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Recent Rewinds: Spin-off chapter explores how ‘Death Note’ would play out in modern day

The new one-shot chapter of the celebrated manga “Death Note,” published over 10 years after the original series ended, features real-life political figures and modern situations like heightened surveillance. (Courtesy of VIZ Media)

By Phillip Leung

Feb. 5, 2020 11:19 p.m.

The Death Note has returned – but not the Netflix adaptation.

After the success of the critically acclaimed manga and anime adaptation, the story of “Death Note” is continuing with a new one-shot chapter, released Monday. The new chapter, simply titled “Death Note: Special One-Shot,” takes place in the present day and follows a new character, a Japanese student named Minoru Tanaka. Author Tsugumi Ohba’s and illustrator Takeshi Obata’s return to the series acknowledges how today’s technological society, combined with political tensions, would drastically change the Death Note’s influence and power.

The original manga, which ran from 2003 to 2006, follows protagonist Light Yagami, a genius student who finds a mysterious notebook called a Death Note. The Death Note, given to Light by a shinigami – a Japanese god of death – named Ryuk, allows him to kill anyone by writing their name in the notebook, provided he knows their face. Using the notebook, Light takes it upon himself to rid the world of criminals and proclaims himself to be a god known as Kira.

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Surprisingly, the special one-shot chapter shifts focus from the Death Note’s murderous powers to its tempting nature to whomever comes across it. Ryuk offers Minoru the Death Note, but he decides to sell it to the highest bidder. Minoru points out that Light’s strategy of staying hidden as Kira during the original manga’s run would not work in today’s society of increased surveillance, both online and offline. Soon enough, Minoru’s auction for the Death Note goes beyond individuals, with entire governments placing bids.

Recognizable political figures never made an appearance in the original manga, yet in “Death Note: Special One-Shot,” several political leaders are featured as governments compete for the notebook. By doing this, Ohba implies that people should not fear any one person with the Death Note – public surveillance would make it immensely difficult to use.

Instead, people should fear a government with a Death Note, which would have free reign over its powers. Though Ohba does not completely dismiss the possibility of another Kira-like figure arising in today’s society, this new chapter posits that it may be more practical for individuals to leverage it as a weapon.

That said, Ohba’s decision to include real political leaders in the new chapter allows for amusing commentary as well. America ends up winning the auction for 10 trillion dollars. However, the U.S. government never receives the Death Note because of a new rule forbidding its sale, with a death penalty for both buyer and seller. The rule is quite hastily established by Ryuk, as if it were Ohba’s way of saying it is the only obstacle preventing a government from committing murders with the Death Note.

While the manga’s portrayal of President Donald Trump refuses the Death Note to save his own life, a different leader could have sacrificed themselves to ensure their government possessed the notebook. Having America be so close to owning the Death Note makes readers ponder just how much havoc a country using the Death Note could incur. Ohba’s scenario of the current U.S. administration purchasing the notebook bodes an ominous, yet relieving message – the Death Note would be deadly in the hands of world leaders, if only they weren’t so self-preserving.

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This view of political leaders is a complete reversal from that of the original manga. When Light achieves international notoriety as Kira, the U.S. government gives in to his demands, accepting his reign over the world. In his new chapter, however, Ohba openly admits that such a situation is unlikely in today’s world. As opposed to an anonymous individual using the Death Note, sophisticated online surveillance shifts the power over to governments and world leaders – neither of which is a comforting option.

While widespread murder using the Death Note is avoided, the chapter’s ending juxtaposes older and younger generations. Minoru is killed by Ryuk for breaking the “no sale” rule, but Trump saves his own life. Even though Minoru did not once use the Death Note for its deadly powers like Light did, he was still killed for a rule instituted after the fact, as if the goal posts had been moved.

In the original manga, the rules of the Death Note were simply inherent properties of the supernatural notebook, rather than restrictions placed on it by the shinigami. As artificial as it feels, the rule’s creation is a safeguard for humanity in the Death Note canon, preventing its use as a commodity that can be traded.

More than 10 years after the original story’s conclusion, Ohba’s “Death Note: Special One-Shot” provides a timely commentary on the world’s political leaders and its perception of younger generations. Whereas many additions to existing stories tend to stay within the scope of the original, this new chapter openly embraces that times have changed and that the Death Note would be much bigger than a single person.

As shown throughout the series, one should not fear the Death Note itself, but rather those who wield it.

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Phillip Leung
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