The movie Death Note, which was recently released on Netflix, is somewhat based on the popular manga and anime of the same name. There is controversy in fan circles regarding this film, because #1 the main characters are no longer Japanese (true) and #2 that it is not super-faithful to the source material (true: this film is to the manga what Stanley Kubrick’s Shining was to the Stephen King version, at least in terms of a much different tone).
I’m not tackling that controversy here, but I am going to take a look at the film “as-is,” for the purposes of esoteric and synchromystic analysis. Spoilers ahead.
Death Note’s plot involves a smart, picked-on teenager named Light who comes across an old leathery notebook presided over by a spiny demon named Ryuk. The way the notebook works is this: you write in there the name of someone you want dead, along with (optional) the method and time it happens. And then the person dies as you’ve written.
Light pretty much immediately uses this book to kill one of his bullies, in the most gory, Final Destination way possible. He shares this information with Mia, a cute cheerleading girl he has a crush on; she insists he use the notebook to “do good”—writing in the names of “bad people” from all over the world. Which Light does…pretty much immediately.
And so dictators (from barely disguised analogues for North Korea) die, child molesters die, a guy holding his ex hostage on live TV dies, and then finally the gangster who killed Light’s mom years ago dies. As a nod to the original source material, Light chooses the Japanese word “Kira” as the symbol for his work, which he forces (through the book) some of his victims to write before they die.
“Kira” becomes an international sensation/cult, and a website is set up by “fans” (you see where this is all going, right?) to suggest Kira’s next victims. Light worries that innocent people could be targeted by this (DOXXING, anyone???), but Mia—who is quickly turning out to be a complete sociopath—tells him not to worry about that.
The elephant in the room here is that Light is working with an amoral, nasty demon, who, like Mia, doesn’t give a shit if innocents get hurt. By trying to make the world a better place, Light literally makes a deal with the devil.
In a subplot, some sort of Illuminati-type (and the symbology is pretty much in-your-face) international organization, concerned about Kira, sends a manic “detective prodigy,” L, to get to the bottom of all these deaths.
So there you go: Death Note, everyone.
I. A BOY AND HIS DAIMON
The basic archetypes of what I just described are extremely active in our contemporary popular culture. This is essentially the Fight Club plot: a socially-awkward “beta” guy has an “imaginary friend” (Like Tyler Durden, other people can’t see Ryuk) who suddenly steps into his life, encourages him to cause mayhem, and then starts a populist (and that distinction is key) cult. In the process, he feels temporary empowerment to become an “alpha”—even though he quickly realizes he’s dealing with forces he can’t trust or control. That’s the formula.
Then let’s go to the TV show Mr. Robot, which predates the Netflix Death Note by a few years. Mr. Robot is about a socially-awkward beta guy who has an “imaginary friend” who steps into his life, encourages him to cause mayhem, and then starts a populist cult. In the process, he feels temporary empowerment to become an “alpha”—even though he quickly realizes he’s dealing with forces he can’t trust or control.
And let’s move on to a series that launched on the same day as Death Note: The Tick. The Tick is about a socially-awkward beta guy who has an “imaginary friend” who steps into his life. It differs from the other examples here in that The Tick seems more like an unambiguously good guy in the classic (pre-Man Of Steel) Superman mold. But if we strip away some of the darker elements of the archetype (and indeed, the original 2016 Tick pilot was far darker and overtly utilized a Mr. Robot plot device), we still get these core similarities.
Mr. Robot/Tyler Durden/Ryuk/Tick (and hell let’s even include Donnie Darko’s Frank in there) are what the Ancient Greeks would call “daimons”—”higher voices” of inspiration.
The favor of the gods has given me a marvelous gift, which has never left me since my childhood. It is a voice which, when it makes itself heard, deters me from what I am about to do and never urges me on.
Now, we could try to get into the specifics of the nature of these “daimons”—are they demons from other dimensions, aliens, schizophrenic hallucinations, thoughtforms, tulpas, the pooka, etc. etc.??? But in the simplest way to think of it, these creatures are daimons…they may even be legit (albeit suppressed) parts of our consciousness.
That is why something L mentions in the movie—almost like a throwaway line—is so important. When Light, confronted, asks L what he thinks is causing the Kira murders, the young man responds that he thinks it is a combination of remote viewing and psychic ability; which is to say, it is something ultimately not coming from “out there” (ancient demon) but “in here” (from within Light himself).
Just as a final thought, it is interesting that a lot of people are comparing the admittedly whiny Light to the Venom-“possessed” Peter Parker of Spider-Man 3; the plotline of that movie is yet another example of the archetype we are discussing here.
II. KIRA AS POPULIST CULT
Second big thing to understand about Death Note and these related films/series is how they reflect the current zeitgeist. Kira—like Fight Club, like fsociety—is a populist cult.
Defined, Populism is (per Wikipedia): a mode of political communication that is centred around contrasts between the “common man” or “the people” and a real or imagined group of “privileged elites.” At best, populism addresses the core needs of the (sometimes maligned) Masses; at worst, it can be used to scapegoat minority demographics within society. So there is a real ambivalence there.
Similarly, we see an ambivalence in Light as regards to the morality of the notebook & what he is doing. Yes the notebook killed evil dictators and child molesters; it was also used, via psycho-Mia, to kill, The Happening-style, a whole bunch of FBI agents in the most gruesome way possible. Mia believes that the “ends justify the means”—and that anybody opposing or even questioning Kira must literally be killed.
