Ambiguous ending of Death Note means even the victor is unclear; who was right?
The anime/manga Death Note is interesting on many levels. The shinigami are unexpectedly Japanese versions of the Grim Reaper; the cosmology is remarkably atheistic1; its genre is almost unclassifiable (detective/mystery, drama, suspense, action, Greek tragedy, supernatural, or what?); the plot warrants considerable analysis, and furnishes considerable scope for thought—just coming up with ingenious ways of exploiting a Death Note consistent with the rules is good intellectual fun, or one can devise interesting theories to analyze (example: could one use information theory to devise optimal strategies for a Kira and a L?).
Me? I’m interested in the ending.
I should note that it’s unusual for anime and manga to even have good endings, much less great ones. Endings are challenging in any medium, but the business of anime and manga seems to positively militate against them.
Consider the lowly mangaka. Her creation’s continuance is fraught with uncertainty; adrift on the vicissitudes of the highly competitive & unstable commercial world of weekly and monthly Japanese periodicals like Weekly Shonen Jump (who are the majority of her possible employers), there is not the slightest guarantee her manga will continue to be published next year or month or perhaps even the next week. What incentive does she have to invest in intricate arcs with subtle connections and callbacks? Or even think about an ending?
There aren’t many good analogies here for her predicament; one could try to compare to a novelist, except the medium is different in an important way: an inspired novelist can produce a tremendous amount in a short time (a novelist could theoretically write a good-sized novel in roughly a day at 60 WPM)—but even an inspired mangaka cannot quickly write & draw & ink hundreds of pages. On the other hand, comparison to making movies is not apt either as even indie movies filmed on a shoestring cost dozens of thousands of dollars, while drawing manga is so cheap that thousands of amateurs routinely sell their work for the cost of printing2 or for nothing online.
Perhaps the best analogy would be to that bygone age when novels were serialized in Western monthly and weekly periodicals, much like Japanese periodicals serialize manga. This provides some useful parallels, and immediately draws our attention to one problem of the periodical model: it pays by the word. One gets what one pays for; and so if the artist or author is being paid for volume, they are not for quality. I defy any modern reader to read through the imposing bulk of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers and its 57 chapters and hundreds of papers, & not once think that it would be a more satisfactory novel if it were just a tad less discursive. Even humorous strips like Garfield palpably outwear their welcome somewhere around volume 35 (or was it #46? Or #53?); how much more so for plot-driven ones!
It’s clear that a similar incentive is often at work with manga. The author has reason to draw the series until long after it should have been finished. Will even the most ardent fan of Rumiko Takahashi truly defend the claim that Ranma ½ and InuYasha have not suffered for their overly extended length? She may have become the best-selling female comic artist, and one of the wealthiest women in Japan, based on their popularity—but the critical fan must look sadly on the bloated carcasses of what were quite good or decent (respectively) series.
Still worse is the fact that most anime are adaptations of manga; most adaptations are commissioned during a manga’s chief period of popularity. This is again unsurprising from a commercial point of view—of course you only start producing an anime when a manga has proven itself/ So, almost by definition most animators will have no access to the author’s ending, since it doesn’t exist! There are several ways an animator can cope with this lack.
The animation studio can simply stretch out production and release over several seasons. The studio animates as far as the manga goes, and stops. In the interval before the studio gears up for the next season, the author will have produced more manga which can immediately be processed into more anime. This approach has the merit that what is produced has the chance to be a quality product, since there are no more constraints than are naturally present to the medium and funding; the screenwriters can concentrate on each episode. The downside to this approach is that there is no guarantee that there will ever be a sequel season; the viewer can easily be left with an incomplete work. This often happens.
However, usually the author will not write 24 episodes of material in that reprieve. Here the studio can stretch the episodes (lengthy previews and summaries, ‘filler’ content, and other such flim-flam), or make up pointless plots & stories which lead to no lasting conclusion (since if any characters permanently died, say, it might contradict the resumed plot). This approach gives us such artistically abominable anime as [Dragon Ball Z] or Naruto, with filler episodes reviled by the most faithful of fans. If a series is commercially successful enough to justify this treatment, such a series is nigh guaranteed to be animated to completion. But what profiteth an anime to be finished if it lose its soul?
