Death Note and Social Justice: The Paradox of Good Intentions Part 1

Written by Alexander Greco

July 27, 2020

I am Justice.

Light and L

What I want to discuss in this essay, which I suppose is more of an editorial analysis, is the theme of Justice in Death Note, its parallels to contemporary Social Justice movements, and what can be learned about Justice, Social Justice and Social Justice activism as we see it today. Originally, this was going to be only one part, but, since I got to about 3,000 words without even touching on Social Justice, it ended up being two.

I won’t spend much time summarizing Death Note, as it is one of the most watched animes of all time. If you’re one of a few who haven’t watched at least a few episodes of Death Note, it’s on Netflix, and the first 10-13 episodes are absolute genius. The show unfortunately plateaus at this point, then tapers off in quality after episode 18, and even more so after episode 26. This anime had the potential to be on par with Dostoevsky, Burgess or Huxley, but fell flat about halfway through. If you think I’m wrong on this, come prove me wrong. I would still recommend the entire show, all 37 episodes, despite my feelings on the second half.

But still, where did the initial genius of the show reside?

Was it in the cat-and-mouse game between L and Light? That might have been part of it, but the second half of the show maintained similar plot events, so no, it couldn’t have been.

Was it in the originality of the show’s premise? I’m sure that helped, but novelty does not equal genius.

Was it in the philosophical underpinnings of the show? I think this is getting warmer, but I think we need to be more specific, because anyone can spout out philosophic propaganda and call themselves intelligent.

The genius of the first 10-13 episodes of Death Note comes from how the philosophic conundrums of the show are communicated through Light and L.

How so?

There is a strange paradox in Death Note regarding the dynamic of Light and L.

In many ways, Light and L are almost identical characters.

Light and L are both incredibly intelligent. Both have superhuman levels of deductive ability and strategic thinking. Both are driven by a powerful sense of Justice. For much of the show, they are neck and neck with each other, each trying to figure out who the other is (Light so he can kill L, and L so he can arrest Light), and at times L seems to be the superior intellect, while at other times, Light seems to be one step ahead of L.

This dynamic between Light and L may be the most interesting part of the show, and it may be why the show suffered most in quality once L died.

However, there must be a critical difference between L and Light, or else they would not be each other’s nemesis. So, we must drill down to this critical difference.

Light is using the Death Note to kill criminals because he wants to make the world a better place. L is trying to stop Light from doing this. Light is the protagonist of the show, but is characterized as evil. L is the antagonist of the show, but is characterized as good.

Why?

Why is it wrong for Light to kill criminals and rid the world of people who wish to make the world a worse place?

If Light is ridding the world of criminals and therefore making the world a better place, then isn’t L making the world worse by trying to stop Light?

Why is Light, the person trying to rid the world of criminals, the bad guy, and L, the person trying to stop Light from doing this, the good guy?

Here, we have a multitude of details and questions we must begin parsing apart in order to fully understand the dynamic between Light and L, and in order to understand what the meaningfulness in their differences are. This critical difference between the two must cohesively solve the paradox of A) why Light and L’s sense of Justice is different; and B) why Light is evil and L is good.

So, first, why does L wish to stop Light from using the Death Note to kill criminals and make the world a better place?

In short, because it is not Light’s place to decide this; it is the law and the authority of the government to decide this. But, why? Especially considering Light has the ability to do things the traditional forces of law and order cannot do. Light can remove evil from the world far more effectively than the police can. There is no due process, there is no innocent until proven guilty, there is only a swift death for those who do evil.

In addition, the forces of law and order may be corrupt, or at least incompetent. Light is far more intelligent than any other police officers, FBI agents and so forth who are trying to stop him. The only person who is as intelligent as Light is L, so if everyone is incompetent, why leave the responsibility of Justice in their hands? Why not take Justice into your own hands if everyone—including your own father—is incompetent and, in many cases, cowardly?

