Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hey, Hey, Human Sucker

I enjoy anime, but usually am reluctant to say so. This isn't because of people who dislike anime - I'm very used to enjoying unusual things, and actually take a sort of perverse pride in finding something that most people don't like. No, my reluctance comes from my knowledge of how little I know about the genre, a neurotic kind of shame that when my tastes are lined up against those of the true anime connoisseur, they will be found lacking.

I guess you could call me a codependent anime fan. I have friends who are much more into anime than I am, and so I can use them as a kind of screening team... they watch all the mediocre shows for me so that I don't have to. After enough people enthusiastically recommend a particular series to me, I'll take the plunge, and I am invariably pleased with what I find. This means that I have an inflated view of the quality of anime, since I only watch the best. It also means that I have a limited view, and will never be the first person to watch something. (*)

Whenever I meet a new anime fan, and admit to being the same, one of the perks is catching up with their favorite genre shows. Justin is a fan of shoujo anime, so a lot of the shows I saw from him have very bright colors, upbeat songs, and silly, humorous plots. Kate's tastes run more towards adventure, so through her I got to learn more about the darker, more violent animes. And so on.

All that to say, I've now gotten to watch a whole new series, and wow, is it ever good. Levon has been infecting the office with a passion for Death Note, an extremely new series that ran this year. (I'm used to at least a five-year gap before watching a good anime series.) Death Note is a far cry from the first anime I watched, but it is fully enjoyable.

So what is Death Note? Before getting into spoilers, I'd describe it as a psychological horror series. There is very little gore and virtually no fighting, but there is a deep and sinister sense of violence that permeates almost every minute of the show. It contains elements of other genres, including fantasy, mystery, and even school comedies and romance, but all of these are steadily consumed into the bleak yet compelling force that drives the action.

Who will like this? Any anime fan who isn't turned off by violence will probably enjoy it. People who enjoy smart horror movies (think more "Silence of the Lambs" than slasher) will also appreciate it... the series does adhere to some standard anime tropes, but fewer than most such shows, so it should be watchable even by those who usually don't enjoy anime. (Some of the remaining tropes are done so well that I think it'll make watching other shows more difficult... for example, the "put one character in a static frame for several seconds while they prepare to take an action" tendency is here, but I never once found myself thinking, "Come ON, just do it already!")

What's so good about it? It is an incredibly intelligent series, tightly plotted and dense with story, but it does not have the Lain-esque tendency to make you feel dumb. It is also a beautifully designed show. Most of it looks hand-drawn, with a fine attention to detail and gorgeous backgrounds; the cityscape in particular is very compelling. There are a few computer-animated sequences, most notably vehicle shots, and these are very cool - there's a neat effect where a car will blur and stretch as it speeds up, sort of like the Enterprise before it enters warp speed. More than anything, though, it is a surprising show. Hopefully I am not giving much away by just saying that, but I received the same information before I started, and I was still unprepared for the twists the story took. The show inverts archetypes and storytelling conventions, making everything that happens feel fresh and new.

There is also a real moral ambiguity that runs through the show. This is far more common in Japanese fiction than American, but even for that, this show is unusually unclear about its message. You can sit back and enjoy the show, but the more you think about the action taking place and its implications, the more disturbing it can become. The effect is not unlike what I often feel watching the new Battlestar Galactica. As I've mentioned before, that show puts me in the uncomfortable position of making me feel sympathetic towards a fascist point of view in a fictional world that is opposite of the liberal perspective I take in real life.

Okay, that was all pretty spoiler-free, right? Now for the meat. The next section should be safe to read if you're a few episodes in and don't mind hearing about characters and events you haven't encountered yet, though I'll try to be vague about those. The mega spoiler section should only be read after you've finished the series. Got it? Okay, now let's start the


My favorite character is Light. In any other series it would be Ryuuzaki - I love his eccentricity, piercing intelligence, vulnerability in the real world. But Light is so unusual and complex and compelling that he seizes first place. (As you know he would want to do.) Even though Light's physical posturing is always reserved and mild-mannered, while Ryuuzaki's is attention-grabbing, Light dominates any scene he is in. He comes across as a charismatic psychopath, but one that I can't help cheering for.

