Death Note is one my favorites.
A manga and an anime of exquisite writing and production value (and one of the best OST‘s). Entertaining and contemplative, Death Note is a story about power, deception, trust, good vs. evil, the tenuous fabric of morality, and ultimately fate. It explores moral philosophy and the corruption of the human soul. The audience witnesses what damage is wrought to a man as a result of taking life for a seemingly “greater good,” and the ways in which power can transform us. Death Note is darkly existential and not for the faint of heart. There are no real heroes in it, and a lot of victims. What follows is a discussion of morality and the philosophy behind the arc of the central character which takes place in the first chapter / episode of the Death Note series.
Light Yagami, Death Note protagonist
The power to take life, to kill — is perhaps the most influential action mankind can undertake. It changes the world, changes fates, all reality, instantly and irrevocably. It’s a primary way civilizations progressed & regressed throughout human history — through war, assassination, the recursive development of law & order. It’s how some people and nations choose to make their mark upon the world. There is a reason so much of fiction involves the act of killing — it is captivating and terrifying, escapist and for some, vicariously exciting. Death itself is one of the ultimate conceptions for man to ponder. Metaphysically speaking, death brings about the questions in the audience of the eternal soul, the afterlife, the morality of the good life.
Most people will never kill another human being, won’t even be tempted to or put in a situation where it’s a real possibility. But in our stories, in which we have a blank canvas and are free to construct stories in extremis, the act of killing is an evergreen plot device. Whether as a supreme revelatory turn for our characters’ fate or a convenient trope to advance storytelling, it is a dramatic tool for the storyteller to use strategically. Killing and death can be rich with meaning for the audience or reader. The scientious action represents the darkness within us all and a reminder to the reader / viewer of what we are capable of. It’s an avenue some would rather not explore, even in fiction, for fear of what the effects will be on the overactive or young imagination.
Regardless of an individual’s stance on the act of killing, when it might actually be morally justified or not, none can deny the power of the act. When a life is taken, reality is altered irrevocably. Thus, in this story the Death Note becomes the ultimate weapon and tool for someone like Light to use to affect their own vision, and delusions of grandeur, on a worldwide scale.
In this story and throughout human history, the power to take life is the power to change the world.
Conducting a thought experiment now, let’s say the Death Note is real. There’s a supernatural notebook from the underworld which, when a person’s name is written down in its pages and you know their face — that person dies. Perhaps the Note falls into your hands, or someone you know. Similarly to Light’s circumstances, no one else knows about your possession of the Note.
Undoubtedly, writing a name in the note is murder. Once you know what the Note does, such an act is complete with scienter— the key for a true criminal act. The knowledge and usage, or non-usage, of such a perfect killing device as this provides a near perfect window into the ethical soul of the user. No potential collateral damage, no obvious trail of evidence, no psychological ill-effects of literal blood on the hands. It is powerful, but only in the one way; it’s easy to use, but only if you don’t really think about it (once again, it’s just about the perfect tool to find out if one is a sociopath). Who will be killed and why?
Considering the amorality of such killing power:
Is it ever right to take life? When could killing be justified? — to save life, to prevent others from probable, yet future, harm, to punish? At what point in proactive or retributive action, does one cross the line and become the very thing they seek to destroy? Does anyone really deserve to be killed? Generally speaking, most people might agree the best way to use such a device would be in the prevention of the taking of innocent lives or causing of innocent suffering. But such proactive action would be conducted on the mere threats of harm unconsummated.
Inevitably, Death Note presents the reader with some personal moral questions (as good fiction will do) about their own role in the unique set of circumstances within the story —
Would you use the Death Note? Under what circumstances and why? And if you did decide to use it, how much? Would you use it once or twice and then cast it away? What could motivate someone to kill anyone?
Or would you take things further, perhaps to their extreme like Light — if you had this power to change the world, irrespective of its means and influence upon your own emotional spectrum, your own sanity, the lives of innocents — would you do it and how far would you go?