The only person in the show other than Light who isn’t incompetent is L, and L isn’t doing anything to stop the evil-doers that Light is trying to catch. In fact, by trying to stop Light, L is keeping Light from ridding the world of evil, so how is L doing any good? Isn’t L aiding in keeping the world evil, corrupt and dangerous?

If this is all the case, then why try to stop Light? Why is it not Light’s place to kill these criminals?

Because Justice inevitably is corrupted when sentencing Justice upon someone is taken into human hands.

Now, you can say that this is inevitably how Justice must work. Law officials, from police to lawyers to judges, are all humans, and the laws created within these legal structures are all determined by humans. How can Justice not be taken into human hands, and why should it be relegated only to law officials and police authorities rather than to everyone, or to those few who are competent, intelligent and idealistic enough to take the law into their own hands?

Because the law, though designed by humans, is designed to remove as much of human error—cognitive and moral—from the equation. Innocent until proven guilty assumes that the arbiters of law may possess faulty reasoning, or they might not have all the facts, or they might not have spent enough time thinking about all the facts, or that their reasoning may be clouded by personal prejudice or selfishness. Due process and fair trials assume that there are methods which must be in place for all legal proceedings in order for them to properly carry out the law, and that everyone deserves the right to be treated equally under the law.

More religious people might argue that this legal system is roughly akin to the Will of God. One could make the argument that our legal system is a transcendent system which resides above the will of individual humans. It is not any one person’s place to decide if someone is guilty of a crime and worthy of condemnation. This must be determined by digging into the truth of an event, despite our own reasoning and rationality, and handing out fair and proportionate punishments—the omniscient wisdom of God to know the Truth, and the omnipotent will of God to carry out proper punishment or reward.

Now, I am not making this argument in the slightest, but this argument serves to expand upon the argument we are already making here.

There is something “transcendent” which law officials submit to, rather than take law into their own hands.

However, what happens if someone decides this “transcendent” system is in fact faulty, inefficient or corrupt? What happens if someone decides they can assume this role and play God?

This is exactly what Light Yagami does. He decides he is above the law. In fact, he decides that he wants to become a God—a God of a new world that he will create. His “omniscient wisdom” is his immense intelligence, and his “omnipotent judgement” is the Death Note.

Why is this wrong? Why is Light wrong for taking Justice into his own hands, and trying to assume the role of “God”?

This can be answered in the second difference between Light and L.

The first difference, to summarize what we’ve just discussed, is that Light takes on the role of God, and answers to no one but himself, while L remains subordinate to the traditional sources of Law and Order. What Light does is wrong because the traditional, “transcendent” sources of Law had deemed it to be illegal, and L upholds these laws.

The second difference really is a reflection of the first, but a reflection in character rather than action. Light is arrogant and narcissistic, and believes he is above the law. Light does not assume evil in himself, but assumes evil in everyone else, including L. L is neither arrogant nor narcissistic, and displays far more humility and self-reflection.

Where Light spends the entire show completely self-assured that L is his enemy, L spends the entire show trying to determine whether or not Light is actually Kira. L never completely condemns Light as Kira because he never has complete evidence to back it up, so he never brings Light to Justice. Light has no internal disagreement about whether or not L is his enemy, and is simply waiting for the right time to kill him.

Light believes himself to be perfectly moral and in the right, and is so self-assured by his own intelligence that he does not stop to question whether or not it is right to commit the actions he commits. L is constantly questioning himself and his own judgements. Even when he comes to deductions that we as the audience know are correct, he questions these and often disagrees with his own correct deductions.

In the end, one could argue that this is strength on the part of Light and weakness on the part of L.

Light is strong because he acts with conviction and trusts his own reasonings and intuitions, even when his victories come at the cost of others’ lives. L is weak because he is second-guessing himself and never takes the actions to fully stop Light, even in moments where he could use his authority to do so.

So why is it wrong for Light to do this? Why is it wrong, when Light is getting results and L is not? Why is it wrong for Light to kill criminals, and right for L to stop him?

