I thought that this week I would consider something a bit different from the usual reading recommendations you get from friends. If you are working through a busy period of your life – perhaps exams, or, like me, a mammoth lump of coursework – you don’t always have time for a novel like Captain Corelli with its 500 pages and mighty-small text. And at those points, you can’t always be bothered either. After marathon research periods spent staring at textbooks, a serious classic novel feels a bit too much like hard work. So, while I’m not advocating manga as a replacement to a good novel, it is a good alternative if you want a lot of action and less reading. At the moment, I’m finding a great amount of solace in Death Note, by Tsugumi Obha, which is a rollercoaster ride of intrigue, complicated character ploys and… death?
Don’t get me wrong – some things about the comic don’t sit well. One thing that seems characteristic of much of the manga I have read is the tendency to exaggerate or create “Mary-Sues” (characters which are utterly flawless). For instance, in this series, the two main characters both score 100% on an impossible entry test, a feat which has never been achieved, and are both highly skilled at tennis (with one being the national champion), meaning that they are set apart from everyone else in every way possible. This hyperbole can be a little hard to stomach, but also serves to emphasise the fun nature of what you’re reading, something which is both strengthened and weakened when the artist tries to dilute their perfect nature with odd little quirks such as a penchant for apples or sweets. Still, while it’s a convoluted and slightly unrealistic way to show the two characters to be equal in their awesomeness, it gets the job done and makes their roles as protagonist/antagonist clear. There are other moments which can become tedious too, including long-winded, unnecessary explanations, and conversely other moments that should gain emphasis but which seem to slip by almost dismissively. However, at some points Death Note really does get it right, entering into a fast-paced, jumpy action that carries you away, so much so that you stop paying attention to the pictures and just read the dialogue to find out what’s happening.
The story of Death Note focuses on a high school boy, Light Yagami, who is both intellectually brilliant and unchallenged in his school life. In his boredom he ponders how the world is essentially rubbish, and when the Death Note of the title falls into his lap, he decides to change it for the better. The Death Note, a small, incongruous black notebook, is essentially a perfect murder weapon – belonging to a death god, the owner of any name written inside it dies, with the cause also being dictated by the author. Using the Death Note, Light becomes Kira, a god-like figure who carries out the mass-murder of criminals with the aim of ridding the world of evil (kind of a paranormal Dexter). As criminals all across the globe die, people begin to rally behind the bringer of safety, even as others, particularly the eccentric recluse detective (sound familiar?) known as L, try to catch Kira before his murders are institutionalised as law.
What I find the most interesting about Death Note, and what is essentially its triumph, is its ambiguity about its main character – or lack of it. When I read the Wikipedia synopsis (which I do not recommend, given the amount of spoilers), it referred to Light Yagami as the “protagonist.” The story almost entirely being told from his point of view, the author seems to present Yagami – mass murderer of thousands – as the good guy. Even the crass killings of his opposition – FBI agents, bereaved fiancées, etc – are treated almost as victories for him. But, wait. Isn’t Kira the villain? Though he may have seemingly noble motives, the answer is almost undeniably yes, as he gets power hungry and authoritarian; you are beginning to read on solely to see him stopped and his true colours unveiled (particularly when those around him, including his father, the head of the Japanese police, are oblivious). Yet, like all good stories told from the perspective of the villain (including my new favourite, Professor Moriarty) there’s a slight guilty pleasure in discovering Yagami’s thought processes. His slightly distorted visions of utopia, and his means to achieve them, hold the sinful thrill of a dystopian novel and, given his desire to make the perfect world, some people see things from his point of view. Myself, not so much, but I can enjoy the clever way Yagami toes the entirely grey line between good and evil. He’s definitely the latter, but he certainly doesn’t show it.
Another strength of Death Note is something which it shares with Shakespeare’s Othello: its completely brilliant and utterly unashamed use of dramatic irony. As I said, the police, who are working alongside Yagami, even living in the same house as him, are completely oblivious. L and his team may hold suspicions about Yagami, but they have no evidence against him. The same cannot be said for the reader, for whom there is no mystery. From the very beginning you are complicit with Kira, knowing his true identity and his true desires. As with Iago, perhaps the greatest Shakespearian villain of all time, Yagami deceives all those around him with frustrating ease; everyone except the reader. Each time he is close to being unveiled but manages to manoeuvre out of it, you groan with annoyance. But you keep reading because, as with Othello, you are waiting desperately for that final reveal, desperate to be proven that evil cannot triumph and get away scot-free. Similar to the tragedy, this reveal may come far too late for some, but it’s a shining beacon that you run towards, reading page after page hoping he’ll slip up and finally everything will be ok. Like any good detective novel, as the puzzle pieces fit together, you begin to clutch the pages with a white knuckled grip. Death Note leaves you completely hooked and unable to give up, even as things fall apart and are rebuilt with painstaking lethargy.
Death Note is part murder mystery, part dystopia and part tragedy. It is also all these things without being strenuous (though perhaps all those annoying cliffhangers and nail-biting moments aren’t beneficial to your health). If you wish to try something different, I’d recommend manga, since not only do you get to read interesting stories but you also get an insight into Japanese culture, which is often so very foreign to your own (because let’s face it, there really are not many good books that use Japan as their setting). Also, as an artist, I like the drawing style more than other comics or graphic novels, though some may disagree. And finally, as Benedict Cumberbatch has undeniably proved, we all love an eccentric detective. While Light is brilliantly evil, he’s also a bit of a dick, and so light relief is offered by L – mussed-haired, panda-eyed and barefooted, with a penchant for sitting curled up in dark places with a lot of tea – who is to me the real hero of the books, no matter what the author intended. The only person to suspect Light from the beginning, he is someone whose story you will follow with equal interest.