Undoubtedly, these thoughts are troubling. But also inevitable. Considering the circumstances, it’s impossible not to ponder how such a power might be used, and also how it would immediately change someone.
Some people might try the Death Note, in similar way to how Light first used it — out of sheer curiosity and to potentially save a life, to experiment in a way to prove its authenticity but in the process do something “good”; if it does turn out to be real, you use the act of killing in as morally conscionable circumstances as possible.
Most wouldn’t try it all. The use of it believed to be immoral and immeasurably reckless. I think most people wouldn’t have any desire to kill anyone.
But human nature demands curiosity, and the circumstances the Note presents are tempting. Just think about it — using it once, on anyone, and then immediately burning it — and no one would ever know anything. These conditions are sufficient for some people to give in to the curiosity.
The path of extremis, Light’s path, would have one attempting to influence the entire world. Regardless of how it is used, I do believe this person would change, and change immensely, even if only used once (or simply with the knowledge of its existence and non-use). The situation is an unprecedented experience for one of mankind. To have near unchecked power over the world solely in your hands. It seems inevitable, one would lose control. And this is the core of the whole tale of Death Note. It’s a true demonstration of what the sudden attainment of this power — the power of finality, to change the world around you like nothing else — can do to a human being. The crux of one story happens, Light’s most important moral arc, in chapter one.
At the beginning, Light seems innocent enough. He’s a young Japanese man in a middle class family, focused on studying and admission to college. He is concerned with his future and he is on the path to almost certain success in any field he chooses. However, like so many others in the modern generation, he is existentially uninspired, unfulfilled, purposeless. He is bored. Life is easy and mostly uninteresting to him. Up to this point, his only crime is coldness; his primary fault appears at this streak of passive boredom — thus far untapped potential and perhaps arrogance with his own superior intelligence. These conditions certainly justify none of his future actions, but they do lay the groundwork for his turn.
(As we later learn in the Yotsuba arc, with his memories of death-Godhood lost and in the heat of real police work, Light seems almost a moral paragon, a non-manipulative seeker of truth and justice, a near-perfect amalgamation of intelligence and a genuine moral fabric — a true successor to L. He sincerely decries the manipulation of others, namely women, as strictly immoral. This makes Light’s re-transformation into the murderous & infinitely manipulative shadow of his former self later on in the storyline that much more layered and meaningful).
There are subconscious underpinnings foreshadowing the possibility of what he eventually becomes. But still — before he feels the power of the Death Note at work — Light simply does not seem like a man who would ever seek to become the “God of the new world” and passionately murder criminals (and then any innocents who get in his way) for the sake of such a mission. Gaining the power to kill anyone at will, with little chance of being immediately captured for your crime, would tempt you and change you once on this path. (This is an incredibly important factor in this equation; obviously Light would never murder the old fashioned way — not remote, no scale and too high a chance of being caught).
After Light experiments with the newfound power, for the 2nd time, to truly confirm its authenticity, he is seemingly distraught at what he has done. Once he fully grasps the reality of the situation and the blood on his own hands, two men killed by his hand directly, he struggles momentarily. He is regretful, perhaps disgusted at what he has done, and at what he is letting himself become. But then something happens.
And remember at this point, he has just killed two petty criminals, and to test the power — he was simply curious, not yet committed to the path of a ‘God of Death.’ There wasn’t yet any grand design to stake his life on a passionate mission to root the world of all evil, of all criminals.
And this is where the most salient moral story lies, in this alley an entire arc takes place — the creation of “Kira.” The true star of Death Note. We witness Light’s transformation.
You might argue that Tsugumi Ohba (Death Note creator, writer) simply fast-tracked this transformation to occur this quickly to get along with the real story (the cat and mouse battle between Light and detective L, the gambits and deceptions, the entertaining plot driven mechanics of the rest of the story). However, I am not certain of its unbelievability. I don’t think it’s impossible for a person to arrive at where Light did, to give in to the Death Note’s power in this way.
