This month, I'm going to be taking a look at some of the many titles to make it over here from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump and its many spinoffs. So let's kick things off with one of the best known and fanatically loved of its more recent titles.
DEATH NOTE (Desu Noto), written by Tsugumi Ohba & art by Takeshi Obata. First published in 2003 and first published in North America in 2005.
It all started out so harmlessly. The shinigami Ryuk decided to drop a Death Note, the shinigami's method of dealing death, into the human world. He wanted to see who would find it and what they would do if just for a laugh. He gets a lot more than that when a brainy high school senior by the name of Light Yagami picks it up. To Light, the Death Note is a way for him to rid the world of evil and become the world's savior. His methods soon catch the attention of the police, who bring in the highly eccentric and world-renowned detective L to help solve the case. Now Light must continuously find new and creative ways to evade detection if his dream is to succeed.
It's safe to say that Death Note has something of a reputation to live up to. It was hugely popular in both its manga and anime forms. Legions of fans grew up around this series and many still believe it to be a masterpiece of shonen, one that explores the complexities of morality like few other series can. Some even defended its protagonist, believing that his attempts to take over the world and mold it in his image is the right and just thing to do. Understandably, its popularity led to something of a backlash, and now enough time has passed that the hype has died down, the fanatics have moved on to other franchises, and we can now determine if Death Note still holds up roughly a decade later.
I'll give Ohba this much credit: his choice of a protagonist is still a fairly subversive one for mainstream shonen. Most Shonen Jump protagonists are simple, earnest, even kind of dumb. They're meant to be easily relatable, easy to understand, and generally good stand-ins and role models for the kids who are the target audience for Shonen Jump. Light Yagami, on the other hand, is most assuredly none of these things. He may be a highly intelligent and successful student, but as he uses the Death Note more and more he reveals his true self to the audience: a cold, calculating sociopath riding high on his delusions of grandeur. So how did Ohba manage to get away with creating a big-time shonen series centered on such a morally detestable protagonist?
While all of those qualities noted above make Light a terrible role model, that doesn't mean that the teenage audience still wouldn't find him relatable. Light's desire to be the smartest person around, to shape the world around him to his liking speak to a lot of common teenage power fantasies, and his actions could be viewed as a form of rebellion against what he views as an unjust world. The story never outright judges Light for his actions - much like Ryuk, it's content simply to stand on the sidelines and let the events unfold. Thus, nothing stands in the way of the reader getting a vicarious thrill each time Light thinks his way out of a problem. He truly is the sort of character you love to hate. You know you shouldn't want him to succeed in his goal, but it's so fascinating to watch him try nonetheless.
It certainly helps that the plot is fascinating in its own right. It's chock full of twists and turns right from the start. One simply can't help but wonder how Light is going to think his way out of whatever situation he finds himself in. Light has an ability to plot that would put Gargoyles' David Xanatos to shame, and in a way it's his shonen-style superpower, much in the same vein as the kamehameha or Gum-Gum powers. Death Note likes to pretend that it's a lot more serious than most shonen series, but it can't entirely fool itself and its audience. As long as you're willing to go along with that and the concept of shinigami, though, you're good to go.
Death Note isn't as deep as some tried to make it out to be, but it is entertaining and Light makes for a compelling antihero. It's a great crime thriller series that loves to dissect its twists and turns as they happen, and it comes of as exciting instead of tedious in spite of the fact that it goes down in what seem like endless monologues. It's not the BEST MANGA EVAR ZOMG, but it's got a that hasn't aged a day, and even a decade later it's a great manga to read.
Obata is no slouch when it comes to shonen art. Before this series came out, he was known for manga like Ral Omega Grad and especially the then-megahit Hikaru no Go. He's got an artstyle that's relatively unostentatious for shonen with some great character designs and lots of strong, stark inking. While a lot of those qualities are still present in his art for Death Note, he also gave himself the opportunity to stretch his skills and draw something that truly stood out. The characters here are a lot more elaborate and photorealistic than a lot of its contemporaries, and it's a look that helps to sell the gravity of the story. There are no big-eyed, spiky-haired teens here. Instead, Obata draws a world that's barely removed from our own and he fills it full of fine detail, be it the fold of clothing on a body, the books in Light's bedroom, and the range of expressions. The one place he lets himself get fanciful is with the shinigami, and if Ryuk is anything to go by they are gloriously ugly things. He's an instantly iconic creature made up of gangly limbs, dark leather, and all of it topped off with a rictus grin and endlessly staring eyes.
Obata's greatest challenge was the fact that Death Note is a very talkative manga. A lot of manga artists would simply try to shove as many speech bubbles as possible into the panel, transforming the story into a series of talking heads. Obata livens things up by subtly shifting the panel angles up and down or using a well-timed close-up as a character builds to a point. He also makes a point of never showing L's face through purposeful framing and choice of angles, which helps to build up the mystery and mystique around the character. It's not exceptionally clever onto itself, but it's fine touches like this that do a lot to liven up this story visually and make Death Note as a whole as dynamic as it was likely ever going to be.
Death Note's reputation is a well-earned one. It's got a memorable lead, a thrilling story, a lot of grandiose ambition, and it's capped off by great and well-detailed art. This story is deserving of its status as a modern-day classic.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 12 volumes available. The 12 single volumes are currently out of print, but the 2-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print.