Death Note & The Villain Protagonist

WARNING: Spoilers for Death Note. And believe me, you REALLY don’t want this series spoiled. 


I finally finished watching all 37 episodes of Death Note and was shaken and impressed by, well, the whole series, but the finale in particular. The whole series builds and builds to some sort of grand climax; you can feel as much from the first episode. But through the many twists and turns you’re never quite sure what that climax will look like. That’s the mark of a good thriller, subverting expectations.

What fascinates me the most about this series is the function of its protagonist, Light Yagami. Light is undeniably the main character of the series, and he also happens to be the villain. And because he’s so intelligent and careful, he plays the role of the good guy while trying to catch Kira, a mass murderer who kills hundreds of criminals (as well as anyone who stands in his way) – which is a twisted, circular game of cat-and-mouse, because Light is Kira. He has to simultaneously hide and search for himself, while trying to beat the people that are actually onto him. I’d never seen a hunt for a killer done in this way before, and it really spun my ideas about main characters and audience sympathy in a manner I haven’t seen since reading Lolita. Because while we the audience know what Light does is wrong, he doesn’t. His “search for himself” looks so real to the other characters that he starts to convince us of his innocence, even though we’re the only ones who know with utter certainty that he is guilty.

In the same way Nabokov seduces the reader into sympathizing with Humbert Humbert the hebephile, Death Note makes you sympathetic for Light without even knowing it. And it does this by doing something brilliant: it kills off Light’s opponent, L, in the middle of the series, when you’re least expecting it.

The first half of Death Note is structured as an intellectual game of chase played by Light and L, who are both uncannily brilliant. The series even goes so far as to build a strange (albeit one-sided) friendship between the two, as L works closely with Light to catch Kira. In a way, they are intellectual equals – at least, that’s what the series would have you think at first. If Death Note went the typical thriller route, the cat-and-mouse game would build and build and then culminate in the finale, when L finally gathers proof of Light’s guilt and the two have a final showdown.

But it doesn’t happen that way. Instead of turning L into the “hero” (if a series like this can truly have any heroes), he is killed off in a jarring, unexpected, almost awkward place. And he dies. He doesn’t come back. He is replaced, somewhat, with Near, an equally brilliant opponent, but one lacking L’s depth of personality or connection to Light, something I believe was very intentional. Near is a means to an end, but he’s not a complete replacement for L. He’s not meant to be the arch-nemesis for Light that L was. In fact, after L’s death Light comments that by fighting Near, he is really still fighting L, or some shadowy ghost of him. And as Light dies, the last thing he thinks of is L, not Near.

So why kill L off in this way? I think it was to firmly cement Light as the protagonist, in case the audience was tempted to sympathize more with L. For while most people would never condone Light’s actions, the ultimate goal of the series is not to have you connect with L, but with Light. Just look at the character’s name, which seems so opposite from his role in the series as the villain, and his appearance as an attractive teenager (later, young man). If you knew nothing about Light apart from his name and face, you’d probably assume he was a good guy.

Which brings us to the finale. The finale is brutal, and even though I’d suspected the series would end with Light’s death, I had no idea how it would happen. I would recommend reading Jacob Chapman’s think piece on Light for a great discussion of Matsuda’s role in the finale, but I want to focus on the last few moments of the series, as Light runs to his death.

What does Light see as he’s dying? Not L, not Near, not his father, not Matsuda, not Misa or Takada, but himself before the death note. Essentially, he sees himself as a “normal” kid. This is strange as from the very first episode we are introduced to Light as an egomaniacal psychopath with a grandiose sense of self. Why would Light see himself this way? And why is it strangely and tragically moving?

There are obviously many ways to interpret this ending, but here’s mine. As he runs away, Light knows two things: that he has lost and that he’s about to die. This is after he declared himself the winner and the god of a new world. Not only has Light been defeated intellectually, he is facing his own mortality for the first time. Light is no god – in the end, he’s just a boy. And in the end, that’s the way he sees himself. Not as a god, or a victor, but a schoolboy with no death note and no shinigami.

This forces the audience to look at Light in a way we haven’t been able to the entire series. This person is a psychopath, but he’s also a boy. He’s a corrupt villain but he truly believed what he was doing was right. At the very end, as he dies (bathed in a surreal halo of light, almost like a martyr), he sees the face of L, perhaps not as an enemy, but as someone who could have been a great friend had things gone differently.

That’s the tragedy of Light Yagami. Nobody could have turned him around after he found the death note. But if he hadn’t found it, he could have been a great asset to everyone around him. In the end, Death Note forces us to confront the psychopath in all of us. What would we do if given a death note?  Are we really so different from Light?  What would it take for us to become separate from our morals, if given the power to implement them on the rest of the world? Can we really know – or judge?


