Wednesday, September 27, 2017

On mass-murder considered as one of the fine arts, part II


Part Two of a review of my very favorite TV cartoon.  (Part One can be found here.)

Directed by Tetsuro Araki
Written by Toshiki Inoue et al (based on the comic by Tsuhumi Obha and Takeshi Obata)
With Kappei Yamaguchi/Alessandro Juliani (L), Noriko Hikada/Cathy Weseluck (Near), Nozomo Sasaki/David Robert (Mello), Naoya Uchida/Chris Britton (Soichiro Yagami), Ryo Naito/Vincent Tong (Touta Matsuda), Kimiko Saito/Colleen Wheeler (Rem), Shido Nakamura/Brian Drummond (Ryuk), Issei Futamata/Andrew Kavadas (Kyosuke Higuchi), Masaya Mazukaze/Kirby Morrow (Teru Mikami), Musumi Okamura/Heather Doerksen (Kiyomi Takada), Aya Hirano/Shannon Chan-Kent (Misa Amane), and Mamoru Miyano/Brad Swaile (Light Yagami)

Spoiler alert: severe (no, seriously)
Content warning: unsupportably long even as a two-part piece, but as a hyperindulgent birthday present to myself, that is also several weeks late, could it even get any more "me"?


Indeed, with a third of the story left to go, the monster beats the monster-hunter, and the monster-hunter knows it's coming.  Death Note, which has proven itself well-made up till now and will continue to be well-made till the very tail end, never tops its first climactic episode, and probably couldn't.  It's Death Note's most obviously-directed entry, an exercise in slowing the pace down to that of rapidly cooling molten glass, coming on the heels of the most eventful episode of the series.  There was a car chase, gunfire, and even a helicopter in that episode; in this episode, it's a lot of standing around gawking at a God of Death.

Light's victory has been assured already, the moment his "memory gambit" comes to fruition.  (And, without contradicting anything I said about the climactic episode, I suppose my favorite moment comes in the episode just prior, the rictus of triumphal remembering that seizes Light's face, seen through a series of staggeringly effective axial jump-cuts bounding away from our villain—it's literally the most effective use of that technique I've ever seen, in a hundred thousand hours of moving picture consumption—right before a montage of the whole series bursts inside his metaphorically-exploding head.  There's something to be said, too, about how spacing Light's victory and L's defeat so far apart lets you to savor the former without being immediately depressed by the latter.)

But Episode 25—called "Silence," fittingly enough, given the oppressively funereal atmosphere and its aggressively impressionistic sound design—is like strangling on piano wire.  It's the very definition of Hitchcockian suspense mixed with genuinely moving tragedy, as L shuffles around his last mile, knowing he's been right without being able to prove any of it, knowing that somehow Light has maneuvered him into a corner he couldn't get out of without betraying everything he believes in, and his only countermove—mere acceptance—not much of a useful one, but one at least that allows our hero a dignity in death that Light, in the years to come, was never going to get to have himself.

And maybe that's Death Note's single cruelest joke, being played in slow-motion upon all of us in the audience—as we discover exactly how dignified Light ever was, in his final scene.  Light's laid bare in all his cravenness and delusions, and even if we haven't managed to figure it out at any other point over the course of the previous 36 episodes, it's certainly right up in our face now.  And then you still wind up with a touch of sympathy for this devil, even then!

The series was overseen by one Tetsuro Araki, and he gets short shrift, from what I've seen, for the sheer thoroughness of his success with adapting a comic book story into motion.  (Is it wise to admit I've never read the manga in earnest?  Though perhaps I've seen enough of it to know that Araki is hardly above doing a full-on Snyderesque shot-for-shot replication of Obata's panels, when the image suits his purposes.)  But even before we get to the whole "motion" part of Araki and his animators' scheme, it's worth remarking that Death Note is already a gorgeous thing, thanks to the foundation Obata already laid.  The brilliance of Light and L's character design, I've already discussed (at potentially perilous length), but the whole show is at least a minor designer's triumph.  (And nobody these days ever talks about just how freaking goth the damn thing is!  Those baroquely grotesque Gods of Death really tie Death Note up into a wonderful little bundle of goth—and one that's swarming constantly around our inutterably square villain, from the gloriously metal montrosity of Ryuk, down to Light's black lace lolita of a girlfriend, and even L's own lazy-goth crapulence.  It impresses upon the viewer how "perfect" Light is, while at the same time putting him out of place and out of step with his own milieu, divinity oppressed and badgered by a pack of hipsters.)

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, what could be more goth than a wide-ruled notebook in which you write down the names of all the jerks you wanna see die?

