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?