Death Note has a world view that presents equal parts despair and hope.
The light and shade motif is clearly depicted in the Yin and Yang figures of L and Light Yagami – though the creators try and muddy the waters by giving the “Dark” figure the name of “Light”.
The series constantly challenges our assumptions of ethics. If expunging the planet of every criminal makes crime disappear, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that the role of the “hero”? If the gods gave you the power to decide who lives and dies, who would you choose?
Death Note also challenges our ideas of Judeo-Christian faith. Where do the gods of death reside if there is no heaven and hell? Why do the gods seem so unsure of their own purpose in existing? Where does the idea of “ethics” even come from?
You get the sense that Death Note writer Ohba Tsugumi is presenting different facets of these arguments through each of the characters.
So, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a few Death note quotes from a few of the main characters and contrast them with other quotes from philosophy, modern science, lyrics, etc.
Let’s start with the series’ most enigmatic character and sleuthing hero, L.
L Death Note Quotes
donna tensai de mo, ichi nin de wa sekai wa kaeraremasen. sekai o kaeru no wa watashitachi de wa nai no desu. watashitachi ni dekiru no wa, tedasuke o suru koto dake desu.
This L Death Note quote gives us an insight into the character of L having a sense of a larger mission.
Wellbeing scientist Angela Duckworth tell us that the people that have the grit to stay true to an immense task are those that exhibit four things:
Purpose is defined as whether or not the thing you are doing is useful for the world at large. Is what you are doing done in the spirit of service?
This quote from L shows us that L sees his work in fighting crime as being part of an old and ongoing struggle for the strong to protect the weak. He sees himself in a bigger picture.
This makes me think of the quote from the Buddha:
“It seems an impossible task to empty an ocean with a small ladle, but the determination to do it, even if it takes many, many lives, is the mind with which one should receive Buddha’s Enlightenment.”Buddha
You can also see something of the Japanese Buddhist idea of valuing 初心 shoshin or “beginner’s mind”.
そう… 私も幼稚で負けず嫌い… だからわかる…
kira wa yōchi de makezugirai da. sō watashi mo yōchi de makezugirai dakara wakaru
L is constantly depicted in Death Note as having child-like characteristics. He’s seen eating sweets and cakes, he sucks his thumb, he dresses slovenly, he hunches over in quasi-fetal poses. Interestingly, the author of Death Note Ohba Tsugumi also exhibits some of these traits, such as writing on a chair with his knees tucked up and collecting teacups.
Here we see that L actually sees childishness as a virtue. It’s a source of passion for him, in the same way that children are often more excited about life than adults.
In fact, he goes as far saying it is the childish amongst us that actually make an impact in the world, which you can see in this quote:
” yōchi de makezugirai” na hito ni wa kōka batsugun de aru.
So, though there are obvious parallels between L’s character and Yagami Light’s character, one of which being their childishness.
You get a sense that the main difference between them is that L has a faith, or hope, in the ability of humans to improve themselves.
In modern terms, he has a growth mindset. You can see this spelt out in this next L quote:
hito wa tashika ni oroka desu. desu ga hito wa mata, kawaru koto ga dekiru seibutsu de mo arimasu. seigikan o motta kodomotachi ga, sono sunaona kokoro no mamani otona ni nattekuretara, sekai wa kawatteiku to omoimasen ka?
Where Yagami Light sees people as somehow pre-ordained to being good or bad, smart or stupid, talented or not, L see people as capable of improvement.
To sum this up in a word, he has the 4th criteria of what Angela Duckworth lists in her elements of “grit” – hope.
This reminds me of a quote I recently read by famous Japanese gardener Honda Seiroku:
Hope is humanity’s life force
As long as one doesn’t lose that,
a person does not age in vain.Honda Seiroku
It’s funny, in English we have the saying “Where there is life, there is hope”, but it strikes me that it could truly be said that “Where there is hope, there is life”.
