Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 10th 2008
DVD - Box Set 1
Disaffected teen Light Yagami is brilliant, popular and bored with life. Disaffected Death God Ryuk is mischievous, misunderstood, and bored with the afterlife. So he drops his notebook on Earth just to see what happens. After all, he has two. Light picks it up, and at first disbelieves the powers the book is said to possess. A couple of tests later, he learns the sobering truth—the Death Note is capable of killing anyone, anywhere, at any time and in any manner, provided he has that person's name and face. Rather than throw the spooky thing in the garbage disposal like a sane human, he decides to use its deadly power to create a world free of evil via the logistically unsound method of killing wanted criminals, creating in the process an alter ego named Kira for the poor, stupid masses to rally behind. His master plan for the betterment of mankind hits a snag, first of all when his own lust for power turns him into the most evil being on Earth, and secondly when a mysterious, preternaturally gifted private investigator named L begins dogging his every move. FBI agents, femme fatales, even his own father become obstacles to his ambitions. He dodges most of them with psychopathic aplomb, but when a second Kira surfaces, determined to discover the original Kira's identity, he is forced, first of all, to work with L, and ultimately to take drastic measures that may well mean the death of Kira.
By many accounts Death Note peaks in the first couple of volumes. After loathing the series at its prime, you can imagine my amusement when I actually found myself enjoying the episodes that followed its supposed peak.
Not that the series addresses any of the issues I had with it. I will always view it as an immature series, one whose intellectual reach exceeded its grasp, whose plot and characters are driven by an adolescent desire to shock and provoke, and whose worldview is disturbingly shortsighted and solipsistic. That remains constant throughout this set. But somewhere around the introduction of the second Kira something does change. It isn't so much a rectification of the series' shortcomings as it is a shift in focus that obscures them, but it nevertheless makes the series easier to watch. For a brief while Misa expands the number of “real” people, those with wills and minds of their own, to a whopping three, and the mental sparring between her, Light, and L begins to take precedence over the icky nihilistic fantasies of Kira's Death> Note hijinks. A sudden but carefully integrated plot twist irons out the nastier kinks in Light's personality, and the ascendancy of Light and L's battle of wits moves the series away from moral ambiguities that it lacks the vision and will to fully or responsibly explore.
The resulting episodes are definitely more conventional than the twelve or so preceding them. The hero/villain dynamics are fairly straightforward, the narrative—basically a murder mystery—is far from adventurous, and the series even loosens up enough to develop a black sense of humor. Ironically, conventionality ultimately proves better suited to the skills of its creators than towering ambition. Tetsuro Araki's ripe gothic flourishes, dripping shadows, and spinning cameras become rich trappings for a similarly gothic mystery, rather than lurid punctuation for what amounts to sadistic narrative trickery. The mystery structure highlights manga-ka Tsugumi Ooba and Takeshi Obata's skill with mental acrobatics and downplays their shaky grasp of social and moral issues, while the narrow focus hides their lack of fully realized supporting players. The latter part of this set does have its share of narrative disappointments (primary among them the eventual reduction of Misa to yet another pawn in L and Light's game) as well as teenage wish-fulfillment (why is it that the smartest people in the world are all eighteen years old?), but on a whole conventionality proves advantageous for Death Note.
Like Madhouse's liquid animation and Hideki Taniuchi and Yoshihisa Hirano's sinister score, Viz's English adaptation has been pretty consistently excellent. Never so dogmatically faithful that it sacrifices conversational fluidity and never so freely adapted that it loses the meaning of the original dialogue, it's further proof that Viz has put the wooden adaptations of series such as Ranma ½ firmly behind them. Incidental characters are sometimes underplayed (not that there are many of them), but rarely is anything, incidental or not, overplayed—no mean feat given the series' over-the-top proclivities. It unfortunately lacks the extra spark of creativity that marks true dub luminaries, so it's unlikely to win over sub purists, but anyone with room enough in their hearts to accept a dub will find it a pleasant experience (I find that the dub's softer touch makes the series' unsavory overtones easier to swallow). Misa, for those who don't sample both versions, is unbearably bubbly in both languages.
This is a repackaging of the first five volumes of the anime, and includes all of the on-disc extras that the original single-disc releases had. Viz treats Death Note well, so that means a veritable mountain of extra material to peruse. Dub fans will be swamped with episode commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes (five of them) that cover most aspects of the dubbing process. The Japanese side gets the short shrift, with only a single interview with the director and character designer. The usual production art and previews are also on hand for those with excess free time, as are clean versions of Nightmare's inconsequential pop opener and closer. Unfortunately clean versions of Maximum The Hormone's whacked out rage-rock opening and closing themes for episode twenty will have to wait for a later volume.
Don't let the generally positive tenor of this review fool you, the relative lack of vitriol directed at the series' opening episodes is not a reflection of changing opinions, but rather limited space (read the volume three review for the full diatribe). They remain some of the most chillingly atmospheric, intelligently scripted, and thoroughly detestable episodes ever animated, and the grade here reflects that. Even the curiously enjoyable six or seven episodes that conclude this set can't free themselves from the fiery hatred those first three volumes spawned. The icky fantasies, pop nihilism, and treatment of humanity as a herd of lowing cattle are never repudiated, merely temporarily ignored as the series narrows its focus to that which it does best: warring intellects and byzantine mind games. Perhaps that's the best one can hope for.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Undeniably suspenseful; radical changes in Light's personality and a strict focus on mind-games make the last two volumes more enjoyable than perhaps they should be.
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