Introduction/Full Spoiler Summary
(feel free to skip if you already know the story & its problems):
Death Note (9/10 on IMDB, 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) is a manga/anime about a Japanese high school student named Yagami Light who finds a magical notebook that allows him to kill people simply by writing their names into it.
Damn. Don’t you just wish you’d thought of that first?
With that premise, Death Note could’ve easily turned into a bit of trashy justice pornography. Or a tepid exploration of what an ordinary person would do with such a power, like a dressed-up version of the trolley problem. It also could’ve been uninspired, like the live-action movie Netflix ‘adaptation’ that came out in 2017.
Side Note: The directors and writers from that adaptation are permanently on my ‘don’t bother watching anything with their name on it’ list. They could’ve copy-pasted the script of the Japanese live-action adaptation, they could’ve filmed a shortened version of the show, they could’ve come up with their own twist on the premise, anything. Instead, they worked hard to produce a boring piece of drivel that was forgotten within a week. Failing with such an easy slam-dunk of an IP is blatant proof of incompetence or, if this was due to executive pressure, a lack of a spine.
Instead, Death Note comes in guns blazing. The moment after Light finds the Death Note and confirms that it works, we cut straight to him cackling over the hundreds, maybe thousands, of names of criminals he has already penciled into the Death Note. So many names that when the Shinigami Ryuk -a grim reaper and owner of that particular notebook- drops in to check in on what’s what, he’s impressed by what Light has managed in the short amount of time he’s had. Then Light has the audacity to proclaim to a literal god of death that with this new power, he plans on becoming the god of a new world for humanity.
It is with this insane bang of megalomania that Death Note begins, which is followed up by an equally thrilling introduction to his rival, the mysterious detective ‘L’.
Just as we are beginning to believe that Light might be unstoppable (after all, he is the one man with supernatural powers in an ordinary world) a man named Lind L. Tailor appears on his television. Tailor proclaims that all these recent deaths are the work of history’s most heinous and egregious serial killer, that he will catch this infamous Kira (Light’s serial killer name), and that what Kira is doing is undoubtedly evil. This last line triggers Light’s ego and for the first time, he steps beyond just killing criminals. He violently scrawls Tailor’s name into the Death Note.
Lind L. Tailor dies. Of course, he does. The power of the Death Note is absolute.
But then the screen flickers and a large gothic ‘L’ covers the screen.
Face hidden and voice scrambled, the real L speaks and reveals the truth. Tailor was a decoy, a death-row inmate that he had set up to draw out Kira. Furthermore, the television broadcast wasn’t worldwide, meaning Light has given away that he’s currently in a specific region of Japan. And though L can scarcely believe it himself, he has even confirmed that Kira can kill without direct contact. L ends the broadcast by stating he is very curious about how Kira kills people, but that he can find that out once he catches him.
A serial killer with a god complex, possessing a notebook with the power of death. An anonymous genius detective willing to sacrifice a man’s life for evidence. The scene ends with the two of them both proclaiming that ‘they are justice’ (a moment that is both hilariously melodramatic and genuinely reflective of the duality of justice that exists in human nature) as they begin this lethal game of cat and mouse. It’s an absurdly bombastic story, with a core nature reminiscent of the rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty.
For the first half of the series, Death Note delivers on this premise pretty damn effectively. Yes, there are some errors in execution -like how a whole five minutes is spent explaining how Light set up a booby-trapped secret compartment to his desk to hide his Death Note without it ever becoming plot relevant- but overall, the story is a blast. It delivers surprisingly thought-provoking explorations of morality, an unsettlingly appealing anti-hero in Light, and ridiculously overwrought mind games, all without letting up on its relentless pace of twists reveals and unexpected turns.
One of my favorite moments is when L -after he had already narrowed down the pool of suspects to include Light- sits down next to Light after a university commencement speech and reveals to Light that he is the mysterious detective L. As Light can kill with simply a face and a name, the audience is tricked into thinking this is a risky move on L’s part, but it’s actually a calculated gambit. If L dies there, it would’ve actually confirmed that Light is indeed the serial killer. Also, he used the name of a famous actor, so if the actor died that would’ve confirmed Light is the serial killer as well. In fact, Light’s only correct move is the act as naturally as possible and do nothing, or else he risks raising suspicion about himself. And since L knows that the serial killer is too smart to actually be caught by a trap like this, the gambit isn’t actually a gambit. It’s a taunt, tailored to infuriate a serial killer with a god-complex.
