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Death Note commentary.

We’ve never talked about it on this site–I meant to ages ago, but now it’s so popular that my opinion will probably just be redundant–but I think Death Note is great. The manga is great, the movies both had fantastic original endings (totally didn’t see them coming), and the anime, although definitely flawed in a few unique ways, has its own fair share of great. Death Note has its problems, but overall it’s super smart and miles ahead of most Shounen Jump stuff. And yes, you should read it until the end, because although the second half is weaker, it’s still full of great.

Although everyone and his dog hailed Death Note as great when the manga was first coming out in English, recently I heard a lot more criticism of it. And I don’t mean detailed and intelligent criticism, I mean “Death Note is bad” type criticism from people who are supposedly informed comics reader/critics/etc. This baffled me. But…Death Note is great? And then Zac Bertschy, better known as Anime News Network’s Answerman, said this in one of ANN’s forums:

Death Note is a good manga and a decent TV series. The people who say it’s “ridiculous” or terrible or whatever are kneejerk backlashin’.

Not that it’s impossible to dislike, which I’m sure plenty of people do, but to say it’s totally awful and all the praise is unwarranted is pretty much wrong.

Ha ha ha! I like that.

And I agree. You don’t have to like it, but Death Note is great. Like how Monster is great, but I still don’t like it. What you like and what is objectively good do not always match up. Isn’t that supposed to be a critic’s creed? Sheesh.

Sorry, now I’m just being really negative. I don’t hate all comic reviewers, I swear.

12 Responses to “Death Note commentary.”

  1. [...] Sentar sticks up for Death Note at Sleep Is For the [...]

  2. on 07 Jan 2008 at 11:36 am gia

    At risk of sounding contentious: how can anything be “objectively good?” “Good” is by its very nature a subjective concept.

    In keeping with Death Note as an example: I think overall it’s a good manga (but somewhat overrated– I won’t go there now). I think the art is phenomenal and some of the characters are absolutely amazing. I also think the plot direction and pacing leaves something to be desired.

    On the other hand, I know people who think that the plot is perfect, but who find the art overwhelming at times and the lead characters a bit obnoxious. And then there are people who find the series to be flawless, and still others who don’t like a thing about it.

    So…”objectively good?” I dunno. I think it’s kind of a contradiction in terms.

  3. on 07 Jan 2008 at 2:10 pm Tsubasa

    Something is objectively good if it pleases it’s target audience. A “good kids’ story” isn’t necessarily fun for adults, and no one can be forced to like, say, shoujo even the title would be the best of it’s kind.

    It’s the job of the critic to recognize good works of art even outside their own preferences.

  4. on 08 Jan 2008 at 3:02 pm gia

    Well, nothing pleases 100% of its target audience. There will always be a handful of kids in the appropriate age range who DON’T watch Hannah Montana or whatever other product.

    So is this “objective goodness” determined by majority? And if so, why would we need critics at all? We could just decide what to buy based on the top sales lists ;)

    Nah, I don’t think it’s a critic’s job to make a broad, sweeping statement about what is “good” and what is “not good.” I think their job is to put themselves in their readers’ shoes and say, “I think YOU will like this (even if I don’t).”

  5. on 09 Jan 2008 at 11:39 pm Manga News Bites » Comics Worth Reading

    [...] site thinks Death Note is great. (I thought it was terribly disappointing.) They attack criticism of the series as not being [...]

  6. on 10 Jan 2008 at 1:14 am Lianne

    Yeah, the term “objectively good” is vague and arbitrary, and Post Modern Theory probably wants to take on human form to kill me just for typing it. Still, I think there are some general traits that the vast majority of critics can agree are “good” or “bad.” For example:

    -A “bad” artist has no sense of perspective, inconsistent character designs, poor depth (unless a flat look is intentional), etc. A “good” artist avoids all of those problems and also has a unique style, backgrounds that complement the foreground well, etc.

    -A “bad” writer has a sloppily inconsistent tone, plot holes, inconsistent characters, an incoherent story, etc. A “good” writer avoids those problems and also has a meaning/purpose/point to his or her work, even if the point is there IS no point (such as in a gag manga). Also, “good” writers tend to explore ideas, plots, emotions, etc. that aren’t overexposed, or at least provide new perspective on old material.

