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Death Note and The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey is a story-telling formula that has been employed in narratives since ancient times. At its core, it describes the adventures of a hero who receives a call to leave his or her ordinary life and embark on a journey into an unknown world of magic and extraordinary events. Whether alone or with aid, the hero must overcome a series of trials in order to achieve his or her goal, the completion of which may result in receiving a great gift or “boon,” which may or may not be used fort he betterment of humanity. This basic pattern has repeated itself in myths and other narratives for ages in cultures worldwide. Even today, The Hero's Journey is shaping our media, especially in the world of anime and manga. One of the most common manga plots centers around a protagonist who is an ordinary kid who gains/has some sort of amazing power which he/she uses to overcome a series of trials in order to accomplish some goal. This general plot structure can be applied to a huge percentage of the anime and manga in the world today, especially in the world of shounen manga, where one would find himself hard-pressed to find a story that doesn't implement some form of The Hero's Journey. Even a seemingly untypical shounen manga like Death Note contains these elements. Though it may be a deep psychological thriller on the surface, Death Note actually follows the Hero's Journey surprisingly well, especially in the first major story arc.

As mentioned above, the Hero's Journey is actually extremely common in shounen manga, and few, if any, entries into the genre do not include some elements thereof. The reason for this is actually quite simple. As its name suggests, shounen manga is targeted toward an audience composed primarily of young males and is designed specifically to appeal to said demographic. Since young males tend to be more interested in stories containing high levels of action and adventure (among other things), shounen manga plots often feature epic journeys and plenty of action, adventure, and fighting. Naturally, The Hero's Journey accommodates all of these elements very well. In fact, it seems that adventure and the elements associated with it are so deeply infused into the Hero's Journey that plots centering around such things will inevitably show signs of the Hero's Journey in some form. As a result, most shounen manga plots wind up following the Hero's Journey in some way whether it was explicitly intended or not. As an example of this, consider the following vague plot synopsis: a young male protagonist (easy for young males to relate to) has or gains some (often unusual) ability or power that leads him on an adventure (often accompanied by plenty of friends and companions who they meet along the way) full of obstacles and struggles that ultimately ends in him overcoming some major challenge and/or accomplishing some goal. This basic plot format which serves as the basis for the plots of innumerable shounen manga is also, coincidentally, a perfect example of the Hero's Journey in its simplest form.

So what does all this have to do with Death Note? Well, though it may not seem like it on the surface, Death Note is indeed made to appeal to a shounen demographic; and, as a result, it contains many of the elements of a typical shounen manga — including the Hero's Journey. The story's “protagonist” is Light Yagami, an ordinary young man (with the exception of being a genius) living an ordinary life in an ordinary place. During class one day Light receives a call to adventure when he witnesses the Death Note fall from the sky. After school he investigates the notebook and ultimately decides to take it home. There is a momentary refusal to the call when considers leaving the notebook behind, reasoning that its merely someone's prank, however he quickly gets over that and uses the Death Note to kill a criminal and later save a girl outside a convenience store. Light soon crosses the first threshold when he commits to using the death note to cleanse the world of evil and begins killing criminals by the hundreds. Of course he receives some supernatural aid in the form of his lovable companion, Ryuk the shinigami, who, though he avoid direct intervention, provides Light with some useful information on the Death Note and the rules associated with using it. It's not long before Light finds he must face a road of trials in order to reach his goal. Whether it's disposing of troublesome FBI agents, matching wits against his nemesis, L, or spending months in solitary confinement to prove his innocence, it seems that Light will have to overcome many obstacles in order to reform humanity. At some point during all this, he experiences a meeting with a goddess, who takes the form of the kira-loving model, Misa. Though it may be completely one-sided, Misa's unconditional love for Light proves a valuable asset in the battle against L. In the end of the first arc, having overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, Light manages to defeat L, achieving what could be considered the ultimate boon — the ability to use the Death Note as he pleases, completely unhindered. Had the story ended at this point, it could be considered a flawless example of the Hero's Journey. However, due to the interference of Near, Light is denied a proper hero's ending and, instead, dies writhing on the ground in a puddle of his own blood. But regardless of that, Death Note still fits the hero's journey remarkably well for a manga/anime that breaks the shounen archetype in so many ways.

In the end, it seems like there's no getting away from the hero's journey in the world of shounen manga. Even an exceptional manga like Death Note that exceeds the shounen stereotype in so many ways fits smoothly into its mold. Fortunately, this is in no way a bad thing. The Hero's Journey has been around as long as humans have been telling stories and has formed the backbone of numerous renowned works both new and old; and while it may be true that the Hero's Journey has been the foundation of plenty of formulaic shounen plots, manga like Death Note, are proof that it can still be used as the building blocks of a masterpiece.

References:

1. http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/smc/journey/ref/summary.html

2. http://www.yourheroicjourney.com/Reading%20Room/ArticlesEssays/Articles%20and%20Essays--alpha.htm

3. http://family.go.com/parenting/pkg-tween/article-791027-reading-for-preteen-boys-t/

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Note  <--- For lack of a better source proving that Death Note is indeed shounen (look under demographic).

5. Anime and Philosophy (Course Book) - Steiff and Tamplin

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2 Comments

  1. Really good introduction and I think you have an interesting thesis but perhaps need to remain focused on it. You should discuss why the hero's journey is used so much in shone. Why was it used in Death Note? What's so great about it? Slotting elements of the plot into the hero's journey is really at the referential level, you need to be working deeper.

    Also, you need better references.

  2. Unknown User (tsa8133)

    For the final draft, I did my best to take into consideration and answer the questions you mentioned and tried to put the content of the rough draft more in the context of my thesis, so that it serves as supporting evidence rather than just slotting things in. Hopefully it turned out better...