My favorite scene contains almost no action at all - just Light and a woman walking down a sidewalk together. And yet, the drama and tension caused by this conversation were so intense that I could feel my heart beating. The show maneuvers you into an ecstatic and probably unhealthy emotional place, so that by the conclusion of the scene, I wanted to cheer and felt ashamed at myself for it. Not coincidentally, this scene also embodies everything I find compelling about Light: his intelligence, ambition, and ruthlessness are all on display, bubbling below the surface of his public facade.

The overall rhythm of the show is phenomenal, at least for the first half of the series. The game of cat and mouse has been done before, but probably never done to this level, and it's hard to think of two adversaries more capable and completely matched than these. The intricate back and forth between L and Kira is a kind of dance, a violent dance.

In an odd way, I found myself thinking of "Cryptonomicon" while watching these early episodes. In that historical novel, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park are hard at work trying to break Enigma and other German ciphers. Neal Stephenson creates a wonderful visual image of the geographical situation: information is flowing into Bletchley Park, in the form of intercepted coded messages; and yet, at the same time, information is also flowing out of the park and back to the Germans, in the form of actions taken by the English in response to decoded message. There are really two problems that need to be managed during the war. The first is a largely technical one: breaking the codes on the incoming flow. The second one, though, is far more nuanced, and more psychological and strategic: managing the flow of information out of the park, in order to keep the Germans from realizing that their cipher has been compromised. That often means making the difficult choice of allowing the Germans to win a battle - for example, not protecting a convoy after learning that it will be the target of U-boats - in the service of winning the larger war.

That same sort of tension is on constant display in this series. Both Kira and L are highly intelligent, but intelligence alone won't win the day. Kira can easily take actions to hide his tracks, yet any time he does so, he is creating more evidence. Who could know about this threat? Who had the time to take action? By asking these questions, L can draw closer to Kira with astonishing quickness. Thus, Kira often needs to deny himself the best action, and deliberately make mistakes in the hopes of throwing off L.

The music throughout the show is wonderful. My favorite song is probably the opening theme from the first half of the series. And, wow, I couldn't help but jump when they switched songs halfway through. That may be the first time I've ever heard J-metal. Fascinating stuff. Anyways, the music within the show is great as well... Kira's theme is probably my favorite (the one with the bells), but it's solid throughout, always well-matched to the action.

I don't really have a favorite minor character, but as a class, I'd say it's the policemen. Matsuda is sweet and fun, I love Mogi's turn as the manager, and Aizawa is just cool - the 'fro is awesome.

I was struck by the portrayal of America in the movie, and especially their depiction of the President. It kind of reminded me of the President in "Read or Die." In both cases the President is cowardly, weak-willed, overly confident in his military strength but craven once he realizes how little good it does him. I... I can't say that I'm offended, exactly, but it is very interesting. I'm used to generic American Presidents being portrayed in a positive or neutral light, and it's just kind of funny that that's never been the case in any anime that I've seen. To be honest, though, I can't remember any Japanese prime minister receiving positive treatment in an American movie. This might be a kind of jingoism at work, or perhaps I'm making too big a deal of it.


I think you could divide the show into rough fifths. The first section deals with Light's transformation into Kira, as he learns his powers and flexes his strength. The second section is the Light/Ryuuzaki dance, starting on the first day of college. This is where everything moves into the open, and at the same time becomes more concealed. The net grows tighter and tighter with every episode, even as Kira's standing rises. The third arc is what I think of as "Good Light," when he surrenders ownership and fights for the team. The fourth, short arc is the restoration of Kira and his vengeance. The final arc is the Near/Mello competition.

