Allow me to explain my love of "the pay off" in entertainment:
I hate when I watch something, and it doesn't really matter if I'm following it or not because nothing pays off. So many times I the credits of a movie roll and I'm left stupified thinking to myself "That's it? What about the ___ and the ___? What was the point of me paying attention to the first hour and 20 minutes of this film?"
Some shows or movies set little subconscious mental snares, so that when something happens later on-it pays off. Your friend walks in the room and sees a scene that looks like nothing happened, but you're going :O OMGG! They don't understand what it means, the significance of what happened, because they didn't see the set up. Therefore, when you watched that early part and did get the set up, it was worth your time and attention.
To me, Death Note is one of the best examples of great pay-offs in the history of entertainment. It's hard to even pinpoint this show/manga/story to a genre. The aforementioned pay-off aspect makes it feel like a mystery, but unlike your cliche Sherlock Holmes or Law and Order mystery story you're in on the answers. The main character is the solution to the puzzle, and you come along for the ride.
This is like a reverse-mystery story. Instead of the show centering around the good guy detective (L) you get to take a journey with a young Japanese lad with a heart of black. And unlike a common anti-hero, cheered-antagonist trope, he is truly evil to the point of not even being able to relate to him deep down.
The premise is an easy pitch to those who haven't seen the show. What would you do if you could kill people by writing their name? Would you do it? If so, who? This anime then blasts off with an amazingly intriguing universe back-story of death gods in another realm featuring some of my favorite artwork in any anime. It's truly dark and monstrous. The creator imagined such a barren, hopeless, faithless, and gutless wasteland of sketchy characters and landscapes, which you then get to see collide with the human world's truly evil bad guy's moral play.
In issue 13 of the manga, which has interviews with the writer and artist, (fascinating read, highly recommended as well) the author insists that he meant no political or social commentary. But allow me to do it for him:
Is the death penalty OK? Is it OK to try to wipe out the bad people of the world? How far does it go? When is it OK to execute someone? At the beginning of the story, it's clear that the people of Japan LIKE the killings but won't admit it. Is that what would happen? And even further on, after so many 'bad' people have been killed it's depicted that the world actually does improve because of the executions. Is that far-fetched? I actually think it actually would make people more afraid, and less likely to commit heinous crimes. But is that a good thing? Would we want a world in fear of an invisible executioner? Which brings me to my next point..
The relationship between Light and Ryuk is highly dynamic, and the crux of the entire story. When you think about it, this story is Ryuk's. He is by far the most important character in the story and dictates the most essential plot points. And yet, you might not think that when you watch it. While Light is serious, well-planned, methodical, almost scientific, Ryuk is the opposite. He literally can not stop smiling throughout the entire story. He loves it. The empty wasteland was boring, and now he gets to show us an interesting story. And I have to agree, even if I was an extremely bored death god I probably would have had a blast watching that story unfold too.
In the end, you could say the human is the one who became the real death god. But who really called the shots in the end? I've heard some people criticize the end, and even the entire second half of the show. But to me, these elements are equally fascinating and add a lot, especially as they wrap up so many pay-offs. I know I've said a lot so far, but this is truly a masterpiece. Now I'm going to break down the technicalities.
Even if I didn't like anything I said above, I would love this art style. This is by far my favorite art style in anime. Just seeing this art style in another anime, like Monster, will make me enjoy it more. This anime is not a bright bubbly explosion of genki fireworks. And the art is no different. It is dark and realistic. Some of the expressions are so horrified and so believable. It's not distracting, it really helps you get a sense of realism like-"what if this happened?" because everything is drawn to scale and with a certain weighted, grounded feeling that some animes completely lack on purpose.
The art gives special attention to colors, such as the red shinigami eyes, but it doesn't take color out of the realm of being realistic. No purple haired people or girls with outfits that even the best cosplayers in the world couldn't pull off. The animation itself is also excellent. It's never too still, and never too fast. When there are big movements (for example, the infamous "most epic writing scene in the world" from YouTube when Light is first writing his long list of names) the animation flows dramatically. The kind of angles and smooth motion that would be hard to capture for even the best director with a million frames per second. You can visibly and clearly see a tremendous amount of work was put into animating this series.
