Originally I was planning on writing a post entirely about introducing this new series of posts, but I don’t think I actually need it. In short, I really love Death Note, so much that I’d like to go through it episode-by-episode analyzing every scene, character beat, and camera shot that I feel contains significance.
So this series will be a minimum of thirty-seven posts long. Spoilers for the series will be littered throughout, but I’m primarily interested in the episodes in question (including all previous episodes). So for maximum enjoyment it’s best that you have seen the series, although if these posts interest you, then know that the series is available in its entirety on Netflix right now.
I may get into the Manga, translation differences, and other types of posts as well. It all depends.
The first episode of Death Note is a meticulous, slow-boiling, build-up that carefully establishes its universe, its characters, its plot, and finally its themes in a way that can only be described as fresh, unique, exciting and one of the best beginnings of an Anime that I’ve ever seen.
Which I think makes it all the more interesting that it wasn’t the first episode of Death Note that I ever saw. But more on that when we get to Episode 10.
We’re introduced to the world of Death Note by a long zoom-in through a dark tunnel, we see a desolate black and gray landscape filled with gruesome looking creatures. We see Ryuk, his bulged out jewel-red eyes, observing in silence. Nearby, two other creatures, playing with skulls in a bowl, call Ryuk over to their game, of which he denies.
We cut immediately to our protagonist, Light Yagami. We’re looking at his eyes. We get to hear him translate a passage into English and then we get to overhear news reports of several violent crimes. It’s clear that these news passages are meant to evoke the same sort of desolation and emptiness that the landscape of Ryuk’s world showed us. If that weren’t enough we end on Ryuk and Light sharing a line about how both their worlds are rotten.
What’s happening is that we’re meeting our POV in a way. Ryuk’s observations are meant to be ours. We have come to Death Note in a way entirely empty, unsure of what this series will be, what it will mean.
The next scene is the introduction of the Death Note, its slow reveal from shade to light as it falls to the grass below. This is a moment of pure cinematography, the music mutes as we watch the notebook fall. Light sees it and approaches it outside. Light opens it up reads the first rule, “The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.” He immediately closes it. This moment is vital for us as viewers. If Light giddily took it, accepted the Death Note as some chosen one would a blade, we would be instantly disconnected, he’d be a villain, and Death Note would lose its primary strength. Instead, he closes it, calls it ridiculous and steps away from it. That’s precisely how we would react. We would not simply believe a Death Note. In many ways, it’s this healthy skepticism that motivates the next part.
Light takes the Death Note with him. We don’t know why yet, which is important. He thinks something must be wrong with him. And admittedly we might think so too. The weight by which Light is taking the Death Note lends credibility to this skepticism, even if we hadn’t seen Ryuk and the Shinigami Realm already, we see a character lending weight to an object and it carries with us because we identify with this guy.
The first kill is a beautiful scene. Again, Light’s seriousness when approaching whose name to write to verify the credibility of the note is important. The slow pace of this episode keeps us leaned in, it keeps us wondering about what’s going to happen. He makes the educated choice of writing the name of a criminal, a violent hostage taker. When it works he’s alarmed, surprised, but we don’t feel bad about it. The previous weight pays off because Light reacts realistically.
The Cram School scene is one of phenomenally niche moral observation. Light, needing to test the Death Note before his own eyes, observes some bullying and immediately makes his personal morals clear. He thinks of killing a school bully. Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there. We’ve all wanted to kill a terrible classmate who bullies or mugs or beats up people we know, especially the ones who are weaker and perceivably more intelligent than they are. But it also colors Light, he has a very strong moral fiber against this sort of negative behavior.
Light’s age is sometimes a lesser remembered aspect of the series because he often behaves, speaks, and is made to look more intelligent than the adults around him. But this feeling of schoolyard antipathy is meant to be a clear sign of the limitations of his morality. We all want to do it, but its a bad idea.
The other read is that this might be the first scene where Light realizes the kind of power in his finger tips. The series makes a huge, huge deal about the difference between Light and Kira, but this shows us how that slow transition can take place. But, it’s important to remember Light already thinks the world is rotten, he’s already expressed this. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but the series has laid the groundwork to ensure that its realistic that Light is a character who could be corrupted by the Death Note.
There’s an immediate balance to this. We see the kid who was getting bullied inside being a total shit head about his Mom coming to pick him up outside. We find our own morality tested here. The kid was just getting bullied and that wasn’t right. But that street side behavior, that isn’t right either. That kid might not bully other kids, but it sounds an awful lot like he might bully his Mom. Death Note constantly keeps these questions of morality teetering and it’s thematic usage in this episode is brilliant, because Light essentially comments by saying the world would just be better with less people, and we find ourselves agreeing with him.
