Saturday, 14 October 2017

October Nightmares III #14: Death Note (2006 - 2007) - Passes You Notes in Class

There's a certain group of people for whom The Vapors' song Turning Japanese is an anthem. They're called weeaboos; Westerners who love everything thing about Japan - ignoring the xenophobia, stuffy traditionalism, and casual sexism, of course. Weeaboos love the 'real' Japan - the Sailor Moon outfits, waifus, and Japanese learnt entirely through watching anime. Ask a weeaboo what he thinks the worst thing America has ever done to Japan is, and he'll probably respond that it was casting the white Scarlett Johansson in the Ghost in the Shell movie. If he has zero irony he'll tell you this whilst stood outside a memorial museum to the bombing of Hiroshima.

Yes, the internet had to endure another bout of weeaboo saltiness recently when Netflix released Adam Wingard's live-action Death Note film. Wingard's film brought the setting more up-to-date (the manga only takes place 14 years ago) and transplanted the action from Japan to America. It was alright. Decent but forgettable. But consider the source material: Wingard is adapting a manga, it's hardly Macbeth. A reasonable stance, but one which did nothing to stem the tide of angry neckbeards and their love pillows as they sent death threats to Wingard.

I wanted to review the Death Note film today, but as this marathon is about horror TV I had to settle for the anime which aired on Japan's NTV from 2006 to 2007. A series based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Well, it was never going to be based on the passive-aggressive notes my girlfriend leaves me around the house.

Death Note revolves around high school student Light Yagami (fucking hell), whose world is changed when a mysterious book, the Death Note, is suddenly plonked in front of him. A book which has the 'Rules of Death' written inside, outlining that the book can be used for murder if the user writes the victim's name inside of the book whilst imagining their face. As Light discovers the book's power and decides to use it to cleanse the world of evil - like a murderous Barry Scott armed with weaponised Cillit Bang - he also meets the ancient forces behind this deft manipulation over the mortal realm. What's that? Ryuk, a God of Death, gave Light the notebook for shits and giggles because he was bored? Never fucking mind then.

If you think that the concept sounds like Dexter for the neckbeard generation then you're quite right. Dexter Morgan's vigilante murder spree may have been a power fantasy but at least it showed you needed to be hard as nails, loaded, and crazy prepared in order to pull it off. Death Note, in comparison, is the ultimate power fantasy because you don't even need any of that. You can practically become a God with power over life and death whilst sat down on your arse and writing down a few angry words. No wonder the weeaboos love this series: just replace the Death Note with the internet, and criminals with film directors and you get a good idea of the sort of nightmarish dystopian world we'd have if weeaboos had this sort of power.

Trust me, I'm a writer. In my writings I regularly kill off expies of people I know and don't like; I'd be the first to off the deep end faster than you can say crazy old Willem Dafoe.

Death Note is a strange beast. On the one hand you have the usual inappropriately upbeat J-Rock intros (I'm not even going to mention this in future, like herpes it's just something you've got to live with), everyone's a teenager but making sweeping changes to the world, there're convoluted 'highly intelligent' plots, and an emphasis on high school. But on the other hand we're dealing with good vs evil, the morality of killing 'those who deserve it', power, ambition, the human condition, and an examination of what makes a God.

It's almost childish the way Death Note explores its larger themes: which I suppose is the actual point considering Ryuk deliberately gave the book to a minor knowing what chaos it would cause. But the main themes, complex as they are, are definitely presented in a pluralistic good versus evil manner. This isn't helped by the fact that whilst the evil is represented by the morally complicated Light, the good is represented by L: a character who embodies the worst excesses of anime. He's a thumb sucking, teenage ponce who just so happens to be the world's foremost criminal investigator. Armed with nothing but weaponised autism.

The series is 37 episodes long, and wears its heart on its sleeve from the very moment Light decides to use the notebook. There's no getting round the fact that Light is going to get caught. Unlike Dexter, Light's capture is presented as an inevitability - from episode 2 the series largely revolves around how far Light is willing to go to avoid capture by L, an investigator who makes Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes look normal. And boy are there some magnificent schemes on display - one brutal scheme in particular involves Light's missus in a manner which makes the Saw films look reasonable in comparison.

If anything, the scheming and the general plot get a little convoluted. What starts as a simple morality tale about a teenaged boy playing god, turns into an international thriller with multiple Death Notes and several different Gods of Death. Which I admit must be crushing: it's like being told in a MMO that "only you can save the world". You know full that other random Johnnies are doing the same, but you can't help but feel a little sad knowing that pubescent Japanese girls are just as effective as you.

Most of the horror comes from the fact this baby-faced murderer is all too willing to kill, provided he has time for his home work. Granted most of the people he kills are the sort of people who are beyond deserving it, but it's still a little disconcerting how eager he is for murder. He's like Trump waving his nuclear knob around. Of course there are the Shinigami, Gods of Death, which bring the creepier aspects of Japanese spiritualism into the mix; they look absolutely terrifying, as monstrous demons which inhabit a Gothic realm. But even that can't beat the horror of a Japanese schoolkid writing passive-aggressive messages in his notebook. Whoa, let's push the boat out.

As far as serious anime goes (so no Pok√©mon or Dragon Ball Z), Death Note is up there with Berserk, Akira, Cowboy Bebop, and Ghost in the Shell, as ones even non-anime fans should know.  By serious anime I of course mean that the actors chew over every piece of dialogue as though they're being asked if they'd rather fuck their mom or their dad.

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