Stories of certain individuals reaching beyond their bearings, their limits, their self-perceived boundaries, are common throughout the globe. For many Greek legends (and tales based on them) heroes fell to their pride and curiosity; in Irish mythos 'love' (or trust) was the hero's fatal decision and in Chinese Buddhist philosophy it was impulsiveness and willing ignorance. Despite their differences in personality failings or 'quirks,' they all have a similar core theme of warning; life is to be valued as an entity beyond the self (whether it be God or not), and a figure who attempts to disrupt this natural flow is to be punished by some means. Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is a more modern (yet classic) example of this theme. Which, in itself, is an homage of sorts to the Greek myth "Prometheus" as well as the older Christain-Pagan epic, Paradise Lost by John Milton.
A scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, takes the ability to give life into his own hands and attempts to play God (or control nature) in the process; he soon regrets this decision and spends the majority of the story hunting his (relatively) innocent creation down to right his wrong. Frankenstein, being a fantastic novel of complicated themes and motives, I will leave to your own time to read and comment on as you will.
No; what I want to discuss today is the fascinating phenomenon that is the "Death Note" musical and, more specifically, how its message has transcended and transformed through various cultures and mediums.
First, what is 'Death Note?'
Written within the span of 2003-6, "Death Note" is a Japanese Manga series by Tsugumi Ohba, that follows a young high school student who finds a black notebook while walking home. This notebook, you've probably have guessed, is titled "Death Note;" it is further clarified, that any name written in this notebook (with a face in mind) shall die within the span of forty seconds. Light Yagami, our student, decides to test out this strange tool after a slight moment of hesitation:
"Wait...on the off chance that someone really dies... Would that make me a murderer?... Yeah right. It's completely impossible."
With his new resolve, Light writes the name of a criminal shown on live news--Kurou Otoharada, who at that moment is holding eight hostages at a daycare center. Forty-five seconds later, as the news continues to watch the scene, Light concludes that the Death Note is a sham; until the hostages come running out of the building, and it is found that Kurou is dead by a heart attack. It is soon revealed, that the "Death Note" had a previous owner, a horrific creature known only by the name Ryuk.
The "Death Note" is, in fact, a tool used by shinigami (such as Ryuk) to reap the souls of humans--since the notebook has touched the human realm though, it is now considered an object of mortal possession; it is Light's Death Note to use as he will. However, those who write in the Death Note:
"will feel the fear and pain known only to humans who have used the notebook. And when it's your time to die, it will fall on me to write your name in my [new] Death Note. Be warned, any human who's used a Death Note can neither go to heaven or hell for an eternity. That's all." --Ryuk
With these conditions understood, Light Yagami takes on a separate identity known as Kira and uses the Death Note to kill whoever he perceives as a criminal. Those who violate his new world shall be cleansed with his 'justice.'
Ambiguous morals, psychopathic protagonists, sociopathic antagonists, and highly entertaining death god commentators, 'Death Note' is truly a hell of a ride. Both the manga and the anime adaptations have a similar conflict between the main character (Light) and the audience itself. It feels almost natural to want to support Light based on character and ambition alone; but rather than a question of right and wrong it is a sick curiosity of how and why. We know that what Light is doing is innately wrong and that the condemning of criminals without due process is no more justice than it is pure arrogance and insanity. Yet, we are beyond wanting and caring for morals--but instead obsessed with the how. The individual that is Light Yagami, from the anime and manga adaptations, isn't about a question of societal morals, but a character that forces us as individuals to question our own sense of right and wrong. Opposed to this figure, is the antagonist--the world-renowned detective known only as L. He, being on the side of the judicial process and societal morals, also reveals an ambiguity. Under the guise of "justice" for the "peace" and safety of the people, does one have the moral obligation to remove certain individual rights as citizens? Should they? These are questions that are constantly discussed throughout the series and left (rightly so) without answers. The musical, however, takes another approach.
Music composed by American composer Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Jack Murphy, "Death Note" is a musical that has taken Japan and Korea by storm. Let's backtrack for a second: a Japanese manga series, taken on by an American composer, who adapts it into an underground New York English recording, soon further translated into Japanese to be produced as a full-blown musical, only to then be further adapted to a South Korean production. Is this not unbelievable!? Here, we have a case of mass cultural exchange, integration, interpretation, and further adaptation--truly a phenomenon in it of itself. Something I would definitely want to research further in the coming months.
However, I digress, the musical in question does seem to take on another perspective of the moral ambiguity between Light and L. Due to the lack of time to fully embody the insanity and character that is Light Yagami, the musical decides to take an outside-in approach. The shinigami, Ryuk, becomes more of a narrator and active commentator on both the human and shinigami societies. It is through him, and his ageless (almost omniscient) view of mortals, that we meet Light and L on equal footing. The musical further presents the two and their differing ideals as interpretations of 'justice,'--but in the end, Ryuk concludes the posturing surety of it all to be truly a fallacy.
"There's no meaning at all." --Ryuk