There are a limited number of manga series that can be considered worldwide hits. Rather surprisingly, considering the amount of dialogue and seriousness of a story that the author had doubted would be accepted as a Shounen (young boy) Jump title even in Japan, Death Note became one of those titles. When a story about someone in our world finding a killing tool Death Gods use (and killing anyone they view as evil with to create a better world) becomes so successful it's a little special - it isn't every day that a story where words and not fists are used as weapons becomes this popular. Death Note has become so popular that there have even been stories on the American news about kids at school getting suspended after notebooks were found on them with details of deaths written inside!
My first encounter with Death Note was with the anime. I saw discussions about it on a forum I used to visit frequently just after the anime started airing in Japan and what I read interested me, a lover of dark and depressing stories, enough to download the first episode. I was blown away by the quality of the story, the mix of real world and fiction blending superbly. Every episode thrilled me more than the last during the first section of the story, never allowing me to remove myself from the edge of my seat. I watched all 37 episodes weekly and was very rarely disappointed.
Fast forwarding to the recent past, I discovered a Death Note manga box set was coming out by chance. I put in a pre-order with Amazon as soon as I found out about it, later cancelling to order from a cheaper store (I paid £39). I was a little worried about receiving a damaged set after my Naruto manga box set had arrived with some damage, but I put those fears aside since I wouldn't have ended up ordering it if I kept predicting a pessimistic future involving damaged goods. Thankfully, lightning didn't end up striking twice and this time around I was lucky - my set was undamaged on arrival.
After seeing the size of the box my set had been packed in, I was a little worried about the possibility of the store I purchased from sending me the wrong item - it looked tiny in comparison to the Naruto set. I realized after removing the box set from the packaging that the reason for the size was simply down to the Death Note set being compact, so there wasn't to be any drama. I suppose it was a bit silly of me to expect it to be anywhere as near as big as the 27 volume Naruto set...
The box set is certainly very stylish. On the front is an image of a vast amount of skulls bundled together (very fitting), with the Death Note logo going through the middle and various Death Note rules are written in faint text on black behind the image/logo. The back and both sides of the set have one lovely piece of artwork spread across them, the image showing Light holding a scythe whilst walking in (what I assume to be) the Death God world, with a total of seven Death Gods, including Ryuk and Rem, flying behind him in the background. The top and bottom of the set have the same look as the front, minus the bundle of skulls.
Moving onto the interior, the box opens by pulling at the two velcro circles located on the top of the box that connect the front of the box to the top. Once the front of the box is pulled down, you're greeted with an excellent view - all 12 of the Death Note story volumes lined up together and volume 13 sitting alone in its very own little area to the right of volume 12. The inside of the box is totally black apart from an image of a skull.
There's also a small extra thrown in: a large booklet. The booklet contains all the Death Note rules that were put in-between the chapters in the volumes. It isn't the most amazing extra you'll live to see when everything in the booklet is in the volumes, but having the booklet does make finding the rules a lot easier, and it was a nice surprise for me as I wasn't expecting the booklet to be included.
To be honest, I was a little concerned when I first saw pictures of the set; I thought it looked a little disappointing compared to the recently released Naruto set, but it actually looks very pleasing in the flesh. My only complaint about the artwork is that only Light, Ryuk and Rem managed to get themselves onto the box artwork - where were the images of L, Misa, Mikami and a fair few other characters who should've took the place of the (admittedly stylish) black background with faint Death Note rules?
I do have one technical problem with the box, although the problem is more down to me than the design of the box. There's a thin piece of cardboard that separates volume 1-12 and volume 13, this piece of cardboard being connected to the top and bottom. I rather stupidly put one too many volumes into the volume 1-12 section when trying to straighten the bent covers/pages of the books I'd read, not thinking about what could go wrong, and when I tried to remove a volume I must have pushed the little piece of cardboard too far, resulting in it coming loose from the top and no longer supporting the weight of volumes 1-12 when the box is on its side and volume 13 isn't in to support it. It's only a minor problem (at this stage) but, after I was so happy to receive it in perfect condition, it's still going to haunt an idiotic perfectionist like me to my grave. I hope none of you are silly enough to put too many volumes in and/or move the box around too much without volume 13 in to support the evil piece of cardboard!