Light, rather quickly, after getting through the moral quandaries of his actions, decides to move forward, convincing himself of the opportunity at hand —
- No, this is good — this must be done, this world is rotten, full of sin and evil and I can fix it.
- It may destroy my mind & conscience, but it’s a worthy pursuit of my entire life simply because it must be done, on principle — because I have gained the power, it must be used by my hand. Perhaps it was fated to be so. I have the talent, ability and intelligence to pull it off and continue on creating this world for years to come, or I will die trying.
- Not only that, I will seek to become the God, to be recognized and worshipped, in this new world crafted by this power. I will become justice incarnate.
The kernel of truth Light had felt about the world and its seeming moral deterioration, combined with his belief in himself and perhaps fate handing him this power was too much to just let it end. In that alley, he understood the weight of his actions (look at his body language), on some level he knew the weight of the decision in his hands, the terrifying potential of the notebook, of such a power, in one man’s hands. But with his hyper-competence, his moral stance, his self-confidence aligning with fate — he believed he was granted a higher purpose, and the final solution to the existential crisis of consciousness he had been struggling with as he grows into adulthood. It was the perfect escape from the painful tedium he had experienced in his life thus far and a worthy pursuit into which he could cast all his untapped potential talent and intelligence. So worthy in his mind that he is willing to lose himself, to even lose his life for it.
^ When Ryuk, the shinigami, finally appears to him after days of killings and the genesis of Kira, Light has actually been expecting the proverbial Angel of Death to visit him. He is ready to die. Of course, this will change later for Light/Kira as he descends further and all measure of selflessness is eradicated. But at the beginning, he seems to have felt his purpose was fulfilled with the initial killings, the mere act of creating Kira, this force of death for the greater good. This all happens in the alley, then later is finalized in the classroom. He is ready to fully commit. And as we find out, the decision to set upon this path was only the beginning of his transformation. A transformation into his shadow self. In a few steps… Kira and the desire for Godhood, a new kind of shinigami, does indeed take over Light’s soul.
A monster is born. Truly, Light dies in the alley; Kira is born. And from then on, Light’s actions escalate out of madness and necessity. He becomes entirely indefensible — he wishes to rid the world of evil, of “useless” people even, in his own selfish quest for recognition and Godhood of a new world — all this he proclaims at the end of chapter 1. From there, he descends further and further into hellish demeanor and ruthlessness, into psychopathy. Kira comes to enjoy the killings. Kira wants to win, to beat L, more than anything. The shreds of empathy Light held at the initial notions of his mission obliterated as the facade they were, and a character of immense focus, intelligence and complete lack of humanity is left in its wake. Light is gone. And Kira gets better at continuing his quest of blood and repeatedly escaping justice at the hands of the police throughout the story, inversely related to any potential moral redemption, all the way until the end.
Coming back to the thought-experiment and moral question here: how many people would undergo the same transformation which Light went through, and let themselves ultimately set upon this path? A path which will, probably without exception (“absolute power corrupts absolutely”), metaphorically kill the user of the Death Note, and by this power let a psychotic Kira persona be borne in the wake.
In that moment of fateful decision, a seemingly innocent person falls victim to power, setting a path to true madness (not so uncommon a tale in human history). Innocent in the same way we all are — in that every human, at the start of any endeavor, is capable of great benevolence and incalculable evil. We all have within us the ultimate potential for good or ill.
- Perhaps he was simply an unearthed sociopath triggered by the perfect weapon to unleash such a fate — an untrackable and bold method of effecting his pathology onto the world through work which could go (seemingly) uninhibited by law enforcement and in a way in which people would know someone was passing down this righteous judgment on the wicked.
- Perhaps the existential disquiet of a hyper-aware mind in a boring world, needed the escape, needed the challenge and pursuit of something with meaningful consequences to commit itself to beyond the mundane — ridding the world of evil / becoming a God. To let the id run wild is to inescapably fall into socio/psychopathy.