Of course, this is a carpet getting set to be pulled out from under us.
Light witnesses an attempted rape outside of a convenience store. This is such a violent and visceral scene. What I think is great is that the animation of the woman, her beauty is obvious. Shibuyamaru’s ugliness on the other hand is equally obvious. As if it wasn’t enough that he was willing to rape her, he’s physically repulsive. It’s a casual and normal enough occurrence in films, but its repetition here is worth noting.
The truck kill is strong slapping and we sort of feel with Light. This reconfirmation, this in person confirmation, it’s very strong. It’s worse than the death over TV. He watched himself kill somebody. It’s why its so much stronger as an effect on him.
We get our mid-break here, but not before Ryuk makes it clear that he’s going to go somewhere. We already know the Death Note came from him, why else would we keep seeing him constantly.
It’s interesting the aesthetic decision to make the portal to the human realm from the Shinigami World a tunnel full of white light. This is perhaps the most aesthetically obvious call to the title of the episode, “Rebirth” which is not remarkably fitting.
Light arrives home and establishes how smart he is when his Mom asks for his test scores. If you couldn’t tell from the phenomenally good writing of his character yet, Light is kind of a genius. This sort of fits his trope of charming psychopath, but we don’t know about the second half yet. At least, not until he gets to his room.
His change is already a bit notable but when he opens the Death Note and the pure volume of names in the notebook are seen, we’re meant to feel a little sick. We’re at least shocked. This guy has killed hundreds of people in some amount of time. This sudden change from mild-mannered to incredibly murdrous is shocking and our first glimpse at what’s really going on with Light.
Ryuk shows up in full horror movie symbolism. There’s so much of Death Note that just plays on a bit of a reverse religious story. Light sees God, in a literal form, but it’s the opposite of our Angels. When Light asks if Ryuk is there for his soul, Ryuk establishes that he isn’t that sort of agent. He has no morals, Ryuk is a literal embodiment of chaos and that’s an important rule of thumb for Shinigami.
Ryuk’s role here is telling as well. He’s the exposition dump, the narrator, the camera lens. He explains the rules of the Death Note to Light and fills in what the notebook itself doesn’t or can’t say. This is probably one of the more boring parts of the episode, in that Ryuk is just telling us a lot of rules and a lot of exposition about the Death Note.
Ryuk’s taking to the apple is again a reverse trope. The human gifts the apple to the God, and this is backwards from the symbol we see in the opening as well as the traditional role of the forbidden fruit. Light is the one holding this forbidden secret, not Ryuk.
The most powerful line of Ryuk’s in the whole series comes here. “Why? I did it because I was bored.” Ryuk introduced a phenomenal tool of human death and destruction, something that costs the soul of the user, and the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way, because he was bored. Ryuk’s immorality exists in this single statement, but it also gives away Light’s claim to actually being chosen, as he was no doubt hoping.
We get to see Light’s flashback to himself in the alley after killing two people. “This world is rotten, and those who are making it rot deserve to die.” This mission statement is so perfect it hurts. We have built up sympathy through the episode, we have seen Light’s ability to smartly kill, to kill people who seem to deserve it, and we can’t help but be somewhat with him in this moment. It’s bitter sweet as we get our first montage, an iconic moment in and of itself, of Light writing the note and killing people with heart attacks.
Light gives a little monologue about “vermin of the world” he talks about how “if I don’t do it then who will.” We won’t see these words again until the final episode, and what a beautiful embed this is. It will be a long journey from here to the end with Light, and this moment starts it off and ends it all. We should be disconnecting in this scene also, even if we’re still interested, these are delusions of grandeur. And it ends with the ultimate one. “I will become the God of this New World.”
Ryuk’s amazement reflects our own. “Humans are so interesting.” It’s a line that we agree with, even if Light’s danger, naivete, and power are striking us with awe. He looks into the sun glint and the episode ends.
Episode 1 of Death Note might be more perfect than I previously said. A good series begins precisely like this, by exploring the motivations, origins, and developments of our protagonist. Ryuk as audience reflection, as narrator, as POV, as the object that allows Light to pursue his goal is such an interesting subversion. This is referred to in many places as a “possession,” but its so interesting how they don’t do that traditionally. The light conflict between Ryuk and Light in future episodes will play out in a very interesting way.
So join me next week for the next episode breakdown. If you enjoyed this, but haven’t seen the series, go watch it. Netflix has it up RIGHT NOW.