As for the actual volumes (what you really pay for!), each of the volumes has a different coloured spine, with an image of different Death God at the top of each of the spines. The volume spines are definitely my favourite manga spines to date. The covers of the volumes all have the same theme: a cross, one or two characters shown and faint Death Note rules in the background, with each each volume cover using a different coloured background. The art inside the books is truly wonderful, the art clearly benefiting from Death Note having had one person work on the story and another on the art. The characters expressions are amazing at times, the artist clearly being very good at showing extreme emotions. The only problem with the art I spotted was with the early drawings of the Kira investigation team members being poor, the reason for this being that the artist didn't know during the early stages if they were important characters or not.
After only recently reading volume 1-27 of Naruto and seeing the author of that series use the pages in-between the chapters to reveal lots about himself, what disappointed me about the volumes wasn't the covers, nor was it the story - it was the lack of extras. The author of Death Note seems to have used a pen name, meaning he or she didn't want to reveal too much, which seems to be the reason behind the author not adding any information about his/her life in-between the chapters. Sure, there are a few Death Note rules in-between the chapters, but most of the rules aren't very interesting...reading about the experiences of the author would've been much better.
Now, with the box out of the way, it's best I cover volume 13 before describing the story and giving my thoughts, the reason being that volume 13 isn't anything to do with the story - it was called volume 13 only to get more people to buy it. So, what is volume 13? The answer is that it's a book filled with extras, ranging from interviews to character profiles. Quite a lot of the extras are a waste of space because they don't give new information or because they simply aren't detailed enough. For example, the early part of the book goes through the main characters, giving a few bits of information and showing a graph to highlight their qualities, yet there wasn't any in-depth character analysis and, going on a comment the author made about the most intelligent character in an interview, even the skill graphs were inaccurate. There is a lot of good content in the book, though, namely an interview with the author, an interview with the artist, an interview with both together and the pilot chapter that was created before Light and L came into existence. In all honesty, it's worth the money for the interviews and pilot chapter alone, so the disappointing sections don't really matter - it's nice to read once you finish the series.
I can now finally get into what matters: the story. Death Note is, as you can doubt work out from the name alone, one that deals with death on a regular basis. It starts with Light Yagami, a genius student who finds life all too easy, finding a notebook that a Death God dropped into the human world out of boredom. Light's initial reaction was to not take the notebook or the rules written inside it seriously, but he soon came to the horrifying realization that the notebook wasn't a joke when, out of curiosity, he wrote down the name of someone who was holding kids hostages in a school - the person died from a heart-attack 40 seconds after the name had been wrote down, just as the Death Note rules stated. Once Light paid attention to the rules, he understood that he could make anyone have a heart attack if, with their face in mind, he wrote down their name, or he could be more creative and specify exactly how they die.
From there, Light quickly overcame his fear and started to think about how he could better the world with this power. He was bored with his life prior to finding the Death Note and was disgusted with a world where criminals escaped punishment time and time again, so the Death Note made him more happy than he'd ever been once he got over the fact that he'd actually killed another human. But, as you'd expect, Light wasn't doing this purely out of the goodness of his cold heart: he wants to become the God of the new world he plans to create with the power of the Death Note. As Ryuk (the Death God who dropped the notebook) accurately points out at the start, even if Light manages to accomplish his goal he would have to write his own name in at the end since he would be the last 'evil' person alive.
Much to the frustration of Light and the joy of suspense lovers worldwide, an enemy who could stop him was quick to stand in his way, the enemy being someone called L; the greatest detective in the world. Light's arrogance and temper allowed L to stun Light in their very first encounter, and from that point onwards a psychological battle between the two got underway. Light/Kira (what he comes to be known as by the public) wants to discover the name and face of L in order to kill him, while L wants to find out who Kira is and capture him. Both hide behind masks and, with Light able to kill anyone he knows the name and face of, the battle between the two is not without many twists and turns as the two geniuses try to outwit the other.
