Death Note is quite possibly the most morally ambiguous piece of fiction I've come in contact with in my life. It is filled with violence that I feel I must reject and embrace at the same time. The plot is a story about genocide. The genocide of evil itself.
The concept is relatively simple, it's a sociological thought experiment: what would you do if you had the ability to kill anyone as long as you knew what they looked like and their real name? But the question is taken further. If you had this power and you had decided to use it, how would people find you? How would they view your acts? How, indeed, would they stop someone who can kill with a thought, or in this specific case, the stroke of a pen? The response that Tetsuro Araki had to Tsugumi Ooba's manga, which sought to answer this question, was a dangerously entertaining television series, running an unorthodox 37 episodes.
The Shinigami, or Death Gods as the word is translated, are rotting. They sit in their realm, with ultimate power over the world of humans, wielding the ability to sap life from the world and they spend all their time...playing cards. The World is in a state, murderers and the corrupt walk away from their crimes smiling. The world is racked with war and strife with no end in sight and the bad men keep getting away with it. A bored Shinigami, named Ryuk, decides to play a little game. He drops a spare Death Note onto the human world. A bored, and brilliant, young high school student sees it fall out of the window, picks it up and reads the inside cover.
The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die
The boy is named Yagami Hikari, or as he is nicknamed, Light*. He looks upon his rotting world, being bright he can't help being curious, and he tests the notebook. In the middle of a crisis where a mad man has taken hostages, in the middle of the news report to this affect on television, the man dies of a heart attack. 40 seconds after his name had been written in the notebook, with his face in Light's mind. Later, a young woman is accosted by a motorcycle gang in front of a convenience store, she pulls away and escapes across a road. One of her angry assailants give chase on his bike only to be accelerated perpendicular to his velocity...by a dump truck. Yagami Light watched with the notebook hidden inside a magazine from within the store. Confused and indecisive, Light rallies his moral upbringing behind the fact that, yes, while it may be the right thing to do and that it is very definitely wrong to kill people, those people who do should not be allowed to do so without recourse, without punishment. If they learned that they would forfeit their own lives by willfully taking another person's, they would not act in such a manner.
Over the next week, the world of crime is very quickly being depopulated. Hundreds of hardened criminals drop dead. The vast wasteland of scum that breath air that they do not deserve are struck from the mortal coil. The world will be cleansed and Yagami Light will be its God. In response, the world that is rotting attempts to save itself. A mysterious figure appears, not a person, not even a name, just a letter. L. He comes to the police in their hour of need. Using the little information at his disposal he determines that the culprit is living in Japan. And immediately, L begins his hunt for he who the people have named Kira(pronunciation of Killer).
The main character of this story, who arguably is the protagonist and villain, is one of the most morally jarring figures I've encountered. Sympathizing with him makes me feel like a bad person, in a similar manner to the way I feel about Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Over the course of the series, Light's mood falls into something akin to mania. As he fights, outwits and outmaneuvers his enemies he delights in their deaths in his plans coming to a conclusion despite the fact that many innocents have fallen into his way. He becomes in many ways much like classic villains, but he is far, far smarter. At many points throughout the series it struck me that he might as well have read The Evil Overlord List, his schemes are all well thought out and careful.
Light's machinations, his games of deadly chess with L and the police, give this story much of its plot. The danger that his enemies face by opposing him and the skill with which L brings Light to the brink suffuses this series with suspense. Every episode brings the characters closer to death at each others hands. Every minute detail of their plans must be successful or else they will come upon the knife. Almost every episode ends with some plot point dangling tantalizingly, the characters held in horrible suspension of the certainty of their survival. The drama involves the police and many detectives, but the feel is closer to that of a televised spy game. Such high stakes are more the realm of James Bond than Inspector Morse, or Detective Conan.
Anime is about style. Death Note is crisp like the apples that Shinigami love to eat. The animation is perfect in many ways and it manages to make writing names on paper suspenseful and exciting. The character designs are interesting, only one character manages to get anywhere near goth-like, and she's a squeaky blonde. Light is a slim and trimly dressed preppy, or he would be on this side of the large pond. L, reminds me of a sort of hobbit.(And when you reach that point in the series, Mikami reminds me of a Dalek) The main characters tend to be androgynous males, indeed a great deal of the tension between L and Light seems to be sexual in nature.
Death Note is a solid series and I recommend it highly. It manages to pack a great deal of entertaining themes and plots within a morally ambiguous central concept. It will pull you to the brink again and again. The three seasons are each given their own thematic elements and the plot lacks the repetition that some anime suffer from.
*William42 points out that in the manga Light is the character's actual name.