This article largely came out of a conversation with Adam Shaftoe regarding the Death Note film. I would strongly recommend reading his review as well, as his knowledge of the source material Death Note is derived from is greater than mine, and it provides a good overview.
But there’s one thing in specific that has been bothering me about Death Note, that I wanted to explore in some greater depth and that’s the use of the mode of alienation and the ethics of nihilism in teen media.
In order to fully explore that I’ll start with an alternative comic from the mid-1990s called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.
This comic did the circuit through a lot of the counter-culture scenes circa 1997 and it was something that seemed rather unique at the time. The comic focused on the surrealistic adventures of a solipsistic spree killer, who was driven to kill by supernatural incarnations of alienation and angst that took the form of a pair of gothed up Pillsbury Dough Boys.
Drawn in a sharply chiaroscuro style reminiscent of expressionist woodcuts, this comic presented itself as a commentary on the fundamental banality of modern consumer culture, as the protagonist, defined by his isolation, responds to the desire for undeserved attention, customer-always-right arrogant consumerism, and hollow passion directed to the trivial, projected to seem life shattering with a variety of increasingly nihilistic impulses including murder, torture and suicide. The audience is openly invited to identify with Johnny; there is no other protagonist provided, and with the exception of the two innocents who are deeply traumatized by contact with him (a potential girlfriend who fast realizes the monstrosity of her date and then there was a whole book about her PTSD and a deeply anxious child who Johnny “befriends” for whom there was also a whole book about his PTSD) but ultimately unimportant to the story, the secondary characters who are introduced are universally banal, shrill and unpleasant.
The thesis of the comic largely becomes that the pervasiveness of consumer culture creates an alienation so deep that all people become entirely solipsistic, viewing all other people as Others only considered either as an audience or an enemy. In the face of this, the comic proposes a reasonable response is an urge toward total annihilation: of the self, the Other and the world.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is presented as being slightly counter to this culture. During a kill spree at a fast food restaurant, he’s listening to Wagner on his Walkman (Because of course he is. This book is so influenced by German romanticism and early modern thought that the only surprising thing is that there isn’t actually a character named Nietzsche in it.) However, for his difference, he’s still embedded in the culture. He’s at the fast food restaurant not because he intends to tear down the establishment, but because he wants to buy a taco. During another public massacre, he is at a 24 hour convenience store buying a slushie. Instead, the absurdity of the way others react to their own alienation causes a moment of revulsion in Johnny that points to the nihilistic urge. And then the page is spattered in black ink blood spatter drawn from sharply angular knives.
Johnny believes himself to be special. He believes that his spasms of nihilistic violence help to keep the world from ending. However he is ultimately revealed to be just another alienated young man, unable to affect change in the world, and faced with the choice between death of the body and a spiritual death which comes from final emotional disconnection from his place and culture.
Light Turner in Death Note is effectively just a dumbed down version of Johnny. The bones are there. The mode of alienation is presented clearly, and how Light’s alienation leads to nihilism is also well established. But absent a critical lens to society beyond, “crime hurts families,” he fails to project even the purile illusion of depth that made Johnny the Homicidal Maniac an interesting book for a certain young art student with altogether too much interest in early existentialism.
But for all that Light fails to be an anti-heroic protagonist of the nihil, the film itself does do a good job creating a sense of alienation as a mood. And a lot of this can be laid at the feet of the soundtrack and the portrayal of Ryuk.
These two elements seem like an odd juxtaposition, but they actually do some very important work together. The soundtrack is designed with razor focus to elicit nostalgia. A deft combination of modern ’80s inflected synth, new wave deep cuts and pure schmaltz grounds the blue-washed and perpetually overcast streets of Seattle in the Real. The music conjures for the audience the sense of high school dances, and the sense of listening to music just weird enough to signal one as an “outcast” in the smoking pit while the jocks do jock stuff somewhere nearby. They help to draw the audience into a frame of feeling like they did in school.
Then the unreal invades.
There is absolutely no attempt to make Ryuk realistic. Cloaked in shadow and silhouette, out of focus at times and other times a mass of sharp lines that become nothing but a chaotic mass of angle and form, the death god is a projection of the liminal. And his gift is equally unreal. The deaths granted by the eponymous note fit into the Rube Goldberg / Final Destination / Dead Like Me style, and depend not only on chains of increasingly unlikely coincidence, but also on the ability of the keeper of the note to exact complete control over his victim, their actions and circumstances for a period of time leading up to their demise.
The grey, brown, earthy visual palette of the city, and the deliberately nostalgic soundtrack thus create an intense tension against the unreality of Ryuk and his dark gifts which alienates the audience from the proceedings. This does much of the heavy lifting for providing a sense of identification with the otherwise un-likeable, un-meritorious antihero of the film.
“We are so alone in this world in which there is no justice, in which death is arbitrary,” the film says before positing that one solution is to put religious faith in a nietzschean ubermensch who can overcome the contradiction between good and evil to mete out justice, accountable to nobody.”
The film then presents us with a second protagonist who provides a second, equally dark, resolution to our alienation in L.
L, a Holmsean detective / ninja / chosen one is possibly the best live action screen representation of Batman in the modern period. Unlike like Light, who claims special status and intellect, but who does not show any such quality until the closing scenes of the film, L really does seem that much smarter than anybody else.
By the time he arrives in Seattle it’s evident that he’s already fingered Light as the likely killer, and his challenge becomes more about entrapping Light without exposing himself than about actually figuring out who did it.
A mind capable of processing and synthesizing vast amounts of data to reach broad understandings of his subjects, L is sharply indicative of the modern panopticon, even down to being a consulting detective of nebulous actual authority but the blessing of state actors to operate.
And so these are the choices Death Note presents us for resolving our alienation: surrender to the self-appointed heroes who attempt to transcend good and evil or to the ever-watching eye of an anonymous surveillance apparatus: all of society mobilized to respond to the Other either as enemy or audience.
This isn’t a comforting choice that the film invites the audience to make. What makes Death Note even more discomforting is that it deliberately leaves this choice ambiguous. A late scene involves an anonymous figure aiding Light against L because he sees “Lord Kira” as a suitable solution to the film’s poorly defined social woes. Of all the various coincidences that the film retcons into Light’s eleventh-hour plot of genius manipulation, this one alone is left out of the end descriptive narrative. In this case alone, the character may have acted with agency as opposed to being fate’s plaything.
And the idea of being a plaything to uncaring Others is another thread of alienation running through the film, driven home by Ryuk’s last line when he menacingly says, “humans are so interesting,” implying that all the carnage that unfolded was merely an idle entertainment for him.
Death Note is a bad film. It is a sexist mess in its treatment of Mia, and it strips any pretense of social commentary from its profound alienation before offering up either the chaos of destruction or the rigidity of the ever-watching eye as the solutions to this alienation.
What makes it comment-worthy is that it is particularly slick iteration of a spectrum of media, mostly targeting young men, that points in a specifically misanthropic direction – and is thus likely to reach a larger audience than Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. It is important to discuss films like this, because they do have an impact, and for all their objective defects, will speak to an audience. Especially an audience that, due to a hyper-saturation of targeted marketing, a continuum of study which is beginning to expose them to new ideas, and a volatile emotional milieu feel alienation ever so strongly.
Frankly Death Note left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And now I kind of want to go and watch something that responds by collapsing the Other into the Self and resolving the difference by the act of mutual recognition. You know. Like Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, which seems all the more meritorious in the retrospect provided by this piece of garbage.