Death Note: An Absence of Character
It’s a common sentiment among anime fans that the second half of Death Note is less engaging than the first. Yet, most fans manage to finish the show by riding out the waves of suspense and tragedy from the first half. So, what changed from the first half to the second? Why do so many people use the first half to justify enduring the second? The obvious and unfulfilling answer is that L dies and the careful cat-and-mouse game established between him and Light vanishes with him, but that isn’t true in and of itself. L’s death just causes the anime to fail harder at something it had already begun to struggle with—that is: to be thrilling. We should begin by examining Death Note’s most successful moments of intrigue and suspense.
The FBI arc involving Raye Penber and Naomi Misora is the anime’s most well-executed arc by far, and the pacing and scope of the arc play a major role in this. This all begins in the bus-hijacking scenes, where we are clued into a lot of important details about how Light interacts with enemies of his plot. We are never given all of the notes to Light’s plan, but we can infer a lot based on the rules of the Death Note and Light’s actions and thoughts. When the hijacker arrives, Light thinks, “He’s here!” before the hijacker even pulls out a weapon. Light’s subsequent calm demeanor confirms for the audience that he planned for this hijacking. But to what end? Raye Penber handing over his identification answers that question, completing a logical loop.
Even if we don’t know the details of how Light knew this hijacking would occur or what his plan is for dealing with Penber, we can believe that he pulled the strings in order to reach a reasonable objective with clear value: Penber’s name. Everything is reasonable in the strictest sense of the word—able to be reasoned. How does Light account for the hijacking? By controlling the hijacker via the Death Note the same way he had with the prisoners earlier. What is Light’s objective in this scheme? The name required to kill or control Penber with the Death Note.
Although little is explained until after the scheme ends, neither the concoction of the plan or its end goal is beyond the viewer’s comprehension. Each piece leads into the next in a way we can follow and react to with engaging questions rather than distancing ones.
We’ll return to the idea of engaging vs. distancing questions later, but let’s allow that bus-jacking to sink in. After all, that is what the anime itself does. This event concludes with a clear victory for Light, but nothing explodes or erupts as a result, Light just claims a new and advantageous position. The audience gets to think about that victory and its consequences—consequences that will surely involve Raye and his newly introduced fiancée. The introduction of Misora as a former FBI agent who is now attempting to adjust to a quieter domestic life not only sets up compelling stakes, but also plants twists for later. This is multi-tasking at its finest, and a rare for this show.
Misora, as evidenced by her questions about the Kira case, is struggling to let go of her past as an agent. She can’t sit in a hotel room while her fiancé’s life is at risk, which is exactly why she sees no option but to pursue Kira after Raye’s death. We only meet Misora for a couple of minutes before Raye dies, but even that helps the events that follow run smoothly. In Light’s second confrontation with Penber, we actually know more than Light does. Specifically, we know about Misora. As Raye’s death rapidly approaches, we respond not only to the loss of a would-be husband, but also to the ignition of a capable and motivated widow.
This dual response is reflected when we see Misora grieving over Raye’s death. “Raye’s dead,” she begins before correcting to: “No, he was killed by Kira.” Half of Misora’s face is crying and covered in shadow, while the other half is lit and reveals a sad (but ultimately hard to read) expression. The dark half—the half that grieves for a lost fiancé—matches our emotional response to the situation (though we may not feel as strongly). The light half—the half that knows Kira took her fiancé away—matches our hunch that Misora is about to get involved in the case. Although we don’t know what Misora will bring to the table, her targeting of Kira pins her as a threat to Light’s schemes. We also know she is a former agent herself and a proactive one at that. Her proximity to Raye and her suspicion that Kira was involved with the bus-jacking make it easy to tell how she plans to support the investigation.
Yet even this doesn’t boil over immediately—we get to observe the chess pieces moving and are allowed to evaluate how each change affects the larger game. Misora slowly gathers clues and confirms her suspicions over the course of an episode until she concludes that Kira can kill in ways other than heart attacks and that he must have been on that hijacked bus. Again, each detail is reasonable. We witness ourselves how the pieces come together, and it is obvious how important Misora’s conclusion is. It clearly incriminates Light. As with Raye Penber’s name, the object at stake here means something obvious to the viewer. Notably, this object isn’t an end result (such as Light getting caught and arrested), but something that would logically put Light in a position to be caught. This distinction is crucial to viewer engagement, for reasons similar to why “show, don’t tell” is good writing advice. Storytellers need to provide chances for the audience to climb into the story.