Death Note is filled with mind-games like this. Yes, many stretch the limits of plausibility, but if you let yourself believe that human beings are capable of countermoves upon countermoves, planning twenty steps ahead of their opponents, that’s where the best experience for the story lies. It leads to moments like this, which have become peak meme material, while also being genuinely thrilling story beats at the same time.
*Side Note: Personally, I do think some of the schemes within the first half are definitely overdone, but I won’t try to fix them in this essay. Mainly because I think they still fulfill their role of being entertaining, but also because of how much of a pain it’ll be to fix such complex narrative structures with such a high standard of logical coherence. Frankly, it’d be easier to simply rewrite the whole script than to fit them in this essay.
Unfortunately, for every bit of thrilling that the first half of Death Note is, the second half is a dire disappointment.
The mid-point turn of Death Note occurs when Light finally turns the tables on L and manages to kill him without anyone realizing he was the culprit. Of course, killing off a main character in any story is a big deal, but the reason this is an especially big deal, narratively speaking, is because it upends the whole premise of Death Note’s story. The aforementioned ‘Sherlock vs Moriarty’, duel of minds deal. This is not to say that killing off L was a mistake, in fact, I think it’s a great choice. But I think it’s clear that the author was unprepared to deal with how much the story would need to change after this. And there’s no clearer evidence of this than the introduction of Mello and Near.
*Side Note: The Japanese live-action movie adaptation of Death Note actually has quite the clever rewrite of this segment. They simply have L win, but it’s by pre-emptively writing his own death in the Death Note. A heroic and clever sacrifice that’s quite the satisfying ending if the story were to end at the midpoint. But I’m going ahead with Light winning at the midpoint because then there’d be no need for this essay at all.
Who are M and N? Two children are summoned by an emergency protocol upon L’s death to take up his mantle as world-famous detectives. They come from the same orphanage as L, they are geniuses with amazing deductive reasoning skills similar to L, and they even have an eccentric dress style and manners like L did.
Yeah. It stretches the suspension of disbelief, doesn’t it? But more importantly, it’s a symptom of the author not knowing what to do. Killing off L left a huge vacuum in the story, so what did he do? He created two more L’s to fill the void, effectively regressing the storyline.
Obviously, I think this was a mistake. But that leaves the question: how would I have dealt with L’s death in their place?
A few editing goals to identify before we begin.
- First, the edit starts after L dies.
- Second, Light must die at the end.
- Third, Light’s father must die.
- Fourth, someone must sacrifice themselves to take down Light.
- Fifth, Matsuda must be the one to shoot Light.
- Sixth, the story must contain the same moral and social themes
And here we go. How do we start?
Simple. First things first, we should remove M and N from the narrative. They represent the author’s failure to adapt to their own good story choices, so it’s the necessary first step. But in many ways, this is a big change. Mello and Near represent the two main forces that take down Light, so removing them leaves quite a hole in the story. If they’re not there, who is left?
Again, the answer is simple. The same people that were in a prime position to fill L’s void when he died. The other members of the Kira Investigation Squad.
Aizawa (cop with the afro), Light’s father, Mogi (big cop), Matsuda (rookie cop), and Ide (cop who originally quit the taskforce). Looking back, I think it’s clear that these were the characters that should have been placed in the limelight after L’s death. Not only is it a more natural and realistic outcome, those ordinary Japanese detectives are also more organic deliverers of Death Note’s final thematic beats than M or N could ever be. Themes consisting of:
- defining true justice (L’s evidence-based justice vs Light’s old testament justice)
- teamwork vs individual genius (Mello’s selfless sacrificing for Near’s gain vs Light’s ruthless treatment of his followers)
- empathy vs using people (The Kira squad standing united at the end vs Light left alone without his sycophants)
With the Japanese detectives taking place of M and N where necessary, all of these themes can be enhanced. And the strength of this setup is already proven within the story.
In the final moments, when Light is cornered and proven without a doubt to be the serial killer Kira, he attempts to write the names of his enemies on a piece of the Death Note he had hidden within his watch. It’s a trick he’s used successfully before to trick L, but to our surprise, the person who stops him is Matsuda, the rookie detective.
