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Shall We Begin? A Death Note User’s Guide

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Shall We Begin? A Death Note User’s Guide

On August 25, the Death Note will fall to Earth once again.

Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s original manga first appeared in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump in 2003. Since then, Death Note — the story of Light, a genius high schooler who discovers a “Death Note,” a notebook owned by Ryuk, one of many shinigami (death god), with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it, and the campaign of terror he starts in his efforts to create a better world — has become an expansive franchise and a worldwide phenomenon.

RELATED: How Death Note Movie’s U.S. Setting Will Affect Its Story

The franchise has a passionate fanbase that is simultaneously anticipating and dreading the American live-action adaptation — starring Nat Wolff as Light and Willem Dafoe as the voice of Ryuk — which debuts on Netflix on August 25. To help you prepare for both the new film and the vast amount of Death Note material there is out there, we’ve put together a guide covering each and every version of the story.

So then, shall we begin?

Death Note (manga) by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata (2003-2006)

This is where it all began, a psychological thriller manga that ran for three years in Japan’s iconic Weekly Shonen Jump (the home of One PieceDragon Ball and thousands of other iconic manga) magazine and is collected in 12 volumes. In North America, the series was translated and published by Viz Media.

The manga follows Light as he, with wry commentary from Ryuk, decides that “[t]his world is rotten” and sets out to create a new, morally righteous world by murdering virtually all criminals using the news media and the power of the Death Note. Doing so not only gains him the admiration of millions, who label the unseen murderer “Kira” (a play on the Japanese pronounciation of “killer”) but brings him into conflict with Japan’s National Police Agency (whose deputy director is his own father) but the reclusive, mysterious L, touted as the best detective in the world.

He also has to contend with Misa Amane, a flighty model and Kira admirer who has a Death Note of her own who winds up madly in love with him after learning his secret as well as eventually confronting and working alongside L and the police to “catch Kira” while throwing them off his trail. Later, Light also battles Near and Mello, who are as similarly isolated and brilliant as L, and who both want to catch Kira for different reasons.

The manga isn’t just gripping — with both tense action scenes and a propulsive story — but utterly riveting, even if a large part of the action is just talking. Ohba constantly throws in unexpected twists and turns — even a massive time jump at one point — but still does enough interesting character work to make it all worthwhile.

The meat of the story, though, is Obata’s incredible artwork. Obata has drawn a lot of famous manga in his career — from Hikaru no Go to Bakuman.  — but Death Note is what first made him famous in the West. It’s not hard to see why. From the distinctive outfits worn by everyone to the Gothic, decaying grotesqueness of the shinigami and their world to an incredible range of facial expressions, he makes Ohba’s incredibly dense scripts a breeze to read.

Considering that, according to Death Note Vol. 13: How To Read, a guidebook and supplemental guide to the series, Obata and Ohba almost never met directly and largely communicated through an editor, the excellently done and highly readable fusion of dazzling visuals and tense, talky scripting is impressive indeed. Obata & Ohba must’ve thought so too; since 2015, the two have been publishing the manga Platinum End in the monthly Jump SQ magazine (which is, again, translated by Viz).

Given that the upcoming film is said to be self-contained and runs under two hours, it’s unlikely every twist and turn will be preserved. Regardless, the original manga is well worth checking out from Comixology, Viz Media’s own app or your local bookstore and/or library. Heck, if you want to take the plunge all at once, Viz is releasing a series omnibus with a newly translated epilogue on September 5th.

Death Note (anime) by Tetsuro Araki and Madhouse Productions (2006-2007)

This 37-episode series is the version of Death Note most Westerners are probably familiar with. It was a sensation in America when it aired on Adult Swim, drawing record ratings every time it aired, even without a set timeslot. And it’s easy to see why: it’s great television that faithfully adapts the manga in full while still being entertaining on its own merits.

Tetsuro Araki is one of the biggest names in anime TV production today, helming blockbuster series like Attack On Titan and Kabenari of the Iron Fortress, and all the crisp sheen and visual panache he brings to his work now was first evident in Death Note, his first time directing a series.

Backing him up are the artistic workhouses at Madhouse (best known for the filmographies of Satashi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda and shows like Trigun and One-Punch Man) who, like Obata before them, have their work cut out for them with this intensely talky story. But they make it all work: everything from animation to character design to the music (composed by Yoshihisa Hirano and Hideki Taniuchi) make it all sing. Even if an individual episode here and there can feel a bit dry, it’s still an endlessly compelling show, currently streaming on Hulu.

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