I won’t go too far into the details of direction and writing during Light’s confrontation with Misora, since that’s an essay all its own. Essentially, the scene is constructed with the same principles as the bus-jacking, but tilted towards suspense rather than intrigue. The build-up to this point has gotten us invested enough to only have one question: will Light be able to learn Misora’s real name? Light must walk a balance beam: either be too pushy and reveal his intentions, or be too lax and fail to kill Misora before she tells L what she knows. Besides its build-up, this scene excels on the back of simple, suspenseful devices like the balance beam. A third party (Ryuk) laughs at the dramatic irony of Light writing a false name and offers him Shinigami eyes; Light baits Misora’s trust with dangerous info about Kira and the investigation; occasional cuts to the investigation HQ remind us of the pressure of time weighing on Light.
Even if you don’t agree that this is Death Note’s strongest arc, you would likely agree it’s better than any scene involving Mello or Near. The impact of Misora’s death and the melancholic diffusion of the arc’s tension are only matched by a few other moments in the series. And this brings us to an important point about character.
We barely knew Misora or Raye. Light did not grow or change at all this arc. L himself had nothing to do with any suspense or intrigue. Yet…all of this is fine—perhaps even better than the alternative.
We tend to overemphasize the importance of “multi-dimensional” or “developed” characters because those seem like inherently positive qualities. What’s more, we dump the entire pressure of those expectations onto the characters as isolated units. If Character X is one-dimensional, that is because there is something bad about X as a character; the character itself is poorly written. However—especially from the storyteller’s perspective—character and plot create each other and do not work in isolation. It is possible to have a multi-dimensional character that fails to express that dimensionality in a meaningful way because the events of the plot do nothing to bring out that aspect of them. The opposite is likewise true. One-dimensional characters can be riveting when given a chance to do what they do best.
Case in point: Light. In this arc, all Light really does is be the murderous, scheming Kira we know him as. And that’s it. He doesn’t feel any remorse ever, nor consider how fragile his own “godhood” is, nor does he spiral into any kind of madness yet. We just watch him ruthlessly execute his plans, dismissing any doubts about his wickedness or ability. It is because we have a well-constructed and engaging (nearly interactive) story arc to enjoy that Light’s static and one-dimensional nature are irrelevant. He is the perfect character to play this part in this story, so why have him be anything else?
This is something of a trademark of mystery stories, particularly so Japanese mystery stories. Numerous characters from The Perfect Insider, Akechi from Edogawa Ranpo’s work, any of the specialists in the Monogatari series, and so on—they are all static geniuses for the most part. Their stories are made interesting by differences in the plot surrounding them, not changes within the character. As an audience, we want to see how a static character we think we understand reacts when put into a variety of situations. How does X person deal with this scenario? Okay, they took advantage of this detail, but what if we get rid of that detail…now how do they deal with it? This isn’t development or multi-dimensionality, but simply a test-drive of the same truck in numerous different environments.
If this is all true, then what gets progressively worse about Death Note’s environment?
On a basic level, the storytelling ceases to be handled with care. Those moments of downtime mentioned earlier—where the audience gets to contemplate what happened last scene and think about what was gained or lost—completely vanish. We spend more and more time being rushed through schemes and confrontations and less time accepting what has happened/what will happen next. This hits a peak, of course, with L’s death and a failure to integrate Near or Mello into the investigation.
L fails to solve the case because of the false rules in the Death Note, which become an insurmountable obstacle. Thus, whoever replaces L must enter the story in such a way that allows them to learn these rules are fake. There is really no way to explain how impossible a task of plotting this is other than to put you in the storyteller’s shoes. Near/Mello must acquire and use a Death Note to discover the false rules, for that is the one thing L didn’t do. Mello is the only one capable of this (via terrorist/mafia plots), so that’s what happens. But then something else needs to convince Mello to share his knowledge with Near rather than compete with him. That needs to be a hopeless situation because we’ve already seen how far Mello is willing to go to beat Near. So, by necessity, the story nosedives into a sequence of over-the-top action with little to no explanation.
The problem is that Near and Mello are introduced in the middle of this chaos. The pacing and scope that allowed Raye and Misora to work so well within the story has been thrown out the window. There is no downtime for Mello or Near, no moment to let victory or defeat sink in. Even if there was such a moment, the audience has been so distanced from the events of the plot that we wouldn’t know what to make of each event anyway. Nowhere is this more obvious than during the explosion at Mello’s hideout. The explosion consumes the entire building (and the screen), yet Mello seems to have escaped and the investigation squad appears to have survived. Not only does this not seem reasonable to the viewer, but we also have no way of understanding what the consequences of this event actually were. We have questions about the validity of the event more than its genesis or result.
