Death Note is one of the most popular manga (and anime) serials that I have come across in my past 15+ years of being an otaku. A few years ago, during a holiday sale, I finally found and bought all six volumes of the beautifully remastered Black Editions of the manga. However, the continued hype for the series still made me uncomfortable and wary towards reading it. Well, this Winter season, I added the first three instalments of the manga to my seasonal to-be-read pile and decided to go for it. Today, I am going to be discussing the first volume of the Black Editions, which collects the first two regular volumes of the series together, and my overall first impressions.
Death Note is written by Tsugumi Ohba and is illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It is a shōnen, supernatural, psychological crime thriller. It revolves around a brilliant high school student named Light Yagami, who is quite bored with his mundane life. Then one day he discovers a black notebook on school grounds with the words “Death Note” on the cover. Taking it home, Light reads the instructions inside and quickly learns that the book belongs to a Shinigami, or “death god,” and can be used to kill people by simply writing their names on the pages of the book. Recognising the immense potential of such a tool, he decides to use the Death Note to rid the world of evil.
The very first thoughts that went through my mind upon reading the initial five or ten pages was exactly this, “Holy shit, this is a shōnen manga? The art style is so different!” Then as I approached the halfway point for the volume, I thought this, “This is so fucking dark and twisted. I cannot believe this is shōnen and not seinen.”
The quality that immediately grabs your attention with Death Note is the intensity and the maturity of the subject matter involved. There is a lot of death in the series, and it approaches this topic without any restraint. I was a bit astonished at how quickly Light gives in to the desire to test whether the listed use for the book would ring true or not. I also do not feel that I would have thought about using it on the sorts of people that he uses as his guinea pigs. To be perfectly honest, if I ever felt the need to resort to something that bloody mad, I would more than likely go full on selfish and use the name of the person/people that I loathe the most. I have no shame in admitting this. Nevertheless, as a person who positively relishes supremely dark and psychologically complex narratives, I found myself very intrigued by what was going on. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the series (so far) barely follows any of the traditional tropes found in a traditional shōnen series, which only added to my shock of it being so.
As I began to reach the end of the first volume, I started to understand why Light uses the book on the people that he does, which really helps to build up his character while creating a wonderfully complicated network of feelings to empathise with, no matter which side of his thinking you relate to. As I pondered this, I felt that there are plenty of things about this main character that are contemplative such as his so-called “good intentions” and the fact that he really is fricking brilliant and highly capable of predicting actions that most people would never even come close to realising. Yet, regardless of all these qualities, I found him to be extremely basic and slightly clichéd as well.
Light Yagami is your typical bored human who develops a god-like complex because he mutates into a power-hungry person… at least that is my current feeling post-volume one. I believe this was the reason that I had a tough time getting invested into the manga at first. I read fifty-percent, and even though I found the premise fascinating, I was also bored. Then more characters were introduced and more information about the Death Note was revealed during the second half, which really began to fill out the unoriginal parts with some unique traits, and I finally became drawn in to the point where I could not put it down. So, while the concept of Light’s persona may not be an entirely original one, when you combine it with the uniqueness of having a literal Grim Reaper’s logbook that has unnerving consequences, it helps in making that cliché far more interesting.
Some other titbits that have helped motivate me towards wanting to read much more of the series consists of the two other characters: Ryuk and L. Ryuk is the Shinigami that dropped the Death Note and is a close companion of Light’s as he embarks on his cleansing rampage. I find him to be absolutely hilarious. His expressions and the way he interacts with Light, particularly the reasons why he is impressed with the teen, are most engaging to me. He is the very definition of the alignment of “neutral” (a common thing used in RPG games, especially table-top ones). Ryuk really could not care for the humans that are dying, or for Light’s well-being. He is simply there to enjoy the show while trying to advance any benefits that are available for him to reap for himself.
L is a character that rises in opposition to Light and is essentially the teen’s biggest rival. I specifically do not want to name who/what he is because I honestly feel that not knowing will give readers a much more rewarding experience, if you are not aware of him already. L is a big fucking enigma, and often I find him too good to be true. Yet, his extremely mysterious nature is the key behind his allure. It sucks you in and pushes you forward because you cannot help but desperately want to learn more about him. A part of me feels that his capabilities have some sort of secret behind them, which is more than likely wishful thinking on my part, and another part of me feels that if there is nothing special there, then his brilliance is far too convenient. This could be a small drawback for the series, for me at least.
The bottom line is that it took a while, but I greatly enjoyed the first Black Edition volume and I am eager to read the next two instalments to see how things will play out. Since the story is a psychological crime thriller, there is a bit of a cat-and-mouse aspect to the story that is helping to maintain the intensity and tension, but I hope the execution of it gets more creative. If it just continues as it has been, things will get stale and predictable very fast for me.
I want to take a moment and say that the Black Editions are stunning! If you do not already own this manga and are planning to obtain them in the future, I highly recommend you invest in these volumes. The front and back covers have a svelte, velvety texture to them with polished spines. When they are all lined up together, they look beautiful on the bookshelves. The edges of the pages are also black and have the sensation of deckled edges without the design of them, which adds to their overall attractiveness. The illustrations within each book are very sharp and crisp, with all the black lines and colours deepened, and the whites more enhanced, to make everything pop even more, adding to the gritty and serious tone of the story. The Death Note: Black Editions are some of the best manga omnibus/special editions that I have ever seen!
4 heart attacks outta 5!