Reading today at Dirk Deppey’s Journalista! that China is attempting to ban horror manga like Ohba & Obata’s Death Note (Viz) just as I’ve started in on Volume Eleven of the thirteen book series inspired me to do a quick check-in on this Shonen Jump Advanced manga series. Purportedly, the popular manga title (which has also spawned two live-action movies) has school and government authorities more than a little concerned since young children have been bringing copies of the series’ deadly notebook to class and apparently writing the names of peers and teachers in ’em. Sounds like a variation on a story that’s shown up in this country in the last few years: of school personnel panicked into reaction by some student’s violent creative writing project. Kids these days….
So let’s take a quick look at Volume Eleven and see what the hubbub’s all about. Though more than one major character has left the series since its start, the book’s basic set-up — amoral genius Light Yagami is in possession of a notebook which gives him the power to kill anyone whose name he writes on its pages — remains the same, though there was a brief period in the series where our anti-hero gave up his notebook and all memory of it in an attempt to throw his pursuers off his track. At this stage, we’re several years in the future (2009), and Light is currently overseeing a task force in faux pursuit of his murderous alter-ego, Kira, who is presently being impersonated by a devoted follower. Because “Kira” publicly only offs the “wicked” who are “deserving” of his rough justice, he’s developed a mass following of public supporters over the years. This makes trying to discover his identity an even riskier proposition.
Despite this, two more sets of players are more seriously working to stop the Death Note vigilante: one, named Near, is an appealing child-like genius who plays with toys as he works through his deductions; the second, Mellow, is more of an unpredictable wild card since the series doesn’t spend as much time showing him reasoning things out. Much of the current volumes in Death Note are devoted to extensive scenes showing Light or Near going through the step-by-step process of plotting their next moves. These sequences can be exceedingly wordy — in one panel, for instance, we see Near crammed between two word balloons as he describes the differences between the two Kiras on the scene — and at times the book reads like one of those old-fashioned drawing room mysteries where the detective hero talks and talks (and talks) about how he came to identify the culprit. Light and Near’s monologues so dominate the series at this point that much of the remaining cast is reduced to standing around in the background. Shinigami demon Ryuk, the sardonic creature who started this all by letting Light discover the death notebook, barely registers in the more recent books — much to the series’ detriment.
Volume Eleven perks up on a few occasions (most notably, when the immature Misa Amane, who posed as a second Kira for a time, is on stage – or when we get to see the relief “Kira” work his murderous magic on a subway), but most of the book works as a build-up to a showdown ‘tween Light and Near (and, perhaps, Mello) in the penultimate volume (set for July release). The intellectual convolutions that both sides engage in to get us to this big finish are so twisty that I really can’t imagine a younger reader making sense of it all, but perhaps I’m underestimating the school age readership.
To my eyes, the second half of Death Note could benefit from some serious editorial pruning, though at this point, I’m sticking with the series until its end just to see what scripter Tsugumi Ohba does to our psychopathic new world shaper. At one point in the current volume, while he continues to scheme on the best way to thwart the forces pursuing him, Light reminds himself (and us, of course) that, ultimately, “everybody who knows of the existence of the notebook” will have to die. I’m thinking that little prophecy is what we high-flown blogger critics like to call “dramatic eye-rony….”