In this post I’m going to focus in on what I like to call, “prantagonists”. The more legitimate term is “anti-hero”, but I prefer prantagonist so that’s what I’ll be using for the remainder of the post. (On a side note, I haven’t read the manga, seen the movie(s), or read the book(s), so this post is entirely based on the anime adaptation of Death Note.) The two characters I’ll be focusing on the most are Light Yagami (Kira) and L because I think they best exemplify the concept of “prantagonists” within the show. And not to mention, I think that many people really underestimate the similarities between the two of them, even though they seem to be on two different ends of the morality spectrum.
Here’s a synopsis courtesy of Wikipedia for those who haven’t seen the show or need a refresher:
Light Yagami is an intelligent young adult who resents all things evil. He also wishes to end crime in the world and create a utopia in which he reigns supreme. His life undergoes a drastic change when he discovers the Death Note, a notebook that contains five written instructions:
- The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.
- This notebook will not take effect unless the writer has the subject’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
- If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
- If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
- After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
There are other rules that are revealed as the story develops, usually in the form of chapter title pages. After several experiments with the Death Note, Light realizes the notebook’s authenticity and encounters the previous owner, a shinigami called Ryuk. Light tells Ryuk of his plan of exterminating all the criminals in the world, until there are only people who he has judged to be honest and kind. Once he finishes this, he will begin his reign as the god of this new world.
For the majority of this post, I’m going to focus on Light Yagami and L, but I just wanted to point out that Death Note is FILLED with prantagonists. If you want to nitpick enough, pretty much everyone with the exception of maybe Soichiro Yagami and some minor supporting characters qualify, the Shinigami included–Ryuk has similar motives to Light and is overly compliant with his wishes. Rem is willing to kill as many people as necessary in order to protect Misa. Even the police, men who have pledged their loyalty to L and in turn Light, are quick to turn on him as soon as they are given the opportunity to cast suspicion. This is not a fantasy novel with a focus on the trope of good vs. evil. I would even go so far as to say that this entire show is one massive shade of gray (only one not 50…I couldn’t resist ;)).
In the words of Lord Voldemort:
“There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.”
True, Voldemort is the paradigmatic villain of our generation, but there is a chilling truth to his statement–one that is clearly reflected in Death Note. Point being, all the characters are flawed. There are no heroes here and at the same time no true villains.
This brings us to one of the main conflicts of the series for the viewer: why can’t we hate Light Yagami? This is the primary question I was asking myself while I watched the show. I mean when I really think about it–he’s a wretched person isn’t he? (The (original) writer, Tsugumi Ohba, even goes out of his way to give him a horribly ironic name.) Light kills people with very little discrimination and has no conscience about doing so. Throughout the show, we see him calculating and scheming of ways to eliminate all those who are a threat. His relationships with Misa and Kiyomi exemplify his manipulative tendencies. They are at Light’s beck and call simply because he knows how to be charming and how to influence them. They only commit crimes as a way to gain his feigned affection. And being the scheming bastard that he is, he goes so far as to pit them against each other, turning them into each other’s enemies as a way to avoid the blame and hatred that should be rightfully bestowed upon him. Why? Because it’s convenient. Misa is naive and far too trusting, which makes her vulnerable, and Kiyomi’s judgement is hindered by her hero-worship of Kira. Kiyomi and Misa see Light as a god and even though they have brains and can think for themselves, they are all too willing to relinquish control over their lives and actions.
So then why do we still root for Light to succeed? I mean I’m speaking for myself, but I feel like the common sentiment was something along the lines of “as much as I want to hate him I can’t”. We want him to win, we want him to outsmart L and N and go on to create his “utopia” even though innately we know his methods are cruel and excessive. On a superficial level it probably has something to do with his motives. Light legitimately seems–in a very megalomaniacal way–to want to eliminate all crime and evil from the world.
Here’s another theory: in all the writing classes and workshops I’ve ever taken, the instructors like to beat you over the head with the idea that a flawed character is a relatable and fascinating character. Which it true for the most part anyway. The problem is drawing the line between flawed and evil. Light was constantly jumping back and forth across the line and coming ever so close to being a true antagonist, but at the same time he managed to keep returning to the side of morality just as we could see it slipping away. So what then? Why can’t we hate him? He is an odious person–someone who used his own father as means to an end. The scene where his father was dying struck me particularly because I had a difficult time distinguishing whether Light was distraught because his father died before he could write down Mello’s name or simply because his father died. Part of me wanted to believe that Lights still clung to his humanity to a certain extent, but at that point in the show it was difficult for me to believe that he wasn’t devoid of normal emotion.
