I’ve never read any of the manga, but I’ve seen most of the anime version of Death Note (an animated TV series based on the manga). I could call myself a fan, though there were a few plot points that bugged me. I’m not sure quite how different the show is from the manga - some shows stick very close and others are more loosely based on the original material.
I thought the story started off very strong with a compelling premise and a good sense of atmosphere and style. I would perhaps have preferred if Ryuk had been a bit more menacing and not used as comic relief, but he was actually kind of amusing so whatever.
I’m not sure how far you are in the series, since it’s quite possible the show is only a subset of the manga. I’ll use spoiler boxes for plot comments. If you’ve met Mello and Near then you’ve already seen anything I will spoiler.
In the beginning I liked the battle of wits between L and Light. In particular Light as the smart but young and inexperienced high school student and his careful planning of how to avoid detection, and yet L’s brilliance at exploiting Light’s overconfidence and small mistakes was extremely entertaining.
The highlights of this section in the anime:
[spoiler]Light’s initial “test” of the Death Note’s power was before he really considered how careful he would have to be, and sure enough this small slip is what leads L to narrow his search to Japan.
One of my favorite bits in the show was the “fake L” TV broadcast, which L had shown only to small regions at a time to prompt a response from Kira. Light’s arrogance causes an uncharacteristically rash decision that lets L narrow his search tremendously further. One big problem I have with lots of stories where we are presented a character who we’re told is very smart is that to serve the plot these characters often have to do dumb things. But L’s ability to track down Light seemed quite plausible even given Light’s extreme intelligence and planning.
One part I did not much like was the parts with Ray Penber and especially his fiancée. It just didn’t make sense that Light would risk so much just to learn that the person tailing him was from the FBI. The only significant fact here is really that he is being followed at all. The stunt on the bus was clearly trying to be another “clever” plan by Light but making direct contact with Ray was too foolhardy to be plausible. Then the episode in which he kills Penber’s fiancée was for me the low point of the early section of the show, though I don’t mind it terribly because it had little overall plot significance. But after spending a large chunk of the episode making it clear that she was too smart to fall for any of Light’s hastily improvised ruses, the resolution turns out to be that… she conveniently falls for one of his hastily improvised ruses. This scene built up tension extremely well as he had to stop her from reaching his father at the police station, and could have been a great asset to the show if there had been a truly clever resolution. I guess those are the pitfalls of trying to write believable super-smart characters - you actually ave to come up with super-smart stuff :).
So far as L narrowed his search to Japan, and then to the region (Kanto?) that Light is in, I was very happy with how things were going. I was expecting that the fake broadcast would be something of a wake-up call to Light, when he should realize that his enemy here is brilliant as well and that he needs to tread far more carefully. Instead he stupidly accesses the police computer system and practically gives away his identity. I think if this section of the show had slowed down, not done any of the Ray Penber stuff, and instead had something interesting for the narrowing of the search further from the Kanto region, the early sections of the show would have been basically flawless.
Another bit I liked: Light failing to consider that his schedule of killing is a big clue to the fact that he is a student. A believable mistake since he started his little schedule long before he realized how careful he would have to be.
I kind of arbitrarily divide the show into sections when I think about it, and to me the conclusion of the early phase of the show is the big reveal when L introduces himself directly to Light at the entrance ceremony to college. That was one of my favorite scenes in the show, or in any show. I totally didn’t see it coming, and yet it makes sense. L has decided that Light is Kira, and the mysteries he has yet to resolve are how Light is doing this and how he can get Light to give himself away. The interactions between L and Light, each knowing exactly who the other is, were perfect. My only complaint is that I feel the show got to this point a little too quickly. At this point we were about a third of the way through the L/Light conflict. I think it should have been taken a little slower and had this direct confrontation happen a little further in.
OK, that pretty much covers everything up to the introduction of Misa. I didn’t like Misa or Rem as characters, and they pretty much derailed the plot.
I thought the “second Kira” was a spectacular idea. I didn’t see that one coming either, and at this point in the show I was wondering how it could go on much longer if L and Light are already face to face. But a second Kira! This was a perfect spot for the introduction of a third party to their little private war. At this point L had maneuvered Light into working with him directly in an effort to make him give himself away. And the purpose toward which they are both ostensibly working? Finding Kira’s identity! This is a pretty neat situation, but I was curious where it could possibly go next. A second Kira is absolutely perfect. L and Light working together to find the second Kira, who is a complete unknown but who is clearly even more powerful than Kira the first, would have been amazing. It would be completely in character for L to decide that he can bide his time working on Light (who he has pretty well cornered) and instead use Light and his obvious talents to help him in his search for the second Kira. And Light would not only have to play along to credibly keep insisting he is not the first Kira, but he has great motivation to find the second Kira himself - he cannot let L learn the workings of the Death Note. I was really excited about the second Kira - until it turned out to be Misa. What a waste of potential.