Before this moment, Matsuda has largely been a source of comedy relief. He’s the naïve one, the one relegated to menial tasks, the one who constantly asks questions for the sake of the audience. A bumbling good-natured idiot that we tolerate because of the expository function he provides for the story. A Watson of a sort. Yet when Matsuda shoots that scrap of paper out of Light’s hand and demands how he could have lied to all of them, to even his own father, that one line lands better than all of Near’s clever monologuing from moments before.
Why? It’s got nothing to do with the substance of Near’s scheming, believe me. The moment works because it gives Matsuda, a character that has been there from the very start of the story, that has suffered through L’s death, that has been personally lied to by Light for years, that has one of the greatest emotional stakes in the scene, a moment to be more than just glorified piece of background decoration.
Imagine if all the members of the Kira Investigation Squad had a moment like that at the end. Imagine how much more impact the scene would’ve had if they had captured Light, the ones who had been lied to and betrayed, rather than a clone of L and a bunch of foreign operatives.
That’s what rewriting the second half of Death Note without M and N would allow. So that’s how my Kaizen version begins.
Three years after L’s funeral, Aizawa stands at the unmarked headstones of L and his butler. The others are walking away, led by Light. He’d given a beautiful speech, just like last year.
A tap on his shoulder. Aizawa turns to find an old friend waiting for him. Ide. He holds out an umbrella.
“Come on. Let’s get out of the rain. Don’t want to catch a cold, do you?”
The two sit down in a nearby cafe. Aizawa orders coffee and begins to shovel spoonful after spoonful of sugar into it once it arrives. When Ide makes fun of him for it, he laughs, sadly, and says it’s a habit he picked up from a friend.
The two proceed to talk about how Kira has changed society in the last year, how the Kira Investigation squad is doing, ending on how Light is doing. This effectively summarizes what has gone on during the time skip after L’s death. As an idle question, Ide asks how a kid could possibly fulfill the leadership role of the group, but Aizawa denies this by stating the many good things that Light has done during his tenure as the group’s leader. The boy is a genius, after all.
Then Aizawa falls silent, wracked by a feeling he cannot shake.
Ide asks what’s what. He’d always been direct like that. Just like when he’d quit the task force in front of the whole department. It was why he made such a great cop.
Aizawa reveals to Ide that before L died, his main suspect had been Light. Ide, who hadn’t known the inner workings of the Kira Investigation group, widens his eyes. He asks how a former suspect could possibly be heading the investigation into Kira’s identity.
There was no evidence, Aizawa says with shrug, and even L admitted the odds were but the tiniest percent. However…
Aizawa hesitates, but Ide already knows. They’re both cops, after all.
The two leave the cafe. Before they part ways, Aizawa sees Ide pull something out of his pocket. It’s a cough drop.
“Those are mostly sugar you know,” Aizawa comments mildly. “They’ll put you in an early grave.”
Ide gives him a flat look. Then tosses it back, biting down on it with a loud crunch.
“Don’t care. They help me think.”
Obviously, this sugar tooth motif is the same one given to M and N in the original, which symbolized their roles as ‘inheritors of L’s will’. Repurposing this motif is an easy way to signal to the audience that these are the new main characters. Exactly what confectionary the characters will like is not important. The point is their symbolic function. Ordinary policemen are the main characters now.
Next Aizawa recruits Mogi, who also reveals he’s been feeling the same thing about Light. This is consistent with his character of quiet competence. However, during their meeting, they’re found out by Matsuda. Aizawa originally doesn’t want to include Matsuda because the rookie has been shown to be on the friendliest terms with Light out of the group, but Matsuda forces his way in. He insists, stating that he doesn’t believe Light is Kira, but if they’re going to investigate he’ll be there to make sure no corners are cut. This maintains Matsuda’s role as the audience insert (by design, many audience members often want to side with Light or at least believe he’s not truly bad) and sets him up for that explosive moment in the finale that I mentioned earlier.
This leaves Yagami Soichiro, Light’s father, as the only character not part of the plan to investigate Light. And to match that, he will not have the sugar tooth motif. After all, he will die believing his son is innocent, which is an important beat that will serve as the turning point for the second half of this story. The moment when the remaining members of the Kira Investigation squad really begin to make their move.
But before we get there, let’s talk about how we get to that point.
On Kira’s side of the story, I don’t think much needs to be changed. The exploration of how society begins to warp to serve Kira works well. I think the cult-like television program is a realistic interpretation of how people would rabidly support Kira’s radical and vengeful justice, as is the idea of a news announcer like Takada supporting Kira’s position in a less overt way. Both are quite relatable, as they reflect modern political media in this day and age. Light’s search and discovery of Mikami also works, it shows that Light’s code, despite his god complex, isn’t corrupted by the fawning masses. Other than Mikami’s constant and rabid repetition of ‘Sakujo’, I find this side of the story pretty solid.
