"Death Note" 101: Why the Hit Manga Endures (and Why You Should Read It)

"Death Note" has taken on a life of its own. Five years after the final volume was released, the psychological/supernatural thriller remains one of the top 10 manga properties published in English.

Not only that, but a live-action U.S. adaptation is in production by Netflix, and a fourth Japanese film is set for release this fall. In fact, the idea behind "Death Note" is so resonant that each year a couple of students get in trouble for creating notebooks of their own; the manga has been challenged or banned in towns in China, Russia and the United States.

So what's the appeal of "Death Note"?

Creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata build a complex, layered story from a simple premise: A high school student discovers a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone in virtually any way he chooses, simply by writing their name. (Well, OK, there are some caveats.)

"If you had been a normal person," a character says at the end, "and had used this notebook once out of curiosity, you would have been surprised and scared of what had happened, regretted what you would have done, and never used the notebook again."

However, Light Yagami isn't a normal person, and in "Death Note" nothing is simple. The story spirals into a complex puzzle mystery in which nothing is as it seems, and everyone is second guesses each other's second guesses.

Let There Be Light

The shinigami are the gods of death. When your time comes, they write your name in a notebook and you die.

That's how it usually works, anyway. However, even the gods get bored, and one day a shinigami named Ryuk decides to have a little fun. So he drops his notebook on Earth to see what will happen if a human picks it up. He's written the rules for using the notebook on the cover: If the user writes a person's name in the book, while thinking of their face, the person will die. The user can add a time and cause of death; if nothing is specified, the victim will die of a heart attack 40 seconds after their name is written. (While more rules are added at the end of every chapter, a lot of them are never used. But part of the appeal of this series is seeing the characters gradually learn them and apply them in creative ways.)

The human who picks up Ryuk's notebook is Light Yagami, a high school student who has been placing first in the national practice exams for college, which makes his mother very happy. Despite this success, he's bored and cynical, and finds the people around him annoying. At first he's skeptical of the notebook, but a hostage situation in a nursery school gives him the perfect opportunity to test it out with few qualms. Once he realizes its power, he quickly goes from being horrified to making a chilling resolution: He'll eliminate as many criminals and wrongdoers as possible, ushering in a world free of crime and evil - with himself as the god of it all.

L is on the Case

It's never clear whether the criminals do get the message. Although the characters discuss how the crime rate has dropped, there's no shortage of victims for the Death Note. However, the international police organization Interpol goes on alert, and calls in a secret weapon, a detective who goes by the pseudonym L.

At first, L is shown only through a computer screen, although eventually we do see what he looks like. He's disheveled, fidgety and has an unnerving habit of squatting on chairs rather than sitting. He's also a genius, and the first half of the series is an escalating cat-and-mouse game between Light and L. It's sort of like Agatha Christie on steroids, a puzzle mystery in which the two protagonists are constantly two steps ahead of each other.

Family Drama

That's not the only angle, though. Light's father, Soichiro Yagami is the detective superintendent of Japan's National Police Agency - and the chief investigator on the case. That gives Light an advantage from the outset, as he can hack into the agency's computers and see what's going on. However, it also increases the stakes if his identity is discovered.

As the story goes on, Light becomes more deeply involved in the investigation, and L becomes more suspicious that Light is the killer. When L shares that suspicion with Soichiro, it sets up one of the key conflicts of the story. Soichiro is a good investigator with a strong sense of ethics, and he lets that guide him even as he dreads finding out that his son is a mass murderer. At the same time, Light must play the dual role of investigator and perpetrator - as the whole team becomes more and more openly suspicious of him.

Meanwhile, the public is paying attention, and at least some of them like what they see. They dub the unknown administrator of justice "Kira" ("killer") and as the series goes on, this angle becomes increasingly prominent, with Kira becoming a media phenomenon and his followers something of a cult. This naturally attracts a copycat, a "second Kira," whose powers are even greater than Light's. That brings yet another dimension to the story.

A Tightly Wound Thriller

With Vol. 5 the story expands its scope, as a corrupt group of businessmen gains possession of a Death Note and tries to put it to advantageous use. As the series goes on, an organized crime mob and an American investigative team get into the act, with multiple players vying for possession of the notebook. The media frenzy surrounding Kira continues, with a mob mentality and rush to judgment that, 10 years later, still resonates with current headlines. In the final two volumes, however, "Death Note" returns to a duel of wits, with a dizzying series of twists leading up to a satisfying ending -- one that was foreshadowed from the very beginning.

While Ohba has come up with a tightly wound storyline, much of the magic of "Death Note" comes from Obata's art. His designs capture the essence of each character, from the gothy shinigami Ryuk to quirky L, and his talent for conveying emotion through gestures and facial expressions rivals that of Naoki Urasawa. His storytelling skills are superb, particularly his use of light and dark to set the mood. Because of this clarity, "Death Note" is a good choice even for readers who don't read a lot of manga. Aside from the fact that it's presented in the original right-to-left format, there's nothing here to trip up newcomers.

"Death Note" has been adapted into an anime and several live-action films in Japan, with the aforementioned Netflix movie in production. Print spinoffs include "Death Note: How to Read," a guidebook to the series; "blanc et noir," a deluxe art book; and two novels, "Death Note Another Note: The Los Angeles BB Cases," a prequel that features L and one of the supporting characters from the manga, and "Death Note: L, Change the WorLd," in which L's name is written in a Death Note and he has 23 days to stop a terrorist group from wiping out most of humanity.

"Death Note," "Death Note: How to Read" and "Death Note: L, Change the WorLd" are available in North America from Viz Media.

DEATH NOTE © 2003 by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata/SHUEISHA Inc.

Bendis' Latest #DCMillennium Tease Involves Superman's Death

More in Comics