Death by Paper: A Look at the World of Shinigami, Detectives, and Lethal Notebooks
(Part 2 of 3)
Divine Light of Vengeance
The story begins when shinigami Ryuk drops his extra Death Note (one is for work, and one is for fun) in the human world. It is picked up by genius high school student Yagami Raito (Yagami Light in some translations, apparently better fitting the author’s original intent, but I will refer to him as Raito for the remainder of the article), who thinks it is nothing more than an ordinary notebook. He then reads the rules text and thinks it’s some kind of joke, but he decides to try it out anyway, just in case. Of course, his first victim must be some sort of evil person, thereby justifying his actions, and it must be somebody who does not attract much attention. One such petty crook appears on the evening news, and Raito decides to try his newfound puppy out. To his surprise, the incident occurs exactly as was described in the rules, and that’s when Ryuk pops in from the window, right on cue.
This chain of events raises a score of questions to Raito’s mind, but from the get-go, it is clear which path he will follow: he will use the Death Note to punish the most heinous of criminals, creating a new world order with himself as judge, jury, and executioner. Within days, he makes good on his intent and has killed a score of criminals, so many that even the public has begun to notice. A number of people decide that, indeed, somebody is behind these killings, somebody that they refer to as Kira (apparently based on the word “killer”). It is under the guise of Kira that Raito acts towards accomplishing his ultimate goal.
As the public has begun to notice, it is only natural that the police have noticed as well. Interpol decides to acquire the aid of L, the world-famous detective who has solved many difficult cases in the past. By way of a bold and clever ploy, L deduces several things about Kira: that he can kill without direct contact, that he needs to at least see the person to kill him, and that he resides somewhere in the Kanto area of Japan. This sequence invokes the ire of Raito, and his intent is clear: the hunt begins.
We’ll talk more about L later. For now, let’s focus on Raito.
Tsugami Ohba writes himself an excellent anti-hero in this story; personally, Yagami Raito is one of my favorite characters in any story and in any medium, graphic novel or no, and coincidentally, he shares a name with perhaps my favorite SNK character of all time (three guesses… should be obvious for King of Fighters fans out there, wink wink). He has all the necessary elements for the enterprising megalomaniac: gobs of intelligence, the desire to kill, and the ability to raise a whole lot of hell. Of course, to him, everything he does must seem quite noble. He’s the earth’s personal gardener, disposing of the weeds so that the flowers may bloom in fertile soil. Indeed, he maintains this facade well, and he completely fools everybody into thinking that he’s a-ok.
However, we soon discover that Raito, like the rest of us, still falls prey to his baser instincts. His desire to kill his pursuers, controlled as it may be, rages constantly within him, and the determination with which he pursues this goal is nothing short of unrelenting. This makes him all the more dangerous, as this desire to kill, contrary to ruining his thought process, inspires him to think more creatively to outwit those hot on his trail. We soon come to realize that, though Raito may have begun with good intentions, he is nonetheless a killer through and through, and that’s something that will never change.
A desire to kill is not the only reason for Raito’s creativity, though. He is a genius, after all, and the brilliance of his schemes is nothing short of godlike. True to the long span of time in which the story unfolds, Raito’s plans get more and more complex. At first, high school student that he is, he merely does not want to get caught. This inspires some rather ingenious booby traps, for finding out if anyone entered his room while he was gone or for destroying evidence. Clever as they may be, they’re a little reminiscent of Home Alone. However, the adult Raito is much more skilled in his craft, as he is able to manipulate even hordes of screaming Kira fanatics while still keeping his identity concealed.
But before he had the ability to manipulate these aforementioned hordes, Raito had to start small. First on his list is shinigami Ryuk, who is the lazy yet fun-loving original owner of Raito’s Death Note (just in case you forgot). This makes him the primary target for some good old-fashioned manipulation, but that task is much, much easier said than done. Ryuk stays onboard seemingly on a whim, as he proclaims recent events are certainly more interesting than his daily routine in shinigami world, but ultimately, he picks no sides in the conflict. However, in spite of Ryuk’s claim towards neutrality, Raito is able to get him to act accordingly anyway, even to the point where the shinigami altered a very important piece of evidence, which leads to Raito slipping away undetected yet again (Curses! Foiled again!).
Next up is the ladies. Oh yes, Yagami Raito is a major lady-killer (not literally, though). Raito treats women about as well as he treats Death Notes: like tools. His first few dates serve merely as cover-ups so he’ll look like a normal college student to his pursuers (yes, this is after the first few chapters, so he’s graduated from high school already). The central female figure of the latter chapters, Kiyomi Takada, has literally as much functionality to Raito as a cellular phone, and once she had outlived her purpose, he disposes of her as if she were a pile of fallen leaves.
Even the major female character in the story, Amane Misa, is but a tool to Raito, despite the fact that she had real and intense feelings for him, going so far as to make the deal for the shinigami’s eyes no less than twice (and no, this doesn’t kill her instantly; the second deal only took half of what was left of her life, which is a fourth of the original). Raito’s feelings aside, Misa actually plays a major role in the story. She introduces a second Death Note, a new shinigami, and a whole slew of new tactics and factors that Raito considers as he acts. But ultimately, to Raito, she is nothing more than a pair of eyes and a few extra leaves of a notebook.
Another noteworthy female is Rem, otherwise known as Misa’s shinigami. Rem is easily the most human among the shinigami that we come to know. She’s certainly the one who shows her emotions most, anyway, and indeed, it’s not that hard to relate to her or to her situation. In the end, even she gets abused by Raito, as he uses her affection for Misa to the fullest just so he could get the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game between him and L. She notes that Raito, for some reason, has gotten to the point where he can completely control even shinigami, and you can see how much she regrets that fact.
On the other side of the tracks, Raito also manipulates the men of the story into acting as he chooses. Again, in this regard, he starts small. He tricks the few police officers that he comes to know into trusting him or at least getting them off Kira’s trail. Later in the story, once Kira’s fan-base has grown to rather large proportions, Raito can afford to be a bit more direct with people. Most noteworthy among them is Mikami Teru, who moved as Kira while Raito had his hands full in deterring the Kira investigation from his path. Teru was a good acquisition, to be sure. Raito himself mentions this several times. But ultimately, Raito is anything but picky as to who he manipulates and what he makes them do, as long as he can get some sort of advantage against the police. This gets so bad in fact that he even uses his father, who also happens to be the head of the Kira investigation from the side of the Japanese police, just to punish one of L’s cohorts (although note that Raito had been hacking into his father’s computer to check out police files right from the start).
After all the schemes, all the killings, all the twisting and turning and general warping of the rules of the Death Note, everything leads towards the conclusion: the final face-off between Kira and L. Raito stays true to himself and to his beliefs as he touts his ideals and goals as mankind’s last hope towards a better future. This is not met with a very warm reception. So what’s an evil genius to do?
Why, go nuts in a bloodthirsty frenzy, of course. The endgame of the chess match between Kira and L is a fairly accurate depiction of the culmination of all the plots and plans and everything in between, as Raito’s cool, calm exterior gives way to a much more primal being, one borne with an utter loathing and infinite rage towards all others, seeking only destruction as the last resort towards self-preservation. This one time meltdown is actually a pretty touching moment for Raito fans, seeming to confirm for the nth time, and at full volume, that yes, in spite of all his abilities, ideas, and deeds, Yagami Raito is human after all.