Oh, wow. Just wow. As a music addict, I'll tell you right away that this soundtrack never leaves my playlist. I don't go around listening to all 1000 songs on this vast library of music constantly, but there are certain themes and moments in this soundtrack that surpass some of the greatest Hollywood film scores of all time. Huge orchestras and choirs, smooth jazz, hard rock, club ambience, they really hit almost every genre of music and combine them in a really innovative way. It's so hard to get tired of the deep variation, and when you put all of these songs to such an amazing story, you've got pure gold. This soundtrack really has some mood-altering songs. I highly recommend you buy the soundtrack and check it out, whether you've seen the show or not.
Again, you can tell an unbelievable amount of work went into scoring this series. Songs like "Dominae Kira" feature some of the craziest choir sounds and orchestral arpeggios that I've ever heard. And once you've heard the L theme and its John Carpenter-esque odd time signature (which are also prevalent in the score) it will stay with you. And then when they remix it and reprise different variations of the melody, it subconsciously brings you even further into immersion. Interesting to note that one of the composers of Death Note was arrested for marijuana in Japan, and at the time of his arrest he had a little more than a gram on him. (US: $20) Since this drug is very taboo in Japan, the reported value of a little more than a gram was over $120.
I've already touched on the main characters, so I'll just talk about the great supporting cast. Misa, a gothic pop star, plays a really interesting, integral role in the story. She indeed has the high-pitch voice of a cliche blonde haired little girl in an anime, but in this case it really works. This is not your ordinary high pitched little Japanese anime girl. She brings another layer to the social commentary of capital punishment, and Light eats it up. They are perfectly meant for each other, despite the course of events that unfold between them. To me, their relationship is beyond Shakespearean. And like Ryuk, in the end she is clearly one of the most important characters.
There's also a great supporting cast in the police side of this epic chase, including Matsuda and Light's father Soichiro. Light's dad is also one of my favorite characters. He brings such a stern discomfort to scenes, which is realistic for some fathers. All of the characters are utilized perfectly, and he definitely has his opportunities to shine. There is also a small supporting cast of other shinigami, which I think gave the author and artists a chance to bring some fantasy elements to their work while still keeping it feeling grounded and real.
The story depicts the shinigami as a secret realm, so the entire concept is introduced as something that could actually exist in a fantasy sense. The revelation of their mysterious existence is realistically shocking, and from this you get shinigami like Rem-who my friend had to point out to me is actually a female. Which makes her actions in the story even more intriguing. You also get to briefly meet a few other shinigami, who are equally unique.
First off, you should know that I've never seen this show with English voices. So I will be talking about the Japanese voice actors only. The voices on this show are absolutely expert. Light's tone and dynamics really put you in a mood, especially when contrasted by the tone and patterns of L. Their conversations make me feel so interested to hear what they're talking about, whatever it is. Also Ryuk is my favorite anime/cartoon voice ever. His trademark laugh and quirky speech style is probably what initially pulled me into the show the most at first. It's just a brilliant character.
Light's dad and Misa also have really well-acted voices. There's nothing and no one I can criticize as far as the voice acting. Bringing this group of voice actors was so well done that it's one of the few times where I would like to thank whoever did the casting on the series.
There is one thing that I don't like about Death Note: it had to end. I don't mean this in a joking way. To me, the way it ends, the shinigami realm, the characters, the universe this story creates BEGS for another story, another season. Some criticized the second half, but I truly feel this universe and premise has legs. The follow-up to this show for the author and artist is so far removed from my interests. There are few things that could happen in my life that would make me happier than if Death Note were to continue.
Please note: I'm not a huge anime fan. I barely watch it, and this was the first anime I ever watched start to finish. Which was almost a curse in disguise, because after that my interest in anime started as mostly a quest to find something 'else' to watch. That is-something just like Death Note, something just as good, but different. I still haven't found it. There are lots of forum threads and Yahoo! answers of people who feel the same way-and sadly I don't think we will ever find something as good as Death Note. This series was magical lightning caught in a bottle with perfect timing. The planets aligned and the hard work of everyone involved lead to an anime series that is truly enchanting to enjoy. So check it out!
Thanks for reading!