Evil vs. Evil: The Killer Dilemma of Death Note
What the psychological autopsy of Light and L reveals about who the real villain is.
If we catch Kira, he is evil. If he wins and rules the world, then he is justice.—Light Yagami
Death Note may have just started filming literally a week ago, but for as long as Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s supernatural manga has been around, so has the undying question that haunts it: is Light Yagami really evil?
Bringing the issue to light
It’s tempting to shine the ethical debate only on Light. As the rogue crusader for justice nicknamed Kira by Japan’s primetime TV audience, the reclusive antihero did write down enough names in that notebook to fill an entire graveyard. Mysterious investigator L wears the mask of the so-called “good guy” when he infiltrates the investigation that will be Kira’s undoing. On the surface Light is reflected as the protagonist for all of half a second until L blinds the police force with his proverbial halo.
L’s (and later, his successor Near’s) mission in solving the Kira case isn’t the pseudo-benevolence he puts up about needing to stop the killings, but to bandage the cracks spreading across his own fragile ego. The question that even diehard fans often ignore hides ghostlike behind the first: who is more evil—Light, or L?
Even without Shinigami vision (or hearing), it’s probably easy to imagine the collective gasps echoing from as far as Tokyo.
There are some things even a god of death can’t argue. Light is a serial killer. With a non-magical pen and a notebook from the otherworld, he racks up a staggering body count of convicts, potential convicts and specimens of human scum that somehow evade the justice system but really deserve to be convicts. His catalog of sins also includes offing anyone who could potentially expose him as Kira (hold that thought because there is a serious conflict of motives here). Premeditated murder never has a justification.
For the sake of the fictional universe of Death Note, assume that society really does start to improve once a ninja criminal exterminator appears on the scene. Why would anyone want to thwart the progress of a social antibiotic so long as there is no collateral damage? The vast majority of Kira’s victims meet their demise via heart attack. There are no bombs to pointlessly blow innocent lives away, no bullets to the head that penetrate more than one skull. The only fatalities that we know of in the one motorcycle crash and one car crash among these hundreds of cases of cardiac arrest were the intended targets.
As he keeps fueling his hunched frame with anti-brain food like animal crackers, candy, cake, ice cream, and enough mini fruit jellies to build another Great Pyramid with the plastic cases, L obsesses over a personal issue that masquerades as an ethical one. The perpetually barefoot sugar addict has never lost a case and swears he never will. He is so insecure he can’t even stand the fragment of a possibility that he could lose, and to the perpetrator of all people.
“Most people would rather win than lose,” he admits during a heated tennis match against Light. “It’s human nature.”
Near is even worse. This kid who should be trading Pokémon cards at recess puts an entire FBI team in potentially lethal situations again and again if only to prove to himself that he is right about his Kira hypotheses, all while smashing action figures together and screwing around with finger puppets. Casualties don’t concern him in the least. There is not one shred of regret on his deceptively childlike face as he watches fatal scenarios play out on the thousand and one TV screens he half-watches with a jaded sort of apathy as he twirls his hair with one hand and erects an entire city out of dice with the other. His investigation team are his finger puppets, which he manipulates endlessly to get what he wants. Near could care less about the new obituaries appearing in the paper every day. The one thing he ultimately wants is to emerge victorious over Light’s dead body as proof that he is not only right, but infallible.
So the end justifies the means regardless of collateral damage. It’s how sociopaths tend to think.
Sociopathy and Sabotage
Speaking of collateral damage, consider the deaths and near-deaths indirectly caused by these two wunderkinds. Their warped logic says it’s totally fine to throw someone in the line of fire (or a killer notebook) so long as their virgin fingers aren’t the ones to pick up the pen of doom. They bait Kira with human pawns who have no idea of that they’re being used because they are convinced by these child prodigies that they are in fact crucial to the investigation. Neither of them show a shred of remorse or have any real concern for how the outcomes of their actions will affect anyone but themselves, which are hallmarks of sociopathy.
L deliberately throws convict Lind L. Tailor in front of the camera as a human decoy, knowing he’s going to get obliterated by Shinigami magic in 40 seconds. He’s the type of criminal Kira would wipe out sooner or later even if he didn’t show his face on national TV, but that isn’t the point. The point is that being indirectly responsible for murder—murder for the sake of proving something to their own egos—is just fine for L and his successor so long as neither of them directly writes down an instant death sentence.
Light never intends for his utopian mission to turn into a morbid fame-seeking venture. His claim that he will be the “god of this new world” is easily misunderstood as a hunger to manipulate and destroy when all he really wants is to have the freedom and authority to vacuum all the evil from society. That deceptively evil look that overshadows his face is the misunderstood desire for justice. He intends to keep his identity as Kira shrouded in mystery (while avoiding a life sentence) so he can continue acting as the invisible hand of justice.
Unfortunately, this does involve the using and even striking down of innocent people whose testimonies could extinguish the Kira mission. It sounds ghastly until a closer analysis reveals the only innocent people he ever eliminates are those who L or Near deliberately bait him with. Light’s only end in using people is to divert his obsessive pursuers’ attention. When some of those names end up in ink on the page of the notebook it is less of a premeditated murder than it is a last-ditch effort to extricate himself from the spiderwebs.
Despite all the brain mazes they put us through, they both know Light is Kira, we know they know, and they want to broadcast that to the police force, the FBI, and the rest of the known universe. Not one of these deaths would have happened had it not been for either sociopathic sleuth’s ego-inflating quest to emerge the one who could finally outsmart Light.
Where do the Shinigami stand on all this?
Mythical pantheons often embody a duality of good and evil. Thor is good, Loki is evil. Zeus is good, Hades is evil. Bielbog is good, Czernobog is evil. Shinigami fall in an area as indeterminately gray as their dusty empire in the beyond. Some have dust for brains. Sidoh is too much of a spacecase to even keep his notebook on him, let alone have anything resembling a moral code. Some have a conscience. Rem sacrifices herself to save Light’s girlfriend-slash-accomplice Misa.
Then there’s Ryuk. He is completely apathetic to ethical concerns, but then again you can’t expect much of someone whose main goal in life (undeath?) is to use humans as his own personal entertainment channel because the Shinigami realm bores him to tears. His reasoning is that he can always write their names in his notebook if this twisted real-life Netflix starts to put him to sleep.
Light Yagami is not an intrinsically evil mastermind, but a sad case of noble intentions that become severely corrupted. His pursuers are so obsessed with proving how golden they are that they exhibit no regrets about achieving their ends through sabotage and the sacrifice of innocent human beings they look at as little more than game pieces.
Are there irredeemable acts on both sides? Beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt. It’s the vast difference in motive that separates Light from the self-absorbed sociopaths whose relentless ego-driven scheming leads to his demise—which proves exactly how nebulous “good” and “evil” are.