Tetsuro Araki’s anime, Death Note, (adapted from Tsugumi Ohba’s manga), is a thriller that dives into the human psyche and blurs boundaries between right and wrong, good and evil. Taking the concept of acting as God, the anime questions morality and projects upon the psychology of society. As a whole, Death Note portrays the notions of skepticism and ambiguity in human morality.
Moral skepticism is the concept that humans do not, and can not, have knowledge of morality (Sinnot-Armstrong, 2006). From the very beginning, this theme is omnipresent in the anime’s conflict: Light Yagami is performing ‘right’ in the world by ridding it of evil criminals but paradoxically performs ‘wrong’ in slaughtering human beings. The use of right and wrong in this case is arbitrary in that they are stereotypical concepts applied by societal beliefs. This blurred boundary presents the aforementioned moral ambiguity in humanity and encapsulates the reader. As a reader subject to the same societal forces as the characters in the anime, we are lead to develop our own beliefs on the moral acts of the characters and judge them as we see fit. Parallel to moral skepticism, no reader’s opinion on morality in Death Note is necessarily correct and it is impossible to define what is good and evil.
In the anime, different characters present different levels of morality framed by their motives and beliefs. Closest to society’s ideal of a ‘righteous’ character, is Light’s father. He consistently follows a righteous path in pursuing the killer no matter the cost. Ironically, however, the righteous father is willing to break the law to catch Kira – something that is arguably immoral. After all, do two ‘wrongs’ make a ‘right’? These sorts of situations in Death Note guide the reader through a path of moral reasoning based not only upon societal uptake, but human instinct and experience (Richardson, 2007). Next, in the middle of the moral spectrum is L – a level of flawed righteousness. L pursues absolute justice of Kira’s murders but his motives and actions are questionably moral. L is willing to selfishly place human lives at stake to get closer to Kira, quench his thirst for justice, and win a battle of wits. Though L commits wrongdoings, readers will still look past his immoral acts and sympathize his death. Finally, the most complicated level of morality presented in Death Note is Light Yagami’s. At its core, Light’s purpose is good-natured in trying to render the world a better place without criminals. His motives and actions are twisted, however. He wishes to become a God in a new world and slaughters countless human beings, thus becoming a killer himself. Light rationalizes this to himself saying he will sacrifice his morality so the world can be ‘reborn.’ At this point, Light becomes indistinguishable from hero or villain and in death, is hard to sympathize with due to this moral ambiguity (Brenner, 2007). To further confuse things, each character, despite their morality, meets the same exact cruel fate: death. This shows the reader that there is no benefit to the different levels of morality and thus makes it difficult (or impossible) to define what is ‘right.’ With all these levels of morality is again the disclaimer that these concepts of righteousness and wrongdoing are arbitrarily shaped by society and humanity can not have knowledge and thus judgment of morals.
The entirety of the Death Note series is a complex, psychological roller coaster that questions human morality and manipulates (or even confuses) the reader’s previous ideals of good and evil. The anime is a prime example that it is impossible to attempt to define the lines of morals, as seen in the concept of moral skepticism. Though society poses such concepts of right and wrong, morality is ambiguous and the attempt to define the boundary is futile.
Brenner, Robin E. Understanding Manga and Anime. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2007.
Joyce, Richard. The Myth of Morality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Richardson, Henry S. "Moral Reasoning." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-moral/#2.4>.
Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. City: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
Sinnot-Armstrong, Walter. "Moral Skepticism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-moral/>.