The key to interpreting Death Note comes from MM’s recent essay on Red Dragon, where Light Yagami corresponds to the Red Dragon (the wannabe) and the shinigami Ryuk corresponds to Hannibal Lector (the true ubermensch).The Death Note itself, falling from heaven, is strongly associated with the Edenic apple. There’s even a scene toward the end of the episode where Light’s mom brings him some apples to reinforce the point. The moral of the story is laid out in the very beginning with two quotes:
“Listen for the voice of God then follow it and know that in time you will find your salvation.” I.e. Natural religion. The trouble is that sometimes the voice of God is Ryuk fishing for megalomaniacs with absolute power as a lure.
“Follow the teachings of God and receive his blessings and so it shall be that the seas will again become bountiful and the raging storms will subside.” I.e. Revealed religion. Stay on the straight and narrow path. This is L’s philosophy.
In the end, the moral is that L was right, even though he was martyred for it. Light lives on and acquires the power he wanted, but the institution precipitated by L’s martyrdom calls the karmic bill and the fisherman (Ryuk) collects it and devours the fish (Light). Light only wins in the short term with his cunning, but ends up being prey because in the end, and whether he admits this or not, he’s not a moral authority over humanity, he’s just the most clever human. There’s also an irony in L acting as the real judge in the end.
The similarity between Light and Ryuk is that they both perceive the world, correctly, as “rotten”. They both see the need for humanity to have a moral shepherd, as is reinforced by the teacher saying in the background: “Another noticeable consequence is the extinction of many species on the planet. Species are now becoming extinct at a faster rate than has ever occurred in our recorded history.”
The other humans are characterized as blithe, ignorant, ungracious NPCs with no awareness of the rottenness around them or in their own behavior. This is where the superbureaucrat’s highest fantasy comes into play. To be the moral arbiter of mankind with the stroke of a pen. Ryuk has been this sort of true ubermensch, like Hannibal Lector, for so long that he’s bored of it. I think it’s also notable that he looks like a cross between a shark and Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s IT. Though I don’t remember it being reinforced with the symbolism (it’s been almost a decade), there’s a big “shark-teethed clown fish people” vibe coming from the shinigami. Actually, it’s been 13 years now I think about it.
“Like an angler fish, almost? Seems fitting” -Owl
Yeah, exactly. So maybe there’s a common artistic well between this and the second Sherlock Holmes movie with Moriarty and the Fichte song. Sort of a warning about the lure, and about there always being a bigger fish.
(Since I can’t think of anywhere more appropriate to put this note, the Death Note’s instruction is to write the details of death within 6 minutes and 40 seconds, i.e. 6.66 minutes.)
The majority of the show takes the sort of sci-fi premise and spends the rest of it doing a mystery thriller show with twists and turns and is, frankly, not very interesting to analyze if you already have nuanced archetypes in your head for Light (melonheads) and L (neanderthals). It’s not bad if you enjoy that kind of thing.I prefer when the mystery thriller stuff is lightly woven into the plot, like in Evangelion or Fullmetal Alchemist, or just nonexistent like in Berserk (which is basically a fetch quest JRPG).
Anyway, the really interesting mythic variation is how the Edenic apple is treated as both the angler’s lure and the “bridge to something greater” (the ubermensch). And how this is the superbureaucrat’s deep inner world. Imagine being Mossad in a world full of self-driving cars where, with the stroke of a pen, people just die in a way that looks like an accident. Paging targetedindividuals.com. Talk about a world Sanhedrin.
ANYWAY, now we have the premise: the superbureaucrat has been given the carte blanche he always wanted, and what does he do with it?
“It’s only a matter of time before people figure out that these criminals are being eliminated by someone. I want the world to know of my existence. That there’s someone passing righteous judgement on the wicked!
I killed them both. I really… I killed to men. Those were human lives, it won’t be overlooked. Besides, who am I to pass judgement on others? Uhh… no, no wait. Maybe I’m wrong. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately. This world is rotting, and those who are making it rot deserve to die. Someone has to do it, so why not me? Even if it means sacrificing my own mind and soul, it’s worth it. Because the world can’t go on like this.
I’ve wondered… what if someone else picked up this notebook. Is there anyone out there, other than me, who would be willing to eliminate the vermin from the world? If I don’t do it, then who will? That’s just it; there’s no one, but I can do it. In fact, I’m the only one who can. I’ll do it, using the Death Note, I’ll change the world.
At first, I wrote the names of the worst criminals I could think of. Like I was cleaning up the world, one name at a time, so that eventually no one will ever do anything evil again. And while the truly guilty ones who deserve to be punished for their crimes die of heart attacks, the people who are less guilty but who still make trouble for others will slowly be erased through disease and accidental death. Then and only then the world will start moving in the right direction. It’ll be a new world, free of injustice, and populated by people who I’ve judged to be honest, kind, and hardworking.
And I… I will become the God of this New World.”
This is why Light, and Red Dragon, simply aren’t the psychopaths they want to be. They’re trying to become the persona they want to see in the world (God), rather than being psychologically detached from their raison d’etre (or if you prefer their “telos”, their functional purpose which gives meaning to their existence).
