September 9, 2017

Death Note Volume 1

Death Note Volume 1

Tsugumi Ohba (writer) and Takeshi Obata (artist)

Pub. 2003

195 pgs.

Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Graphic Novel

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


Summary

Light Yagami is a high school senior with a brilliant future ahead of him. His grades and practice exam scores place him at the top of the nation, and he’s popular among his classmates, both male and female. He can’t seem to shake the feeling that there’s something missing in his life. He’s seventeen years old and already jaded.

But then he finds the Death Note. According to the instructions inside its black cover, anyone whose name is written inside the book will die of a heart attack forty seconds later. There are plenty of other rules, but Light spends very little time worrying about the ethical implications of his next action: causing the death of a madman holding nursery school students hostage.

But with the FBI, Japanese National Police, and L, the world’s most talented—and most mysterious—detective searching for codename “Kira,” how will Light manage to stay free long enough to create the crimeless utopia he envisions?

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Review

Death Note isn’t new. It’s been popular not only in Japan but worldwide since its initial publication back in 2003. So why would I bother reviewing something so old and so well-known?

Easy. Netflix.

See, Netflix literally just released their take on the Death Note series with some significant changes, the two most major being a setting change (Seattle instead of Tokyo) and, for lack of better term, a “race change” (no more all-Japanese cast). Because of this, a new generation of fans is being exposed to the series and may start hunting down the source material. Voila! Read and reviewed so you can see if it’s right for your classroom library.

Not that it was a hardship, mind you. I love the entire series, and Death Note Volume 1 is an action-packed introduction to this twisty tale of murder, mayhem, and two quite similar young men competing against one another to realize their personal view of a perfect world.

And what a journey it is! The ethical questions alone make this excellent fodder for a debate in Language Arts class. In fact, it’d be pretty fun to use alongside 12 Angry Men, which is part of the eighth grade curriculum where I work. They both deal with similar themes of criminal justice and what might drive a man to commit a crime, despite knowing that it’s wrong.

The big question in this first volume, simply stated, is this: is it wrong to murder a proven criminal, or is it a righteous method of justice? According to Light, the men he kills deserve what is coming to them. The hostages are saved and the criminal is no longer a threat to society. Crime actually shows signs of decreasing due to Light’s consistent efforts to use the notebook to eliminate violent criminals. A follow-up debate question might be: if Light only kills either convicted criminals or those in the process of committing major crimes where lives are at stake, how is Light behaving any differently from the official justice system? It’s mentioned in the book that one criminal who dies was slated to be executed later in the day, so Japan, or at least the Japan in this book, has the death penalty. Oh, and an interesting side note, by the way—no women are mentioned as being bad enough to have their names written down. I’m not sure if this is sexism on Ohba’s part or just that he didn’t want to face any backlash from readers about Light killing women.

Anyway, it helps the book that Light’s character is complex and dynamic right from the start. He begins with a kind of idealism that makes him seem almost a little too good, particularly given the nature of the Death Note. It isn’t until L taunts him that we see Light’s carefully crafted persona start to crumble around the edges. We have a character whose reaction to “I’m going to find you!” be an immediate death sentence, whereas earlier in the volume he quibbled over killing a guy who was acting really creepy and kidnap-y towards a girl on the street. Light starts to turn into a very clever, increasingly sociopathic killer. It’s hard to deny the surface appeal of his arguments, but when you stop reading for a second, you process what you’ve read and start to realize what kind of person he’s actually becoming. Another debate question: did the Death Note make Light into a sociopathic killer, or would he eventually have become one anyway? Is it nature or opportunity?

Ah, the debates that could be had!

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TLDR

Full of compelling questions of ethics and justice, this book should be on upper-middle (eighth grade) and high school bookshelves.

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Recommended for…

  • Mystery lovers
  • Kids who like a little fantasy in their realistic fiction (or, alternately, kids who like realistic fiction but need to read more fantasy)
  • Anyone who liked the Netflix version and wants a look at the source material

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Issues

  • Blood: depictions of blood related to the deaths of criminals
  • Death: given the title, this should be fairly obvious, but yes, lots of people die in this book
  • Deceit: characters take active steps to trick one another and protect their own identities and interests
  • Horror Elements: very minor, but the world of the shinigami is depicted, and it can be creepy/scary to look at
  • Lying: characters lie to one another throughout
  • Murder: characters have murdered in the past (before the book starts) or are actively murdering in the book
  • Religion: one of the characters is a “shinigami” (literally “death god”), which is a creature from traditional Japanese mythology and religion
  • Supremacy: characters believe they’re better than everyone else, which leads to some megalomaniac behavior on their part
  • Violence: characters behave in a violent manner towards one another
  • Weapon Use: characters threaten others with weapons

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Themes

  • Death
  • Determination
  • Education
  • Family
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Heroism
  • Justice
  • Responsibility
  • Right vs. Wrong
  • Survival

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Grade

Main Character 2
Subcast 2
Setting Development 1
Exploration of Conflict 2
Satisfying Resolution 1
Consideration of Themes 2
Didactic Tone 2
Suspension of Disbelief 2
Imagery and Description 2
Compelling Storytelling 2
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 2
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 2
Reader Enjoyment 2
Total 28/30
93%

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