The Philosophy of Death Note – Who is Justice? – Wisecrack Edition
Death Note is all about justice, but what exactly is it trying to say? In this Wisecrack Edition, we’ll dive into Death Note’s unique exploration of justice, injustice, and potato chips. Join us as we explore the philosophies of Light, L and more.
Written by: Claire Pickard
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon & Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Death Note – Who is Justice? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, disembodied Jared here, grab that potato chip and eat it, because we’re talking about the anime phenomenon – Death Note. While Death Note addresses a range of philosophical topics, spanning from property rights, to human nature, one of the most interesting is Justice— what is it, and how should it be applied? Justice is hardly a new topic in media. So why is Death Note so special? Well, whereas most pop culture gives us a cut and dry idea of justice Death Note is unique not in WHAT it says about justice, but how it goes about saying it. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Death Note. And, even though this show is ten years old— spoilers ahead. Also a quick note about dubs vs. subs- Seems like no matter what we do, we somehow do it wrong. So we’re just going to use the dubs on this one because it’s easier for us to work with – hey, that’s more time to read and write and make more episodes. So please don’t hate us.
Death Note follows Light Yagami as he discovers the …Death Note a notebook that can kill anyone by writing their name in it and picturing their face. Light, a model student, wants to use the Death Note to create a world devoid of crime. Soon after, he adopts the public persona of “Kira,” the God of the new world he hopes to create. Of course, anonymously killing huge swaths of criminals places him in conflict with various law enforcement agencies, a mysterious detective named L and his two successors: M and N. In Death Note, we see multiple characters exploring what is and isn’t Justice. Let’s just say the word comes up a lot. But the cool thing is, the show doesn’t give us a clear stance on what constitutes justice, but rather, employs a unique method to constantly challenge various definitions of justice. An element of that method happens in how individual characters propose their own version of justice. And first among these is Light himself.
It’s hard to get a good sense of who Light was prior to the Death Note, although we have some clues to his moral compass and his sense of obligation, Kira is an ends-justify-the-means kinda guy. Really, the ends of being a crime-zapping uber-tyrant justify pretty much anything, including shamelessly using his girlfriend to distract the police and maximize his kill count and killing people who aren’t even criminals who get in his way. However, once Light renounces ownership of the notebook. He loses his memories of being Kira, his personality changes noticeably, as does his sense of justice. He goes from a “by any means necessary” kinda dude to a “well maybe I shouldn’t always be an asshole” kinda dude. This is shown by his refusal to even use Misa’s feelings in order to get information. This is a huge change from the guy who pretends to love her for years just because it was convenient for killing people. Light is even told by Misa that she doesn’t mind being used for his cause.
You’d think that would be enough, but he always goes an extra step out of the way to break his promises to her. Kira’s a bit of a fuckboy. But Light, minus the notebook, seems to respect Misa at least enough to not lead her on. Once he touches the Death Note again and regains his memories and powers his Kira persona returns, and he moves in with Misa almost immediately to get even more bonus killing power. In other words, “treating people well” is thrown out the window for the capital J Justice. There are countless examples of this tension between Light pre and post-Notebook, although they merge more and more toward the end of the show. One of the ways this is portrayed is through Light’s conversations with himself, where he grapples with moral and practical dilemmas. Does that split personality sound familiar?
Both Death Note and Lord of the Rings are likely descendants of an ancient Greek story called The Ring of Gyges. A guy finds a ring that makes him invisible, and using this anonymity, he immediately bangs the King’s wife, kills the king, and takes over whatever spooky Greek magic town he lives in. We could probably read this as an allegory for the perils of internet comment sections if it weren’t written in 400 B.C – but I digress. In Plato’s Republic, this story raises a lot of questions about the idea of justice. The character Glaucon, who was actually Plato’s real-life big brother, uses the fable to argue that Justice is just a kind of social contract that keeps people from hurting each other. The thought experiment is meant to demonstrate that people only really value justice for its ability to make them look good. In other words, it’s only natural that someone with an invisibility ring would go around acting like an asshat, because people only value justice or morality when their actions can be scrutinized. Sound familiar?
