Death Note is one of those iconic, apocryphal stories that it feels like everyone's read or at least heard of by now
If you've somehow missed it, let me sum it up for you as:
In essence, a perfect date movie.
Or, as Manga Recon put it:
Death Note is a story that plays on its own apocrypha. From start to finish, it's not only celebrating the cult of Kira, but the cult of itself. Death Note is a cultural product that manages to be self-aware and culturally aware, and it plays on this idea of itself as a commodity: on the idea of Kira (Light, god, serial killer, Major Diva) as a gift to the masses, and the idea of "death notes"--these notebooks that, oh, rob people of free will and then kill them--as handy-dandy means of mass-producing death.
Just like you can't talk about Ozu without talking about modernization, you can't talk about Death Note without talking about post-industrialization, commercialism, and the mass-production of culture itself, right along with all the mythical elements of justice and moral absolutes we continue to teach ourselves even when they're proven hopelessly outdated. The story of Death Note is about a modernist culture which has fabricated itself based on the idea that right and wrong are basically concrete things; Yagami Light acting as Kira (the new god of death) utterly destroys this myth, and along with it, turns himself into a universally worshipped hero, both in the story and IRL.
Everyone in Death Note applies his/her own understanding of a universal ethic to what's happening - but what happens is that everyone's idea of what the universal ethic is/should be is different. The understanding of what justice means isn't consistent from character to character. So the society of Death Note has to rely on the appearance and semblance of what *looks* like justice and moral reasoning. Light is the savvy, post-modern anti-hero he is because he sees through all of that. Where L, while still able to play the game, is ultimately a younger extension of Ozu's Tokyo Story grandfather: confronted with all the ways in which Tradition cannot comprehend the emerging problems of the new era, he allows his rational mind to basically fold its hand and give in.
Light and L are dually opposed (and parallel) commentaries on isolation in urban society. Light is from a very integrated family, his father is a part of the social system, and Light himself is a completely idealized typified golden boy who has managed to succeed in every aspect of his urban landscape: intelligent, accomplished, hot, confident, and extremely adept at reading social situations and people. he knows what the normative standard is and he surpasses it constantly. he also grew up in one of the busiest, wealthiest, and most industrialized metropolitan areas in the world.
Then there's L, who grew up with no family, no integration, no urban landscape, no connection to the outside world except through a detached and highly theoretical understanding of it. Again, theoretical in the sense that he has strong ideas about justice like Light, but also theoretical in that unlike Light, he never has a chance to practice and adapt to social norms: he remains detached and aloof from society as part of his job, but also because he wants to. Unlike Light, who actually functions better from directly within the society he's observing, L functions better outside of it. Light is purely integrated, L is purely disconnected; Light is part of the urban landscape, L part of the rural/suburban; Light represents societal progression, L represents traditionalism.
Yet for all that L is the alienated one and Light the fully mainstreamed one, Light is the one whose ideas ultimately disconnect him the most. L is the one who manages to hang on to the truest picture of humanity, along with his hope and his idealism - his disconnect from society actually aids him and maybe even allows him to stay rooted to its traditional values. Light's version of humanity is one that is warped and cynical - his idealism, too, is a warped and cynical vision of society's potential: his ideals aren't "real" ideals any more than his golden boy persona is a "real" persona. His full integration into society has left him with the ability to see through and manipulate it perfectly.
It is laughably manipulatable, at that, as well as laughably shallow: Misa and Light get away with murder because they're young and hot; L jerks Interpol around right and left and Interpol never questions his authority; hundreds of thousands of people support Kira, and instead of society being thrown into turmoil, all that really happens is that a) tons of people die; b) the cult of Kira grows and grows; c) society seems to function without really caring.
The police force alone is sort of staggeringly incompetent - light's dad and matsuda are the only ones whose ideals seem untarnished, and their ideals never line up with their actions. matsuda is the most idealistic of all, but he is persistently too weak to be an effective foil for kira, and even at the end he seems to be regretting the entire thing and regretting that he had to kill light, rather than looking back on his own actions as necessary.