    I don’t think something selling well means it’s “good,” nor do I think that something selling well means it’s “bad.” Both “good” and “bad” things sell. But these general senses of “good” and “bad” are based on, as mentioned, a number of general observations that I think most critics can agree on, and it’s the critic’s job to look for these traits regardless of the genre of the work or who the work is aimed at. For example, if a critic is a 30-year-old man, he should be able to look at a work aimed at a teenage girl and judge it on its art quality, story comprehension, the aim of the work, etc. and give it a fair review even if the critic is NOT a teenage girl and has no interest in reading anything for a teenage girl. (Also, I think part of a critic’s job is to evaluate a work in a more global sense AFTER evaluating it in a vacuum – for example, maybe a work is solid on its own, but it’s weaker if it’s just a retelling of something told many times before by other works – but that’s the topic of another post.)

    Anyway, it’s very late, and I’m very tired. But in summary: there’s no such thing as “objectively good” for everyone, but I think that critics share much of their criteria for what makes a work strong or weak, and thus some works can meet enough universal criteria for “what makes a strong work” to be considered, to an extent, “objectively good” in general by critics. If a critic trashes something that most would call “objectively good,” and said critic doesn’t provide many solid reasons for that, then that’s a good warning sign that the critic is crippled by bias. We all have bias – but a good critic doesn’t let it blind him or her.

  7. on 10 Jan 2008 at 1:47 am Lianne

    Hm, Comics Worth Reading has taken issue over this. Well, I was kind of expecting that. And we’ve come to indirect blows over some issues before, so I’m not surprised we disagree on other things. That’s okay – I love civil debate.

    I’m not going to go into detail regarding why I think Death Note is so brilliant, because, as I briefly mentioned, a billion other people have already written essays on why Death Note is a very strong manga (ESPECIALLY considering it ran in Shounen Jump). My point was that I thought Death Note was one of those few titles that everyone could put aside his or her preferences for and appreciate for being unique, morally complicated, hyper analytical, well-drawn, far-reaching, etc. I’m always surprised to hear people call it “bad” or “weak” or even “disappointing,” and I’ve yet to hear really good non-visceral (“it’s boring”; “Near is annoying”) reasons why*, which let me make a point about what I think makes a bad critic. Also, I was trying to be funny…my reusing the word “great” was supposed to be funny. Anyway, I was hoping nobody was going to judge my ability as a critic based on that single post, considering it’s come (as it was intended) as a brief observation/rant after I’ve written a bazillion other reviews for this website. But whatever.

    *(The strongest arguments I’ve heard against Death Note so far are the inherent misogyny lurking behind the story and the long-windedness of the plot. But I think Death Note more than makes up for those weaknesses with its broad scope, its very direct handling of tricky issues regarding death and crime and what constitutes fighting for the greater good without cramming any one view down the reader’s throat, its unique insight into the insane rumination brilliant sociopaths are likely to go through…dammit, I said I wasn’t going to go into Death Note itself here, because I have less-discussed manga to discuss. I’m done now.)

  8. on 10 Jan 2008 at 5:58 pm gia

    My main argument has nothing to do with misogyny and is only tangentially related to the plot’s length.

    You say Death Note has a “very direct handling of tricky issues regarding…what constitutes fighting for the greater good,” but in my opinion, that was the *promise* of the series and I felt like it never actually delivered. Oh, sure, characters hammered the point home by sometimes admitting that they could understand where Kira was coming from or agreeing with him, or by declaring him nothing but a murderer and denouncing him.

    But where was the actual debate? By the end of volume 2 or 3, Light has made the choice: he will protect himself and his ability to slaughter criminals, regardless of whether it costs innocent lives. He becomes a more or less flat character and doesn’t show any regret, hesitation, or internal debate until his death. As such, he becomes evil, and the debate ends.

    Instead of debate on good, evil, and justice and it became a complex and increasingly unlikely cat-and-mouse chase. Now, at this point I can bring in the long-winded argument– if the series was simply going to be a complicated detective story, it could have been shortened and made less clunky and would have been a perfectly acceptable detective story.