As soon as the risk of damage to your reputation is gone, so is all your interest in justice. Glaucon goes on to say that it doesn’t matter if you were just or unjust before putting on the ring— the power will inevitably lead you to be a big bag of dicks, and that’s okay! According to Glaucon, if you can secretly bang the queen and still keep your reputation, you will be way happier than someone who cares about justice and bangs zero queens. And that’s pretty much Light: the golden boy valedictorian who puts on a show of “normal” morality, even while he takes joy in doing stuff that is probably way worse than breaking the royal bro code. So why do Glaucon’s musings matter here? Because one of the key questions Death Note asks is: “What does Justice mean when nobody’s looking?”
This theme is repeated in Light’s pseudonymity as Kira, in L and N’s namelessness, and in the anonymity of the Kira supporters later in the show. And here’s where the Republic really comes in handy. As a Socratic Dialogue, it’s far less concerned with offering a theory of justice than it is with detailing the process of exploring justice. In it, Socrates and his frenemies use hypothetical scenarios and varying definitions to challenge what constitutes justice. Death Note works in a similar way, showing the movement and evolution of theories of justice between and within the characters. Many of the characters in Death Note— Misa, Light, and Mikami, to name a few— believe that they possess true knowledge of justice, and the tension between these characters and their skeptics draws out the real meat of the show. In one of the least-subtle scenes, both L and Light declare.
This sentiment is repeated throughout the series, especially in the final episode, where Light claims that by reducing violent crime and ending wars, he has become justice itself. And here Death Note establishes itself as a kind of modern Socratic Dialogue – using multiple participants to try to flesh out some universal question like: “What is Justice”– a la The Republic. From the minute Light proposes his vision of a new world in Episode 1, the question of justice is brought into play. While he does struggle with himself for a second, his first real challenger is Ryuk. Light sets out his plan to immediately kill the worst criminals, while letting the lessers one die off.
Ryuk is motivated by boredom rather than any sense of moral duty, but he notices the contradiction in Light’s argument, beginning the Socratic Dialogue that lasts the rest of the show. There’s no need to chronicle every moment of this series-long philosophical inquiry. But there are definitely some highlights that show us the trajectory of the conversation. If this wasn’t clear enough, this is where they end the episode by yelling “I am Justice!” in unison just to make sure we get it. Did we get it? Right— they both think they’re Justice. Light likes to refer to himself as a martyr which is pretty weird considering that he spends years trying to make himself the ruler of the entire world.
But if you subscribe to his quasi-utilitarian theory of justice— that killing criminals and making one person God will ensure peace and happiness for the greatest number of people then he is sacrificing himself, knowing that becoming the god of the new world will mean becoming more and more Kira, slowly killing Light Yagami. It also means that in exchange for cleaning a rotten world, he would have to contend with a rotten self, something that he acknowledges. So this is Light’s conception of justice— that the world needs a Kira, and that since he was chosen, he is willing to sacrifice himself in order to make that happen. Kira’s idea of justice is an Old Testament-style bloodbath where sinners get punished and blasphemy is the biggest sin of all. Did we mention the veritable monsoon of Biblical imagery in the show? You know, the churchy choral music, this ode to to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” from the opening credits, the apples everywhere, L even washes Light’s feet.
Since Light spends most of the show acting as Kira, the distinction between the two may not be terribly important. But Kira seems to represent Light’s ideal version of justice: that the only truly just world is one without criminals, achieved by whatever means necessary. However – L, speaking as Lind L. Tailor, highlights the contradictions in Kira’s reasoning. If a just world is one without criminality, then the criminal act of killing people is also an injustice. This resembles Ryuk’s rebuttal in Episode 1, but the difference is that Ryuk stops at the suggestion that Light might be “bad,” while L offers a competing example not only is Kira unjust; catching Kira is itself an act of Justice. The show, stops short of telling us exactly what L believes Justice is, in order to believe that Kira is violating it. But that’s kind of how Socratic Dialogues work – poking holes and raising questions to get closer to the truth. Kira imagines justice as a grand ideal – a world without criminal. L, however, only talks about justice as a reaction to injustice. A lot of characters believe in Light’s ideal justice but others seem to echo L.
