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Mumbling Kitsune: Sympathy for Kira?
Is Light Yagami from Death Note a good guy or a bad guy?
By Nadia Oxford
July 06, 2008
This week, the Mumbling Kitsune takes a break from talking about robots to address a significant event that transpired in the anime kingdom: the airing of Death Note's final episodes.
(This is a fine junction in which to insert a spoiler warning.)
Death Note is one of the most popular anime series to reach American airwaves in a while. With endorsements from Salon magazine, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and lots of controversy thanks to bullied school kids caught carrying replicas of Kira's leather-bound tool of judgment, Death Note has achieved something close to mainstream success.
Death Note's popularity isn't unjustified. Though the anime is a little heavy-handed with its symbolism compared to its more subdued manga counterpart, it still stands out as a very thought-provoking piece of work. Death Note is not about magical girls or demon hunters or ninjas or mech pilots with a heavy conscience. It is about a regular human being acquiring the powers of God and using that power to mould the world to fit his own ideal.
Granted, Light Yagami is a very smart boy, but that is only relevant insomuch as it helps him outsmart the detectives who have sworn to capture him. His genius doesn't nullify the question that connects us with him: what would we do if we found a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name was written in it? Would we refuse to have anything to do with it? Would we outright burn it as a tool of evil? Or would we do as Light did and decide to rid the world of criminals and undesirables?
No Easy Answer
Whenever the question is brought up, it's not easily dismissed. We're all familiar with mankind's less desirable traits. It's no surprise to open a newspaper and read about some of the horrible things that go on in the “civilised” world, which is still an Eden compared to what people in other countries must endure to survive.
From a general point of view, killing off the world's criminals to protect the innocent seems like such an easy solution to the world's problems, but it's not that simple. Though he's a genius, Light Yagami's one-swoop declaration of “the World is rotten” is a very childish and simplistic outlook. There is no species on earth as diverse as human beings, which makes snap judgments impossible.
Something else that Death Note purposefully leaves wide open: is a world that Yagami intends to lord over as the faceless “Kira” really a better world than the one we live in now? In the second half of the series, after Kira defeats his rival L, there is a lull in which no other detectives challenge him for a short time and he establishes a stronger hold on the world. Kira's popularity skyrockets worldwide and his following of devoted supporters grow.
Evil Still Flourishes
Few of these individuals are examples of good-hearted humans. Hitoshi Demegawa, the director of Sakura TV, revels in his role as Kira's first spokesperson, but there's no attempt to disguise his greed, his lust for power or his all-around slovenliness. He doesn't kill anyone—though he certainly encourages the killing of those who fight against Kira—but he is undoubtedly a foul human being who not only exists in Kira's “utopia,” but flourishes in it.
Demegawa is actually slain once he oversteps his boundaries, but there is no shortage of others like him who desire to take the place of Kira's spokesperson. Each candidate slobbers for Kira's attention without the least bit of concern for the death of Demegawa or his successor, Kiyomi Takada, who is also slain.
Another interesting problem with Kira's vision is that no two people are ever going to have an exact idea of what constitutes a utopia. Even Kira's closest ally, the half-insane criminal prosecutor Teru Mikami, acts of his own accord and slays criminals when he deems the time is right—without waiting for approval from Kira. This well-intentioned disobedience is ultimately one of the foils that brings down Kira; when Takada is captured, Mikami writes her name in the Death Note despite Kira's orders to remain still. This in effect leaves behind the evidence that L's successor, Near, needs to solidify the link between Kira and Light Yagami.
Any Path to a Utopia?
Given the unpredictable nature of humanity, Kira never could have succeeded at building a utopia. Violent crimes did indeed drop and people were, on the whole, more amiable towards one another, but humanity's worst still preyed on the weak, even if it was in a non-violent manner. Indeed, the population of the “new” world proved insufferable and self-righteous. Most criminals know that what they're doing is wrong when they rob or kill. Kira's greediest, most bloodthirsty followers believed themselves completely righteous and without blame.
It can be argued that if Light had succeeded in killing Near, he would have been able to devote more time to running the world himself with little influence from Mikami or other spokespersons. However, it's not likely that detectives would cease the hunt for Kira's identity. Near and Mello both knew they did not match L's level of genius, but working together (Mello reluctantly), they still managed to unmask Kira. Had they failed, there were undoubtedly more geniuses waiting to be cultivated at Wammy House. Kira would always have to be on the defensive and work at hiding himself while resorting to underlings to do his work.
Kira/Light's position is not easily shot down, however. His motivations are up for debate, as is speculation about how successful he would have been had he only done this or that differently. Death Note is not an anime that will fade from memory any time soon.