Light Yagami Quotes
The character of Yagami presents the yang to L’s Yin. His is the dark side of the coin, or more specifically the dark side of rational thought.
He sees the world as essentially in a state of devolution. He sees himself as the only one capable of “saving” it, ironically through the act of mass killing.
As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
aku wa aku shika umanai. iji no warui ningen ga akuji o okonai. yo ni habikoru naraba, yowai ningen wa sore o narai, jibun mo kusatteiki itsuka wa sore ga tadashii to jibun o seitōka suru.
Near Death Note Quotes
…もし神がいて神の教示があったとしても 私は一考し それが正しいか正しくないかは自分で決めます
nani ga tadashī ka tadashikunai ka nani ga seigi ka aku ka nante dare ni mo wakarimasen
… moshi kami ga ite kami no kyōshi ga atta toshite mo watashi wa ikkō shi sore ga tadashī ka tadashikunai ka wa jibun de kimemasu”
This quote from Near actually presents a complex philosophical counter argument to the question that is often posed by monotheists to non-monotheists when talking about morality. The question goes something along the lines of “how can you have morality without an all-seeing God? How can you know whether anything is good or bad”?
This immediately brings to mind the well known Shakespeare quote:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.
This quote suggests that morality is not something delivered from on high via stone tablets, but something that is constructed by humans, tweaked, maintained, guarded and fought for.
Popular journalist/philosopher Christopher Hitchens was also frequently presented with the question in his many debates about religion, in his own words:
“Since you don’t believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart’s content?”
And he would answer:
“Self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity”Christopher Hitchens
This quote from Near throws an interesting hypothetical twist into the argument by posing the question “even if there was a sentient, interventionist God, would it relieve us of our own responsibility to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong in the world”?
The answer for the character of Near in Death Note is no. If you believe in the ideas of rationality, questioning and self-responsibility the onus for making and upholding morality is still with you.
At another point, he shows his extreme dedication to rational thinking when he contrasts the way that Kira takes life from, an absolute, non-nuanced perspective with the way a more everyday criminal operates:
shiri shiyoku no tameni tsukai, nan nin ka koroshiteshimau ningen no hō ga mada watashi wa rikai dekimasu shi, matomo da to sae omoimasu.”
This sounds to me like a concise expression of the idea of “ethical egoism”, which holds that any decision which is made in line with your own self-interest is by its nature ethical.
But I get the sense that Near is only acknowledging that this type of thinking is consistent logically, rather than saying that he is a follower of this type of ethics.
Another one of his quotes shows that if actually abhors absolute self-interest as a moral idea:
motomoto kira o shijisuru mono wa jibun e no kigai dake o kirau bōkansha shita de abareteiru no wa jibun ga tanoshikereba ii jikochū desu.”
Here we clearly see that Near does not believe that doing what is good for you is always morally justifiable. On the contrary, he calls out Kira’s supporters who he sees are doing nothing more than siding with a bully for their own safety.
In Japanese culture, there is a strong Buddhist influence of the idea of anatman, or non-self, or no-ego, and how we should be acting not in a way that strengthens our idea of ego, but in a way that helps us realise it’s essential emptiness.
You can see this in the Shunryu Suzuki quote:
What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.Shunryu Suzuki
In this context, what is “self-preservation”, when there is no self there to preserve in the first place?
Mello Death Note Quotes
The character of Mello in Death Note is anything but “mellow”. In the contrary, his headstrong, impulsive and impassioned.
He also has a strong sense of loyalty, as you can see from the following quote.
The word 厄介 yakkai can have a range of translations in English. Options include “annoyance, disturbance, irksome”, but in another meaning “obligation, to take care of”.
So you could variously translate this phrase as
The motivation that comes from vengeance is a distraction.
The motivation that comes from vengeance is an obligation.
The motivation that comes from vengeance is a curse.
I chose to use a word that somewhat encapsulates all these meanings and has a sense of “something difficult that you most none the less deal with” and used the word “burden”.
