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"Death Note" Vol. 1-3: A Light in the Darkness

Death Note has an intriguing premise I’m sure any of us can relate to: If you came upon a magic notebook you could use to kill any person just by writing their name in it, would you use it? Say there’s a bully in your class who torments you every day; would you write down their name? Or, skewing a bit older, would an abusive spouse warrant immediate satisfaction? If you saw somebody being mugged on the street, would you save the victim with the help of your new item? These are the questions with which Light Yagami wrestles.

Thankfully, Death Note has a more than an interesting set-up to keep it engaging. The series could’ve been content to just keep making plotlines revolving around Light debating whether to kill somebody he dislikes, but things quickly escalate and get more complicated. Light develops a God complex, as he knows he essentially controls who lives and who dies with the flick of a pencil onto paper. So he sets out to destroy all criminals and evil-doers in the world, a noble idea in theory, but flawed in reality. Light may think he’s doing the world a favor by ridding it of the undesirables, but life and death aren’t things to be tampered with by normal humans, because power corrupts, as is made plainly obvious in short order.

As expected, cops and detectives are puzzled by the methodical manner in which evil men are being bumped off (mostly by heart attacks), so an investigation gets underway. Light was sort of expecting this (smart kid), so he also begins killing off authorities who get too close. In volume 2, he winds up going up against L, an eccentric, equally smart (or smarter?), gangly teen who helps the police track him down.

Once L suspects Light of being Kira, the alias under which Light kills his prey, there are numerous close calls where Light must think two steps ahead to cover his tracks and put on poker faces to make sure L doesn’t find out his secret. None of it seems to matter, though, as L gets closer and closer to the truth. But then pop idol Misa enters the picture, and things get a lot more complicated.

In case it isn’t already evident, Death Note has an engrossing storyline with a main character that different people can regard in different ways. Some may find his quest for justice worthy, while others (such as myself) may root for him to be taken down. And the cat-and-mouse game between L and Light rarely gets dull, since Light and L are always adapting to keep the other at bay, or get closer, respectively. It’s made especially more tricky since Light’s father is on the police force, and when L suspects Light of being Kira, he rightfully gets defensive about it, torn between his duties as a law enforcer and a concerned dad.

The show also succeeds in making me care about the victims that fall prey to Light’s “sword”. Even though many of them aren’t around for long before he offs them, there’s a general sense of “Why did ____ have to die?! They didn’t do anything bad, or at least not bad enough to deserve that!” For the sake of spoilers, I won’t give away who succumbs to the slayings, but, needless to say, I felt some of them (such as the policemen who were simply doing their job) got the ultimate bum deal.

Visually, the show is top notch. There’s very little action—it concentrates on dialogue and inner thoughts, so an animation studio could’ve easily slacked off. Luckily, Madhouse put their best foot forward to give it a distinctive (in a good way) look, as well as surprisingly good animation for such an introspective series. Not only does the shadow-heavy, dark atmosphere portray the ominous feel quite well without getting monotonous, but the actual animation has a decent amount of inbetweens for an anime TV series. Character designs, especially the almost zombie-like L, are memorable, and all display unique visual quirks, like L always being hunched up, or Light’s curved hair. Overall, it’s quality.

Ocean Studios’ dub also impresses. Brad Swaile as Light does a fine job, sounding like a normal teen with a slight tinge of dementia (with full-on rage coming out in scenes when L is closing in), and in many moments he sounds appropriately creepy and deadly, such as when he controls the nervous FBI agent Raye Pember from a distance, threatening to kill him if he deviates from his specific directions even one bit.

Light’s Shinigami sidekick, a tall demon named Ryuk, is voiced by Brian Drummond and provides the small amount of comic relief to the show. Unlike some demons in popular media, this particular one isn’t very scary or menacing (as he mostly hangs around Light and eats apples), but Brian still gives him an appropriately sinister tone, even though what he says won’t make Light cower in fear. He also voices Ryuk’s surprised, impressed lines well, since Ryuk is consistently interested in how smart and ahead of the game Light is.

However, arguably the most impressive English cast member is Alessandro Juliani as L, who sounds very low key, barely talking above a low-register murmur, but with plenty of range even in that small window, and putting calculation into his sentences. The way he voices L makes it seem like he’s always getting a new theory in his head, which is certainly appropriate given L’s analytical nature. He’s perfect for the part, and a sizable chunk of what makes the Ocean dub a winner is due to him.

Being that I’ve already watched these twelve episodes in dub form on Adult Swim, I watched it in their original Japanese on the DVDs to see how the voices compared. Bear in mind I have no beef with original language in anime, but the Japanese track for Death Note didn’t draw me in nearly as much as the English did. To be honest, the Japanese one rather bored me, whereas the English side sucked me in. This may just be a case of seeing the English version first and associating those VAs with their characters, but I think that the English VAs voiced everyone so well that the Japanese side just didn’t have the same impact, despite what sounded like solid emotive acting on their part. Obviously I’ll leave it up to the viewer to decide which they prefer, but I enjoyed the English dub better.

Special features on volumes 2 and 3 of Death Note include commentaries with some English VAs on one episode per volume (fluffy but still decent), two 10-minute recording session/behind-the-scenes interviews with English VAs (volume 2 has Alessandro Juliani and volume 3 has Brian Drummond), and production art. Volume 2 also contains a 20-minute interview with director Tetsuro Araki and character designer Masaru Kitao. It’s a good piece which gives bits of info on the production process. As Viz sent me a preliminary screener version of volume 1, I didn’t get to see the special material on that volume. From what I saw on volumes 2 and 3, though, there would be some bonuses worth watching.

Volume 3 leaves the viewer with quite a big cliffhanger, as the perky Misa is introduced and the plot pretzel twists even more. Obviously I won’t give away what happens from there, but I do say that the first three volumes of Death Note carry my recommendation, especially if you like series where the lines of morality aren’t clearly drawn and everyone takes something different away from it. Plus, its presentation shines, and the pacing is so perfect, each episode ends as soon as it begins. So write this down: Death Note rocks.

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