Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Light Yagami is at the head of his class, and he's bored out of his mind. That all changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook that allows him to control the equally bored rogue Death God Ryuk; simply by writing down the name of the person he wants dead, Light can kill anyone at will without getting caught. He immediately starts work killing off all the world's dangerous criminals, but the cops are hot on his trail; after all, he's a mass murderer! When the enigmatic and seemingly unstoppable detective L goes after Light, the result is a deadly battle of wits!
Probably the most compelling and interesting title to come out of Viz's young-adult-themed Shonen Jump Advanced line, Tsugumi Ohba and Takenshi Obata's Death Note is a surprisingly gripping and original suspense tale that raises a handful of interesting questions about morality. Anyone with a taste for mystery (and a good dose of gallows humor) should find Death Note to be refreshingly sophisticated.
Let's face it; when the words “Shonen Jump” appear on the front cover of a graphic novel, fine literature isn't really what you're expecting. Fast-paced action, never-say-die underdog heroes with hearts of gold and seemingly endless storylines are usually the order of the day. That isn't a bad thing, but something like Death Note, which eschews most of the usual shonen trappings, is certainly a breath of fresh air. That said, there's a chance people looking for some kind of shonen action-adventure where Light Yagami controls his shinigami against a bunch of other kids with shinigami… those folks would be much happier reading, say, Shaman King.
Paced very quickly, Death Note's first volume sets up the relatively complicated premise with ease and immediately gets to work developing the lead character, Light. Light is clearly designed as the ‘average above-average’ Japanese student—listless, bored, cynical and smug, Light hardly has the qualities of a hero and for the purposes of this story, calling him a ‘hero’ would be disingenuous. His immediate goal is to use the Death Note to kill the world's most violent criminals, which triggers a massive police investigation and a global fascination with who's killing the criminals. Being an egotistical kid already, it's not long before all the fame (or infamy, rather) goes straight to Light's head and he starts talking about building some kind of utopia where he's in charge. While most anyone would at least think to use the Death Note in the same way Light does, how he goes about doing it is hardly sympathetic, but also very believable. It's this kind of realistic character development that's a big part of what makes Death Note so compelling.
A little ham-handed at times, Death Note's biggest draw are the myriad questions it raises about what “murder” actually is. If you're given the power to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime and nobody'll know it's you, who would you take down? Would you be able to kill anyone in the first place? What if you're killing criminals, is it still murder? Whose life is worth saving, and whose isn't? While it doesn't answer any of these questions (at least in this first volume), the fact that it raises them at all is fairly uncommon for a shonen manga and should fascinate anyone looking for something a little deeper than the average young adult title.
Art-wise, Hikaru no Go's Takeshi Obata is in fine form here, with distinctive characters and clean line work. Particularly notable is the death god Ryuk, who could have been turned into a fan-pandering bishonen-style character but instead is a grotesque hulking beast, the kind of thing most people would probably think of when they're asked to imagine what a grim spectre of death would look like. Although the backgrounds can be a little busy at times in comparison to the character art, Death Note is still a beautiful volume.
The only worrisome thing about this series is that it doesn't seem like they can really stretch this story out forever, and we know it runs at least 8 or 9 volumes in Japan (as of this writing). By the end of the first volume it's become a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between Light and mysterious super-detective L who's hot on his trail, and the two spend most of the last half of the volume second-guessing and outsmarting one another. If this pattern continues, it's easy to see how the entire premise would get tiresome pretty quick. For now, though, Death Note remains a solid, gripping and extremely likable title. Don't miss it.
Story : A
Art : A
+ Great art, great story, compelling characters
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