Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spritual Bridges in Anime - Death Note

So, have you heard about the new Death Note movie? If the answer is “No,” then you probably haven’t been to a movie theatre, bookstore, CD shop, video rental store, manga café, karaoke room, or combini lately. Either that or you don’t live in Japan. The new movie, L – Change the world, has been the #1 movie in Japan since its release just over two weeks ago, and it has seen the release of a novelization, a soundtrack, and a one-shot manga (a story that begins and ends in one chapter) as well as gracing the covers of multiple manga magazines—even ones that never serialized it. So, there’s a bit of hype.

So what is Death Note? It exists in three forms: a 12-volume manga (plus extras), a set of two live-action movies (with a 3rd spinoff movie currently in theatres), and a 37-episode anime series (with two 2-hour remake specials). It’s also the name for one of the most controversial mainstream mangas ever released. In this entry to Spiritual Bridges, I will be covering the anime version for a variety of reasons. First, the movie is not considered “canon,” as it changes some crucial plot details. Second, the anime trims down some of the excess exposition that makes the manga badly paced. Third, it’s beautiful. Whether you are talking about art, music, dramatic timing, voice acting*, or any number of other categories, my personal opinion is that the Death Note anime series approaches artistic perfection more than any other series I have ever seen. I don’t say that lightly.

[*I am referring to the Japanese voices. I have only seen one episode with the English voices, so I feel unqualified to comment on that. However, the English dub is currently airing on Cartoon Network, so many of you may be more familiar with that.]

Now, for the standard disclaimers. I was originally planning on saving Death Note as one of the final entries in this series. This series is about as non-Christian as a series can get, and the themes that are brought up are at once brilliant, powerful, and profoundly unsettling. As such, this may be the hardest series that I will ever work with on this site, but I deal with it because of its great potential. I am dealing with it now because the new movie has brought it back to everyone’s mind.


Death Note (デスノート)
Original Author/Artist: Ooba Tsugumi (大場 つぐみ) and Obata Takeshi (小畑健)
Animation Company: Madhouse
English Licensor: VIZ media

The story begins with Yagami Light, a senior in high school who is quite possibly the smartest person his age in all of Japan. One day after school, he finds a notebook dropped by the Shinigami (death god) Ryuk. But this notebook is special. In it, the following rules are written. I reproduce them in their entirety because they are necessary for understanding the series:

1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die.

2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.

3. If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.

4. If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.

5. After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

And thus, Light gains the power of life and death—and anonymity. But Light is an ambitious boy, and decides to not use this power for petty purposes. He decides that he will use the Death Note to judge the world, cleansing it of its criminals, effectively bringing about worldwide peace. He will use the rules of the Death Note to his advantage, making all of the criminals die of heart attacks, so that the world will realize that there is intention and purpose behind the deaths and change their ways. He earns the name “Kira” which is the katakana of the English “killer.” In the end, he purposes to become the God of his new world. But one man arises out of nowhere to stand in his way: a faceless and nameless (read: unkillable) detective known only as “L”. Light must figure out a way to kill L, and L must figure out a way to convict Light. Though each of them knows who the other is, Light is never able to get L’s name, and L is never able to find any evidence against Light. This is the groundwork for our story. You might wonder how we will ever draw spiritual bridges from such a story, but bear with me. First, we need to talk about characters.

Yagami Light, the main character, and the protagonist, is also the bad guy. In many ways, Light is the human embodiment of the principles of Niccolo Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche. He is brilliant, and his brilliance brings him to the edge of criminal insanity. He knows how the world works, and he knows how to manipulate people. He even manages to work his way onto the taskforce that has been formed for the sole purpose, ironically, of catching him. Throughout the series, through Light, we get to see how criminal insanity is formed, and it is very, scarily believable. We see him becoming the very type of person that he originally set out to cleanse the world of. In short, Light becomes evil, in the purest sense of the word. He kills those close to him with little regard or second thought, though those people, unaware, would follow him willingly to their death. By the end of the series, though people love him and follow him, he literally loses his ability to love. There is only one person in the series that he ever comes close to loving, but he ends up killing that man in the worst possible way.

L, in contrast, is the antagonist, but not necessarily the good guy. He is equally as brilliant, but differs from Light in the fact that he doesn’t believe it is right for a human to judge other humans. In many ways, L represents one of the main themes of the series: balance. His brilliance comes from the fact that he can balance logic and intuition, inductive and deductive reasoning, and most importantly, justice and mercy. He suffers from the same pride that plagues Light, but never loses his ability to love. During one episode of the series, he becomes convinced that Light is “Kira”, but becomes completely unable to prove it. We see him standing in the rain on top of a building pondering things. Light, who is on the investigation squad at this point, comes to fetch him, and the two have a very meaningful conversation. L reveals that Light—whom he knows is Kira, but who is also the only equal he has ever faced—is his first friend. As they are drying off from the rain, L, in a completely surprising moment, stoops down to wash and dry Light’s feet. This profoundly affects Light, and when Light draws his last breath, it is to address L. Nonetheless, minutes after this touching moment, Light’s plan, which has been set in motion for months by this point, results in L’s death at the hands of a Shinigami.