The atmosphere is ably assisted by Yoshihisa Hirano and Hideki Taniuchi's ridiculously good and varied motif-driven score, ranging from moody little drips of notes, to L's themes (a pair of propulsive little guitar numbers that are virtually synonymous with "solving a mystery!"), all the way up to that aforementioned choral music, underlining all of Light's self-regard and the awe (in many cases, the justified awe) we're supposed to feel before Kira's reign of terror.  (It's surely necessary to mention, likewise, the show's opening and closing credits sequences: all four of them good, but none better than the second opening credits, a glorious wallow in pop art surrealism fueled by nightmarish imagery and an even more nightmarish pop song, "What's Up, People?!" an objectively terrible piece of J-metal that nevertheless fits the mood of the second phase of the show like a glove.  And, while we're at it, it's worth taking note of the commercial break bumpers, too, always displaying a rule of the Death Note, which isn't really worthwhile at all until the moment, 37 episodes deep into the show, that it turns out to have been completely essential to the emotional effect of the whole endeavor, when it lists the Death Note's most unnecessary rule: "Every human, without exception, will die."  It reminds us of something L said, long ago: "If Kira wins, he's justice"—in other words, the fundamental philosophical nihilism that's dogged us like a doubt all along.)

Meanwhile, the book might be verbose, by absolute necessity, but the cartoon sure as hell follows suit.  Araki, however, is savvy enough to never let his visual medium become overwhelmed by the vastness of his adaptation's exposition (for Death Note is something like 50% exposition, approaching 100%, really, considering that "things happening in Death Note" is almost perfectly coextensive with "Light talking to himself about how fucking great he is").  The result is a show that's shockingly kinetic—it might be unusually kinetic by anime standards—and this is true even when the action tends to lean heavily upon the seemingly-uninteresting image of "somebody writing down names in a notebook."

You'd never know it from the show, but one the minor rules of the Death Note is supposed to enforce "legible handwriting."

So that "seemingly" is the key: Araki finds a nigh-on infinite number of ways to make writing look compelling, to the extent that Death Note—possibly by default, but I think by design—winds up an extravagant parody of general shonen style.  Certainly, by the time we get to Teru Mikami, Kira's operational successor in the long years after L's death, it's got to be on purpose (or else Mikami's orgasmic cries of "Delete!" are only Death Note making fun of itself, which it also is).  But even early on, Araki flirts openly with the possibility of total camp.  Light's potato chip gambit is not a legendary meme for no reason.  It's an exercise in making the banal so awesome that it punches through intentional comedy entirely, and finds itself resting comfortably in the realm of legitimately mythic.  ("AND EAT IT!", indeed: it's pretty much a synecdoche for the whole show, and it really is that fantastic, in context or out.)

After all, almost all of Death Note is like this: mind games that happen almost exclusively inside the brains of our deuteragonists, taking them on overheated color-coded symbolic journeys through a battle without physical reality.  The subjectivity of the mind is entirely inextricable from Death Note's aesthetic, of course, the same way it's inextricable from its narrative.  It's essential to a brand of storytelling that revolves totally around what almost comes off as a telepathic struggle between Light and L, complete with the willingness to emphasize the alacrity of their respective geniuses by stopping time entirely, so they can explain to us, to themselves—and practically to each other, since the effect is damn near the same—how precisely they intend to win this time.

Here, we finally should talk about Death Note's vocal talent, at least briefly.  (It's also the part where I reveal that if I've ever seen it subtitled, I've forgotten it.  It's not the first time I've never seen a Japanese cartoon in its native language, my weeaboo friend!)  Anyway, "briefly" is all we need, since despite uniformly good turns by the supporting players, this too is the Light and L Show; their English VAs, Brade Swaile and Alessandro Juliani, put on what I have to reckon as the finest English-language dub performances an anime has ever received.  Juliani is just brilliant.  (As Juliani is best known from his live-action turn on Battlestar Galactica as Gaeta, a character who has the distinction of getting to die well right before the show went completely to pot, a wag might even say that this is the actor's signature move.)  In any event, what Juliani does is risky, but it pays off wonderfully, and that's underplay L to within an inch of his very life, playing him as (seemingly) distracted and completely lost in his own head, and almost incapable of delivering any kind of proper emotion.  (But Juliani also knows this is kind of funny, and while Death Note is rarely above indulging in slapstick, it's only really laugh-out-loud funny moments come direct from Juliani's mouth and his bone-dry sarcasm.)

