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Death Note follows the story of Light Yagami (who will be named Light Turner in the Netflix adaptation and played by Nat Wolff), a teenager who comes across a mystical notebook called the Death Note, which was left in the human world accidentally by the Shinigami Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), a god of death. Light soon goes on a killing spree upon discovering that anyone whose name he writes in the Death Note will die 40 seconds later of a heart attack. He wants to rid the world of those he deems unworthy to live in it, and he comes to believe that he’s a god.
When the police realize a serial killer is on the loose, they turn to a master detective who goes by “L,” and the story becomes a paranormal cat-and-mouse chase. It’s all very dark and fucked up, and Light is anything but a sympathetic character. But the award-winning story is a favorite among manga fans, and the various adaptations have been well-loved (if a little low-budget).
The rules for the Death Note are specific but incredibly simple. They’re expanded on as the manga continues, but the most important ones are:
1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
3. If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
4. If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
5. After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
Ryuk, the 9-foot-tall, scary-looking SOB in clown makeup, is a Shinigami — a god of death — who amuses himself with Light’s “antics” throughout the series. And while Ryuk might not be the only Shinigami throughout the manga, he’s certainly the one to pay close attention to.
Shinigami aren’t a Death Note original — these Grim Reapers have existed in one form or another in Japanese culture for centuries. A lot of the details of their “existence” vary from one iteration to another, but Death Note depicts them as living in the Shinigami Realm and being ruled by the King of Death.
Shinigami can, technically, live forever if they don’t get lazy. Any human killed with the use of a Death Note adds the remaining time on Earth that a human originally had to the life of the Shinigami. For example: If a Shinigami writes a 30-year-old person’s name in its Death Note but that person was supposed to live to be 90, then it adds 60 years to the Shinigami’s life.
The problem with this system, according to Ryuk, is that the Shinigami live so long that they get bored with the process after millennia. They just stop doing their thing — instead, they sit in the Shinigami Realm and mess around rather than causing havoc in the human world like a responsible Shinigami should.
The Eye of the Shinigami allows Shinigami to see a person’s name and age just by looking at them. This allows a Shinigami to pick and choose who to put in its Death Note. A person with a short remaining lifespan isn’t usually worth a Shinigami’s time.
Oh, and they can fly. And they’re invisible to humans unless that human has touched the specific Death Note belonging to that particular Shinigami — a fact which comes in handy pretty frequently for Light.
Everyone loves an underdog, but Light is anything but. He’s top of his class, beloved by every girl around, has a sweet little sister who worships him, and just so happens to be a serial killer who gets followed around by a death god at all times.
Light goes a bit power hungry once he discovers what the Death Note can do. He goes on a killing spree, writing in the Death Note the names of people he feels are unworthy of living. Light targets criminals for the most part, but his spree doesn’t go unnoticed for too long.
Eventually, Interpol — the international police — catches on that there’s probably a cause for so many criminals dropping down dead of heart attacks. A majority of the manga circles around the story of various organizations try to catch “Kira,” which is their name for Light’s serial killer persona — the mispronunciation of “killer” with a Japanese accent.
Eventually, there’s more than one Kira for the international police to contend with, but that’s pretty far down the road. We’re sticking to the basics here.
To complicate matters further, Light is a teenage serial killer with a mystical notebook whose dad doesn’t realize he’s trying to find his own son. While Light’s dad, Soichiro Yagami, isn’t ever in any real danger from Kira, he still fears for his life and the well-being of his family every day. The agents who work for him have a habit of dropping dead after Kira takes them out or resigning their positions before Kira gets the chance to do so.
But Light, the little megalomaniac that he is, doesn’t much sympathize with his dad’s struggle. In fact, he doesn’t much sympathize with anyone. That’s why Ryuk is so fond of him.
Light’s perfect adversary in the beginning of the series comes in the form of L, an internationally renowned detective determined to solve the mystery of Kira. How is someone managing to kill these people all over the world? L is maudlin and dry-humored, but his main asset comes in the form of no one knowing his true identity — that way, Light can’t kill him with the Death Note.