By: Allison Akers
Human error and the failure of utopia is a common theme in Death Note: an anime series about a genius high school student named Light Yagami. Light finds a notebook called the “Death Note,” which has the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it. The series follows Light’s attempts to create a utopian world free of crime and become a god, while an actual god of death—Ryuk—watches Light’s endeavors for his own amusement. Light not only kills criminals, but innocent detectives and police officers who stand in the way of his vision. Reflecting on Light’s faults in trying to achieve a utopia, the project starts off as a noble, if misguided, effort to make the world a better place and gradually loses focus. Here is a teenager trying to become a god and a god that could care less about human life or his own dying world in the Shinigami Realm. Where could this possibly go wrong?
From the moment he first uses the Death Note in episode one, “Rebirth,” it is clear that Light and his version of utopia are on a path to destruction. After Light has killed several hundred criminals in a matter of days, Ryuk pays him a visit. He explains that the Death Note became part of the human world once it touched the earth and is Light’s to use as he wishes. Initially, Light shows some fear of Ryuk, but once he realizes Ryuk is not going to harm him, he grows confident and explains his master plan to rid the world of crime and become a god in the process. The key flaw in this conversation, though, is when Ryuk mentions that if Light rids the world of crime through murder, the only bad person left will be Light himself. Light disregards this by saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m a hardworking honors student who’s considered to be one of Japan’s best and brightest” (“Rebirth”). He believes his academic prowess and intelligence are enough to qualify him for judging others of their sins. Until this point in his life, Light has been a person of exemplary character and success; this justification points to the larger issues that prevent his utopia from coming to fruition, such as self-absorption, confidence, and hunger for power, all of which become dangerous factors as the series progresses.
The other debilitating factor in Light’s world is Ryuk. This shinigami, or “god of death,” did not send the Death Note to Earth out of the goodness of his heart or to help the human world become a better place. He was bored, and it was an accident that Light found it. Ryuk shows no sympathy for humans and even admits to Light that he will not lecture him on whether what he is doing is right or wrong. He is a spectator that will only help Light in his quest if there is some benefit for him. This selfish attitude and lack of empathy are reflected by Light, who sees that a god does not have to be kind or worry about others. Light can be insensitive to anything that does not achieve his end goal of cleansing the world of crime and ruling over it, relying more on his superiority and ego rather than making the world a better place towards the end of the series. If Ryuk had shown an iota of guidance to Light, or concern over what he was trying to accomplish, Light might have been more stable and reined in his lust for power, instead of succumbing to it and killing innocent police officers and detectives who opposed him. He would have been more focused on trying to create a better world, rather than satisfying his own need for superiority.
Light’s inevitable failure is foreshadowed from the moment he uses the Death Note. The grand, crimeless utopia that he envisions is precluded by his own arrogance and lust for power. Attempting to become a god, or mirroring a god’s actions has inherent flaws, since human beings are fallible. Death Note focuses on these themes while questioning the morals of those who are willing to go to any lengths to change their world.
Death Note. Writ. Toshiki Inoue. Dir. Tetsuro Araki. Nippon TV, 2006. DVD.