I didn’t like Rem or the whole bit about the Death God who fell in love with Misa, which was to explain how Rem got her second Death Note. The whole bit about how to kill a Death God being to have him/her fall in love with a human seemed extremely out of place in this show.
A bigger story issue with Rem is when Light thinks of having Rem kill L. As soon as he suggested it I was wishing to myself that that would not be how Light wins. But even if it isn’t the fact that he could have had Rem kill L would make a victory by L seem sort of hollow as well. I wish it hadn’t been brought up.
Light’s complex plan involving taking away Misa’s Death Note so she forgot her time as Kira, and then giving up his own to do the same to himself, was pretty good. It clearly was a very risky plan, but that makes sense since Light is losing to L. L has been outsmarting him slowly and in every way, and Light has to resort to desperate measures. His only weapons against L are the workings of the Death Note, which L does not know and Light does. The use of the memory loss to throw L off is just about all it seems Light has left in his arsenal. I thought of his plan like this: he loses his memories of being Kira so that L, who has shown a true talent for digging out the truth, will hopefully conclude that Light is not Kira. At the same time, Light has Rem essentially create the “third Kira” so that L and Light will pursue the Death Note. Light is gambling that he can beat L in a final battle of wits and reach the Death Note (and regaining his memories). Obviously he can fail here if L doesn’t decide he is innocent or if he can’t beat L to the Death Note. On the whole I liked this bit and the show seemed to be picking up again after the misstep that was Misa.
The scene where Light’s father threatens to kill him to see if Misa can stop him was another great moment in the show. I was very impressed.
That covers everything up to Rem going and finding that businessman and us being introduced to that corrupt board of executives or whoever they were. I wasn’t crazy about them because they seemed to be just a somewhat weak subplot, but overall they weren’t bad. Going into the last section of the Light/L conflict:
One smallish thing that bugged me was Light turning so goody-goody as soon as he forgets being Kira. It was like instead of turning back from Kira into Light, he instead turned into Suou Tamaki (a character this voice actor played in the extremely happy and very good show Ouran High School Host Club). That was actually mildly distracting because his goody-goody voice is exactly how Tamaki talked :). Anyway, aside from being out of character (the premise of the show is the Death note being found by a brilliant but slightly sociopathic high school student), but that Light’s plan only works if he believes he can get to the Death Note before L does. If Light will revert to his cynical old self this is plausible, but if he turns into the golden child who seeks only to help L at every turn then this doesn’t work too well. Even given this, however, the climactic scene in the helicopter where Light gets his hands on the Death note anyway was another good moment in the show, but I think it could have been even better. This was another chance for the show to do something really cool and unfortunately I’m a little unhappy with what was done instead. Here’s how I would have changed it: the scene itself was already extremely suspenseful, with Light watching the second hand of his watch spin around as he hoped that L would not realize what was going on. What should have happened was that L does figure it out. He realizes why Light had such a reaction upon touching the Death Note, and now we have sitting in the helicopter a relieved and somewhat triumphant Light, whose risky plan worked out such that he once again had his powers back and was now clear of most of the suspicion of his being Kira, and L. L, who realizes that he is sitting next to Kira once more. The problem for L is that everyone but him is now all but convinced that Light is innocent.
As for the end itself, I was very dissatisfied to say the least. Using Rem? Bah. This was the biggest part of why I hate Rem’s part in the plot - the conflict’s resolution should have been between Light and L alone. The problem is that L has clearly been winning for the entire show. As smart as Light is, L is clearly even smarter. So Light needs some kind of outside advantage, something L legitimately wouldn’t have considered, in order to win. Rem fits those criteria, but there was a much better option and it’s been sitting there like an elephant in the room for most of the show. Picture it - as L, back at headquarters and knowing that Light is Kira once more, is plotting again and drawing the noose tight, Light is forced to do what he has dreaded in order to beat him: he trades for the eyes of the Death God. If Light were to win, that’s the only way I would have wanted to see it. Plus the opening and ending animations for the show (which were excellent) show Light with the red eyes of the Death God, so doing this to conclude the story would have fit perfectly.[/spoiler]
Reading back through this most of it is a list of stuff I didn’t like, but I don’t want to make it sound like I thought this was a bad show. On the contrary, it was a very very good show, and so its missteps seems all the more unfortunate in the contrast. It was a good show that could have been a great show, but Misa + Rem and the ending of the story soured it a bit for me. The show does continue in a second season with Mello and Near and some other stuff but to be honest, the second season seemed somewhat poorly written compared to the first and with Light/L over and done with I stopped watching. When I recommend Death Note to friends I tell them only to watch the first season, but maybe the later parts of the story are better in the manga.