A studio could, of course, just use its in-house writers to come up with new plot arcs on its own, and venture off into new territory. One imagines the animators complaining: “if the author can’t be bothered to hurry up with the remaining chapters, we’ll write our own!” (With blackjacks and hookers…) This differs from #2 inasmuch as the new writers aren’t required to be consistent with any future manga chapters; that is, a #2-style filler episode might have all the characters spend a fun day at the beach and everyone comes home exactly the same and the day at the beach is never again mentioned by anyone, but an episode of type #3 might see the protagonist’s best friend sacrifice her life to stop the evil plan and set the stage for a final showdown. Sometimes the distinction between old and original material is clear (watching through Hellsing TV, one can almost feel where the transition occurs) & sometimes highly uncertain (Trigun; did Nightow tell the animators the ending would be, or was the anime end an inspired guess?). Regardless, #3 is not a final solution. The writers may spin out new arcs as long as they have airtime left, but sooner or later they will run out of time, and will need to resort to 1, 2, or…
The fourth and final major solution is to come up with a real ending. This approach can be understood as working in 2 ways:
Story arc ending
Most plot-driven works have multiple story arcs which ultimately build up into the final ending arc. In the Stop: Story Arc approach, you merely take whatever story arc’s end is closest to your scheduled end, and make that the ending. Hopefully you will have been working up to this the entire preceding season so that the end feels appropriately significant.
A good example here is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Haruhi and Kyon’s first kiss and getting together feels like a satisfying ending; they can ride off into the sunset together. Hardly anything more needs to be said but of course, viewers won’t feel betrayed if a second season happens—we may have seen everything important, but we will still enjoy the further wacky adventures of the SOS Brigade. There is no real ending yet to the series of light novels, but the viewer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.3
This strategy shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. The ending may not be the “true ending”; nevertheless, a carefully chosen incident can cap the series with (as TvTropes likes to say) a Crowning Moment of Awesome. In rare cases, the ending may be superior to any additional endings. An example here would be the first season of the Gunslinger Girl anime: one of the main themes was the abuse & degeneration of the cyborg assassins even as they appear and act like well-educated cute normal girls, which culminates in the death of a side-character as the others take a break from killing to watch a meteor shower & sing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” against Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The ending is highly-regarded, but Gunslinger Girl got a second season which while it had an overarching plot, did not have a nearly as affecting ending.
Start a new ending
But sometimes there is no reasonable story arc to end with; sometimes there is only one story arc period. Take Hellsing, for example. Aside from a few one-off episodes which build the world and include some early foreshadowings, there is only one large story arc with no end in sight. So what does one do? One comes up with an entirely original ending. In Hellsing’s case, we now know with the conclusion of the original manga that the fake vampires the protagonists battle were dispatched by old vampire Nazis in South America as a prelude to invading England; but the animators had no inkling of this back in 2000 or 2001 when planning began. So they had to come up with their own ending—a mediocre one. There is no doubt that the OVA adaptation, which started while the manga was still finishing but which was able to (as an OVA) Stall until the manga finished, is superior in every way to the old TV adaptation.
Thus we can see that both the Death Note manga & anime are unusual in several ways:
- Both were finished.
- Tsugumi Ohba planned it out from the start.4 (Death Note is tightly written; there is remarkably little in the 100-odd chapters which could be edited out with no violence to plot or world-creation or characterization; the urge to profit would seem to’ve been satisfied by all the spin-offs and adaptations, leaving the original work unslubbered.)
- The animators opted for #1, quite reasonably animating the L arc as season 1 and waiting to animate the Mello-Near arc as season 2.
- Finances were not a problem. Some endings are so memorable in part because of time or financing problems (the original Neon Genesis Evangelion), but one enjoys them more in the way of a train wreck or NASCAR crash. An ending like Death Note’s would have been ill-served by haste or frugality. Fortunately, it was one of the most anticipated or popular anime of 2006 & 2007 (respectively) and thus amply funded.
Thus, all conditions were cleared.
