Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Book Review: Death Note, Volume 1

Death Note, Volume 1
Story by Tsugumi Ohba
Art by Takeshi Obata

Death Note was my first manga, and I enjoyed it rather more than I thought I would. I'm not a visual person -- in reading a book with illustrations, I often don't even notice the illustrations the first time through -- so it did take some getting used to slowing down to pay attention to the art. Once I adjusted, however, I discovered how much the artwork adds to the story. It also seemed strange at first reading the book from right to left, as is sometimes the case with manga translated from Japanese, but I adjusted to that as well. (I found it amusing that if you open what would be, to an American, the front cover, you're greeting with a large headline proclaiming, "You're reading in the wrong direction!"

In Death Note, a brilliant teenager named Light finds a book dropped by Ryuk, a Shinigami or death god. The book is called a Death Note, and if you write someone's name in the book, and keep their face in your mind, that person will die. Details can be added such as cause of death, but if nothing is specified, the person will die of a heart attack.

Light begins to use the Death Note to kill off violent criminals, with the goal of making the world a crime-free utopia. He is opposed in this by the police worldwide, but also by an equally brilliant but mysterious detective named L. No one knows L's identity or even what he looks like, so Light is unable to eliminate him using the Death Note. Ryuk acts the role of the trickster in this battle, adding an element of uncertainty, as it becomes obvious that Ryuk has not revealed at first all the rules and implications of the Death Note. Ryuk appears to be on nobody's side, and has apparently set all this in motion for his own entertainment.

Although the premise sounds quite macabre, this isn't a book about "killing people," as would seem from the description. The pleasure in reading Death Note comes from watching the battle of wits between two brilliant minds, Light and L, as each tries to find out the identity of the other. The book also raises interesting philosophical questions, such as, is it wrong to kill criminals who have committed horrible crimes and probably will again, given the chance? And how does doing that change the person doing the "vigilante" killing? It's fascinating the Light, the protagonist, is a real anti-hero: most of us would consider his actions horrific, yet we can sympathize with his goals.

Never having read a graphic novel, I expected it to have less depth than a "regular" book because it has a much lower word count to develop the story and characters. I was surprised, however, at just how much depth there is in this book, not only in the psychological and philosophical underpinnings mentioned above, but in the character development. The artwork and the words really work together to build up a complete picture, such as after Light uses the Death Note for the first time. When the reality of what he's done hits home, his initial reaction is horror at what he's done; he's shown bent over with his hand covering his mouth, as if he's just vomited, or is trying not to. As it progresses, he moves from revulsion to acceptance to determination, shown in his actions and his body language as well as in his words.

Obviously the subject matter makes this a book that would only be appropriate for mature readers. In addition to the subject, there is some minor profanity.

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