Philosopher John Rawls, much like Light and Plato, argues that in order to correct injustices in society, we need to first have an idea of what “justice” is. Rawls and Plato disagree on a lot, but they both support “ideal theory”– that when thinking about Justice, we should first try to understand what it would look like in a perfect world where everyone did exactly the right thing. This is justice under “ideal” conditions, which for Light and Mikami, involve a lot of people being dead. However, others, like philosopher Naomi Zack, favor something called “injustice theory.” This approach does not rely on a preexisting ideal of “justice” and the perfect just society but rather centers on identifying injustices where they occur. It is much more practical to point to a case of injustice than it is to start from a broadly-applicable definition of what is just. By this measure, only after injustice has been identified can justice be applied to correct it. The L-M-N-alphabet-soup’s hunt for Kira doesn’t seem to be directed by a belief in a high-in-the-sky definition of Justice but rather by the recognition that Kira’s “new world” is unjust. Since we never get a clear sense of what L’s concept of “justice” is, it seems totally plausible that he sees justice as the response to injustice.
So, while Light and those similar to him favor a Rawlsian approach of a world created around a perfect “Justice,” L is more focused on correcting injustices as they appear; any definition of The Just comes secondary. The struggle— and resulting dialogue— between these beliefs characterizes much of the philosophical method in the show, although other characters like Matsuda complicate the conversation and prevent it from being asplit between just two ideas. That being said, we should briefly take a second look at our cake-snarfing Sherlock Holmes. His code of justice is a bit more ambiguous than Light’s, although its very ambiguity plays an important role. In many cases, it appears that L, and N, as well as M, are most interested in winning a game of wits. That “game” may be a symbolic battle between competing moralities, or it could just be a case of some narcissistic geniuses obsessed with puzzles. In either case, this lack of any strong convictions about a positive meaning of Justice serves at least one critical purpose. It means that L frequently plays the role of inquisitor, not so different from Socrates in The Republic. Another, somewhat more surprising inquisitor is Matsuda, who raises sincere questions about the moral judgments of Light, Kira, the Japanese Police, L… just about everyone, even at the same time as he is mocked for his inability to fall into line. Early in the season, he responds to L’s speech on the childish morality of Kira by pointing out that violent crime in the area had decreased since Kira began killing.
He makes clear that he does not condone Kira’s vision or actions, but he is also skeptical of the hard line taken by L. Later in the series, he has an exchange with the other members of the Task Force that calls into question the very foundation of the squad: the belief in the inherent evilness of Kira. Matsuda, with all his self-doubt, is both audience surrogate and philosophical foil to the other characters. Unlike Light, who is convinced of his own project, L and N, who are single-mindedly obsessed with the task of catching him, Chief Yagami, who is focused on finding the “true” Kira to clear his son’s name, and the rest of the Task Force, who have staked their lives and beliefs on the Justice of ending Kira once and for all, Matsuda is constantly questioning the values that are presented to him as fact. Matsuda’s demeanor is very different than the bravado of Plato’s debate club boys, but he first and foremost recognizes his own ignorance, which is crucial for revealing the ignorance of those around him. Even at the end, as he kills Light, he does so with questions, rather than answers.
By forcing the viewers and the other characters to consider their own opinions of justice, Matsuda helps to organize a jumble of competing ideas into a somewhat-intelligible conversation. Matsuda the modern Socrates! As ten years of fan forums demonstrate, there is no real consensus on who best represented Justice or whether Light’s “New World” justified the means. But that ambiguity is what makes the show so poignant. Death Note is an addicting detective procedural, but it never abandons its original question of what makes a just world, and most importantly, it never gives an answer. In Episode 30, aptly named “Justice,” Light pretty much sums it up: “If Kira gets caught that makes him evil. But if he rules the world then I guess he’s justice.”
By the end of the show, Kira is defeated and N’s brand of justice seems to prevail. But it leaves us with a feeling that things might have been very different if Kira had survived the warehouse. Rather than giving us closure that L and N were innately more just than Kira, this idea of winner-gets-all morality reveals that the war of competing moral codes was a kind of logic game, not a kind of truth-seeking. You could argue that this makes “justice” totally meaningless. For the world inside the show, N might be justice. But for us, the viewers, it’s not quite so clear cut. In regards to the meaning and implications of justice, Death Note opens more doors than it closes. In terms of whether or not Socrates… or Rawls… or Zack would find L or Kira to be paragons of justice— the short answer is, definitely not. Although there are some other similarities that we didn’t address in this video— like themes of tyranny and the focus on what makes a “just city”— the real connection between the Justice of The Republic and justice in Death Note is not in their definitions but in their methods. And that method distinguishes Death Note as a show that does philosophy rather than just borrowing it. Thanks for watching, guys. Peace.