Death Note & The Villain Protagonist

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

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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?

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Not “Into” Anime? Watch Cowboy Bebop

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It took me a while to figure out the truth: that I absolutely, 100% LOVED Cowboy Bebop. In fact, it is now my fifth favorite TV show of all time.

I’m no anime aficionado by any means, nor would I call myself a proper anime watcher. I love Hayao Miyazaki’s films, but that doesn’t make me special or anything; and prior to watching Cowboy Bebop the most exposure I’d had to anime besides Studio Ghibli was the (very) few episodes of the original Pokémon show I’d watched just out of curiosity. Other than that, I’d had zero anime experience.

My first college spring break, I was completely alone in my dorm room, as my roommates had gone home. I suppose I could have gone home too, but I took advantage of the empty space to take some time to myself, away from people, schedules, papers, and noise. It was the perfect time for me to delve into something new. But I didn’t want to immerse myself in something that would take a long time to watch, and possibly rip my heart and soul out in the process (ahem, The X-Files). Since I was about to face the last half of the spring semester, I needed something short, something I could start and finish in a week.

What about anime? I thought to myself. You like Japanese animation, and a lot of anime shows have relatively short runs. I immediately began researching Top Ten Anime lists, reviews, recommendations, and suggestions for first-time anime viewers. It took about ten minutes for me to realize that Cowboy Bebop was the show to choose.

I’m not the easiest person to please, and I rarely love things right away. I can, however, become intrigued by something right away, and I don’t think I’ve ever been as initially intrigued by a show as I was with Cowboy Bebop. Even The X-Files took 3/4ths of a season to really pull me in, but Cowboy Bebop had me right from the very beginning.

What’s this show about? It’s set in the future, the year 2071, to be exact, when humanity, having blown a massive hole in most of Earth’s surface, has colonized the rest of the solar system. Crime is rampant on many of these planets, and there isn’t really a police system in place to track down criminals, so the task of catching bad guys and turning them over to the authorities is in the hands of bounty hunters, who fly through space collecting bounties on various wanted men and women. The show’s main protagonist, Spike Spiegel, is one such bounty hunter, traveling with Jet Black, a former cop, on a spaceship called the Bebop. Along the way Spike and Jet meet Faye Valentine, a sexy con-woman with an attitude and a capital-P Past, and Radical Edward, a young girl (?) who’s an expert computer hacker and is also completely off her rocker. The show is mainly episodic, dealing with the Bebop crew’s various adventures whilst chasing criminals, but there’s an overarching storyline involving Spike and his capital-P Past, a dark history with a mafia group called the Syndicate, an evil white-haired swordsman named Vicious, and a mysterious blonde woman called Julia.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really.

There’s just nothing else quite like it. So much so that when it’s over, you feel desperately sad, and not just because of the dark ending. There are only 26 episodes, each about 25 minutes long, and yet the show pulls you into such an original yet strangely familiar world that by the time the series is over, you find yourself missing the setting, a violent and tumultuous one; the music, which I’d like to argue is unparalleled for any show, anime or no; the characters, who are really quite terrible people, yet are at the same time so interesting and dynamic that you can’t help but root for them; and the beauty of the show’s neo-noir animation, with its sharp angles, dark shadows, and moody colors. Even if you aren’t interested in anime, or have your own opinions about the genre, you’d be hard-pressed to not find something to like about Cowboy Bebop, just a little.

This isn’t a review of Cowboy Bebop; it’s more of a suggestion. Plenty of reviews have been written about this show. Some are so good they’re almost as fun to read as the show is to watch. I’m not sure what I’d add by reviewing this show, though I can’t say the idea is terrible to me (it’s not going to happen until I’m finished with The X-Files, though).

This spring break, my one-year anniversary with Cowboy Bebop, I decided to show my fourteen-year-old sister the show. We’d actually started around Christmas break, but we finally finished in March, and I relished seeing her reaction at the show’s ending. Even more, I relished in the fact that she’d liked it. You see, I wasn’t completely sure that she would. The show is many things, not the least of which is odd, and I wasn’t sure if its weird atmosphere would appeal to her. But it did.

And then, the most wonderful thing happened. When I saw that she liked it, I realized how much I loved it. And maybe, given a year’s time, she’ll grow to love it, too.

Perhaps we like to think that we fall in love with our favorite things immediately, but that’s rarely the case. For me, at least, it’s almost never true. Love takes time, especially when it comes to fiction. After all, you’re being asked to immerse yourself in a completely different world, with strange characters and settings and stories. That’s not the easiest thing to do.

Fiction becomes escape for many people, but it can also add to our real lives. After all, all fiction springs from a place of reality – real people’s visions shape fictional worlds and characters, and stories feel real to us because they reflect something in us (if they’re good stories, that is).

But more than that, fiction is something to bond over. It’s something to make friends over, laugh over, cry over, and get angry over. Maybe diving into something you didn’t think you’d like can teach you something about yourself, whether that thing is Cowboy Bebop or not.

But, while we’re on the subject, why not make it Cowboy Bebop? Go watch it. Yes, you. Watch it now. Go on. You won’t regret it. And if you do, well…it’s only 26 episodes. You’ll live.

You can watch the first four episodes of Cowboy Bebop online for free at Hulu. 

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