“The truth is Shinigami haven’t got much to do these days. Most of the time we’re either taking naps or gambling. If you take the time to write names in your Death Note, the others just laugh at you for working so hard. Even if you wrote the name of another Shinigami, it’d be pointless because they wouldn’t die. And since we live in the Shinigami Realm, it brings us no amusement to kill those in the human world either. So I figured I’d have more fun if I came down here myself. ” -Ryuk
Like Yoshi in Texhnolyze, Ryuk’s only reason for doing anything is to create the spectacle of it. He doesn’t create Hell to punish the sinners, he does it because just for a moment he can lose himself looking at the pretty flames and experience that feeling of absolute meaning coming from the exterior. That is, a true ubermensch is so wrapped up in his own interior-defined morality that his greatest desire is to escape it and experience the feeling of selflessness again. Egolessness. You’ll please recall this is common with the Alchemist archetype in Overwatch theory.
So even though Light is claiming to do this because he’s bored, like Ryuk, this is a lie he’s telling himself. He’s trying to imitate the soulless ubermensch psychopath who has dealt out life and death for so long it’s too boring to bother. The reality of his character is he’s Vaknin’s cerebral narcissist. This is where his interactions with his mom become more interesting. When he arrives home she simply extends her open hands and waits.
“Huh? Oh, the results of the nationwide exams.” -Light
“I’ve been waiting all day…Goodness! Number one again! These are the highest scores you’ve had. ” -Mom
Their relationship is quite clearly based on the mom living vicariously through her son’s cerebral achievements.
“Narcissists are either cerebral or somatic. In other words, they either generate their Narcissistic Supply by applying their bodies or by applying their minds.
The somatic narcissist flaunts his sexual conquests, parades his possessions, exhibits his muscles, brags about his physical aesthetics, youthfulness, sexual prowess or exploits, and is often a health freak and a hypochondriac. Like most males, somatic narcissists are plagued with a sexual overperception bias, but in a more pronounced way than normal: they tend to interpret every female behavior, utterance, and gesture as an unambiguous invitation to have sex.”
Red Dragon is a somatic narcissist. (Bronze Age Pervert is likely a cerebral narcissist desperately trying to emulate a somatic narcissist.)
“The cerebral narcissist is a know-it-all, haughty and intelligent “computer”. He uses his awesome intellect, or knowledge (real or pretended) to secure adoration, adulation and admiration. To him, his body and its maintenance are a burden and a distraction.
Both types are auto-erotic (psychosexually in love with themselves, with their bodies and with their brain).”
Light is, as mentioned, a cerebral narcissist. His narcissism IMO is ultimately blamed, by the show, on his Tiger Mom acting too much like an NPC:
“The narcissist can, thus, derive, vicariously, through the lives of others, the Narcissistic Supply that [she] so craves. [She] induces in his army of zombies criminal, romantic, or heroic, impulses. [She] makes them travel far and fast, breach all norms, gamble against all odds, fear none – in short: [she] transforms them into that which [she] could never be.”
“And this then sets up his whole path toward being a plaything of a bored superhuman intelligence” -Owl
Exactly. There’s an excellent bit, though clumsy in the setup, where Light’s mom comes to his room to give him apples while he studies.
“I’m going to study in my room so please don’t interrupt me, ok?” -Light
“As you wish. Oh Light, do you want anything at all, dear? You can ask for whatever you like” -Mom
“I thought you’d like some apples the neighbors brought them over for us. Why on earth is it so dark in your room? You’ll ruin your eyesight.” -Mom
“What’s going on? Mom can’t see [Ryuk]?” -Light
Ryuk then proceeds to take all of Light’s apples for the rest of the show, paralleling Light taking his “apple” (the Death Note). This represents the persona greedily eating all the potential love as narcissistic supply. That part is really excellent writing. And the fact that his mom can see the general darkness, but not the demon.
Light demonstrates that he’s not really a psychopath because he asks for external justification to set himself up as the apex predator/judge of the world/God:
“I just have one more question I wanna ask you. Why was I chosen for this? [Ryuk devours two apples] Hey, are you even listening?” -Light
“[Scoffs] I didn’t choose you. Don’t you see? This is all just an accident. You actually thought you were chosen because you’re so smart or something? Don’t be so vain. It just happened to fall around here, and you just happened to pick it up. And that’s all there is to it. That’s why I wrote the instructions in English, the most popular language in the human world.” -Ryuk
[Ed: This is comparable to someone accidentally getting the right configuration of genes to be the cleverest human, but still being human.]
“Then why did you drop it in the first place? You even wrote down specific instructions, so don’t try telling me this was an accident!” -Light
“You’re asking me why? I did it ’cause I was bored.” -Ryuk
Light is a megalomaniac who wants to be known and appreciated for his impact, as in my analysis of Citizen Kane.
My advice to the young ubermensch is this: It’s difficult to realize humans are cattle and still be a good person, but it’s better than the alternatives and worth attempting. Therefore, I recommend you eschew natural religion and stay on the straight and narrow path of revealed religion, as it has been defined for you by the moral experience of all human history.