Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba is not the first manga novel one should read. At least that’s what my students told me. They all think it’s too intense, too weird, too dark for adults to read. But when I heard a review of the animated series on NPR’s Fresh Air I found it’s concept just too intriguing to pass by.

Japan’s top high school student, 17-year-old Light, finds a notebook outside his classroom. On the cover are the words Death Note. Inside are the rules: write someone’s name inside the note book and in six minutes and forty seconds that person will die.

Light doesn’t believe the notebook is real, of course, but he decides to test it by writing the name of a well known murderer in it. When the murderer dies, Light decides to continue testing the notebook, and then to use it to rid the world of evil by killing all evil people. Eventually the police figure out that something is going on and call on the services of the mysterious L, a genius detective whom no one has ever seen. L quickly figures out that the killer is probably a student living in Japan and continues to close in on Light as the story progresses.

Death Note is an entertaining read. The story and its characters are certainly compelling. What would you do with such a notebook? What would you have done if you found it while still in high school? Light’s actions are understandable, even if disagreeable, and L makes an interesting opponent.

But, in the end, I have to recommend the television version over the book. It treats the book as a script, more or less. Manga is such a visual medium, that the leap from the page to the small screen is basically a natural progression; there’s no reason to cut anything out of the book just make it into four episodes. Book one makes up season one, and etc. While on the page, I found the visuals did not add much to the story at all, not when compared to a book like The Invention of Hugo Cabret where the images are indispensable.

The actual writing in Death Note consists almost entirely of dialogue, none of it very good. This may be a problem with translation, but it sounds much better when spoken by voice actors in the animated version; there it sounds almost realistic. The animation matches the artwork in the book exactly. Seeing the artwork move, though often the movement is hard to detect, makes what struck me as repetitive, unimaginative images visually interesting even exciting at times.

In the end I’m giving Death Note the book by Tsugumi Ohba three out of five stars. However, I’m giving Death Note the animated series four. My advice; watch it, don’t read it.

Reading Death Note back in 2008 when I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., gave me a lot of cache with certain middle school sub-groups.  In the years since then, middle schoolers have moved on to other things.  The occasional Shinagami/apple reference no longer gets a response from anyone.  😛

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2 thoughts on “Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba

  1. I loved this show – I tried reading the manga after the show finished airing but I stopped for all the reasons you describe.

    1. I suspect the manga suffers in translation. And, I think it’s really a genre you need to start reading when young to appreciate. The television series, on the other hand, is terriic.

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