Random Stuff – Don’t Fail Me, Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion

Recently I heard that they’re planning to split the last movie of the Divergent trilogy into two parts. This is the fourth time this has happened in the making of movie adaptations of young adult series. The first, of course, was Harry Potter, which split Deathly Hallows into two movies, the first of which consisted of Harry, Ron, and Hermione standing around in the woods, with the second part containing most of the “meat” of the last book and being a much better finish to what I thought was a pretty good movie series, all things considered. Splitting the last book, however, was not one of the wiser decisions made by the people behind this series, and – I don’t care what anyone says otherwise, you’re all lying to yourselves – was just a method of getting the whole franchise more money.

Not far behind was Twilight, which split Breaking Dawn into two parts, and if I cared about Twilight/had seen any of the movies after New Moon I might be able to comment further. But my best guess as to the motivations behind this split is, funnily enough, the same as my guess for Harry Potter’s: cha-ching.

Then The Hunger Games people announced that it was splitting Mockingjay into two parts, and that was the first time I got really concerned.

You see, the Harry Potter film franchise was, for the most part, good, but by the time the last (two) movies rolled around they’d already had their fuck-ups. Prisoner of Azkaban was awful and Order of the Phoenix was only as good as the book it was based on (which, in my humble opinion, was the weakest and worst of the series), so everyone had reasonable expectations of the filmmakers and the filmmakers produced reasonable results. Not only that, the Harry Potter films are not and never will be as good as the books, so if fans became disappointed with the film series at any point, they still had the books to turn to.

With The Hunger Games, however, we have a very different problem. I liked The Hunger Games book, thought Catching Fire was eh, and thought Mockingjay was one of the worst treekilling pieces of shit to have been published um, whatever year it was published. It was and remains the worst ending to a book series I have ever read. I don’t want to get into specifics now, but keep in mind that Mockingjay is a much shorter book than Deathly Hallows, and Deathly Hallows would have been just fine as one film. If Part 1 of Deathly Hallows was Harry, Ron, and Hermione standing around in the woods for two hours, then Part 1 of Mockingjay is going to be Cat Piss Everdeen standing around and doing what she does best, whining. Because, unfortunately the Katniss of Mockingjay and some of Catching Fire is very different from the Katniss of The Hunger Games.  Whereas in The Hunger Games she was a fairly interesting character put into a very original story and setting, as the books go on she becomes more and more annoying and the story and settings get less interesting and/or more stupid.

The Hunger Games, however, is different because, well, in my humble opinion – and this is the first time I have ever, ever, ever thought this way – the films are better than the books. In Catching Fire’s case, they’re exponentially better than the books. I actually thought Catching Fire was a good film, not just a good adaptation. And it should have won best Original Score at the Oscars (sorry, Gravity, I love you, but I have to be honest).

Much of why I thought Catching Fire was good was because of Jennifer Lawrence, and no, I’m not just saying that to jump on the Jennifer Lawrence obsession bandwagon. (I like Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, but I can’t really speak much on her as a person because that’s not what I’m here to talk about.) Anyway. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss with a lot of maturity and respectability, and her Katniss is much more intriguing – indeed, makes more sense, if that’s possible – than the Katniss of the books.

So, if that’s true – if they’re going to continue making these excellent choices and Jennifer Lawrence is going to continue playing a really interesting Katniss – then please, oh please, make the split. Split Mockingjay into Parts 1-6 if you have to. I’m dead serious.

Because think about it. They’re going to have to add stuff in if they’re going to make a two-parter. There’s simply not enough in Mockingjay to even fill one film, let alone two. So they’re going to have to add stuff in, and in doing so, they have the fantastic opportunity of fixing what Suzanne Collins got very, very wrong. Oh, maybe they won’t change huge aspects of the story, like whom Katniss ends up with at the end (even though that was stupid, stupid, stupid) or the really sad thing that happens at the end of the book that Suzanne Collins put in just to make it sad and which I won’t mention by name because of spoilers, but large enough changes that remove the stupid and actually make a compelling end to this franchise.

And yes, Jennifer Lawrence, you can help. You can help by not making Katniss a whiny, stupid, obstinate, insufferable drug addict who makes me want to rip apart every young adult novel I come across in the bookstore. Please. I’m begging you. I’m literally on my hands and needs begging you to take advantage of a book series by squeezing every last drop of greasy corporate dollars out of it. Split the last book into as many parts as you want. Just make them GOOD.

Because, in the end, that’s all I want to see – a good movie. You guys have done amazingly well with your first two attempts.

So, in the words of my man Anton Ego:

Pray You Don’t Disappoint Me from mmillx on Vimeo.