Death Note, Ethics, and Critical Thinking

By Ryan Howatt

I won’t lie, you guys, this one has been a tricky deadline. I was stuck on Ed Piskor’s death for weeks, and anime is a little out of my main wheelhouse, but after spinning for weeks and a bunch of strong Canadian beers, I finally think I’ve got it. Light Yagami is a bastard. Let me explain.

Death Note is a fantastically well-written series in any language that pits two enormous egos against each other in a tactical battle surrounding an ethical argument about judgment. Spoiler alert: it’s about 20 years old, guys. What’s the statute of limitations for spoilers? Anyway, the main character, Light Yagami, stumbles upon a supernatural notebook with the ability to end anyone’s life by simply writing their name in it, and he hardly hesitates to start using it to commit a genocide of criminals.

From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, this might be passable were it not for the simple fact that he’s overstepping due process; he acquires these names by watching the news and recording the names of those he considers to be the worst so that they can’t hurt others anymore. The problem here is that, unlike the case of a traditional fictional vigilante, Light’s victims have already been tried and are being punished in accordance with a systematic social contract. There’s really no way to commit premeditated murder without playing god—not to mention the absurd level of narcissism involved—but Death Note takes it to a whole new level.

One guy essentially ‘doing homework’ by writing in a notebook would not make much of a series. Where’s the opportunity for conflict? A prodigy super-detective should do it, and that’s what we get. The really fun thing about the dynamic between these two characters (other than the fact that the protagonist is the bad guy) is that the two are equally narcissistic control freaks; philosophically, they are nearly the same person with an inflated sense of justice and freakish capacity for critical thinking.

The notebook originally belonged to a death god who accompanies it throughout the series and serves as a freakish bit of an expository device to give Light the opportunity to explain himself, whereas the detective “L” has an entire police department. Narratively, neither the police nor the death god do much; they’re really just there to make Light and L explain themselves for the audience’s benefit, and it’s amazingly well executed.

It’s definitely not a fast-paced, action-packed anime, but if you’re any sort of philosophy nerd or the kind of person who enjoys watching other people play chess, this is definitely a series worth checking out. The theme of making sure you’ve got your i’s dotted and t’s crossed before pulling the trigger is timeless, and if you want a thought-provoking series that will inspire debate and internal reflection, look no further than Death Note.

About the Author
Ryan Howatt is an Eastern Canadian underground cartoonist living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. His self-published series Badger has garnered international acclaim and is available on Ryan is a passionate advocate for indie publishing and a business mentor to fellow cartoonists.

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Ryan Howatt

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