Death Note: Combating Evil Through Killing

What would you do if you could write a name in a notebook and that person would die? Is it justifiable? If so, when and towards who?

These questions are central to last week’s new Netflix adaptation of Death Note, an acclaimed anime series from 20061.  The film follows Light Taylor, a high school student who finds a notebook with the power to kill anybody whose name is written in it.  After a little coaxing from Ryuk, the mysterious death god who guards the notebook, Light agrees to test it by writing the name of a school bully. There is a clear personal motivation here as previously, he stood up to that very bully but wound up in trouble while the bully got away.  

Soon, Light and his girlfriend Mia decide to use the notebook by writing the names of those who do evil and are not punished for their crimes.  These people will suffer judgment of “Kira,” the alias Light uses to mask his true identity.

The gruesome deaths of major criminals, including terrorists, make sense for Light.  If you eliminate the bad people and give other people incentive for not being bad, then you eliminate crime and make the world a better place.  It’s a twisted sort of logic that makes sense in the mind of a high-school boy.

L, a brilliant and eccentric detective, deduces Kira’s location and begins his attempt to track him down and bring him to justice.  Announcing his presence through a press-conference, he dares Kira to find and kill him, issuing a challenge to his pride.  What follows is a series of actions taken by both sides to try and trip the other up.  The conflict cannot end until one of them is brought to the other’s idea of justice.  

While the adaptation can feel a bit too action-heavy and gory, the final scenes capture Light’s brilliant thinking.  He masterfully uses the notebook to manipulate others and achieve his ends, reclaiming control of a situation which appeared hopelessly out of hand.  The film leaves the viewer questioning the consequences of his actions, ending without a true resolution.

Certainly, this adaptation was made to bring the cultural phenomenon of Death Note to a wider and broader audience. (How well it succeeded is debatable).  In doing so, it attempts to grapple with the same central question of what real justice is, but it is sloppier in its execution.The film does not have time to flesh out its characters’ conceptions of justice and often focuses more on gore or romance instead of the central philosophical and psychological conflict of the original.  

And the question still remains: who is right?

One conception of Justice. Courtesy of Tim Green of the Flickr Creative Commons.

Is it justice to eliminate criminals and rid the world of evildoers by killing them?  Light certainly achieves results, but at what cost?  The film does not linger on the effects of using the Death Note on him as a person.  By eliminating criminals and attempting to rid the world of evil, he becomes corrupted himself.  While he was always cynical, Light is clearly a less virtuous person at the film’s end, choosing to protect his vision of goodness at any cost.

Is it justice to follow the law alone?  Light’s father seems to follow this route, even putting his life on the line in the pursuit of bringing Kira to justice.  But the criminal justice system has let people down before.  Light’s mother was killed and the justice of the courts let the man who killed her off without any punishment.

Is it justice to catch an evildoer no matter what?  L’s justice is more of a game at some level but it is difficult to deny that there is something compelling about his justice.  For him, there is nothing more important than solving this case and thus bringing Kira to justice.  It is a single-minded pursuit of a goal.  However, would his justice include killing someone who took the life of someone close to him, if he thought he could get away with it?

The ambiguous ending of the film leaves the viewer to decide what is right. Or, perhaps, none of the models of justice presented here truly are justice.

***

As a society, we are often tempted to believe in Light’s version of justice.  There certainly is a great deal of evil present in the world; however, if people refrain from doing evil for the sake of fear of retribution, then nothing has really changed. That is a far greater tragedy.  Real justice can only come about when people’s hearts change.

There is no easy solution to justice.  It is never as black-and-white as either L or Light seem to think it is.  And perhaps this is what is most  important about this new Death Note film: it prompts us away from easy selfish solutions and towards asking difficult questions about how we ought to live and treat one another. This justice is grey, amorphous, and very difficult to define, let alone live out. But that difficulty makes it all the more valuable.

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The cover image is featured courtesy of WishCarole of the Flickr Creative Commons.

  1. I watched it earlier this year and found it one of the most compelling series I have ever watched.

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