If you were given the power to kill anyone you wanted, in any way you wanted, leaving no evidence, what would you do?
Death Note is an exercise in philosophy, a detective thriller, a crime drama, and a shounen tournament-style story all rolled into one, and that description doesn’t do it justice by any means.
So here’s how it goes: When the aforementioned power over life and death falls into the hands of Yagami Light, a justice-obssessed genius college student with access to the world’s criminal records, he decides to cleanse the world of all wrongdoing (by killing all the wrongdoers). The ‘power’ itself comes in the form of the Death Note, a death god/grim reaper/shinigami’s tool for reaping lives: all you have to do is write down a person’s name, and they’ll die of a heart attack. Be more specific if you want—time of death, manner of death, circumstances of death—just add that info and it will come true.
When the world realizes what is going on, L, the world’s foremost detective, is called in to catch the killer that the world has dubbed ‘Kira’. (In Japanese, ‘killer’ is written ‘kira’ in katakana.) Dramatic genius-versus-genius cat-and-mouse hijinks progress from there. (What, I’m not gonna post spoilers!)
The cast of characters is full of interesting and weird and nuanced characters, although pretty much the entire female cast exists for Light to deceive or manipulate to his own ends. It’s also jarring that the story is told from Light’s point of view, since we as readers tend to sympathize with the main character, and Light’s sociopathy is, well, difficult to get behind. It creates a sort of irony—you’re rooting for the main character to lose, but you know everything he’s doing and therefore know that he has the upper hand.
The art is the cherry on top of Death Note. You may have read my rhapsodic review of Hikaru no Go several months ago—this manga was illustrated by the same artist.
To be fair, the ending of the story is rather weak, in my opinion, because they introduce several other detective-type characters who want to help bring down Kira. In this, I actually prefer the live-action movie adaptation, which keeps the drama specifically between Light and L without changing too much of the story or how it ends.
I’d still say this is worth a read, though, both as a classic of the manga world, and as an impressive example of how to write an action-oriented story with a heavily philosophical plot without overwhelming it with the philosophy. Go check out Death Note!