Now, before we can understand the ending, one needs to know—what is Death Note?
The plot is the important thing. The brilliant, ambitious & altruistic Light Yagami comes into possession of a small black notebook called a ‘Death Note’, which allows him to kill anyone he wishes by writing down their name.5 (The Death Note was abandoned by a supernatural being, the shinigami Ryuk, who watches everything Light does with his old Death Note and occasionally helps Light in exchange for delicious food.)
Naturally, Lights begins to use the Note and starts by systematically killing off criminals listed in public records. Arrogantly (or hubristically?) he makes no attempt to conceal his murders, and eventually police all over the world begin to notice that an untimely number of criminals are dying of heart attacks. They dispatch their best detective, L, to hunt Light down and bring him to justice. (L is not his real name, but L, N, & M all adopt pseudonyms to foil the Death Note.)
By clever ploys, L manages to narrow down Light’s location to his town, and begins hunting there in person. Light turns the Japanese police against L, but at the cost of narrowing down the pool of suspects so drastically that L puts Light at the top of the suspect list.
The 2 join forces, and eventually Light manages to get L to accept a false premise about the Death Note, and engineers a situation where the false premise exculpates Light. Out of suspicion, he kills L. If that were all there was, Death Note would be memorable enough as a kind of parody of Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov is not a pantywaist but really is an ubermensch. But in killing L, Light has made mistakes—if one does not accept the false premise, it is clear that Light was the killer all along. Crucially, L was in possession of a Death Note and could have tested the premise and discovered its truth, but L had a self-imposed moral code which forbade ‘winning’ in any dishonest way. (Although L had no problem setting up a death row inmate to be killed by Light, he apparently scrupled at killing more directly.) We are led to believe that L could have saved himself and won if he had been willing to compromise his personal code, and that he was aware of this bind.
Regardless, L’s successors, 2 young boys named Near and Mello compete to take up L’s mantle by solving the case and avenging their role model. Both seek a Death Note of their own. Many complications ensue.
The second arc ends with a confrontation. Light has abandoned his Death Note and delegated his duties to a prosecutor named Teru Mikami who supports his efforts. Mikami suspects that he is being watched by Near, and arranges a fake Death Note. When Mello unexpectedly kidnaps another follower of Light, he is killed by her—but Mikami discovers this too late and makes a beeline for the real Death Note, tipping off Near about the deception.
Light and Near agree to meet in an abandoned warehouse to discuss the case. Both plan to make this first meeting the last: Light plans to kill Near, Near’s remaining assistants, and his fellow police (who know too much about him); and Near plans to definitively unmask Light, who as a mass murder will be secretly tried and executed. As Light has come to no longer possess his Death Note, his plan is to wait for everyone to remove their masks and then Mikami (who possess a supernatural power which infallibly reveals a person’s name when he sees their face) will write down everyone but Light’s name in a Death Note.
But the plan goes horribly awry. Light, certain that Mikami written down the names and doomed the others, begins boasting of his accomplishments and crowing over their defeat. But they fail to die! His follower had been fooled—his Death Note was a fake, courtesy of Near, who switched it before the meeting. Damned out of his own mouth, Light makes a final attempt to kill Near, but is shot by a former lackey & killed by his shinigami Ryuk (as he had promised Light at the very beginning of the series). Finis.
Now, the epilogue raises some questions. The manner of Mello’s death told Near that there was another Death Note, and that explains satisfactorily how Near could have known to substitute the fake. But, as one of the detectives observes, the follower was known as being a very meticulous, thorough, careful man—some of the reasons Light had chosen him. The stakes were as high as possible, and it was the work of moments to test his Death Note on a random person on live television. So why didn’t he? Was he truly just careless on that one day of all days?
The detective suggests, therefore, that Near used his captured Death Note to control the follower’s actions that day: expressly commanding him to fail in his mission and then commit suicide. Reportedly in Death Note: How to Read 13, the author Ohba comments that it is left to the reader to decide whether the detective is correct. (It’s worth noting that Near deduces Mikami was the new Kira solely from random watching of TV, a plot hole so gaping that it rather suggests that the creators had simply decided it was time to kill off Light & Mikami—a decision that indicates little sympathy for them.)