So it's tempting to call Juliani Death Note's most valuable VA.  But then there's still Swaile, representing unbelievably pitch-perfect casting: a veteran of dub tracks by 2006, he still possessed (and, I presume, still possesses) a boyishness to his voice.  That same callow boyishness underlines Light's immaturity in every single syllable he speaks, and Swaile allows it to become dominant with the excitement of impending victory.  Light Yagami becomes one of the most hissably smug and self-satisfied villains in history, as a result, and much of that is thanks to Swaile.  It's obvious enough that Mamoru Miyano must've been doing something pretty damn special on his side of the Pacific too, but, for my purposes, Swaile's the man responsible for making Light so ecstatically evil.  I can't imagine anyone beating Swaile in the final scenes of Death Note, when he tears Light's restraint away to reveal the insanity beneath—and after 37 whole episodes of just barely keeping a lid on it, you'd think this final turn surely must've worthy of the highest iteration of whatever award it is they give dub actors.  (Oh, but maybe I will mention one supporting cast member, because Brian Drummond is in top form as Ryuk, too.  But this means something slightly more to me because it represents a reunion of Swaile and Drummond, who worked together on the first anime I ever, ever watched, Gundam Wing, a thing for which I have an unswerving nostalgia, despite the more-or-less established fact that it is quite legitimately bad.)

Well, either way, if you've read this far, I assume you'll have to agree: you could listen to these two talk to themselves about plans all Goddamn day.  And it culminates, ultimately, in the crowning moment of Death Note's self-awareness (not to mention the very apex of its bitterness towards its only surviving protagonist), when Light's voice cries out, "I've won!", and it turns out that this time, he actually did say it out loud, and everybody heard him.

And saw that lizard smile of his.  For once.

So: while most people don't have any problem whatsoever with the distant second climax of Death Note, it's the getting to it that sticks in the craw.  The thing is, and it's hard for me to be reasonable about this with something I love so much, but it's not the first time where Death Note's inherent interest has dropped.  After all, it happens at least twice before.  I should start with the second, since it's the less damaging overall.  That's the beginning of Light's memory gambit, whereupon he surrenders his notebook to a proxy Kira (and surrenders his memories in the process, according to the rules).  It gives us the semi-interesting spectacle of "nice" Light—a Light who doesn't possess the acknowledged God complex of the Light we've known up till now—but it intentionally saddles us with a much less interesting Kira, too, a venal corporatist who uses the Note to kill business rivals.  Obviously, things pick back up soon; but this interregnum also sees Death Note relying a lot more on comedy to fill the void—not always its strongest suit.

Which suggests what the other hiccup must be, although you've probably guessed from the way I've yammered on about Death Note for 4500 words and somehow managed to avoid typing out the mere two that would identify the third most important character in the whole show: "Misa Amane."

Look, she's fine, okay?

"Fine" is probably the best way to describe Misa (or Misa-Misa!!!11one—since it's 2006 again), the pop-star/model/fangirl/stalker/psychopath who gets ahold of the other Death Note that's wound up in the human world, and becomes attached to her guardian shinigami, Rem, in the process.  First of all, this is Death Note's penchant for convenience-based writer fiat at its very worst, and, for all that Death Note is a wonderful piece of mystery-thriller writing, it is ribboned through with the stuff.  Second of all, whatever else the basic mechanic that Misa represents does for the show—and it's a lot, notably the fact that unlike Light, she's taken the Eyes—you'd have a hard time dreaming up a more retrograde character if you tried, demonstrating (almost entirely by herself!) a belligerently sexist streak that stains the whole show from the instant she enters it right down to its very final frames.  After all, her most fundamental motivation, which damn near encompasses her entire character, is to be Kira's girlfriend.  (Death Note bottoms out no harder than Misa's first bleated-out entreaty to this effect.)  Man: you write it out like that, and it sounds just horrible.

The astonishing thing is it that works as well as it does; it certainly helps that Misa winds up a stark contrast to both Light and L.  And it's not because she's stupid.  She's characterized, albeit a little inconsistently, as very, very smart: nearly her very first act is using the rules of the Note to trick Light into revealing his identity to her.  (Though, I guess there really is no getting around the fact that the show itself thinks she's stupid.)  Yet despite her demeanor, she's almost certainly the smartest person we ever see, other than the Genius Chessmasters.  And in many respects she's still the wisest—because the limits Misa imposes upon her part in the great game are so different in kind from theirs, boiling down to her willing service as a pawn, paired with a lack of any other restraint whatsoever.  Misa would go through the phonebook.

Misa would give up half her lifespan for power; Misa would even sacrifice the God of Death who obeys her; Misa would do, in principle, whatever it took for her survival and her cause's victory.  If Light had never gotten his notebook, Misa might not have been as compelling a villain, but that's only because she wouldn't have ever really risked losing.  Throughout it all, it makes her the single most dangerous person we'll ever see, which is why it's something of a true Goddamn pity that her actual role diminishes to little more than comic relief within just a few episodes of her first appearance.  (It's a role she suits, to be fair, although even by this metric she's outshone by Matsuda, the "dumbest" of the semi-interchangeable cops who make up L's task force—because the funniest thing about Matsuda isn't that his less-sober attitude makes him the butt-monkey for the rest of the team.  Rather, it's because we know that they're all easily-duped morons.)

