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Ten Years of Death Note: Is Light The Bad Guy?

by Jacob Chapman,

Ten years ago, Tsugumi Ohba's bizarre and controversial creation, Death Note, became an anime series. It also became a mainstream success almost immediately, infecting Hot Topics everywhere and creating the world's most inexpensive recognizable cosplay that any fan on a budget could hope for. There's no denying the giant impact Death Note has on anime fandom even a decade later, but if you were a fan of the show in its heyday and didn't have much affection for its villain protagonist, conversations with fellow fans could sometimes get gnarly.

Villain protagonists are no stranger to audiences these days, finding love in many other shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards, but there's usually disagreement over just how villainous they really are, and Death Note's Light Yagami was no exception. The debate over whether Light was a maniacal monster or a noble antihero was insanely common, and if I'm being honest, commonly insane. I mean, of course Light's the bad guy in this equation. He kills people, hundreds of people, and he does it on a daily schedule without remorse like most of us would take out the garbage. (And by his own admission, that's exactly how he sees it.) Even if the story is being told from his perspective, Light is totally rotten to the core. Right?

Still, arguments to the contrary would pop up in droves online at the slightest mention of the character's name. I remember the biggest talking points even now: "His intentions are noble, so he's really more of an antihero!" "He sacrifices his soul to the Death Note and goes crazy to lower crime rates across the world!" "He's smarter and more capable than everyone else, so he clearly knows what's best and deserves to win against the police, who can't even do their jobs right!" The war over Light Yagami's virtue has largely died down in 2016, so in honor of the series' tenth anniversary and shiny new Blu-ray release, I think it's safe to crack this can of worms back open. I'm going to strip Light Yagami down and expose him (what, why are you giggling?) as the inexcusably evil douchebag that he's been from episode one.

Justice is Blind, but Light is Blinder

Regardless of whether you think Light's plan is good or evil, he definitely gets results. Proactivity, ambition, and conviction are attractive qualities in a leading man, so the desire to take Light at his word and look for the good in his actions is completely understandable. Homicide and assault rates plummet precipitously once Japan's violent criminals start dropping dead by the dozens per day, and the media quickly swarms around the controversial revolution that "Kira" has brought about. Twisted as they are, the statistics do make sense. When violent crime has immediate consequences, people are more hesitant to commit violent crime. The courts may acquit you or let you free on bail, but as soon as you've even been arrested in a high-profile enough case, you'll just get an automatic death sentence from Kira. (Light starts with the most notorious repeat offenders, but works his way down to more minor cases in order to fill a fairly consistent quota of names per day.) Sure, it'd be better if there was a less messy method to reform the human race, but Kira's actions are just accelerating what the justice system would already achieve, with the added bonus of dissuading latent offenders, right?

Wrong. Just ask one of Kira's earliest victims, Raye Penber.

Raye is an FBI agent sent to tail Light Yagami under suspicion of having ties to Kira. Not even being Kira, just having anything to do with the man, group, or supernatural force responsible for a staggering body count. By all regards, Raye's pretty damn brave for taking on this mission. He leaves his home in America, has a new wife to look after, and even gets caught up in a bus-jacking where he's forced to expose his identity, but he keeps working to help Japan track down the most prolific serial killer in history. He isn't guilty of any crime under any of Kira's standards, but Light wants him dead ASAP, along with every other FBI agent tailing other persons of interest in the Kira case. That's twelve innocent people, and it isn't even self-defense.

Make no mistake, this isn't about getting caught. Light is killing people with a magical notebook. He could continue his killing spree (under the guise of doing his homework) while Raye watches him from the street below, and it would only give him a more concrete alibi. No one suspects the supernatural yet, and how would they even prove it in court without the Death Note on hand? Light has already created a method to destroy the notebook instantly if his room was searched in his absence, so that's not a concern. All he has to do is continue his normal-looking routine until Raye stops tailing him. But vigilantism isn't about justice. Vigilantism is about control.

Light decides to kill Raye only a day or two after he starts tailing him, because Light resents the loss of control that Raye represents. Allowing his room to be searched (and the notebook destroyed) would also rip control away from him. If Light was interested in supporting or improving a "faulty" judicial system, he would put the lives of twelve innocent people over the survival of the Death Note, but Light only cares about his personal control over the justice system. He sees himself as the only person fit to judge and execute convicts, and killing 12 FBI agents makes that statement: "This is my job, not yours." Towering bureaucratic institutions are made of too many moving parts to kill someone just to make a point, but individuals (like Kira) have been killing individuals (like Raye) to make a point for centuries: they're called tyrants. So like any tyrant, Light's willing to kill innocent people to keep his butt warm on the throne and put a little fear into the opposition.

