Power and Dominance in Death Note

Power and Dominance in Death Note

Death Note is a significant piece of media primarily because of its ability to remain a topic of immense debate and philosophical importance years after its inception. The anime is a spectacle - a cat and mouse psychological thriller completely characterized by plenty of moral issues and ideological points that are still relevant today. However, while it’s lofty themes are its selling point, the narrative also hones in something much more raw and personal to form the basis from which these flashier themes spring off from.

DEATH NOTE | Netflix

Because as much as Death Note is a comprehensive commentary on the nuances of justice, the cyclical nature of power struggles, and the posturing and rewriting of history, it is just as much of a display of something much simpler and more intimate, with implications that are just as dark - something that we can trace back until the beginning of humanity: Mankind’s carnal need to climb the power hierarchy and establish dominance over the opposition. This theme is everywhere in Death Note. The main rivalry between Light and L was a prime example of it throughout their battle - how what was initially framed as a fight between two different opinions on justice for what was right ultimately devolved into a fight for pride between two men who wanted to win more than anything else.

Not to mention, L literally admits that he solves cases not because it is right, but because he hates losing and craves that feeling of winning. This idea is just as prominent with one of the late-game characters in Mello, who is plagued by an inferiority complex and a festers hatred of Near due to the latter being his superior in terms of intellect. He wants more than anything to prove himself better than him and his deeply rooted frustration comes from his inability to establish himself at the top of the power hierarchy relative to his perceived competition in Near. However, this entire idea is best encapsulated by Light’s character arc and the most striking illustration of it in his biggest moment of triumph, captured in the Death Note Rewrite film. This is absolutely telling from Light - the moment where he can finally claim victory, shove it in L’s face, and literally mock his grave. It’s carnality at it’s purest - and almost sexual release - and it’s the most extreme communication of this theme that we see in the story.

However, A subtler display of this is through the general populace - those who latched onto and supported Kira. There were undoubtedly a lot of people who sided with him in the story because they truly believed in his ways. But I’m just as certain that in examining this, there was also a substantial amount that associated themselves with Kira to vicariously satiate their power fantasy, simply because he kept on winning. Not only is this totally consistent thematically, but in real-life terms, this makes sense - It’s part of why it’s so gratifying when your sports team wins something. The point is, we’ve all got this within us. No matter how we try to hide it, how the world develops, or how we progress in superficial terms, nothing will change our base instincts. The instincts do not originate in but can lead us to hubris, a need to feel superior, and by extension, to strife and war.

And this is exemplified clearer than ever through the detached, amused disposition of the shinigami - casual onlookers, their inhuman, godly composure starkly contrasted by the warring humans and the mess of a world that some of them amusedly observe from the outside. It is insinuated that to them, this is a spectacle that shows no great difference from the conflicts that have plagued man since the beginning of existence, and there is significance in that. Though according to Death Note, one of the key things about this need to rise to the top of the dominance hierarchy to trounce those you oppose is that once you get there, it’s a slippery slope. Power is often conceptualized and framed as a means to an end, but the truth is that more often than not.. it IS the end, even if that was not actually clear from the beginning or even if that end developed as the person went along.

Sometimes it ends up being the goal, even subconsciously. Obviously, realism and narrative balance mean that there are some characters in the story that don’t portray this, and some end up being the antithesis of this concept to flesh out certain aspects of the story and its characters - but through L, Mello, the populace, and especially Light, Death Note’s idea here is that we humans NEED to lord over others, pummel our opponents into the dirt and feel superior. But as aggressive as that sounds, it is important to keep perspective and emphasize the nuance of this concept. Not everyone consciously seeks power, not everyone outwardly displays pleasure at being superior to others and plenty of people don’t even think of others as being in opposition to them.

But general patterns are out there, even if they don’t apply to everyone at an obvious level. This doesn’t just manifest in grand occasions flashy actions, and this is more subtle a concept than you might think. That little feeling of gratification and pride you feel or felt in school when you get better than someone else on a test. Getting joy out of your sibling being scolded as a kid. That tendency some people have to continually argue with some stranger they disagree with on the internet no matter how fruitless and pointless they know the exercise is just in order to feel some sense of victory when they get the last word in. It’s there In both positive and dark interpretations of professional sport - whether it’s the joy of victory or the satisfaction in defeating someone. Simple disrespect, interrupting, petty arguments- it all feeds into this same idea.

This idea of being on the top of the totem pole, the head of the hierarchy in comparison to those that you oppose. And what better way to communicate this than through a story that cleverly uses the concept of justice and the machiavellian ideas offends justifying the means as a red herring to say something alternate, something very important. Cyclical conflict, oppression, dominance - so much of what is displayed in Death Note’s narrative all stems from this very simple, very primitive, but very important thing. Yet, Death Note does not simply layout this concept and run with it without telling an underlying message, and this can be found in the death of Light, the ultimate demonstration of this lust for primordial dominance in character form.

Appropriately, it’s one of the most bluntly presented messages of the piece that offer the story’s take about this. In the end, he was overtaken by these power-hungry urges and ends up on a slippery slope that ultimately destroys him. Whether he was corrupted or had that darkness within him since the beginning is not the point - the point is that he was dominated by that primal instinct so much so that it became his undoing. Power only remains in one’s hand when they are preventing it from controlling them. And this here is the point - control this. Dominate it, and don’t let it dominate you-  or it will be your undoing. We all have this deeply rooted, evolutionarily ingrained potential for self-destruction and true evil within us, formed from humanity’s fixation with being on top. There’s no denying this and there’s no ignoring it.

But in seeking to harness it and use it voluntarily, we can stop this from being pathological and radical enough to cause true damage. And in that sense, the ending of Death Notes something of a warning - that those who allow themselves to be overtaken will likely end up in a bad place. And in a somewhat unrelated but just as important note, those without an iota of darkness within them are admirable on some level but it leaves them ripe for being dominated or fooled or used as a means to someone else’s end. But by showing true resolve and exploiting this internal primality, maybe we can get somewhere. People of conviction are not people who don’t have any darkness within them, they aren’t even people who discard this darkness - they are people who use it but keep it at bay.

Let primal instinct dictate everything with no sense of logic, analysis, or balance and the world goes to the dogs, with the radical reaction after radical reaction escalating into an exercise in enormously destructive futility. Instead, It is in the control of this darkness, not in the absence or repression of it, that progress can be made. In personal terms, certainly. In societal terms.. maybe. As always, many thanks for watching. I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you next time.