Meet the New L!  Wait, didn't the Old L say something about him usurping the title in a bid to continue mass-murdering hundreds of thousands?  Oh, man, am I making that up?  How embarrassing!

Anyway, it'd be doing far too much work on the show's behalf to insinuate that the way Misa is actively discarded by the narrative has anything to do with reflecting the way Light discards her, too; but, in Death Note's favor, there comes a little slice of melodrama late, late in the series that at least reads as an acknowledgment, if not exactly an apology.  Let us take solace, then, in the way that Death Note pointedly refuses to examine the unexplained and inexplicable mystery at the heart of the character, and at the heart of the series, which is why Gods of Death find Misa Amane so compelling that they are willing to break their realm's only enforced rule and die for her benefit—especially since, if Misa really does represent the most endearing aspects of humanity, this would be Death Note's darkest commentary of all.

But these are small elements of a larger design, rather than any whole design itself; Misa doesn't "ruin" the first 25 episodes of the show anymore than a frame of off-model animation would.  And so Death Note can obviously be neatly divided into two phases (and two completely severable plots), "L" and "After L," and one of these is better, and one of these is worse.  The question remains if the second is bad.  It is, objectively, sloppier, and beholden to what's come before in some pretty bad ways, especially in the sense that it has to go out of its way to try to expand the scope of Death Note's proceedings, and to out-brash one of the brashest thrillers ever made, whereupon it starts making some very weird mistakes.  (As a plausible narrative, Death Note's absolute nadir has to be the bit where the Note is used to hijack a passenger plane and land it in the desert without a runway, this being the stupidest thing that happens in the whole show—and it's not even the only stupid thing about that scene!)

Oddly, the worst thing about "After L" might be that it's so much more of the same: two new detectives are introduced, Mello and Near, and whatever complaints I have about Mello (mainly fashion-related, and even then, mainly hair-related), at least he's distinct, even more ruthless than L and preferring physical confrontations over mental chess.  (He's certainly the only one of the five principals who ever figures out that you can maybe also kill people with guns and bombs.)  Meanwhile, if it weren't for Mello, there's at least a slight possibility that Near would become mildly tedious, inasmuch as Near is L, palette-swapped, and given a new (barely new) set of Eccentric Genius tics.  Indeed, Death Note might never become more obnoxious than when it takes control of Light's inner monologue to pimp its new boy detective, with writing that's scarcely more subtle than, "Near is too just as good as L, and you should totally like him just as much as you liked L, and I really don't see how anybody could think that cloning L's character could possibly undermine L's uniqueness and hence cheapen the tragedy of his demise."

Caveat: I still basically like Near.  And it always pays to remember the meaning of loss, for at least part of the reason L's our favorite is because they took him away.

Alternatively, then, the worst thing about the second phase of Death Note is a variation on the same complaint, just phrased in a slightly different way: skipping ahead in time half a decade, in a world where Kira has taken the reins, Death Note now has the opportunity to open up its thriller to a much wider world of speculative fiction—and takes advantage of that opportunity with the most patently obvious reluctance.  It winds up more-or-less reiterating the same points it already has, only a little more clearly, running up the satirical scoreboard on a bloodthirsty mass media, a toxic Internet doxxing culture that feeds Kira names and faces for judgment, and a global population that seems ripe for fascism.  (This isn't to say it wasn't eerily fucking prescient for material written in the mid-2000s, nor that it doesn't do a sterling job of setting its five-years-later scene: Araki is still as invested as ever, and "After L" has such an odd, elegaic, even post-apocalyptic mood to it, which was never present before and makes the final twelve episodes something special, even if occasionally frustrating.  It's even funny the way Araki goes about it, partially by upending the color palette: the first 25 episodes, and especially the middle dozen or so that fix themselves on L's headquarters, are informed by steel and technology, by blue-and-gray—blue being the hue of L's rationalism—and it's a retina-searing contrast to the New World that Light's created in his colors, that is, all in warm shades of red and orange that somehow never, ever feel cozy, even when they probably should.  It's a constant reminder that the wrong side has won, and built a nest for himself.)

But maybe this is all besides the point anyway: I don't suppose I actually wanted some anthology series called Tales of the New World, after all.  I still wanted Death Note, and Death Note still delivers Death Note exceptionally well, all the way up to its very, very end.  Certainly, it's worth noting that the second-best scene in the whole series is the end.  In the final analysis, Death Note (taken altogether) is pretty full of holes—and really chock full of belief-beggaring coincidence.  But that's true of many a great thriller.  The art is in hiding it, and Death Note is so good at driving you along with it, episode after episode after episode, even past the point that it's killed its single best character, that it can hide them, not unlike Light Yagami himself, right there in plain sight.

Score:  10/10

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