In Mr. Robot, fsociety was in theory created to liberate the masses from the tyranny of Wall Street…but things start going sideways and tits-up, hurting everybody. Elliot, who has been led by his “daimon” Mr. Robot to orchestrate all this, increasingly questions the morality of what he is doing—and even doubts he is in control of it.
And who are the “bad guys” in opposition of these fictional populist movements? “The Elite.” Light is chased down by an international organization that is specifically connected to “Illuminati” symbolism—eye-and-pyramid, snake eating its tail, etc.. L—who seems to have some significant problems of his own and is always hyped-up on some type of “drug” (which may be just sugar but is still kinda a drug)—has been “cultivated” as a child and trained to be this “super-detective” (shades of MKUltra).
(L also wears an outfit and face-scarf that looks a little like the current boogeyman of the extreme right—Antifa. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but…)
In The Tick, the Bad Guys are the “Osiris” gang…who literally have Illuminati symbolism tattooed over their eyes.
And so in this narrative, “The Elite” don’t want the Masses to be empowered by this Rogue Entity which is going outside the law. The Fight Club members, the Kira supporters, the fsociety supporters, and the downtrodden citizens from The Tick all cheer on their Hero who is Fighting The System.
There is only ONE problem here…
III. GODS OF CHAOS AND DOPPELGANGERS
Ryuk seems to have zero ideological preferences, but merely wants to, like the Dark Knight Joker, “see the world burn.” That is why he is so hot-to-trot to have Mia—who is amoral and crazy—take over the book from Light.
The fear here—experienced by Elliot Alderson/Light/Donnie Darko/The Fight Club Narrator—is that this “daimon” they have befriended only wants to see the world burn.
Additionally, there is the possibility that both “sides” are ultimately working for the same team, with neither being able to be trusted (the idea of choosing “the lesser of two evils” keeps getting mentioned in the movie, which was pretty much the catchphrase of the last U.S. presidential election).
Both Light and L have similar names…and seem evenly-matched. They are like counterparts to each other…almost like the doppelganger gambit (the two brothers, the Dark Double, Batman/Joker, etc. etc.). They seem at-odds with each other…but might need to work together at some point to head-off a greater threat.
IV. WORDS AS WEAPONS
Another interesting thing is the similarities in which all the protagonists from these stories do their “work”—activities that often involve writing/research/intellectual processes:
Mr. Robot: Elliot types code.
The Tick: Arthur does extensive conspiracy theory research.
Death Note: Light literally just needs to **write** in his book.
These unassuming, socially-awkward “betas” literally turn the world upside down and create change on a massive scale by intellectual activity & writing—Adam Weishaupt would be so proud.
V. VARIOUS DEATH NOTE SYNCS
I wanted to end this post with just some additional syncs and resonances I’ve noticed surrounding Death Note:
a) Ryuk and Willem Dafoe
Watching the movie, I could not help but link Dafoe—who provides the voice for the CGI demon—with this sinister character he portrayed in a Mercedes commercial some years ago…in the ad, he is a satanic-type guy urging a young man to sign a document:
Dafoe also, of course, played The Green Goblin, which is a very Ryuk-type figure at least visually. (which makes that Spider-Man comparison earlier even more resonant)
b) Death Note and Heathers
Death Note takes a LOT from the movie Heathers, with Light being the slightly (slightly) more sympathetic character Veronica, and Mia being more like the sociopath J.D. (who was played in Heathers by Christian Slater…who went on to play Mr. Robot).
c) Resonances with The Notebook
The key ferris wheel scene in Death Note resonated for me both Mr. Robot (the famous sequence at the beginning of the series where Mr. Robot talks to Elliot in the Ferris Wheel booth), as well as, bizarrely, the movie The Notebook (thinking about that scene where Noah climbs on the Ferris Wheel like an asshole to impress Allie; both films center around notebooks).
(by the way, if you DID click on that Death Note clip—assuming it is still working—the use of the song “You’re The Inspiration” is not a fan edit, it’s exactly the way it’s in the movie)
d) The Meaning of the Name “Light”
The name Light of course can be associated with Lucifer…he is that corrupted Horus-like “hope”…he should be the “good guy,” but he is instead sort of awful. And L is the first letter of the name Light, and L himself is also sort of—if not awful, per se—not extremely likable. And yet compared to Mia—who is the WORST—they are at least tolerable. It’s a very dark morally-ambivalent universe.
e) Resonances With 13 Reasons Why
Which brings me to the very last point of this article. Critics are correct that Death Note deviates a lot from its source material…but it is not trying to please that “fangeek” crowd. Rather, it was made for the exact same audience as the Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why (analysis of that series here), and if you compare both shows it feels like they almost exist in the same universe. Hannah’s tapes in 13 Reasons Why are the equivalent of Light’s notebook—media used with intention to destroy lives. And Hannah herself, in some ways…mirrors Mia, with Light taking on the Clay character (which then kind of makes the dead Hannah the “daimon” for Clay).
One might ask, if this is the sort of entertainment that really “clicks” with younger people today, that really keys into their fears, anxieties, insecurities, and views of the world…what does that say about our world?
More to read about on Butterfly Language:
The Year Of The Mask
The New Fatalism
13 Reasons Why: Esoteric Theories And Strange Coincidences