Light's dad is shown as almost too idealistic to be effective - instead of doing anything productive he's focused totally on the appearance of things. it's completely appropriate that in his last moments, he only "sees" his son as blameless and not as kira: he sees him in a kind of 'blind spot' - one he has actually had all along. He is too focused on the way things look instead of the way things actually are that all his actions are motivated by an overidealized sense of justice (just like his son) instead of being actually practical. Instead of taking effective action he responds with "MY HONOR MY HONOR MY SON AND MY HONOR LOCK ME UP TOO, L, LET ME STAGE A RIDICULOUS PLOT USING GUNS AND CARJACKS TO TEST MY SON'S IDENTITY, L" and even though he's the head of the police department he, like L and like Light in their respective roles, isn't a substantive and fully formed figure in it.
He, like every other character in Death Note, has only the trappings and outward show of the role he is supposed to be playing rather than a fully defined and well-rounded identity. The modern society of Death Note is one that has left these characters with no way of understanding what real integrity, justice, honor, rightness, etc are - their understanding of social values are whittled down to sound bytes, technical wizardry (the 5 o'clock news, l's short universal broadcasts, kira's shrines on the internet) and pop culture iconography (misa misa the pop star - ryuuga hideki the pop idol - kira the international, larger-than-life cult figure who becomes basically another pop idol). Everything about the functionality and meaning of the world of death note is shallow. It's impossible to 'connect' because everything in this world is valueless.
Ohba/Obata understood that they were creating such a society - they deliberately didn't focus on definitions of good/evil because what was the point? The few idealistic figures within the story who do attempt to be "good" are thwarted before they even begin. They have no real framework for tapping into genuine values. The ones who come closest to being genuinely good are Suichiro and Matsuda - but they are never able to translate that goodness fully into action. This is not a society where idealism can translate effectively into action.
L and Near and Light are out of all the characters the ones who are the most pro-active, and even then ALL of them are ridiculously ineffective for long periods of time - L torturing Light for 80+ days and then still not being convinced he's Kira is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of inexplicable or contradictory action on his part - and on top of that he even admits that he wants Light to be Kira at the same time he is speaking of their friendship. The fact that he has Light and Misa prisoner while the killings stop for months and doesn't arrest them points strongly to the fact that subconsciously he does want Light to be Kira, knows that Light is Kira, and can't bring himself to follow through in terms of decisive action to bring him to justice because ultimately, he is committed more to the chase and the challenge than to the justice itself.
And that's really what gets us off, isn't it? The aesthetic, hot steamy nature of their dynamic, rather than any need to see Light brought to justice. Subconsciously L wants Light to be Kira, consciously understands that he and Light have all the outward appearance of friendship. It doesn't matter whether they really are friends or not; this universe doesn't require anyone in it to dig that deep. Just as L, just as everyone in the cast around Light buys into what Light is selling on a more personal level, so they buy subconsciously into the idea that appearance is reality - that beauty is truth: so Light, so Kira, so Misa, must be truthful, because beautiful. It doesn't matter that Light and L actually be good v/s evil - it just matters that they perform their parts.
Once when franzeska and I were discussing the show "House," she remarked that it's a show full of people who think they represent certain values but in reality they're all just simply shallow - they go through the motions of being decent people (or in House's case being an asshole) without substantively being wholly developed, self-aware versions of those type of characters. As i was writing this mini-essay, I started thinking about how that reading applies to Death Note, and that's exactly it: everything about Death Note is about the appearance of good and evil, the appearance of justice, rather than the actual application and practice of it. The Yagami family appears stable and nuclear, Light appears to be the perfect son, he and Misa appear to be the perfect couple, Light and L appear to be steadfast friends. On the surface Kira appears to be powerful, but ultimately his power is borrowed from another source. L appears to be a brilliant detective, but ultimately can't act on his brilliance.