This brings us to the third and final main character: Ryuk, the Shinigami. I have mentioned that one of the main themes of this series is balance. Ryuk’s entire purpose in this series is to upset that balance. If Light and L represent order, Ryuk represents chaos, and both of the main characters meet their deaths because they cannot balance order and chaos. L cannot catch Kira (Light) because he is unable to account for Ryuk’s actions. Light ends up killing his only friend and bringing about his own demise because he cannot balance the chaos either. [This, in essence, is a very Japanese way of looking at supernatural intervention. We humans try to live our lives in order and balance, but the kami intervene and cause disorder and disharmony when we fail to honor them. As such, the Japanese worldview is one of passive acceptance of outside forces, all while trying to keep the gods placated and at bay.] Ryuk’s only motivation for his actions in the series is boredom. He has been alive for thousands of years, and his only real purpose has been to supernaturally shorten the lifespans of humans. He has no affiliation with either Light or L, but capriciously helps Light at times simply because he finds Light interesting, and Light provides him with his favorite food (apples). Aside from that, his actions are completely self-serving, and he feels no remorse at the end in abandoning Light, to his death. Ryuk represents the unpredictable, from the first episode to the last.

So, with a series like this, and characters like this, how are we to ever explain the gospel of Christ? As I said before, this is hard, but the result can be very powerful. But in order to build the bridge, we are building more on what is unsaid than on what is said. One thing unique about this series is that it never seeks to answer the questions it asks. For example, it asks, “What is true justice?” but never answers the question, since neither Light nor L represents true justice. It also asks what it would take to change humanity and bring about peace, but never provides an answer. And this is not lazy storytelling; it’s intentional. So now, I am going to try to show how one can go from watching this show to entering into dialogue with people to answer these questions.

One of the most surprising things about Death Note is that the bad guy wins. Halfway through the series, Light succeeds in killing L, and the rest of the investigation squad, still unaware that Light is Kira, elects him as L’s replacement. The story then goes on break, to be picked up 5 years later. Light, Kira, has succeeded in making his new world, and there are those who openly worship him as God. He has enacted justice on criminals, worldwide crime has dropped by over 70%, and people seem to be living in peace with one another. It’s a utopia, right?


Light succeeds in cleansing the world, but not in cleansing peoples’ hearts. Crime has dropped off, but only because of fear. People no longer commit crimes because they know they will be killed; not because they truly want to become better people. In one very telling moment, a man knowingly commits a crime and strategically kidnaps a media spokesperson that Kira has put in place. He fully plans on being arrested and thrown in jail, but the police surround him and shoot him dead without warning him, noting that Kira would have killed him anyway, and they were just saving Kira the trouble.

All of this illustrates in a very clear way the profound human paradox that what people need in the deepest part of their hearts is not justice, but mercy. Justice was given for five years, and the world became clean on the surface and rotten underneath. It is impossible to watch this series and miss that idea. From here, we can guide people on the last step to ask what it would really take to change the world. Would absolute justice truly create a better place? Would people become better if every crime was followed-up on and punished appropriately? Would we, you and I, change our hearts if God always enacted his righteous justice and never showed us mercy? No. No. No. For what truly changes people, whether they be American, Kenyan, Iraqi, or Japanese, is to receive pardon when they know in their heart-of-hearts that they don’t deserve it.

This is a message that Japanese people need to hear. For heaven’s sake, they need to hear it! There is no recovery, no forgiveness, if a large enough mistake is made in Japan. There is no way to regain face or honor, save by a cycle of death and rebirth, where the karma of your mistakes follows you anyway. Something needs to break the cycle. Something needs to intervene if peace will ever be obtained. This series doesn’t directly say that, but it illustrates it in a profound way.

In the end of the series, as Light is dying, Ryuk informs him that when humans die, they don’t go to either heaven or hell. The place that they go is “Mu” (nothingness). And that is the end of the series. That’s the end of the story. It begins in chaos and ends in nothingness. There is no hope; there is no joy. The despair and pointlessness is so poignant that you can almost touch it. And yet, from that point, we as ambassadors for Christ can speak words of hope, words of balance, words of mercy, and words of love.

I could write more, as there are dozens of characters that I didn’t even mention, but I suggest that you invest in this series. Rent it from your local video store if you’re in Japan, watch it on Cartoon Network if you’re in the US, or buy it if you’re in either country. It is not a story of hope, and it’s not a story that is easy to build bridges from, but it is a story which portrays some of the fears and the questions that are in the minds of Japanese youth right now. It is a story that portrays the desperate need for hope and mercy. Most importantly, it is a series that asks good questions—questions to which we have the Answer.

Spiritual Bridges part 2


Kohaku said...

Thank you very much for this. You gave me some interesting insight into this. In particular: "Would we, you and I, change our hearts if God always enacted his righteous justice and never showed us mercy?"
It is amazing how God's Law presses on a person's conscience and shows them how desparate indeed they are for grace.

If you do end up revisiting Death Note and write more, I'll be interested to see it.
Thanks again!

Amber said...

This was a really interesting article. It kind of reminds me of the current arc in Bleach where Aizen is acting as God. I don't know if you've written an article about that anime/manga series, but I think it would be a good topic for your writing series if you haven't.

Also, thank you for the comment on my blog. It was much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly written - thanks for your insights on this series and the links to the gospel here. it is a really telling series about the condition of human hearts and the nothingness that people live for if not for Christ. PLease pick up this project again as I would love to hear more of your analysis and share it with others