The Death Note story is mostly very well written and thrilling to read. The first 34-36(ish) chapters are all brilliant, the best manga I've read. The quality does then drop during the Yotsuba section for a fair few chapters, with comedy and needless chatter taking away from the seriousness and slowing down the story, but the story returns to being epic before too long and then hits its highest point with the tear-inducing finale to the first half of the story. Then, once the second half of the story gets going, it starts out exciting but the quality quickly deteriorates and the pacing becomes very poor, with far too much needless chatter taking up space. And, after a lengthy period of boring chapters, the story resumes being thrilling near chapter 80 and this time it doesn't stop until the very end - the author seemed to rediscover the magic that made the first section of the story so amazing.
I suppose it's fair to call Death Note a bit of a mixed bag due to how the quality shifts from stunning to average from time to time, but the best parts of the story more than make up for the less interesting parts. I don't even think the areas I've described as average were that bad, they just don't have the wow factor the best sections of the story have.
What makes Death Note stand out in my mind is how well the author depicts our world. The Death Note world is bleak, depressing and full of people who don't deserve to live - just like our world. Whilst reading, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if a Death Note appeared in our world: would people still say killing is wrong or, as the world changed as more and more criminals died and crime reduced dramatically, would Kira become a God in the eyes of people? It's a question we'll never know the answer to but it's pretty interesting thinking material for a Shonen Jump title to provide readers.
The author has made a lot of surprising comments in interviews, the two most attention grabbing being that he/she supposedly only had up to chapter 3 planned when he/she started and that he/she didn't intend to send out a message with the story. It's fascinating that someone could write such an intelligent story with so little forward planning and create so many in-depth discussions about topics such as good and evil when the author only intended to create an entertaining story. Using myself as an example of someone who reads more into Death Note than the author intended, I've always thought the message Death Note sends out is clear: it's not possible for a human to reach the realm of God, no matter how perfect the person who tries may be.
With the story parts done and dusted, there is one more important area I need to talk about: the characters. Death Note has a cast of characters that start out complete, which is highly unusual. Everything you need to know about Light is revealed in the first chapter (he's intelligent, selfish and has a God complex), L is an eccentric genius with no social skills (no development needed), Misa is a simple woman who is obsessed with Kira due to her past and everything you need to know about the important members of the Kira investigation team is clear from their personalities. It would've been nice if, for example, a few flashbacks to L's past had been included, but it wasn't necessary for either the plot or his character, and the same can be said about the others. I mean, did we need to see a flashback of Light's past that tried to make him into a more sympathetic character? It would've ruined his character; he's supposed to be a character who cares only about himself, not one who started hating others because of a tragic event or something.
There is one fairly big character negative that needs to be mentioned and, due to the risk of spoilers, I'm going to have to be vague. A character who enters the story in the second half starts out by doing everything he can in order to be the best, even going as far as using and killing others to reach his goal. But, near the end, he does something illogical that goes against his character, and that illogical action resulted in the story ending how it does. So, at the expense of the character, the author used him in order to reach the conclusion he/she she wanted. Even though I love the ending, it's bad writing for a character to do something out of character for the sake of the story.
...Anyway, since this review has gone on for far longer than I intended already, I'm going to attempt to end this after I touch on one more issue: The anime. In my eyes, the anime is the best manga adaptation in existence - it's near enough perfect in my eyes. Madhouse (the studio behind the anime) made the experience far better with the perfect choice of colour, great 'camera angles', small additions that made certain scenes far more dramatic (such as a certain evil grin in episode 25) and a FAR better second half of the story. Madhouse did the best thing they could've done when they removed all the boring chatter out of the second half of the story - they turned what was slow-paced and boring into something fast-paced and exciting. The ONLY thing they did wrong was changing the ending slightly. Also, I have to mention that Death Note has the best soundtrack I've ever heard (I still listen to it even now) and the best Japanese voice acting performance I've heard.
To sum it all up, Death Note is brilliant and the box set is a nice piece for a collector. No manga and/or anime fanatic should miss out on reading/seeing Death Note, and no bargain hunter should miss out on getting the box set.
If you're the sort of person who likes to see a review end with a rating, 9/10 is the rating I give it. Since I rated the anime 10/10, I think it's fair that the (in my opinion) inferior manga receives a slightly lower rating. Although I want to go into more detail, the review has gone on for longer than I intended already and time is getting on, so I'm going to stop here. I hope whoever reads this finds it at least a little bit helpful.