The problem comes in the schemes and investigations conducted on the side of the Kira Investigation Squad. On one hand, the idea of Light leading investigations against himself, doing a good enough job not to arouse suspicion but also never actually finding any leads is a very fun concept. So is the idea of Aizawa scrutinizing Light’s every move without giving away that he actually suspects Light. Both have great potential for providing very tense scenes filled with lies, innuendos, and tests of loyalty.
But the execution falls a little short of the setup. The whole sequence with his sister’s kidnapping (which randomly involved the American mafia, the hijacking of a plane, and an overly explained drug trade bunker) was too high action for the series. At times, it honestly felt like I was watching a Fast and Furious film instead.
That doesn’t mean the sequence is unsalvageable, though. As I mentioned earlier, I won’t get into fixing the minutiae of these schemes, but there are a couple of points that are worth preserving.
- The inclusion of Sidoh (the owner of the stolen Death Note Ryuk had dropped into the world) is a great addition. He is a natural answer to the question regarding whose notebook Light found, and he also automatically poses a threat to Light’s alibi as he can easily identify the false rules in the Death Note.
- The inclusion of a third party that is interested in the power of a Deathnote. I think choosing the American Mafia took the story too far away from an environment that both the author and the characters were familiar with. But if it were the Japanese Yakuza, I think it could’ve been executed more believably. After all, a third party with a similar narrative function -the Yotsuba corporation- was successfully included without stretching the limits of believability. The Yakuza would have plenty of motivation too as they are likely one of Kira’s most heavily targeted groups, and would find great use in a tool like the Deathnote. They wouldn’t need Mello to guide them to end up targeting Light either, as information from dirty cops (and potential overseas connections) would be enough to get the basics of L’s investigation. I don’t think forcing the global narrative is necessary here.
Besides that, the last thing in this sequence is for Yagami Soichiro to die. In particular, as close to how it happened in the original by:
- having Soichiro sacrifice half his life for the eyes of Shinigami for the Kira Investigation, which Light is intentionally misleading.
- having Light attempt to make him use the Deathnote to finish Mello (can be replaced by a different character) before he dies despite knowing that means damning his father’s soul from reaching the afterlife.
- having Light show absolutely no care about the fact that his father is dying except for how he can use him until the last second.
This setup is a trifecta of moral depravity that makes the audience no longer able to sustain the idea of wanting Light, the ‘protagonist’ to win. And although it isn’t presented as such in the original, it also serves as a great turning point for the rest of the Kira Investigation to turn on him as this is simply one too many coincidences to ignore. Yet another person has targeted Light thinking he is Kira, but they have died and all leads have vanished once again. He’s clean; too clean.
From this point forward, the two halves of Light’s life begin to collide. With no obvious leads once more, the Kira Investigation squad begins to investigate Kira’s most notable followers. Namely Takada and Demegawa, the faces of Kira’s Kingdom. As in the original, Light can make contact with Takada under the guise of the investigation and reveal himself as Kira, all while Aizawa tries to secretly ascertain if they’re communicating with means beyond what their listening devices can capture. I found this to be a great sequence in the original that was unfortunately overshadowed by the bigger, but not necessarily better, schemes that occurred within the second half.
In the meantime, as Near and his associates do not exist, this is where I think Ide fits into the story. As the only member of the new main cast outside of the Kira Investigation Squad, it makes sense that he has already been pursuing an investigation into Kira’s supporters all on his own. And while the others have been distracted by the theft and retrieval of a Deathnote -as well as the death of Yagami Soichiro- he’s had plenty of time to find clues and potential suspects. This gives him a plausible reason to identify Mikami as some important figure in Kira’s network, and by extension, replace Gevanni’s role in the finale.
Now comes the difficult question. Who takes the place of Mello? Who makes the sacrificial play?
Aizawa is a solid candidate. He’s one of the characters we spend the most time with, is perhaps the most reasonable viewpoint throughout the whole series, and he has a family; that makes him prime fodder for tragedy. If Light kills him, the emotions of the finale will be all the more heightened, including Matsuba’s outcry at the end.
