I’ve watched Death Note three times now, and I’m planning on a fourth, which I think is most fitting given the name of the show, its content and theme—along with the implications of the number four because it shares the same pronunciation as “death” in Japanese (and in Chinese as well).
Death Note follows the main protagonist, Light Yagami, a college student whose father is a chief in the police force, as he stumbles upon a notebook dropped by the Shinigami, Ryuk. After discovering that he can manipulate deaths using the notebook, Light passes his judgements on those who he believes undeserving of life. However, a detective named L complicates Light’s plans when he is hired to hunt Light down.
What I find most interesting about the show is the moral ambiguity of the characters, with each acting on their own set of morals that may evolve or warp as the show progresses. It very much draws on the Japanese folklore of Shinigami (Gods of Death) yet offers an interesting twist. I shall not explore the folklore itself in-depth, and urge readers with interest to research further, but I want to highlight the interesting consequences of the intersection between the realm of Shinigami and the mortal realm in Death Note, and how the ability to control human fate might alter the characters’ humanity.
The Rules of the Death Note
Each Shinigami carries a Death Note and wanders, often aimlessly, in a realm separate from the human world, but they can enter the human realm at will.
- When writing the names of those you wish dead, you must imagine those very people (this ensures there is no mistake between those with the same name).
- Victims will die from a heart attack after 40 seconds if the cause of death is not specified.
- The cause of death can be specified within 40 seconds of writing the victim’s name, and further details relating to the death must be written within the following 6 minutes and 40 seconds, including specific time of deaths.
- These causes of death must be physically probable, given the victim’s location and situation (ex., a victim cannot be made to run across the world within a day).
- You can trade half your remaining lifespan for the ability to see the names and remaining lifespans of others, which becomes useful for individuals who use aliases. (You cannot see your own remaining lifespan, another Death Note holders’, nor Shinigami’s).
- You cannot erase any names you have written.
- You are the only person who can see and hear the original Shinigami owner of your Death Note.
- You can get rid of the Death Note, along with all memories connected to it, by throwing the book away or returning it to the Shinigami it belongs to.
- Writing your own name in the Death Note will not cause your own death.
- You can no longer use the Death Note once the cover has been destroyed.
However, these are not the only rules to the Death Note, only the top ten I believe are crucial to the anime. There are 70 pages of Death Note rules, along with fake rules that the Shinigami Ryuk has added in simply for his own enjoyment in seeing how humans might make use of them.
Ryuk is an interesting Shinigami with an obsession with apples, but what is more fascinating is his justification for upending Light’s life by introducing the Death Note into the human realm: out of boredom. The Shinigami seems to find joy in watching the use of the Death Note by Light Yagami, who has given himself a god-like role in the mortal world with this new power.
Ryuk’s character offers a look into how human morality and ethics do not function in the Shinigami realm, and how, to a being of immortality, both life and death are virtually meaningless and mundane, tedious and disconnected tasks that the Gods of Death perform daily. This calls into question if our fear of death is driven by the idea of life, the weight we place on time, and the greed of humans in wanting to hoard time—even though many of us know just how much of it we waste daily. The idea of death for humans is the feeling of a finite chase that we know we will lose, and the fear of not knowing just when we might be caught.
Rem & Gelus
Not every Shinigami is as aloof and quirky as Ryuk. A different Shinigami that is mentioned in the anime is Gelus, who sacrificed his life to save his mortal love Misa Amane—a woman who was destined to be murdered. It is a rarity among the Shinigami that Gelus holds within him a great amount of humanity, having the ability to love and sympathize for a human being and sacrifice to save them the way some of those around us might for loved ones.
Similarly, the Shinigami Rem, who was friends with Gelus seemed to be affected by his display of humanity before his passing. Rem acts as a guardian to Misa throughout the series, hoping to keep her alive because of Gelus, yet Misa consistently does things that shorten her life span, including trading for Shinigami eyes. And like Gelus, Rem is very willing to endanger their own existence for Misa.
One thing I’m still curious about is what makes Ryuk and Rem and Gelus so different even though they are all Shinigami, but I suppose some things have no explanation, much like the people and events we might encounter in our lives. Yet, there is always a human struggle to explain, to rationalize, everything that occurs and the reasoning behind every action, the meaning behind every life, and of course, the cause of every death.
Light Yagami & L
For the last piece of this month’s trifecta, I wanted to compare these two humans, both with connections to the law force, yet with very different approaches to justice.
Light takes on the role of a mortal “god” upon receiving the Death Note, and uses the book to pass judgement, seek justice, and justify murder and the death that mars his hands. Yet, his actions escalate to the killing of innocent people because they later become an obstacle. Light rationalizes these innocent deaths by categorizing these individuals as helpers of those who have sinned and believes he himself is altruistic. This raises questions concerning who should have power over another’s life and death? Do we have the right to decide someone’s fate? Should death, even if justified, be allowed? Who is “worthy” of living and who is “deserving” of death?
In contrast to Light, L appears to believe no one should have the power to determine another’s life, yet he also understands the reasoning behind Light’s actions. He is as aloof and removed as Ryuk, yet has the rationality (though less emotionally driven) of Light. L seems to hold all human life at an equal value, regardless of their background or past. In a way, L’s motivations are like Ryuk’s, he studies Light from afar as a specimen of interest—what is most important to him isn’t that people were dying, but to answer how and why they were dying. He has a very analytical approach that almost desensitizes the idea of death.
Did you miss any previous Chaos Trifecta posts? Check them out:
One common conception is that humans tend toward their own destruction and Gods of Death are the causes of demise, though the former might be true of the anime, the latter isn’t. What is revealed through the plotline is the idea of human desire, sometimes greed, or perhaps warped perceptions that lead to our own downfalls. But most of all, human emotion seems to be the driver of irrationality, yet, what might we all become without it?
Follow The Psychopomp to Otherworlds
Get a glimpse of the Beyond: sign up for the Psychopomp.com newsletter: