God Have Mercy: Justice and Judgement in Death Note

I’m ten years late to the party, but I finally watched Death Note. I’m actually glad I avoided it for as long as I did because I don’t think my teenage, anime-loving self would’ve appreciated or understood the complexity. Certainly, anything I could say about Death Note has been discussed ad nauseam from religious references to morality, so I don’t think I’m adding anything particularly new to the conversation.

Within the first few minutes of the first episode, I immediately recognized “kyrie eleison” in the background, so among other things I thought about who in Death Note was asking God for mercy, which god was being asked, and what mercy looked like.

Ryuk Have Mercy

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Ryuk, the bored shinigami, “loses” the first Death Note by “accidentally” dropping it in the human world. His boredom in and of itself is a commentary on the lack of relevancy that gods, spirits, and religions have in the modern world. Throughout the series, we see glimpses of the dilapidated shinigami realm where all these death gods do is sit around gambling or watching the human world. Surely, there was a past era when shinigami had much more clout in a premodern human society, but now they’re bored and listless.

So if Ryuk is the one asking for mercy, he’s asking for someone to alleviate his boredom. Dropping the Death Note doesn’t automatically guarantee that a human capable of doing this will pick it up.

Yet if Ryuk is the one being asked, then perhaps “mercy” for the one who’s asking (given that the song plays as Ryuk drops the notebook) is a request that the whimsical actions of a bored spirit do not result in the wrong person obtaining the power of death.

In the series finale, Ryuk having mercy means something different. Just as he said, he’s the one who writes Light’s name in his Death Note. Ryuk may be giving mercy to the world by killing Light or he may be giving mercy to Light himself, assuming that Light actually wants to die and assuming that Light’s death is a good thing.

Kira Have Mercy

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There’s definitely a play on words with how similar “Kira” and “kyrie” sound. So, through most of Death Note, Kira is the most obvious god whose mercy determines who dies and when. Light is Kira, but Kira is much greater than Light, as we see Kira’s power shift and expand over the course of the series. By only killing criminals, it appears to most people that there is finally a god having mercy, enacting justice where evil had once reigned. Because Kira passes earthly judgement on people, the sort that humans can easily observe and process as justice, crime and wars reduce dramatically; yet they most likely reduce because people are afraid, not because people have grown empathy and understand that it’s wrong to harm each other.

It may very well be that in the aftermath of Light’s death, no one in that warehouse tells the public that Kira is dead. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be true. As long as the Death Notes still exist, someone else could become the next Kira. Kira, like L, becomes a role or an ideology that others can step into.

Kira’s mercy is a human notion of retribution, stemming from the conclusion that criminals deserve death rather than reform. There is no concept of forgiveness or restoration for those who have harmed society. So, asking Kira for mercy becomes a litany of vengeance born out of pain caused by someone else’s crime.

L Had Mercy

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L suspects that Light is Kira very early on and his suspicion grows as the series progresses. By the time this scene occurs where L wipes Light’s feet, L is almost certain that Light is Kira. Despite this, L still calls Light his friend and becomes like a servant to him in this brief moment. This scene is one of Death Note‘s most obvious allusions to Christianity, as it invokes the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, even Judas who betrayed him. This action seems to break Light for a moment. Why would his enemy do such a thing? Isn’t it a little regretful that he’s about to kill L?

Of course, none of this is enough to stop Light from proceeding with his plans and continuing on this path of creating his new world. L dies, but lives on in a sense through Near.

Near has no intentions of killing Kira, but he also doesn’t stop Matsuda as the situation in the warehouse escalates. So no one has any qualms about Light dying as punishment for his actions. If L was still alive, he may have stood more strongly for a different path.

Justice and Mercy

Light believes that he’s entitled to this power of death because nothing seems to stop or punish the evil things people do to each other. He has to use the Death Note in the way that he does because no one else will and no one else could accomplish as much as he does with it. Depending on your moral framework, Light/Kira is right and the police had no business trying to capture him.

However, this ultimately doesn’t work in a Christian framework, as easy as it is to understand Light’s logic. Christianity emphasizes forgiveness and reconciliation rather than taking the power of retribution into our own hands. Yet humanity has a history of doing this anyway, thus resulting in escalatory violence and the creation of violent social systems. Were Light to live as Kira for much longer and defeat Near, he would’ve become the head of such a system. We already see the beginnings of that in the series, as Kira followers resort to violence in response to any dissent of Kira.

Ultimately, Death Note poses some complex questions and tests its audience’s own sense of justice. Yes, Light is the villain and his ends are noble while his means are deranged, but he has a point now, doesn’t he? Grappling with that point is one of many reasons to watch Death Note.

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4 thoughts on “God Have Mercy: Justice and Judgement in Death Note

  1. How good ! Would be my favourite, I love the fact that it makes you question your own decisions and ideas on what is viewed on right and wrong and why. Not only a great plot, characters and overall series, but you don’t simply forget about the series after the finale, it really sticks with ya. Which I feel is what makes it so great

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    1. Yeah, I definitely see why it’s a revered series and you could just go on and on discussing it because there are so many ways to unpack it. I haven’t read the manga yet, but I’ve heard it’s less memetic than the anime.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting to me that you focused on mercy in this post because I remember watching the anime and feeling it showed more mercy and compassion toward Light than the manga. The foot washing scene is only in the anime, though if I remember correctly, everything else about L and Light’s relationship is, which in the manga made me question more strongly how L truly viewed Light despite calling him “friend.” Light’s death also had a different feel in the manga versus the anime for me. Light is one of my top 3 characters in Death Note because he’s so psychologically fascinating, but in the manga when he died, I didn’t feel as tempted to feel sorry for him. He was more pathetic, I think, in the manga and the end of the last chapter felt less full of Kira-worship themes compared to the anime ending from what I recall (it has been 6-7 years since I last watched it and longer since I read the manga, though, so I could be misremembering).

    From what I heard of the live-action movies, it seemed that in some ways they were a little more merciful or at least sympathetic toward Light than the manga as well. I wonder why that happens in these adaptations…

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    1. Very interesting! I definitely need to read the manga for comparison, but I also know that at the very end of the anime when Light dies, it appears that he sees L which is also not in the manga from what I understand. It could be that the people who made the anime just had a more compassionate interpretation of Light and wanted to bring that out, or that they thought portraying Light a bit more positively would make the anime more successful.

      The same questions arise for so many other anime adaptations of manga. For example, the anime version of Revolutionary Girl Utena apparently made Utena and Anthy much gayer for each other than the manga did and I’ve heard the mangaka didn’t like that at all.

      It could also be that adaptations make these sorts of changes to be a little different from the source material and in some cases stand alone as their own product. Sometimes that’s a good thing and other times it’s a bad thing.

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