- Perhaps initially he did believe in the moral pretense of the work he was doing and it wasn’t just about his own individual desires for Godhood. Light, at the outset, appeared to be truly concerned with the state of the world, its rottenness as he puts it — ”it’s like I’m always thinking…”, these were seemingly consistent thought-processes that plagued him. Perhaps he felt the suffering of good, normal people and wanted to punish evildoers with this final judgment. It lies upon a naive, childish, irresponsible methodology, and is still murder, even with the weapon trained on those responsible for suffering — but perhaps not entirely evil. Knowing he might lose his mind in the process, taking on the burden of being the taker of so much life — but simply deciding and knowing it was worth it. In this way, he could not be considered a complete sociopath, unable to feel empathy, with these motives at hand at the start — to ultimately lessen the suffering of Man. The resulting descent represents the illustratively corrosive effects of absolute power on one with originally decent intentions.
Regardless of the true cause, or of Light’s mental state, regardless of his original motivation — the fact of the matter is that he did lose control and the cause was the Death Note. Sans assuming control of the Death Note, Light likely would have went on to become a detective like his father, with an intelligence & resourcefulness to rival L.
For Light, in the story of Death Note, his personal telos was this death power, and this quest for Godhood through the use of it. There are no moral justifications for his ultimate actions. From the beginning, he was bound for a terrible fate. You cannot play God without dire consequences. The remainder of the Death Note storyline is plot-driven, a thrilling detective story with Kira, manipulative & diabolical genius, expertly escaping capture from the law while dishing out his own wicked brand of justice upon the world. All semblance of moral contemplation and the thought-experiment surrounding the Death Note itself is resolved in the very beginning.
I think we can all come to the consensus that murder is wrong, the use of the Death Note, in almost every circumstance, would not be moral. That being said, still how many people would pick it up and write a name? People often aren’t moral or rational. Human nature tells us some people would use the Death Note, maybe not to the extent Light did, but use it nonetheless. How many would become so completely corrupted by this impossible power — who would lose control, who would die and let a monster be born? Difficult to answer, just as it’s nigh impossible to truly know what lies within a Man’s heart at any given moment.
Every day, people lose themselves in their work — in their own personal methods of changing the world, in their art, in their addictions, in other people, icons and Gods. This is a most extreme version of this concept. In the deepest, darkest part of ourselves — how many of us don’t wish for complete power, Godhood in its own way, even if we don’t realize it or ever let it fully surface. There’s this silent, seemingly benign God complex within us — we want to control our lives, the people we know, the experiences we have, the thoughts we have, the pain that befalls us. Like all beings, we wish to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. And I think such a fate — wanting more control, wanting to change & influence more — might befall the average person in today’s society. A society in which we are more connected and aware of the world’s many faults and atrocities on a global scale. So many terrible actions, so much pain, so much unnecessary suffering which we have no control over. We know so much of the state of the world and how bad things can get, how bad they are. Obviously, we feel that powerlessness of the things outside our locus of control, so we engage in cognitive dissonance — we can become so good at it that we eventually retreat into our shells of ignorance and simply try to get through the days without thinking about it at all. Perhaps, all the while remaining existentially uninspired. For a time, one might effectively escape in materials and art, religion, find solace in family — but ultimately, for many there’s an emptiness, a missing piece of the puzzle. For each of us, there’s always a subconscious yearning to be part of something greater than yourself, to commit yourself to something more, to be more powerful than you are. Some people find it, and some people search their entire lives for it — self-actualization, purpose, a personal telos. And I think, the desperation of this search has the potential to take a man down the darkest paths imaginable. The abyss gazes also, and so forth.
Certainly, human nature dictates the case for the potential creation of Kira.
“Light had truly been killed by Kira. Light had wanted to protect the happiness of his loved ones. That was why he had taken the Death Note in his hands and sought to right the world by cleaning it of evil. Why he had succumbed to the temptation of the Kira in everyone’s soul.” ~ L Lawliet
Based on my impressions / beliefs / intuitions about human beings, about the human condition — I find Light’s transformation into Kira incredible and believable and it terrifies me.
This is what makes the Death Note story so darkly captivating to me.