Given this, who won? That is my fundamental question. At the end of Death Note, who has triumphed? It is easy to say that Light, Mello, and L are all dead so the victor must be Near. But is it as simple as that?
Did L win? He may have been killed by Light, but he never compromised his moral code, his methods forced Light to weaken his position enough that he could be definitively caught, and he did know that Light was guilty. And Light was brought to justice in the end. Arguably, L won.
Did Mello win? Probably not, but on the other hand, Near’s victory would have been impossible without Mello. Mello saw a possibility (the fake Death Note) that Near admits he didn’t, tested it, and thereby proved to Near he had made a fatal mistake; without Mello’s kidnapping, Near would have replaced Mikami’s fake Death Note with another fake Death Note, and died at the final meeting. If you remember that Mello’s goal was to prove himself superior to Near and a more worthy successor to L—then you could well consider him a victor.
Did Near win? Well, surely he did. After all, he out-thought Light, encompassed his confession and destruction and most importantly, survived to the end. Doesn’t all that make him a victor? Well, look at the case for Mello. Near would have failed, and it is ambiguous whether or not he used a Death Note on the follower. If he did, then he failed doubly—once in pure detection skill, and twice in living up to L’s example. We naturally count him the obvious victor at the end… but should we?
Did Light win? He carried out his mission for years. And we are led to believe that by his actions, crime dropped considerably (saving or improving countless lives worldwide). After his death, crime rose again.
It is one of the questions in the background of the entire series: his means are often immoral as he kills many good people, but the end is moral and it is in fact achieved (which is not true of many instances where the end is supposed to justify the means). His opponents use moral means, but perhaps to immoral effect—the epilogue mutely comments on this dilemma, as grieving citizens memorialize Light and his quondam opponents go to a large drug bust. Further, it took the efforts of not 1 but 3 world-class genius detectives to finally bring him down, 2 of whom die in the process, and they never manage to so much as try or convict him—to say nothing of the probability that they managed that much only by resorting to Death Notes themselves (and by implication, lowered themselves to his moral level).
If Goliath triumphs at the cost of several limbs, few would count that a victory. When we consider that his mistakes were motivated by the fatal flaw of hubris, perhaps we should say Light defeated himself and the other characters were incidental?
Did Ryuk win? In a sort of fourth-wall breaking, the shinigami stated early on that he set the plot in motion because he was looking to be entertained. While humans and shinigamis are dying left and right, Ryuk floats tranquilly onwards, enjoying his apples and the complex plotting. None of the other characters achieved all their objectives, as they either died, lost a person important to them, or were shown up. But what did Ryuk ever fail to accomplish?
Depending on your view, the losers and victors swirl and mingle like tea leaves. Who won, who lost? Answer this and you have your skeleton key to Death Note.
- “Who wrote the Death Note script?” (statistical analysis of authorship)
- Were L’s inferences reasonable? (a reader objects to L’s choice of models on which to do inference)
- “Why You Should Give Anime Reboots a Chance”
The aesthetics of the anime series such as the chanting and the design of Ryuk, as well as various touches like naming the protagonist ‘Light’ or the inclusion of supernatural entities & tools, might lead to think Death Note is set in a fairly standard theistic cosmology—Shinto-style or possibly even a Christian cosmology, with a single omnipotent omniscient creator God. This is very quickly subverted: Light is told that users of the Death Note go neither to Heaven nor Hell but become nothing, a lie by omission inasmuch as Ryuk reveals that Heaven and Hell do not exist and all humans become nothing. The absence of such realms is a strong indicator there are no genuine gods of any kind in the Death Note universe, as one might expect they would become relevant at some point (particularly the endings). This absence is fitting given the ethical & existentialist themes at play.