Ide is also a good choice. He’s the wildcard in this situation, which makes his role most similar to Mello’s. He’s also not officially part of the Kira investigation squad which means he isn’t nearly as protected as the others (as he isn’t necessary for Light’s alibi) and he’s tailing Mikami which puts him in the line of fire. These circumstances make it almost easy to write an ending where he dies.
However, while both Aizawa and Ide are good options, I think the right answer is Mogi.
As a character, Mogi is shown to be a quiet but competent detective, often seen playing the supporting role in most situations. He’s the one who does a lot of the guard work when dealing with Misa, and L even compliments him on his diligent efforts in investigating Kira. He’s also the first to get on board with investigating Light when Aizawa suggests it. However, he rarely plays a decisive role in the plot. In fact, his one and only big plot moment may be successfully acting as Misa’s manager in an undercover role. Otherwise, Mogi is eminently erasable from the manuscript.
This is exactly why he makes for the best character to sacrifice. Not because his death would be easy to stomach, no, but because having a character consistently defined by his minimal presence in the story commit the crucial move necessary for victory is an extremely powerful story beat. The little cog that could, so to speak. And Mogi is precisely the type of character to notice that someone has to rock the boat in order to force a mistake out of Kira, and even though he knows he’ll die for doing it, he’s the only one in a position to make the difference. Rather like a pawn sacrificing themselves to set up a checkmate.
But this is where things get a bit fuzzy for me as once again, as the edits close in on the minutiae of Deathnote schemes. I can at least say that there probably needs to be a whole rework of how Light is cornered as I’ve never found Gevanni’s copying and replacing of Mikami’s false Deathnote to be that compelling. It’s a little confusing and, frankly, a bit lucky. The outcome makes sense on a technical level, but it’s too easy to imagine a world where Mikami hadn’t deviated from his schedule to kill Takada -a world where the heroes lose. Perhaps it could have been better presented at least, but I personally think a rework is in order.
Vaguely speaking, in my version I see the Kira investigation closing in on Light on three prongs.
- Aizawa investigating the communications between Light and Takada.
- Ide investigating and following Mikami.
- Mogi, although I’m not sure how, making a sacrificial play involving Misa.
Each one of these lines of investigation is tied to one of Light’s closest supporters, and each one represents a character failing on Light’s part as well as one of the aforementioned core themes of Death Note.
- Takada; the way that Light uses and disposes of people.
- Mikami; the way Light relies on absolute control over his underlings.
- Misa; again I’m not sure how but, the way he fails to represent true justice
These weaknesses of Light are, of course, mirrored by the opposite strengths of the Kira Investigation squad as they corner him, and their victory shows us what true justice is. True justice is:
- Selfless, and for the greater good. Represented by Mogi’s sacrifice.
- Not defined by an individual. Represented by the investigation squad including opposing viewpoints like Ide and Matsuda.
- Not enforced by an individual, no matter how smart. Represented by the investigation succeeding as a group where L failed.
*Side Note: this last theme is also a subversion of the crime/mystery genre which is filled with genius detectives who find more success than 1000 hard-working cops. A nice touch, I think, and it emerges so naturally without any effort on my part that I see it as proof that killing L off at the midpoint of the story was the right choice by the creator.
From here, the story can end as it did in the original, except with Aizawa standing in for Near as the one to explain how they cornered Light. Light reveals his true nature, Matsuda shoots him when he attempts to kill them, and Mikami commits suicide which allows Light to escape momentarily. Then the story closes with Ryuk writing Light’s name into his own Death Note.
Sorry that I don’t have a concrete narrative hammered out for Mogi’s (and Misa’s) rewritten storyline, but if you come up with any, let me know. I’d love to hear it.
Also, this essay is a bit long, isn’t it? Tl: DR is the following:
- Remove Mello and Near.
- Have the other members of the Kira Investigation squad take center stage after L’s death. Reincorporate Ide into the story.
- Rework the schemes in the second half to be more grounded (no moving the story to America, including the American president, etc)
- Have Mogi make the sacrificial play instead of Mello
- Corner Light with a three-prong approach that uses Takada, Mikami, and Misa.
I suppose I could’ve just made this summary the full post and that would’ve captured the gist of my edits. However, half the process of writing these essays is figuring out exactly what edits I think ought to be done, researching to make sure that I’ve remembered the story correctly, and identifying more subtle aspects of execution like theme and meta-commentary.
Let me know if you have any criticisms or ideas of your own about how you thought the script could’ve been fixed. Or if you managed to read this whole thing.