    But I would have preferred something that actually explored the themes it brought up at the very beginning, rather than what sometimes felt like the author saying “look how brilliant I am! I can come up with a super-complicated maze and then I can get out of it! Woohoo!”

    Obviously I feel like I have a legitimate argument. Is it strong? That’s up to whoever actually reads this. ;)

  9. on 11 Jan 2008 at 11:28 am Lianne

    I do think you have a legitimate argument, but I disagree with it. Actually, I did recently hear some other people talk about Death Note “not delivering” on the moral argument about what constitutes justice, as you yourself have mentioned. I think Death Note DOES deliver, just in a roundabout manner modeled off of its magazine peers – shounen style.

    Death Note ran in Shounen Jump, and although it bears little resemblance to other Shounen Jump titles, at its base, I think it works like many other shounen titles: there’s a message hidden behind lots and lots of action. The action in Death Note is deducing. Just because the majority of the series is focused on its action doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning behind the action. In shounen, the boys fight – the theme/meaning/point is in WHY they’re fighting. Light decides fairly early on that he knows what justice is. L thinks he knows, and his opinion differs. Then he and Light out-deduce each other for a million pages. A number of side characters get involved, and each person has a different idea regarding what constitutes justice – the police believe that justice is maintaining the law, that lawyer who shows up later in the manga (forget his name) believes in a more universal justice that the law can’t provide, Near believes in ending evil without compromising international law/ethics at all, etc. Mello and Misa both believe in self-gain, aka a type of personal, selfish justice (“I’m going to get what I want, because no one has the right to tell me I can’t go after what I want”). These characters are, pretty much without exception, flat. They don’t grow over the course over the series. That’s not the point. We don’t need to see characters go through epiphanies regarding what justice is, because their one-note characterizations represent at least half a dozen different INTERPRETATIONS of what justice is, and the manga itself isn’t trying to drive any one point home – it lets the reader decide. The only message that the manga itself pushes by the end is, in my opinion, the futility of mortality. As humans, we’re only pawns in a greater game, and there’s only so much control we have. But that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that there IS a sort of universal human justice. It’s up to the reader to decide, after s/he has been exposed to a number of different viewpoints. Hell, the reader can come up with his/her OWN viewpoint after digesting all the characters’ views – God knows most of the characters weren’t shown in a positive light. The manga lets the reader decide who is good, who is evil, who is right, etc.

    I think it’s monumentally important to look at a work in the context in which it was published, and I think that’s what’s holding Death Note back in a lot of people’s eyes. Death Note ran in a magazine primarily aimed at junior high school boys. (Way more people read Shounen Jump, obviously, but that’s still the main, historic targeted readership.) It based itself off a standard shounen formula – quick set-up, obvious character motivations, and then lots and lots of action while each character fights for his or her own reason – but then introduced uncommon themes like widespread present-day murder, crime & punishment, the true difference between good and evil, what constitutes justice, etc., and let the reader make his/her own judgments. That is BRILLIANT. Talk about taking your readership by the hand and then leading them into a whole new realm of thinking – and specifically by NOT telling them what to think. (By the way, the young readership is yet another argument against Death Note being too long-winded – kids have to be able to follow what these super geniuses are thinking, hence the sometimes long explanations.)

    So I think Death Note had a definite, noble purpose, and it nailed that purpose. Hard. And I always assumed that was what elevated a manga from “good” territory into “great” territory. I’ll stand by Death Note until the end of time.

  10. [...] do a review or essay or something on Death Note now; I’ve practically written one in the comments section of last post already, but that’s lame – I need something more organized. Time to replace my mouth with [...]

  11. on 04 Feb 2008 at 10:01 am Vasara

    you guys read comics?
    I didnt know there were comics for this series.
    OH yes dont read on if you watch the series in Amirica and don,t like spiolers Well light dies
    and iam thats so cool that maens l lives.

    well farewell fellow surfers.

  12. on 04 Aug 2008 at 3:24 pm saed

    I think the moral point is more about right of judgement than about justice.

    …saed

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