Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Death Note, Volume 1: Boredom Review (Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata)


Death Note is trashy good fun. That’s basically all you need to know going in. The writing and plotting is borderline retarded though the concept is completely enthralling so while I couldn’t put the book down, I was constantly aware of how dumb things played out or were set up – and I loved it, this book is hilarious! Tsugumi Ohba is definitely an ideas man though - as a writer he’s mediocre at best, kind of like a manga Dan Brown. 

But I’m jumping ahead of the gloriously high concept plot! Light Yagami, Japan’s top high school student happens to notice a black notebook in the schoolyard. Despite a notebook of any colour in a school setting not really being special, he picks it up and takes it home with him. He discovers that this is a Death Note – a magical notebook for demons, or shinigami as they’re referred to here, and finds out all about its properties from its owner, Ryuk, a death god. 

Once Light finds out that any name he writes in the notebook – while visualising the victim’s face – will kill that person by heart attack in 40 seconds unless he specifies the type of death, he decides to create a utopia, free of criminals who deserve to die. But after a number of criminals die of heart attacks one after another, the United Nations decide to bring in L, the world’s greatest detective, to track down the killer. 

I honestly don’t know where to start with this nonsense – and it is nonsense but enjoyable as hell – but I think I’ll start with the most glaringly obvious detail that I couldn’t get past in my head: why there is any conflict in this book at all. Think about it: you have a nondescript notebook in your room, you write a name down in it, that person dies. This is easily the most fool-proof murder weapon of all time. Writing a name in a book. Putting the book away. Going on with your life. You would never be caught. Never! And yet Light manages to somehow show up on the radar of police who suspect him of murdering these criminals! He is the dumbest, dumbest, dumbest character I’ve come across in a long while. And then for no reason he starts ranting about creating a utopia and ruling over it?! It makes no sense! It’s funny but it comes completely out of left field. To be fair, L does some detective work (he’s the world’s greatest detective) to figure out it’s Light, or someone who lives in Light’s area, but it’s mostly guesswork on his part to get to that conclusion that that too is ridonkulous. 

Then there’s the Death Note itself and its gazillion rules. First we find out about how you need to visualise the person whose name you’re writing down – which makes sense as every name is replicated at least once and you wouldn’t want to kill every John Smith or Sarah Jones – but then there are more and more rules shoved in about how if you touch the Death Note you can see the shinigami (Ryuk the death god is a constant companion of Light’s which provides a great visual of this S&M Sharon Osborne lookalike with no eyelids floating around behind Light, unseen by all). Every chapter introduces a new rule, not elegantly woven into the story but explicitly stated at the start of the chapter like a rulebook and then bluntly stated by Ryuk again and again throughout the chapter. And why is there an arbitrary 40 seconds from writing the name down before the death? Is there some magical timer in the notebook? 

This brings me to Tsugumi Ohba’s writing which is good enough to keep me reading the story but bad enough to find it laughable too. When Light wants to try out the Death Note, he encounters a biker dude hassling some girl but he needs the biker’s name to kill him (because that’s an appropriate punishment for hitting on a girl). The biker then states his name and one of his buddies literally says “that’s his real name too!” so Light is able to kill him – well, that’s convenient! There’s also supposedly a moral question being posed in this book about Light killing killers and whether this makes him a bad guy or not. First off, Light is a dimwit – I know he’s Japan’s greatest high school student but he shouldn’t be getting suspected by the police of these random killings (I still can’t get past this – a dozen criminals die of heart attacks and they’re able to trace it back to a high school student who wasn’t anywhere near them when they died!!!). Second, having him talk about ruling the world or anything along those lines skews the readers’ perceptions in one direction only. Third, I don’t like him anyway. But this moral question is so stupidly handled that it’s not even worth discussing seriously, I mean, the guy’s name is Light and he does dark things – that’s the level we’re talking about! 

Light’s adversary isn’t Dark (though it wouldn’t surprise me if that turned out to be the character’s real name) but simply L. This guy is the world’s greatest detective who’s brought in by NATO (or the United Nations, it’s some international organisation made up of representatives from the richest countries in the world) to catch the killer (or Kira – bless the Japanese, can’t pronounce their “L”s). So his identity is a secret, which doesn’t bother the top governments of the world nor are they able to find out who he is for some reason, he never leaves his bare room which only contains top Apple products from 2003, and he operates with possibly the most evil-looking gumshoe who’s his physical presence in the world. I get that other world’s greatest detectives are improbable, but Sherlock Holmes’ identity was known to Scotland Yard when they approached him – L could be Kira for all they know! – and Batman operates without the consent of anyone unlike L who is hired by world governments. This entire character is totally bizarre – and what a coincidence that his real name isn’t known, preventing Light from killing him! 

All of this might seem like I dislike this book but I really don’t – I thought it was a hoot! - I just had to talk about the insanity that makes up this book. It’s not on the level of sophisticated adult comics but it can definitely be enjoyed by adult readers, as I did. It’s like watching Con Air and enjoying it for what it is, even though it’s absolute nonsense through and through (why was Dave Chappelle on that plane in the first place?!). Death Note is the Con Air of comics – big and dumb but great fun.

Death Note: Volume 1

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