The other day I was re-reading the amazing commentary to my Death Note fic, and I wanted to point out something the ever-brilliant amanuensis1 said about the final days of L's life, when he may or may not recognize that Light has defeated him:
I don't think he's a half-second away from [the epiphany that Misa met the owner of the first notebook in Aoyama], I think he actually has the epiphany, evidenced by when he says, "There are two notebooks. This isn't over." The problem is, he's arrived at a place of conclusion without having evidence again, and he knows that Light has somehow got that half-step ahead of him again, and that half-step is what prevents him from having evidence...and by this point, he also knows that that half-step is going to be what finishes him. ...[I]t's plain that L senses his death approaching...with full knowledge that it's going to happen, and knowing he will not get the evidence that can prevent it.
To me, the argument that L actually did have that epiphany, and did know Light was the one who met Misa, but still let himself stop short of following it through by attempting to locate evidence for it, is even further proof of how fully he has fallen under Light's sway, and into the dangerous cracks between appearance and reality. Up until the Kira case, L has been as effective as he has precisely because he has always been able to stand outside that social structure - he hides himself and his appearance from the world and refuses to engage with it outside of strictly controlled parameters. When he encounters Kira, he steadily begins deviating further and further from that standard: letting the world see him, letting himself engage with the social system to an extreme degree, letting himself empathize with Kira, and Light-as-Kira. And it's in this that he fails: even though he never fully believes that Light is innocent, L's self-doubt is predicated on his inability to align his gut instinct with the persona Light presents: he falls through the cracks of Light's personality, between reality and the semblance of it, and ultimately loses focus and faith in himself. I really think L believes by the end that his death is a necessary part of the reality play they're all involved in; it's even possible that that look of peace and relief he wears in the final moment is because finally he's achieved a real result at last--even if the only real thing in this case was death.
It could also be that, in Poirot-like fashion, L recognizes that only after his death can Light be caught, because only after his death will Light become bored and sloppy enough to get lost in his fantasy. Because, of course, the secret to Light's success is also the secret to his undoing.
The more he plays with humanity's willingness to accept a sham of moral/social justice, the more he convinces himself that he is actually the real deal. Light is able to succeed so well at being Kira for as long as he does because he is able to manipulate reality. (You cannot overstate the vast amounts of post-9/11 commentary implied by this statement.) He understands the system so well that he renders questions of good versus evil completely meaningless, by virtue of his ability to manipulate the appearance of good and evil. But if he has exploited society's shallowness, its hollow idealism, its short attention span, its relentless focus on the appearance of virtue without the substance of it, then he has also played himself more than anyone: he buys into the image he's selling of Kira as a virtuous and righteous god, rather than understanding his role as a master manipulator working for his own ends. He believes his own lie - and in the end, Light's sense of invincibility and his pursuit of fake ideals can no more stand being put to the test than can L's passive-aggressive action and deep ambivalence about his prey.
This is a post-modern world that loves Kira more than it fears him, a world where the good guy isn't 100% sure he wouldn't rather be fucking the bad guy, a world where the bad guy spends half the time trying to capture himself, a world where arbiters of justice raise serial killers, and a world where everything is an elaborate, Enron-sized house of cards. And when it all comes tumbling down, society hasn't even changed. There is a cult of Kira, sure: but wasn't there always? The society that built that house of cards to begin will just reconstruct another variation on reality with another sham set of ideals, and another sham cast of characters to carry them out, and the show will just go on and on and on.
Ultimately, the real cult of Kira, in Death Note, is society at large - as lacking in self-awareness and as desensitized to itself as the monster it created. In a postmodern world where good and evil no longer exist, we have no need for "real" heroes and villains, and indeed are happy to accept all substitutions. Light is frequently ridiculous, but his very sexuality, Obata's fanservicing of him, the way he is drawn, presents him to us as an idol: and we idolize him to our heart's content. We idolize him because we have no real, meaningful heroes to take his place; and our idolization perpetuates the shallow ideals that created him to begin with.
And that inescapable, bleak crux is where Death Note, at its blackest and most cynical, becomes truly terrifying: because through the very act of reading and enjoying the story, we, the reader, have become implicit, willing participants in the cult of Kira ourselves.