Watson Watches: Death Note

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Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first five episodes of Death Note.

This article is the fifth (out of a planned six in total) of its series – the first, second, third, and fourth were Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh, Kuroshitsuji, AnoHana, and Free! respectively. As usual, Watson knew nothing about the anime before watching other than the title, and the following questions were given to him to answer afterwards.

Light makes for an unusual main character; intelligent but conceited, and quickly corrupted by power despite his ostensibly pure intentions, he becomes an egomaniacal serial killer rather than a hero. Do you think viewers need to be able to like, empathise with, or root for the main character in order to enjoy a story? Were you yourself able to do so?

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Speaking for myself, a side character that I can empathise with or root for is more attractive by far than a main character whom I don’t particularly want to succeed. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way – a story with an unlikeable protagonist runs the risk of having a character or antagonist who is likeable get picked by audiences as the real star of the show, with sometimes hilarious consequences as the creator(s) realise the situation and either double down on their original concept or frantically backpedal and try to cater to the audiences feelings. So I think one or more of those three things you mention about the main character is necessary if we’re going to enjoy the story (although it probably isn’t sufficient).

In this specific example, Light didn’t manage to tick any of the boxes for me. I didn’t find him likeable, couldn’t empathise with this circumstances, and I certainly didn’t want him to succeed. So right from the start the story was working uphill for me.

Also unusually for a shounen title (aimed primarily at teenage males), Death Note features very little in the way of physical fighting and instead focuses mainly on psychological warfare. Do you think the extended cat-and-mouse game between Light and L is enough on its own to make for a fully engaging show, or would you have preferred to watch a more traditionally action-orientated series?

We have a surfeit of shows featuring physical confrontation as the main means of conflict, so I applaud any attempt to try something different. However, although Death Note makes a decent attempt at being a duel of wits, in my opinion it doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. I think the show would have benefitted greatly from doing a bit of research into real-world interrogation and psychological warfare methods and then thinking about how to apply them to the situation in the show. As it is, it relies a good deal on people acting in rather contrived ways, and this is a glaring flaw. That being said, I think Death Note deserves great praise for even making the attempt. It might not have been completely successful, but it was going in the right direction. And personally, I’ve got a lot of time for shows like that.

The anime has been ridiculed by some viewers for being overly dramatic in places, turning the simplest of actions into the most epic of scenes – e.g. the infamous potato chip scene. Did you notice this trend while watching, and if so, how did you react to it?

I noticed it got a bit overblown at times, but in the episodes I watched it hadn’t quite descended to that level. I suspect that there’s a kind of standing temptation for the creators, impelling them towards a kind of “escalation of epicness” (which, by the way, will be the title of my next album). They don’t have increased levels of physical action available to them to display the rising stakes and the scale of the characters’ investment in what they’re doing, so they resort to using techniques that would usually accompany that physical action in order to convey those things. But once you’ve done that, what do you do when something happens that is meant to have an even greater impact?

Easy – you make it more epic! And since Death Note is a show about psychological tension and shock, there’s no shortage of moments in which they need to turn up the dial a bit more. Pretty soon they find out that they need to start adding more numbers to the dial, and you get – well, you get things like the potato chip scene.

Personally, I think that’s a mistake. A psychological thriller should be about psychological thrills, not “the climax of epic snacktime” (that’s my next cookbook/erotic handbook, incidentally). Less is quite often more in such matters, and there’s plenty of research and examples about how to do it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think the show and its premise would have been better served by going in this direction.

Death Note’s release outside of Japan has been linked with numerous imitators and copycat crimes, including the murder of a man in Belgium in 2007. School officials in several cities in China even banned the manga after students were found altering notebooks to resemble Death Notes and then writing peoples’ names in them. Knowing this, do your feelings about Death Note, or about anime and manga as a whole, change at all?

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Not really. People do things like that every so often, unfortunately, and although they frequently claim influence from one source or another, I’m not aware of any genuine causal link ever being demonstrated between that source and what they ended up doing. Such cases always seem to be the result of people with other serious issues (although if you ever find yourself watching a production of ‘The King in Yellow’, I strongly suggest you leave before the second act).

That’s not to say that I think media are blameless in general, however. We’re strongly affected by attitudes we encounter frequently, and if media frequently depicts (for example) violence as an acceptable method of resolving problems, then it becomes normalised in people’s minds. More subtly, if media doesn’t depict something then its absence becomes normalised too, and people who are affected by that thing will think there’s something wrong with them.

So, as a little exercise for anyone following along at home, have a think about this: what things occur frequently in anime? And what things never appear? What do you think might be being normalised as a result?

Be honest now. If you came across a Death Note and there was no chance of you being caught, would you be tempted to use it?

Tempted? Yes, of course. I’d be lying if I claimed that I hadn’t thought about that very thing while watching the show. But a life of reading stories has cemented in my mind that dealing with the supernatural always – ALWAYS – has unforeseen strings attached, and the more power one expects to hold, the greater one can expect the consequences to be. The power of life and death is quite a lot of power, and I suspect it is going to be accompanied by equally great costs.

As death gods go, Ryuk seems about as harmless and inept as you’re going to find. But personally I think he’s about as trustworthy as a rabbit in charge of a lettuce leaf, and even if what he says is true, that doesn’t mean it’s being said for my benefit. I’d want to know a lot more about his motivations before I put too much faith in anything that guy came out with.

So while I would definitely be tempted, I’d also approach the idea with a good deal of caution and scepticism about what was really going on. It doesn’t pay to make mistakes in matters of life or death, after all.