Now with that in mind, let's shuffle back to Kira's criteria for execution. He starts with convicted felons and then moves over to lesser offenders whose arrests or even suspected crimes are broadcast on the news. (Notably, he kills these criminals through disease or accidents so as not to dilute Kira's reputation for objectivity. His criteria for any of these "off-the-record" executions is "anyone who causes trouble for society." Nice and vague.) How many of these people are falsely convicted or falsely arrested? How many of them would be acquitted while serving time (or waiting for trial) once new evidence came to light? What if the local news uses the wrong picture of someone with the same name in their report? It's happened before. Light also gets a lot of his information from the internet. How easy is it for third party hackers to manipulate online information to get rid of their own personal enemies? Light acts so quickly that everyone is presumed guilty before innocent by someone who can't even see the evidence. Is Light sitting in on all these trials and poring over all the evidence like the lawyers, policemen, and even laymen jury members? No, he's writing down literally dozens of names in the Death Note per day, based exclusively on whether they were involved in a sufficiently "violent" crime. Light's methods are not accelerating due process, they're supplanting it with a teenage boy's snap judgments.

The judicial system is prone to the mistakes of any bloated bureaucratic process with corruption leaking around its edges. Kira's system is prone to the mistakes one high school boy with anger management issues can make, based on "laws" he can (and does) change on a whim. Which one do you think will result in more injustice?

Clod of the New World

Okay, so Light is a tyrannical vigilante committing acts of murder according to his own routinely shifting standards, but that might not automatically make him a villain. We are dealing with the supernatural here, and there's a potential loophole to his arc that would paint him as more of a tragic antihero. It's a popular theory I've seen crop up a lot: Light isn't just haunted by Ryuk, he's possessed by the Death Note itself.

See, it's speculated (but never confirmed) by Ryuk that the Death Note could have a corruptible influence on mortals who try it out. The idea is that the more you use it, the more you lose touch with your human soul, until you lack the ability to react to death any more than a shinigami themselves would. Light himself says he believes that the notebook compels anyone who picks it up to try it just once. So let's say you don't think Light is a good guy by the end of the anime, but you do consider him a tragic figure who was corrupted by the Death Note over time. This would make Light more of a sacrificial lamb, a boy who was good, but using the Death Note for any reason warped his warm noble soul into a cold selfish one over time, just like the shinigami who rightfully own those notebooks. The anime's last episode even has a scene to support this idea, when Light runs past a hallucinated version of his younger self on the street and regards him with some weird mix of horror, pity, and confusion. Does this mean they're two different souls that swapped the same body out at some point in his corruption process?

Well, let's compare Light's character at the end of the series to his character at the beginning. In the show's finale, he goes on one heck of a slavering rant...

"I'm not only Kira, but I am also God of the new world. Kira has become law in the world we now live in. He's the one who's maintaining order. I have become justice, the only hope for mankind. Since Kira's appearance six years ago, wars have stopped, and global crime rates have been reduced by over 70%! But it's not enough, this world is still rotten, with too many rotten people. Somebody has to do this, and when I first got that notebook all those years ago, I knew I had to do it--no, I was the only one who could! I understood that killing people was a crime, but there was no other way! The world had to be fixed! A purpose given to me! Only I could do it. Who else could have done it and come this far?! Would they have kept going? The only one who can create a new world is me..."

Breaking this monologue down gives us a pretty complex picture of the guy. Monstrous or not, Light is motivated by sincere convictions. He earnestly believes that murdering thousands of people he sees as "rotten" for having connections to violent crime makes the world a better place. However, he's also convinced himself that his personal judgment of someone as "rotten" or "pure" is the only valid judgment, making his personal perception the only "true justice." This is also why he thinks eliminating anyone who opposes him (despite committing no crime) is equally valid in improving the world. This does not "excuse" his own murders, but even though he's aware of his own hypocrisy, he must be allowed to continue living because the world will become pure if the only murderer remaining is also the only standard for pure justice. He can't just leave a rulebook behind for others! No one else can carry on the work, because Light, as both ultimate evil and ultimate good, is the new world's equivalent of God, and whatever he believes at any given time is Justice.

Wow, that's completely insane! Can you imagine the kind of ego you'd need to have such a close-minded view of the world for that long? And he's proud of it! Crazy! Okay, so if he didn't start out this nutso, when did Light first express and commit to this specific dogma?

Oh, right. He said he was going to become the world's new standard for God in the very first episode. Here's the rest of his first episode spiel:

"This is exactly what I've been thinking about lately. This world is rotten, and those who are making it rot deserve to die! Someone has to do it, so why not me? Even if it means sacrificing my own mind and soul, it's worth it, because the world can't go on like this. I wonder, what if someone else had picked up this notebook? Is there anyone out there, other than me, who'd be willing to eliminate the vermin from the world? If I don't do it, then who will? That's just it, there's no one! But I can do it. In fact, I'm the only one who can. I'll do it. Using the Death Note, I'll change the world. It'll be a new world, free of injustice and populated by people who I've judged to be honest, kind, and hardworking."

It's the same. That's all the same stuff he says in the show's last episode, right down to declaring his personal judgments of right and wrong superior to everyone else's on the planet! Oh, and that thing about how the Death Note makes anyone who picks it up want to try it out at least once? Light's a pathological liar, and we don't see his theory echoed in dozens of other characters that obtain the Death Note. If you have motive to kill someone, you use it, and if you don't, you don't. If you're a psychopath like Light Yagami, you use it a lot.

