Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first five episodes of Death Note.
This article is the fifth (out of a planned six in total) of its series – the first, second, third, and fourth were Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh, Kuroshitsuji, AnoHana, and Free! respectively. As usual, Watson knew nothing about the anime before watching other than the title, and the following questions were given to him to answer afterwards.
Light makes for an unusual main character; intelligent but conceited, and quickly corrupted by power despite his ostensibly pure intentions, he becomes an egomaniacal serial killer rather than a hero. Do you think viewers need to be able to like, empathise with, or root for the main character in order to enjoy a story? Were you yourself able to do so?
Speaking for myself, a side character that I can empathise with or root for is more attractive by far than a main character whom I don’t particularly want to succeed. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way – a story with an unlikeable protagonist runs the risk of having a character or antagonist who is likeable get picked by audiences as the real star of the show, with sometimes hilarious consequences as the creator(s) realise the situation and either double down on their original concept or frantically backpedal and try to cater to the audiences feelings. So I think one or more of those three things you mention about the main character is necessary if we’re going to enjoy the story (although it probably isn’t sufficient).
In this specific example, Light didn’t manage to tick any of the boxes for me. I didn’t find him likeable, couldn’t empathise with this circumstances, and I certainly didn’t want him to succeed. So right from the start the story was working uphill for me.
Also unusually for a shounen title (aimed primarily at teenage males), Death Note features very little in the way of physical fighting and instead focuses mainly on psychological warfare. Do you think the extended cat-and-mouse game between Light and L is enough on its own to make for a fully engaging show, or would you have preferred to watch a more traditionally action-orientated series?
We have a surfeit of shows featuring physical confrontation as the main means of conflict, so I applaud any attempt to try something different. However, although Death Note makes a decent attempt at being a duel of wits, in my opinion it doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. I think the show would have benefitted greatly from doing a bit of research into real-world interrogation and psychological warfare methods and then thinking about how to apply them to the situation in the show. As it is, it relies a good deal on people acting in rather contrived ways, and this is a glaring flaw. That being said, I think Death Note deserves great praise for even making the attempt. It might not have been completely successful, but it was going in the right direction. And personally, I’ve got a lot of time for shows like that.
The anime has been ridiculed by some viewers for being overly dramatic in places, turning the simplest of actions into the most epic of scenes – e.g. the infamous potato chip scene. Did you notice this trend while watching, and if so, how did you react to it?
I noticed it got a bit overblown at times, but in the episodes I watched it hadn’t quite descended to that level. I suspect that there’s a kind of standing temptation for the creators, impelling them towards a kind of “escalation of epicness” (which, by the way, will be the title of my next album). They don’t have increased levels of physical action available to them to display the rising stakes and the scale of the characters’ investment in what they’re doing, so they resort to using techniques that would usually accompany that physical action in order to convey those things. But once you’ve done that, what do you do when something happens that is meant to have an even greater impact?
Easy – you make it more epic! And since Death Note is a show about psychological tension and shock, there’s no shortage of moments in which they need to turn up the dial a bit more. Pretty soon they find out that they need to start adding more numbers to the dial, and you get – well, you get things like the potato chip scene.
Personally, I think that’s a mistake. A psychological thriller should be about psychological thrills, not “the climax of epic snacktime” (that’s my next cookbook/erotic handbook, incidentally). Less is quite often more in such matters, and there’s plenty of research and examples about how to do it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I think the show and its premise would have been better served by going in this direction.
Death Note’s release outside of Japan has been linked with numerous imitators and copycat crimes, including the murder of a man in Belgium in 2007. School officials in several cities in China even banned the manga after students were found altering notebooks to resemble Death Notes and then writing peoples’ names in them. Knowing this, do your feelings about Death Note, or about anime and manga as a whole, change at all?
Not really. People do things like that every so often, unfortunately, and although they frequently claim influence from one source or another, I’m not aware of any genuine causal link ever being demonstrated between that source and what they ended up doing. Such cases always seem to be the result of people with other serious issues (although if you ever find yourself watching a production of ‘The King in Yellow’, I strongly suggest you leave before the second act).
That’s not to say that I think media are blameless in general, however. We’re strongly affected by attitudes we encounter frequently, and if media frequently depicts (for example) violence as an acceptable method of resolving problems, then it becomes normalised in people’s minds. More subtly, if media doesn’t depict something then its absence becomes normalised too, and people who are affected by that thing will think there’s something wrong with them.
So, as a little exercise for anyone following along at home, have a think about this: what things occur frequently in anime? And what things never appear? What do you think might be being normalised as a result?
Be honest now. If you came across a Death Note and there was no chance of you being caught, would you be tempted to use it?
Tempted? Yes, of course. I’d be lying if I claimed that I hadn’t thought about that very thing while watching the show. But a life of reading stories has cemented in my mind that dealing with the supernatural always – ALWAYS – has unforeseen strings attached, and the more power one expects to hold, the greater one can expect the consequences to be. The power of life and death is quite a lot of power, and I suspect it is going to be accompanied by equally great costs.
As death gods go, Ryuk seems about as harmless and inept as you’re going to find. But personally I think he’s about as trustworthy as a rabbit in charge of a lettuce leaf, and even if what he says is true, that doesn’t mean it’s being said for my benefit. I’d want to know a lot more about his motivations before I put too much faith in anything that guy came out with.
So while I would definitely be tempted, I’d also approach the idea with a good deal of caution and scepticism about what was really going on. It doesn’t pay to make mistakes in matters of life or death, after all.
Not unless I have to. As I said earlier, I think Death Note legitimately deserves praise for some of the things it does and tries to do, even if not all of them are completely successful. Most of its failures are of degree, not direction, so I think it’s trying to make the right moves. But I found my suspension of disbelief struggling with the decisions people made and the pulled-from-nowhere nature of some of the ‘brilliant’ mind games. And, going back to the first question, the main character has nothing that makes me want to see any more of them. This is my main reason for not wanting to watch any further.
Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions, and do you have any other questions for him? As always, Watson himself will reply directly to anything aimed at him.