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You’ve now seen the first five episodes of Death Note. Will you be watching further?

Not unless I have to. As I said earlier, I think Death Note legitimately deserves praise for some of the things it does and tries to do, even if not all of them are completely successful. Most of its failures are of degree, not direction, so I think it’s trying to make the right moves. But I found my suspension of disbelief struggling with the decisions people made and the pulled-from-nowhere nature of some of the ‘brilliant’ mind games. And, going back to the first question, the main character has nothing that makes me want to see any more of them. This is my main reason for not wanting to watch any further.

Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions, and do you have any other questions for him? As always, Watson himself will reply directly to anything aimed at him.

13 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Death Note

  1. I’m caught between my enormous nostalgic love of Death Note and a willingness to nod to…yeah, it’s a bit contrived in the name of looking cool at times (it’s too bad he didn’t watch far enough to get to Misa – I always found her character to be one of the greatest squandered characters I’ve ever run across. Then again, DN is batting zeroes with its treatment of female characters generally, so there’s that). Still, can’t say I’m not surprised – DN is hands down the most effective of the gateway anime I’ve ever used, from adolescents to adults. But to each their own.


  2. Suspension of disbelief is a big deal for me if I’m watching/reading something that expects to be taken seriously. And the lack of any protagonists I wanted to see more of didn’t help matters either.

    I’m curious, though – what do you think makes it effective as a gateway anime?


    1. Mmm, I’d say the art has a lot to do with it right off the back. People who’ve hesitated getting into anime usually fixate on the stereotypical ‘look’ – i.e. the oversized eyes and unusually colored hair. DN has semi-realistic art (not quite to the Satoshi Kon level, but close), to the point where Ryuk and arguably L’s stylized looks mark them out as otherworldly. So new viewers can stop fixating on the big, dumb superficial thing that always gets cited.
      There’s also a sense that time is passing – Light ages, the plot clearly takes a toll on various characters, and there’s a clear cut sense of how the actions of the characters have a larger impact. So it gives the ridiculousness a kind of grounding (I’m not gonna lie, I find the potato chips etc pretty charming, in a ridiculous sort of way).
      And while the mind games are occasionally wholly devoted from what we might term ‘reality,’ they’re solidly rooted in their own kind of logic. By which I mean, there’s always a clear throughline of how character A might’ve drawn this or that conclusion – either based on knowledge they would reasonably possess or that might’ve been drawn from what we’ve seen of the narrative (almost like the viewer themselves – which is why it comes off so effectively as ‘smart’ – the audience can put together after the fact, most times, where that reaction came from). I’d compare it to something like Kill Bill, or a really good action anime: absolutely no one is going to say those fights make much sense beyond the most basic ground rules, but they still have weight and internal logic; we sense the movements corresponding to a consistent internal logic system, and thus the burden of disbelief is dissipated.
      Finally, Light might be kind of the worst – he’s Walter White without the intermediate phase of questionable sympathy – but he and L have absolutely fantastic chemistry as rivals and foils. Watching them bounce off each other feels truly matched, and it’s a rare show where the viewer can be legitimately uncertain, however briefly, of who will win and how. It’s just a solid police thriller, with good mundane integration of its supernatural elements.


      1. Hmm, interesting. I wouldn’t have picked some of that, but I see your point about the mind games having a kind of internal consistency. An unrealistic look can sometimes help me suspend my disbelief, oddly enough – it’s a clear indication that the creators aren’t exactly striving for realism, so the viewer should be prepared for other oddness.

        Thanks for explaining that.


        1. That makes sense as well (the oddness for oddness) – I think DN’s style is most useful to entice those who would never so much as consider watching ‘that anee-may’ stuff, since it introduces the thought that there is more than one style to something that is a MEDIUM AND NOT A GENRE (oof, so many teeth grinding conversations). But your view has its own sense – I’d be terrible interested if Artemis got you to watch one of Satoshi Kon’s films or Paranoia Agent (he’s known for hyper realistic designs against heavy surrealism).
          Also, ‘divorced,’ not ‘devoted.’ Eesh, I should not type when I’m tired.


  3. There’s a Death Note parody, Debu(Fat) Note, from a Japanese variety show.

    Obese student Yagami Oiru (Lard) discovers the Fat Note, dropped by the Fat God Debuuku. Try guess what this Note does. 😉
    I’m still surprised the Japanese didn’t try making a full-on comedy movie parodying Death Note though, considering the success of the anime & its live-action films.


      1. Vaguely offensive seems like an accurate description. Fat people are one of the groups it is still often considered ‘ok’ to use as figures of fun and derision, although that may change in time.


  4. Watson, I must commend how well you articulated pretty much everything that bothered me about the series, including the things I was never quite able to put into words myself. I personally stopped following it after realizing that I simply didn’t care about what happened to a single one of the characters, though I do understand why others see it so highly. Personally, I consider Death Note’s main value to be a sort of transition series for the growing-up shonen demographic, before they start getting into the more heavy, thoughtful psychological stuff, and there is value in that. There might be other aspects I missed or failed to appreciate about Death Note, but I fully support and agree with your thoughts.


    1. Glad you liked it.
      I don’t know if I said this in the article, but I don’t think Death Note is actually BAD per se. It is certainly trying to do some things which I approve of. Ultimately it just isn’t to my taste, perhaps, and because of that I’m less willing to overlook things which I might under other circumstances.



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