The only thing that's changed about Light between episode 1 and episode 37 is his ability to exercise power. Seeing a lion poised to pounce on you is way more terrifying than seeing a housecat do the same thing, but the killing instincts aren't any smaller. (Housecats actually have a much more insatiable desire to murder things than their wild cousins!) Light was always an egotistical monster. He just didn't have a weapon yet.

Matsuda and Metatext

Okay, so Light's a hypocritical tyrant who would have become that way on a smaller scale even without the Death Note. According to author Tsugumi Ohba, if Light hadn't found the Death Note, he would have have followed his father's career path as a police detective, so I can't help but think he would have been a real dirty cop. On that note, there's only one prong of the argument left to address: what does the guy who wrote Death Note think about his protagonist?

Sure, plenty of people subscribe to "death of the author" so completely that Tsugumi Ohba's personal views on whether he was writing a villain or a hero might not matter to them. But for others, knowing the intent of an artist can be an essential window into understanding their creation. In an interview conducted for the manga's final bonus volume, Ohba was emphatic in his assertion that he wasn't trying to "say anything" about ethics with Death Note, and that pure entertainment was his principal objective, but also that he found himself "most similar" to Near in morals and personality. Seeing as Near calls Light a "crazy serial killer, nothing more and nothing less" at the end of the show, that seems to button up Ohba's perception of Light Yagami. At the same time, Ohba said the second most similar character to himself would be Light, understandably without specifying why.

Well, "word of God" is overrated! "Action of God" speaks louder to me, so when it comes to figuring out Light's place in the world of Death Note, I think the actions of a completely different character speak loudest of all: Touta Matsuda.

Of all the show's Japanese task force members, poor Matsuda is easily the least convicted and most incompetent. "Matsuda, you idiot" gets dropped on the regular by basically anyone that ever has to work with him, but he serves an incredibly important role in the story on closer inspection. Way back in episode 2 of Death Note, Light makes the observation that the world is ready to change for his new reign because the average young person in Japan already believed in Kira before he ever appeared. On the surface, Japanese youth will say that killing someone is wrong for any reason, but deep down, they're sick of the broken world their parents left them. They'll take change at any cost, and they've been waiting for someone like Kira to show up and kill all the bad people for them, so they can reap the benefits of a world without crime without dirtying their own hands. At first, Matsuda's existence seems to be based around proving Light right about his own generation.

All the other task force members are a great deal older than Matsuda. He's only a couple years Light's senior, and even though he's excited about catching Kira and being accepted within the group, Matsuda routinely lets slip that he believes what Kira's doing is, if not "right," at least beneficial to society. When he reaches out to the other task force members for some reassurance that being happy at the decline in crime doesn't make him evil, they just give him an uncomfortable look and tell him to keep that kind of thinking to himself. Matsuda never becomes one of Light's disciples thanks to the details of his job, but he's definitely emblematic of the generation Light is talking about swaying to his side.

So what does it mean when the character most sympathetic to Kira is the one to turn on a dime and pump him full of lead?

Matsuda's emotional breakdown is one of the best parts of the show's finale because it just feels so right. Over time, without anyone noticing, Matsuda came to represent the everykid: all those normal Japanese millennials just trying to live their lives, maybe secretly posting defenses of Kira online, maybe just keeping their conflicted feelings to themselves, but open enough to the incredible change Kira had caused to feel like maybe condemning him wasn't fair. Of course there's something attractive about the idea of people who hurt others getting universally punished to create a more peaceful humanity. But it's just an idea, and when Matsuda is confronted with the reality of Kira—an egomaniacal brat who even killed his own dad to further his self-righteous empire—he feels more betrayed than anyone else.

More than anything else, Matsuda's turn proves that Light was wrong about the world. He wasn't wrong about people longing for some omnipotent force to punish wicked and reward good in the world, maybe even through drastic methods, but he was wrong about being accepted as that God himself. Near and Matsuda's reactions to Light taken together paint a compelling picture of Tsugumi Ohba's perspective. Deep down, Ohba might want some Kira-like force to purify the world when he sees what kind of evils go unpunished under the current system, but when he was forced to think what kind of person could do that, Ohba came up with Light Yagami and decided Light deserved to die a thoroughly humiliating death for daring to actually play the God that some little part of him wished for.

Just as Light's judgment of people as "pure" or "rotten" was never absolute, there isn't one right way to condemn or defend Light Yagami as a character. Everyone's perception is going to be a little bit different, but to me, Light is the posterchild for closed-mindedness and entitlement: so convinced that his beliefs are absolute that he has no problem forcing them on everyone else, destroying the lives of both others and himself. The occasional positive consequences of his actions can never excuse the horrible motives and methods behind them. (Forgive the Godwin argument, but "the trains always ran on time.") Ten years later, Light Yagami is still the bad guy, but like all great villains, he was just good enough to leave a lasting impression.

So how do you feel about one of anime's most iconic villain protagonists? Share your thoughts on Light with us in the forums!

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