Similarly, while one might take the name shinigami or “death god” at face value, the shinigami play no role but that of being parasites on humanity—they kill humans (who would die anyway in the absence of the so-called “death gods”!) solely to keep themselves alive and engage in idle games. They exhibit no controlling powers, age, die, can be tricked or ignorant, commit suicide, and are as much at the mercy of the Death Note and its rules as any human. (The possible exception is the Shinigami King, though he is bribable, fallible, seems to age, and possibly derives his authority just from making Death Notes or having a cache.) Ironically, the shinigami in Death Note do not even perform the 2 key functions of the psychopomp shinigami in Japanese folklore: they do not ensure that people die at their appointed times, and they do not escort human souls anywhere. (Nor is there any explicit evidence of souls: eg. no one, human or shinigami, survives death, has out-of-body experiences, or exists in multiple places or times simultaneously.)
So while arguably the universe could be considered non-naturalistic, depending on whether the world of the shinigami has an explanation like being an alternate dimension or parallel universe, and at least partially supernatural (due to the Death Notes), there is a distinct absence of anything one might describe as being a god. In this, the universe rather resembles Neon Genesis Evangelion: a superficial watching suggests that the universe is permeated by elements of existing religions being accurate and true, but more detailed watching and backstory materials reveals a universe devoid of such agents. For example, the so-called “Angels” are merely the offspring of a technologically-advanced alien race from millions of years before, and their apparently supernatural abilities more advanced science & technology than possessed by the human characters with the much-alluded to scriptures being instruction manuals for old artifacts or creatures; any mentions of God or gods turn out on closer inspection to be metaphorical, allusive, or generic usage applied to any powerful entity (including humans in various forms). And so on.↩︎
Comiket comes to mind, with its dozens of thousands of sellers, and its hundreds of thousands of attending buyers.↩︎
Haruhi is interesting for another reason, the distinction between ‘broadcast’ episode order and the internal chronological order of the anime episodes; the broadcast order is not a mere idiosyncrasy but a clever hack that preserves the dramatic arc of the overall story.↩︎
Or… was it planned out? Salon.com’s Douglas Wolk writes in “Death strip: A controversial graphic novel from Japan – banned in China – has inspired a hit movie and much fan fiction. Will thrill-starved U.S. readers get hooked?”
There’s a rumor that Death Note was originally supposed to be only about half as long as it turned out to be, but when the original Japanese serialization proved to be wildly popular, Obata and Ohba were persuaded to extend it. That makes sense, since about halfway through the series, there’s a point that seems like a natural ending. It’s a fake-out, but it does signal a change (which some readers hate) in the tone of the series into a parable about mortality, immortality and the difference between physical existence and identity. Near the end, there’s a series of exceptionally creepy scenes in which one character is seen playing with little wooden toys that represent the rest of the cast – and then wearing a cardboard mask of another character’s face. For the first half of Death Note, Kira and L appear to be characters like any other, but in the second half, Ohba repeatedly makes it clear that they’re roles that his characters can assume or abandon.
It’s worth noting that Obata & Ohba started Bakuman after finishing up Death Note, which is a manga about producing manga and which references their previous DN several times; the protagonists luck into creating a popular manga “Reversi”. Reportedly the protagonists plan to end it at a particular chapter (the same chapter number that L died during in DN), but are convinced by their editors to continue it because it is so popular. Bakuman is widely taken by fans to be commentary in general on DN.↩︎
Here is another interesting topic of discussion—what is a correct name? (A thorny area of philosophy.) The Death Note seems to require birth names or at least the first name a person is called—but not the full name. If we think about it, any other kind of name would cause problems. One cannot simply use the person’s ‘current’ name, since that would be ambiguous (besides further disadvantaging the detective hunting a Kira), and someone’s current name is an unclear concept. What is the name of a person you meet on a street? You can get his attention by calling him ‘Blondie’ or yelling ‘Hey, plaid-shirt guy!’, & no one would think it odd if you continued to use that as his name. We think intuitively that surely that’s not really his name—but what is a name but use? Would the Death Note respect a legal name-change or would it insist on the old one? Would it accept a Romanization of a Japanese name, or the Japanese version of a Roman name? (To kill Dracula, would Light have to write ‘Dracula’ or ‘Dracura’?) What about variants in kanji or katakana? Would the Death Note accept a literal translation of a name like ‘May’ into the respective Japanese month’s name? The wrinkles are endless.↩︎