It is wrong morally because Light eventually contradicts and compromises his own ideals, and it is wrong pragmatically because Light’s actions are ultimately self-isolating and self-destructive.

We first have to tackle the moral problem. The biggest question is: Why is it wrong for Light to kill people who are trying to stop him from killing evil people? Why are those people not enemies as well?

Part of this is because it might not be right for him to kill these criminals, because how many of them actually deserve to die? How many of them committed truly atrocious crimes? What were the details of all of their crimes? How many of them might have been wrongly accused, which might have been revealed in later appeals or as new evidence arose? How many of them could have been rehabilitated?

The more pressing answer though is that Light is contradicting his own moral endeavor by killing people who are innocent. He is killing people who are trying to do good in the world—police officers, FBI agents, news reporters, etc.—rather than only criminals. His goal is to rid the world of criminals, but he inevitably contradicts his own morals. He kills them because they are trying to stop him, and he assumes the highest good for himself—he assumes his own morality to be unquestionable.

Because he assumes his morality and his idealism are unquestionable, he kills innocent people to keep them from thwarting his utopian plans, which, ironically, compromises his own morality. Then, because he assumes his morality and idealism to be unquestionable, he does not reflect on his own actions. He does not reflect on the fact that, in order to carry out his utopian plans, he focuses most of his energy on trying to kill good, innocent people, and killing criminals becomes a side-project. It almost becomes a hindrance for him, because he has to strategically plan how he kills criminals in order to outsmart the police, FBI and L. Killing criminals becomes subordinate to Light’s own egocentrism.

Light’s own belief in himself as a God capable of passing judgement on society forces him to become a bad person. Light is forced to lie to and deceive friends, family and law officials. Light is forced to put on a false persona, to manipulate those around him and disrupt others’ lives for his gain. Light is forced to kill innocent people in order to rid the world of evil.

How can Light enact a perfectly moral and idealistic plan—how can light create this perfect utopia—if he himself, and all of his decisions, are so morally compromised?

Pragmatically, Light’s plans eventually fail because his utopian vision forces him to become this evil person, which forces him into self-destructive acts.

Light is forced to ruin friendships with others and either manipulate or abuse those around him. Light is forced to kill people who could have helped him. Light is forced to compromise his own plans in order to save himself from legal authorities.

Light constructs his own utopia upon lies, deceit, manipulation and false personas. Because of this, the structure he creates is incredibly fragile. This is why most of his efforts throughout the show are focused on saving himself from prosecution rather than seeing his vision to fruition. His vision of a bright, new world is a lie. Light’s vision is not of a bright, new world, Light’s vision is of himself as God, but Light cannot be God.

Light never trully believed in his own self-proclaimed morals. These idealizations were rationalities for Light’s egocentric desire to have power over others.

L by contrast held himself subordinate to actual morals and principals. L had similar character traits as Light, even a strong desire to win, but L maintained his morality by putting his ideals and his principals above his own desires and egocentrism.

Light had a vision of a better world, but this vision was a rationalization for his desire for power.

L had a vision of a better world, but he denied his own desires for power by subordinating himself to his own principals and ideals.

This of course led to L’s demise and Light’s short-term success. After this, Light even pretended to be L, which Near later called him out for—essentially saying that Light is a false L.

However, L sacrificed himself to his own ideals, and his vision of a better world came to fruition because his actions focused on the vision and not on personal gain.

Light sacrificed his ideals for himself, and his vision of a better world crumbled because he sacrificed this vision for his personal gain.

So now, how does this relate to Social Justice and Social Justice activism?

This I will explore in the second part of my analysis, where I connect Justice in Death Note to Justice in Real Life.

As a final note for the first half of this essay, a lot of what I wrote here was me thinking “out loud”. These are incredibly deep and complex topics, and I don’t think my answers here are by any means perfect or complete. If you disagreed with anything I have to say, or found a flaw or hole in my thinking, please let me know. I would love to hear what you think.

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