I find myself revisiting the Death Note anime a lot more than I thought I would. The visual style is fascinating. The slow pace makes for some strong suspense. Even with some of the blatantly bad choices (cough potato chip), the show is just so watchable. For those who don't know already, Death Note is the story of Light "Kira" Yagami. He is a young man about to graduate from high school who discovers a mysterious notebook labeled "Death Note." He picks it up and gains the ability to see a Shinigami--a god who can control who dies when. The Death Note also comes with the ability to kill people if Light knows their name and can visualize their face.
Light decides to become the God of a new world, killing every criminal broadcast on television or in print as the ultimate crime deterrent and punishment. The IPO is brought in to investigate Kira's crime spree, led by the brilliant and reclusive crime solver L. L and Light are evenly matched in a battle of wits to see which set of laws will define the world of tomorrow.
The opening credits of the Death Note anime can be used to really open up the text of the series. In the original credits, the animators included a lot of Christian iconography. Ryuk is shown tempting Light with a shiny red apple in the style of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Light is shown first wandering around with and then taking a large bite of the same apple later in the credits.
There are other images, as well--a woman holds her fallen fiance ala Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion, doves descend from the sky, characters pose in front of stained glass windows, and Light standing in a modified crucifixion pose (arms out, head back, one knee in front of the other, a fallen angel in the background).
The most significant image is the temptation of the apple. In the final moments of the opening credits, the apple is replaced by the Death Note on Light's desk. Ryuk and Light pass apples back and forth to each other throughout the entire Death Note series. It is, simply put, a symbolic representation of temptation and original sin.
The story of original sin appears in the beginning the Bible. Adam and Eve are living peacefully in the Garden of Eden and obeying all of God's rules. One day, a snake climbs off of the Tree of Knowledge--the one tree Adam and Eve are not allowed to eat from--and offers Eve a beautiful apple. He wears down her defenses and she takes a bite. The sensation is so strong that she convinces Adam to take a bite, as well. The couple have all of the knowledge of the world and are suddenly ashamed of their naked forms. They cover themselves in fig leaves before God discovers their betrayal and banishes them to a life of pain and suffering outside of the Garden of Eden. It takes the actual sacrifice of God's son on Earth for God to forgive the human race and allow them to rejoin him in heaven.
Death Note riffs a lot on these themes throughout the series. Any human who uses the Death Note will not have a happy afterlife. They will be consumed at the time of their death by the Shinigami they received the book from and be tormented for all eternity. The Shinigami are so unconcerned with human life that they offer no guidance or support when using the Death Note. You can talk until you're blue in the face and they will not answer your questions beyond the rules included in the notebook itself. These gods will ignore you until your time on earth has passed.
Yet, the Shinigami will tempt you into causing further harm to yourself. A Death Note user is offered a certain deal with the Shinigami. The user can receive a special kind of eye that lets them immediately see the name and date of death of everyone else in the world. If they accept the offer, they lose half of their remaining lifespan.
Light is not the only character to receive a Death Note on Earth. Misa, a popular teen model, also finds a Death Note. She immediately takes the deal with her Shinigami Rem, giving up half of her peaceful life on Earth for the ability to kill anyone she wants to on sight alone. Misa becomes obsessed with helping Kira complete his mission, putting both human Death Note users in danger. The risk pays off for Misa since she can immediately spot Light in a crowded shopping district.
The relationship between Light and Ryuk is far more unusual. Rem brought another Shinigami's Death Note to Misa after he sacrificed himself to save Misa from a violent death. She has no real desire to be on Earth. Ryuk dropped his Death Note on Earth just because he was bored and wanted some entertainment. Light is able to tempt Ryuk into going against his apathy for human existence time and again with literal apples.
Ryuk is addicted to apples. He would eat them all day if he could get away with it. Light forces information out of Ryuk by providing or denying him apples at strategic times. At one point, L fills Light's room with video cameras to capture evidence that he is Kira. Light withholds all apples from Ryuk until Ryuk tells him the exact number of cameras and their locations in the house. It's like Adam was a better negotiator and actually got some useful information out of serpent instead of just getting a tasty apple and a lot of shame.
The metaphor extends even further when you look into the relationship between Light and Misa. Misa immediately accepts the offer of the Shinigami eyes in hopes of helping out Light. She tries to convince him to get them himself or even just use her to find out information with the life-halving enhancing. Light agrees to the latter. Throughout the rest of the series, Misa becomes Light's eyes for identifying victims.
However, whenever Misa is unavailable, Ryuk goes in with the hard sell on the eyes. Light is strong-willed and tries to avoid this temptation at all costs. It's just so powerful. He wouldn't have to get into a relationship with someone who came close to outing his identity on national TV just because of a fangirl obsession. He could destroy L the first time he sees him and anyone else whoever tried to discover the identity of Kira.
Yet somehow, the direct parallel to the apple, the final sin to damn him forever, is the one temptation Light can avoid. He uses his own reasoning skills to tempt others into damning themselves in his place. It's a sick and twisted game that firmly sets Light as a villain, not even an antihero, in his own story.
The references to Christian iconography extend far beyond the apple and the temptation of original sin, but the major motifs of Death Note are driven by Adam and Eve. It's a really interesting play on spiritual and literary tradition firmly grounded in the hybrid religion of Shibatsu-Shogu (Buddhism and Kami, spirit, worship). The Shinigami are separate incarnations of the same higher being manipulating the afterlife for the spirits, living and deceased, that inhabit the earth. All it takes is one bored god tempting a teenager for the Book of Genesis to be reimagined as a power struggle between good, neutrality, and evil.
Thoughts on the use of religion and temptation in Death Note? Share them below.