Death Note is more than just an Anime about Justice, being smarter than everyone and eating sweet treats; Death Note's symbolism draws a lot of inspiration directly from Japanese Traditional religions and Christianity. I argue that these symbols should act as a lens through which we as viewers of the Anime can interpret the show through. By interpreting these symbols in Death Note as markers of meaning, we can adopt a lens of interpretation which we should be watching the Anime through and thus it should lead us to a richer meaning of the show's story.
This Death Note Theory came from our weekly podcast Abstract Nonsense.
Death Note's Symbolism in the Opening Credits
The opening to Death Note, with its display of Christian iconography and nods to significant religious artworks (such as The Creation of Adam), show that this show loves to inject Western symbolism into an Eastern production. The opening establishes that many of Death Note symbols are direct homages to Christian Mythology (n.b. when I reference the term mythology, I am referring to the stories within Christendom and not making a judgment call on the validity of Christianity), and these homages continue beyond the opening credits. This gives us the ability to apply a Judeo-Christian lens of interpretation to this show, and doing so does change the meaning of the Death Note Symbols incoporated into characters and story of the show.
Death Note Symbols as seen in its characters
The characters in the Anime do draw some inspiration for Christian mythology, take for example Light Yagami. Light Yagami's name (and I hope I am translating this properly) means "Light (well duh) + Night God". This could potentially mean two things:
- He is in opposition to himself/he is double-minded (light & night)
- He is the night God who brings on the light
From the anime, this death note symbol does not seem to fit the first interpretation. At no point do we see Light Yagami become double minded about his plan. From episode 1 through until the end of the show, he never doubt his plan to make the world a 'better place' through genocide.
The second interpretation has more credibility. In the show, he views himself as a God, who will bring on a brighter world. So he is a God who will bring a new dawn for humanity (which implies it's currently in night/darkness). He is the Light that appears just before the dawn, a morning star if you will.
Strap in, it's about to get reachy!...
Light is Satan
Who else could kill millions?
The Morning Star is an alternate name for someone you may have heard of in the bible before, Lucifer. Now bible scholars & historians will be quick to point out that in the traditional interpretation, Lucifer may not have been Satan; but to the modern audience Lucifer = Satan = Devil.
If you want to fight me on this, I'll meet you out the front of your university at 3pm, bring your boys!
So Death Note's symbols point to Light being Lucifer, him killing millions and viewing himself as a God should confirm that maybe this is a valid interpretation. So Light is the devil, he is the ironic darkness. But for every force in storytelling, there is always an oppositional force. What about the Antagonist of Death Note L, what's his role?
Well If Light is Lucifer, then is L Jesus (Lucifers opposition)?...
You bet your ass he is. There are far more Death Note symbols pointing to L being Jesus, then there are Light being Lucifer (and if you are with me this far, then you should be ready to accept that the show tells us that L is Jesus).
From the vast array of symbols in Death Note, the clearest signifier that L is Jesus comes from the scene in episode 25 when L washes Light's feet. If you have never been to a church or were sleeping through the Sunday sermons, in John 13: 1 - 17 Jesus washes the feet of his disciples to demonstrate humility and servitude in the name of God.
There's more meaning to it but for you dear reader the take-home message is: Jesus has feet washing on lock, and if you ever see an important character in a show wash someone else's feet, it almost always means that this character is a symbolic Jesus.
Other symbolism in Death Note highlights other connections to Christian mythology includes the Gods of Death love of apples. This is obviously a reference to the Garden of Eden, because of apples and their association with Death and god.
So Light is Lucifer and L is Jesus, what does that mean for the show's message and meaning?...
Death Note symbols advocate Nontrinitarianism
If you don't know what Trinitarianism is, basically it's the idea of God being one being but existing in three persons. If that sounds confusing to you, don't worry it confuses most people as well. If you need more info, go ask a priest.
So we have established that Light is the devil & L is Jesus. Well, this is where the meat of the theory comes in. At the point of the show where L dies, we see that three characters step into the role of L. We have Light, who assumes the new role of L, and two new characters Mello and Near.
If the original L was Jesus, and the new L is actually a symbol for Satan; then the show is stating that from the point where L dies and Light assumes the role of L, the show moving forward is portraying a heretical view (the new L's are evil and fake L basically.
If we bring back in the Christian symbolic tie, this is should easily be seen as Christian sects rejecting the view of the God as the Trinity. Near, Mello and Light all assume a role of a character who had previously existed as one person. This could be the adoption of the view of God existing as three people at the First Council of Nicaea.
As Light is satan and now Satan is one of the new parts of the Trinity of L, the show is effectively saying that the trio of people who replace L are evil, heretical and not true adherents to the Death Note show.
Reject the Heresy of Post-L Death Note
Thus we as viewers should reject the show's story after the point of L's death, as we are true believers in their being only one L and that all the episodes thereafter should be assigned to the dustbin of heresy. So if you believe that there should be no L's but one and that we should respect the name of L, we must declare the show post L as heretical and not worthy of cannon, so saveth the one true god L.