Mello doesn’t seem to be saying here that being motivated by vengeance is good or bad. Rather, he seems to see it as a force of nature. It just is. And you have to deal with it.
This strikes me as almost feudally Japanese. That, in contrast to revenge as a personal vendetta for your own pride or gratification, it is possible to seek to take vengeance is a form of familial, or even civic, duty.
Going a step further than “revenge is a dish best eaten cold” this seems akin to “revenge is a dish best eaten cold, on someone elses behalf, and then spat out again at the soonest possible opportunity”.
Ryuk Death Note Quotes
Ryuk plays the dual roles of “comic releaf” and “Greek chorus” in Death Note. His pithy comments are at once child-like and oafish, but also removed, big picture and wise.
Ryuk is a straight talker. But he, perhaps, reveales a lot about the world view of Death Note’s creators.
Take this Ryuk thought-bomb:
“天国も地獄もない 生前何をしようが死んだ奴のいくところは同じ 死は平等だ
tengoku mo jigoku mo nai seizen nani o shiyōga shinda yatsu no iku tokoro wa onaji shi wa byōdōda”
For people raised in Judeo-Christian societies, the idea that there would be an afterlife without a heaven or hell, is quite hard to comprehend. We are so indoctrinated with this dualistic hereafter world view.
I am reminded here of the lyrics from John Lennon’s immortal ode to atheist love, Imagine:
“Imagine there’s no heaven,
No hell below us
Above us, only sky”John Lennon
The second part of Ryuk’s quote, that “everyone goes to the same place” doesn’t sit well with atheist thinking. Not unless this is a reference to where we physically go, a la the Tom Waits couplet:
“Your spirit don’t leave knowing
Your face or your name
The wind through your bones
as all that remains
We’re all going to be just dirt in the ground”Tom Waits
The last part of Ryuk’s quote, that “death plays no favorites” is a common enough idea.
But it has been argued by palliative carer and philosopher Stephen Jenkinson that death is not as equal as we like to think. He points out that the deaths that different people experience vary greatly. Some die in anguish, others with acceptance, some die in pain, some in calm, some in the hands of well-paid professionals, others in the alleyway.
Ryuk goes on to paint a picture of the Gods as being, well, all but the same as people, but living in another dimension:
“ただ漠然と 死にたくないから人の寿命をいただき 漠然と生きている…本当に今の死神界っていうのは腐っている。何の為に存在しているのかすら もう誰にもわからない。たぶん存在してる意味なんて ないんだろう…”
shinitakunaikara hito no jumyō o itadaki bakuzento ikiteiru … hontōni ima no shinigamikai tteiu no wa kusatteiru . nani no tame ni sonzai shiteiru no ka sura mō dare ni mo wakaranai . tabun sonzai shiteru imi nante nai ndarō …
Ryuk himself certainly doesn’t seem to be immune from this sense of not knowing what has been put on, or above, this planet for. He seems to be searching for a meaning for life (or is that death?) any more than the next, um, god.
This quote makes me wonder what the Death Note writer Ohba was trying to express here. Was he trying to say, “don’t count beings from the astral plane to come and save you, there is noone else that has any more idea than you do.”
This world view makes all the more sense in a society like Japan where the mainstream opinion is that we live in a polytheistic world, where god-like beings of various levels of sentience inhabit every physical thing.
Ryuk, or Ohba, seems to be saying “go ahead and pray to the Gods if you like, but don’t expect any answers to questions that you don’t already know”.
Ryuk further hammers this home when he says:
Who would have thought the gods would experience existential ennui?
What is the upshot of this belittling of godliness?
I would suggest that it is we should live using our own resources, with our own agency, and take responsibility for our own lives.
I think here of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Heroe’s Journey. We should have the hero’s mindset, not the victim’s. You better make the most of what you’ve got right now, because no angels, light or dark, are here to give you a push.
All it took was a Death God to tell us.