This is where the issue of distancing vs. engaging questions becomes crucial. The objective of a mystery story is to get the audience to ask questions, which necessitates withholding certain information about the characters or plot. This requires a two-way street of faith between the story and the audience, similar to a trust exercise. In the bus-jacking scene, we’re left with a lot of questions about what Light’s plan is. However, the story reassures us that we are capable of figuring out the truth by dropping hints such as Light’s reaction and his coercion of Penber. We get to play detective and connect the dots. Although we’re given so many hints that the puzzle becomes quite easy to solve, there is still a degree of trust that we will put the pieces into place.
The story allows us to be the ones who complete the puzzle. We are still babied to the extent that the show double-checks our solution, but we aren’t denied the opportunity to try.
By the end of the anime, we aren’t even given puzzle pieces, nevermind the chance to test our brains. We sadly begin to occupy the position of Mogi and the other members of the investigation squad. We merely watch Light and Near talk over our heads about having this plan or that plan. Events entirely outside of reason, such as Mello kidnapping Takada, prevent us from ever getting a handle on which direction the case is headed in. We are confounded and made into a third party witness.
In setting up his final confrontation with Light, Near explains the specifics of how they will meet—at this warehouse, with these people, at this time. While the show tries to pass this off as vital information, it is all meaningless to the viewer. Too much is being left out for any of the details we receive to connect in any reasonable way. Light and Near end their conversation by proudly telling the audience they “know what [each other’s] plan is,” but again we are left out of the experience. We’re aware Light has a plan because he asked Takada to contact him at a certain point, and we know Near has a plan because he finally chooses to arrange a meeting with Light. However, all we know is that they have plans that likely lead to the object of total victory. In contrast with earlier arcs that ended with characters gaining advantages that then lead to conclusions, these plans supposedly lead straight to the conclusion.
Rushing to a conclusion is simply a means to pull the rug out from under the audience, a way to give the illusion of complex scheming. It’s like the story laughs in your face and says, “There’s no way you could’ve predicted this.” Logically tracing a mystery, nothing suddenly leads to catching the criminal. There is always a step before. An investigation leads to a vital object—let’s say: the body we found wasn’t actually the victim we thought it was—which is then sat on as the detectives and audience piece together what it must mean. What we learn leads us to a singular conclusion. But the conclusion of the mystery comes about via inevitability, not coincidence. There is no satisfaction in solving a crime by walking in on the perp cleaning off his bloody gloves or, as S.S. Van Dine admonished, finding the butt of a cigarette that only the criminal smokes.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how Death Note ends. Mikami shows up at the warehouse and Light openly declares that he is Kira. There is no cornering of Light via inarguable evidence and logic, simply trickery that leads to a coincidental exposure. Whereas L concocted each of his plans with the purpose of discovering information that incriminated Light, Near sets up a shallow trap to lure a foolish confession out of Light. While pulling the mask off a criminal who got stuck in clue is sufficient for a Scooby Doo episode, it is entirely unsatisfactory for a 36-episode saga such as Death Note. This is a critical problem outside the realm of character, and a condition that could be cured no matter who met Light in that warehouse.
Would L’s presence have improved the second half of Death Note? Sure. By the end of the series, Light is so unsympathetic and the police force so useless that we’re left with no one to support (Near and Mello were, after all, denied any decent introduction). L would have been someone to stake our emotions on, but he wouldn’t have been able to prevent the mystery from spiraling out of control.
Death Note is, at its core, a mystery thriller. To claim its worst shortcoming is the eventual removal of one character and one relationship is surely missing the bigger picture. The story structure tumbles downhill as early as the confinement arc, with the viewer shoved aside in favor of “mindgame” posturing. Like the police force, we practically beg L to release Light and Misa so that we can move onto something more engaging. That particular arc is the direct result of the stubbornness of a character who is supposedly the show’s most redeeming quality. The ridiculousness of Light’s father pretending to shoot him is L’s scheme.
The situation was never that L made the series good or bad, but that he tended to be a light in a tunnel of awful plotting and structure. Death Note denies most of its characters chances to succeed in its second half (its latter two-thirds, to be honest). L is one of the only characters able to display his best characteristics in bland or ridiculous moments of plot, which is perhaps why so much of the supposed decline of the series gets pinned on his death. The story ceased to engage or involve the viewer long ago, leaving L as the only aspect of the series we could invest in. His absence makes it impossible to ignore the long-standing failures of the show.
Mysteries do not rely primarily on character to be successful, they rely on the mystery. That one character’s death in a world full of murder causes such a perceived decline in quality—this can only mean the quality was low before that. Death Note succeeds where it does regardless of L’s presence, and fails where it does just the same. Aside from rare moments of brilliance, there is a struggle to produce intrigue in the story itself.