Of all this, I thought the middle third was probably the weakest... not bad, but I really missed having Kira around. Every minute in that arc, though, added to the big payoff when Light retrieves the notebook. I already admired his cunning; seeing the entire elaborate plan and how it came to fruition, though, nearly took my breath away. It would have been far less impressive without that more hum-drum intermission.

Boy, the show sure has guts in killing off L. It's kind of surprising how rarely main characters die in these shows - at least, without being reincarnated or cloned or otherwise restored. Anything less than a full victory one way or the other would have been a disappointment, but I was still prepared for it. And they totally made the right decision on who should win.

I'd alluded to moral ambiguity above. Obviously, the problem is this: is what Kira is doing "right"? It's essentially a return to a more powerful, but more primal, form of justice. The rule of law is swept away, and Kira becomes the embodiment of justice, judge and executioner wrapped into one. What's hard to argue with (at least in the context of the story) are the results of this approach. Crime IS down, and people are generally happy with Kira's actions. So what's the big deal? Is it really a sin to murder the guilty?

The first warning sign is that Kira's motives are not pure. He is not carrying out this work as a servant to humanity's wishes. He wishes to become a living god. Wow, talk about primal justice! And, on further examination, we may need to reconsider how much better the world is. People are committing fewer crimes, but the change is due to a fear of punishment, not because people are getting better... one gets the sense that evil is hiding, not defeated.

To pick a more extreme analogy: I have no idea what the crime rates were like in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, but let's suppose that they fell compared to those in the Wiemar Republic and under the Czars. Nobody would say that the Gestapo and KGB were acting for good, even if the level of crime dropped.

But, to choose a counter-example, it sounds like many Iraqis were more happy living under the cruel Republican Guards than they are in the lawless chaos of today.

So, it's a complex situation. And that's what makes this show so great. The characters are compelling, and the problems make you uncomfortable.

Also, I was fascinated by the relentless, ruthless push of Light's personality and intelligence. This was most striking to me in the scenes where he is seducing Takada. I suddenly realized that he no longer had any notebooks, did not have the eyes, could not kill... and yet, he still WAS Kira. His minions worshiped and followed him even when he had passed all of his power to them. That is, Light is still Kira even when he does not have the Death Note. It was a powerful revelation.

I felt only slightly let down at the very end of the series. I was kind of expecting it - I'm usually not fully satisfied by the way animes end, and I had the feeling they wouldn't give me the ending I really wanted (Kira ushering in a new world). I found myself still hoping for another layer of reversals (ending in a Kira victory) or two (ending in a Near victory). Two fake-outs felt a bit anticlimactic, three or four would have sold me.

Ever since the first episode, I've thought I had a good read on Kira's ultimate fate. Ryuuk says something like, "Do not think that anyone who uses this note will be able to enter heaven or hell." My theory has been that those who use the Death Note will become Shinigami themselves: immortal and otherworldly, but with all humanity stripped away from them. From what we see in the final episode, I'm guessing I was wrong about that, but it's ambiguous enough that I could still pretend it happens.


All in all, it's been a fascinating ride. I'll need to re-watch it in order to pick up on all the foreshadowing and allusions. My shoot-from-the-hip analysis is that this will wind up as one of my top three animes. Its genre isn't one I particularly enjoy, but the incredible intelligence of the script and the unmatched technical excellence more than make up for that. The deep amorality of the show makes me hesitate to recommend it unreservedly, yet for people who enjoy quality fiction, it's hard to resist.

Update 12/29/07: I forgot to mention: there are multiple iterations of Death Note floating around. If you want to get into it, I'd strongly recommend starting with episode 1 of the anime. There is also a "Director's Cut" that is floating around. It is basically a highlights reel of the whole anime run; it's kind of interesting, but shouldn't be viewed until after you finish the anime. There are also some live-action movies out there, a concept that fascinates me. I've heard that they aren't as good as the series, but are still decent. They may be a viable option if you want a more compressed version of the story.

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