Josh and I were actually having a conversation about this a few days ago. I asked him why he identified with Light and this was his response: Maybe it’s because Light serves as a reflection of the crazed, cold-blooded, driven, power-hungry personality we all fear is hidden just below the surface of our everyday lives. It gives us that uncertainty where we don’t know if we were put in the same situation as Light if we wouldn’t do the same, if maybe not so extremely.
Here is my final theory and possibly the most powerful: Light gets results. By the end of the show, world-wide crime rates have dropped by 70%. The world has become overwhelmingly peaceful. As much as we hate his methods, he has undeniably achieved something positive.
He seems like an unlikely candidate for a prantagonist. Doesn’t he want to eliminate the evil that is Kira from the world? Isn’t his driving force a zealous pursuit of justice? Sound familiar? Who else doggedly pursues justice? Who else wants to eliminate evil from the world? That’s right. Light Yagami. So then why do we venerate L as the guy who tries to get rid of a serial killer? His methods aren’t any better than L’s. If anything, we could almost classify him as worse because he hides his actions under the false guise of lawfulness. L works with the police, they never doubt or question him the way they do Light. However, as an audience, we seem all too willing to ignore the fact that while dealing with the Yotsuba Group, he wants to let people continue dying so he can figure out how Kira kills them. Also what about his brutal imprisonment of Misa? She can’t see, she is put in highly sexualized and humiliating restraints. L won’t allow her to use the bathroom unless she answers his questions. There is a fundamental lack of humanity in his treatment of others, something we also see in Light. Just because he purports to work within the legal system and he can’t outright kill people the way Light can doesn’t mean that he is a fundamentally “good” character. Another thing makes him just as bad as Light is the fact that he has also managed to completely rationalize all of his actions. Both of them have a “for the greater good” attitude. So even though both of them fundamentally understand that what they’re doing is “wrong” they feel no weight on their consciences. L knows that letting more people die to find out how the Yotsuba group kills is morally incorrect, but at the same time, he is much more interested in satisfying his own curiosity than potentially saving lives. On a superficial level L seems like an eccentric genius sitting around and stuffing his face with cake. He certainly fooled me until I really started thinking about his actions.
I recently read an article in Writer’s Digest about writing/creating anti-heroes in fiction. Obviously this is not exactly the same as in anime, but the concept is pretty universal nonetheless. One of the points that the article brought up that struck me when I was thinking about Death Note was the fact that it defines anti-heroes as protagonists who toe the line, but never go quite as far as a villain would. Light Yagami and L, however, go just as far if not further than the average villain, which is why I’m struggling so much with the fact that Light is a wildly popular character, one that many people can relate to, and L is a sympathetic character, one that people consider to be “the moral compass” of the show.
As the audience, we know in theory that crime is bad, we know that just because Light is a vigilante of “justice” it doesn’t mean that what he’s doing is right. The same goes for L. While many people would be okay with killing horrible criminals who deserved that sort of punishment (myself included) if they thought it was truly necessary, they wouldn’t also exhibit the same psychopathic lust for power. If given the power to kill people, I would try to avoid it at all cost–I don’t think personally I could handle that kind of responsibility. The guilt I would feel would be too overpowering unless it was someone who really, truly deserved to die, and even in that case who am I to judge? I believe there is a significant difference between someone who rapes and murders children versus someone who steals a pack of cigarettes. Even someone who steals something more significant like a car or someone who breaks into a house. Yes, of course these criminals deserve to be punished, but do they deserve death? According to Light Yagami: yes. According to me and probably many other people: absolutely not.But that’s just the thing. Who is Light, who is anyone to judge what is worthy of death? One can argue that some crimes are unforgivable and that some deeds require vengeance at the very least. Be that as it may, the idea of “deserving” is entirely subjective. Light sets his own standards and criteria–standards that many of us would deem too harsh.
So I’d love to get some other thoughts and opinions on the question of why it is so difficult to dislike Light. Let me know if you agree with any of my theories and if not it would be great to hear and discuss some others :).