil, twisted clown, but somehow that seems fitting, and all of the character renditions have a depth, texture, and degree of refinement and quality control on par with the top series production efforts to date. Detailed background art and flawless foreground/background integration also contribute to this exceptional effort, as does the timing, framing, and selection of scenes; how many other series can get so much out of meaningful glares, faint turns of expression, or dramatic but not exaggerated flourishes? Smooth, dynamic animation which uses few shortcuts and rarely skimps on detail only further supports the effect. Also worthy of mention is the artistry of the opener, with its meaningful Christian artistic allusions and suggestion that perhaps the prominent presence of apples in the series has a deeper symbolism.
A musical score which mixes electronica pieces and orchestral numbers flavored with dramatic vocal chants also does its part, punctuating key moments with just enough emphasis to hype the scene up without (usually) going over-the-top. The opening theme “The World” by Nightmare gives the series an appropriate rocker opener, and the closer “Aluminia” also fits.
Favoring the English or Japanese dub will largely come down to a matter of personal taste on certain vocal styles, but anyone used to English dubs should find this effort by Ocean Productions to be quite satisfying in general and a distinct improvement when it comes to pronouncing English language names like “Light” and “Death Note” right. Some may argue about whether or not he captures all of the nuances of the original performance, but anime veteran Brad Swaile generally has Light's attitudes down right, while Alessandro Juliani, who may be better-known to American sci fi fans as CIC tactical officer Lt. Felix Gaeta on the recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, captures the eccentric brilliance of L. Brian Drummond, meanwhile, gives a suiting gravel-voiced interpretation to Ryuk. None of the lesser roles shine, but none can be considered weak, either. The English script varies little, even retaining the term “shinigami.”
The typical Extras include clean opener and closer, production art, and “Shonen Jump Home Video” (i.e. trailers strung together). An included “Behind the Scenes featurette” focuses on English ADR director Karl Willems and Mr. Swaile, whom the featurette reveals could have almost been cast for the role of Light as much for how he vaguely resembles Light as because of his voice. Mr. Willems follows this up with a solo audio commentary for episode one, which stays flawlessly on the subject of the episode material but does not sound as relaxed and comfortable as it should; having one of the voice actors or other production personnel to interact with probably would have helped. A Deluxe Edition which includes a Ryuk figurine is also available, as is a bundling with the first Death Note manga volume.
If you originally got into anime because of how excitingly different it was from the animation you were used to seeing, this is the kind of title that can reaffirm your dedication to your hobby. With the ongoing Adult Swim TV broadcasts and the first DVD volumes now available in North America, everyone should at least give the first few episodes a try and see what the fuss is all about. It may have slight flaws, but any series which assembles all of the various production aspects as well as the first few episodes of this one does deserves a chance.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Exceptional concept, plotting, visuals, and musical support; intelligent, clever, and intense.
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