Death Note: Does Attacking Criminals Make A Better World?
Death Note shines light on criminals and systemic issues in society. But writer Marku Blackwell has more questions.
Death Note is a franchise that needs no explanation. If you don’t know what it is please go experience it! Read the original manga, watch the anime series (one of the few that even the most hardcore anime watchers often agree the English dub is worthy and that people preferring it are not to be mocked), and watch the Japanese live-action films and ignore the abysmal US Netflix version.
Instead, let’s give context as to why this franchise will be the vehicle to discuss larger systemic issues–first, let’s start with its excellent writing and nuanced character portrayals. Light Yagami himself, our villain protagonist, is one that is divided in-universe (meaning within the world of the story) as well as in real life. Some agree with his plan and approach towards saving the world was necessary, while others feel the ends don’t justify the means and that no one person should play god. The thing that is ignored in an otherwise near-perfect and iconic series and the premise is that the scope is far too limited and specified. Yes, criminals and crime are an issue. But what about the systems that create so many of those very same criminals and thus crimes?
Criminals are a symptom of a larger, systemic issue. However, it’s far too easy to boil crime and criminal activity to criminals and their actions. But we must look at the why as well as the what when it comes to criminals and their existence as such.
Cops Good, Criminals Bad. But What of Systems of Power?
If this franchise had one main fatal flaw besides the lack of scope on the main issue, it’s the copaganda. The Task Force members as well as L and his associates are immediately painted as sympathetic and unwaveringly right in the face of Light’s steadily declining sanity and growing god complex. They are brave, determined, and always shown to be honest. While even some cops in real life may possess these qualities and may or may not directly engage in police brutality or stand idly by it, these are not the issues of the police system as a whole. The issue of policing is the entire system itself. A good cop means nothing because the system itself is designed to go after certain kinds of people, and will ignore others.
Many of you may not need to be told that first and foremost that the police system is antiblack. Black and brown bodies are the first to be brutalized and exterminated when others might be apprehended and unharmed at worst while ignored at best. Look at the many innocent Black lives lost prompting Black Lives Matter as well as the baffling inaction of the insurgency at the U.S. Capitol. Black people can be ended for playing alone in parks or sleeping in their own beds, while white mass shooters can be taken alive and fed McDonald’s, as well as white domestic terrorists and insurgents, can be all but escorted into the Capitol and take selfies with the officers meant to protect it.
While Death Note has little to nothing to do with race, the issues above are used to paint a picture of how flawed policing is as a system. Even as shown within the series, the types of criminals we see the most of are the garden-variety working-class hardened types. It’s the working-class criminals that provide the best example of why Light should have gone after systems, for this is a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Economic, and I would also argue policing, issues are what help create scenarios where people, in desperation and will fewer options, turn to crime for survival. While crime is not okay, it’s really easy for someone like Light, who has had every single opportunity and has never found himself in situations where he had to decide to do a desperate act just to be able to eat, to pass judgment upon those who have had that experience.
In discussing issues of systems, I’m in no way discounting the actions of criminals, especially when it comes to certain types of heinous crimes including murder. That is part of why the premise of the series is as powerful as it is and divides so many: many understand what it means to hate people who do horrible things. And it is also true that evil exists and that sometimes it can be extremely difficult to figure out the best possible way to deal with it. The question is, is punishing the wrongdoer always the best policy? Is the criminal justice system the best possible authority to determine who is deserving of what? And while this series didn’t show it, what happens when bad people become a part of the system designed to protect, serve, and judge?
It just seems plausible that bad people are not limited to civilians who either become definitively classified as criminals or the white-collar type who can at times fly under the radar if they are not caught. And even the hardened criminals who did the worst crimes we hate the most. Are they always just simply evil? Or could they (some at least) be victims of circumstance in ways we don’t always consider, such as inadequate mental health? Especially for the most impoverished of communities with little to no access to adequate nutrition, housing, health care, and most certainly mental health, how does one maintain ideal civilian behavior when one does not get what they need? We certainly do not all react to obstacles in the same way. Privileged people would look at criminals or people struggling in general and employ a bootstrap mentality: that it is up to the impoverished individual to get what they need in order to thrive. Apparently, society and systems are not to blame for us being where we are. Rather, we have to work and work hard in order to succeed…
A Possible Compromise
Death Note might have improved if it had tackled systemic issues rather than criminal bad, cop good mentality, however it provided the most nuance with Light Yagami himself in fascinating ways. Top of his class, son of a police chief, and poised to join the police force as a top cadet and officer, Light’s descent into a demented god-complex as well as his willingness to kill anyone shows that even people who have it all on the surface can be the most violent and disturbing. Among the many acts he committed, Light also exploited police resources to continue killing criminals and eventually other people such as FBI agents and civilians. While suspected as Kira by L, Light was still allowed to work with the Task Force in their investigation and previously had helped them solve cases despite not actually being an officer. The kind of access, and likely nepotism, gave Light even more tools in his arsenal to increase his kill count.
And yet despite all this nuance, it seems rather limited to Light himself as well as his many allies and subsequent Kira’s including fan-favorite Misa Amane. Perhaps the best way to summarize the issues being discussed here is that evil and wrongdoing are incredibly individualistic and rely on the idea that evil is only done by individuals at will. While the way some of the criminals were depicted might imply mental illness, the possibility is not really explored as heavily. We never even hear any insanity pleas or the idea of some criminals being institutionalized rather than being jailed or imprisoned. Even the morals of Kira’s actions never seem to take on the realm of being wrong because some criminals are mentally ill and need treatment rather than death or regular jail or prison. Ultimately, again while Light and his followers are somewhat nuanced in different ways, the rest of the mostly unnamed criminal element without access to Death Notes are boiled down to simply: they’re bad and the public, as well as law enforcement, are divided on what should happen to them.
In real life, we must remember to look at the why as well as the what. Don’t assume that people do what they do for the simplest of reasons. And while criminal activity is wrong (especially violent crimes) there may be more underneath the surface than simply: evil. If more people with less got access to take care of their needs and had more help in general, we might also see some decreases in crime rates. But that is merely speculation.