Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

Light Yagami’s Ambition

Death Note traces Light Yagami’s path as he stumbles upon the Death Note, a notebook with the power to bring about the demise of anyone whose name is inscribed, along with a corresponding physical description. Despite being an exemplary student, Light desires to use the Death Note to create a world free from criminal activities. He eventually adopts the public identity of Kira, envisioning himself as the god of a new world. By quietly eliminating many wrongdoers, he conflicts with various law enforcement agencies, a mysterious detective named L, and his successors, M and N. Throughout Death Note, many characters deeply explore the concept of justice, showing restraint in taking a definite stance on its definition. Instead, this approach employs a different method to challenge various interpretations of justice consistently. This method becomes apparent when each character presents their vision of what justice means, with Light being the primary example. Although it is still unclear who Light was before obtaining the Death Note, we have some clues about his moral principles.

Kira’s Philosophy

Kira adheres to the philosophy of “the ends justify the means,” which means he believes that achieving his goal of eradicating crime justifies any actions, such as shamelessly using his girlfriend to divert the police’s attention and increase his body count and eliminating individuals who are not criminals but obstruct his path. However, when Light relinquishes ownership of the Death Note, he undergoes a significant transformation in his personality and concept of justice. He shifts from a “do whatever it takes” mindset to a more unpleasant demeanor. This change is evident in his refusal to exploit Misa’s feelings to obtain information, which starkly contrasts his previous behavior of pretending to love Misa to facilitate his killings. Interestingly, Misa openly does not mind being used for his cause, yet Light consistently goes to great lengths to break his promises to her, displaying a certain insincerity. While Light may have treated Misa poorly, he appears to have some respect for her when not under the influence of the Death Note. However, once he regains the notebook and his memories and powers, his Kira persona resurfaces, and he quickly moves in with Misa to further enhance his killing capabilities. His focus on treating people well is cast aside in pursuit of his justice.

Justice and Idealism in Plato’s Republic

In Plato’s Republic, Plato discusses the concept of justice and idealism in forming a perfect state. He argues that a philosopher-king would possess profound knowledge of justice and act based on righteous policies. At the start of Death Note, Light holds noble aspirations to rid the world of wickedness by utilizing the Death Note. However, over time, he becomes a tyrant who sees himself as the true judge. It reflects Plato’s understanding of the dangers of absolute power and human imperfection in governance. Plato emphasizes the importance of truth and justice in his ideal society. He contends that leaders should prioritize truth in policy-making. Light assumes the role of a “death god” by using the Death Note to punish those he deems sinful. It raises questions about whether Light’s highly subjective actions represent genuine truth and justice or merely his achievements.

Plato underscores the significance of education in shaping individual character. He argues that individuals should be directed towards goodness and wisdom through proper education processes. Light in Death Note is initially a bright student with good potential. However, the influence of the Death Note transforms him into a cruel figure. It illustrates how external factors can impact the formation of an individual’s character, even in a highly extreme context. Plato presents the concept of the allegory of the cave, where individuals are trapped in a cave and only see shadows on the wall, while actual reality exists outside the cave. It reflects that humans often find themselves trapped in false realities or illusions. Light initially views the Death Note as a tool that would create a better world, but he becomes ensnared in the illusion of power and justice that does not align with reality.

Exploring Theories of Justice

Death Note operates similarly, depicting the shifts and development of theories of justice among its characters. Several characters in Death Note, such as Misa, Light, and Mikami, are highly convinced that they genuinely understand justice. The conflict between these characters and the skeptics forms the series’ core. L and Light declare themselves as embodiments of justice in a highly explicit scene. This sentiment recurs throughout the series, especially in the final episode, where Light asserts that his actions, which involve reducing violent crimes and ending wars, have made him the embodiment of justice. He states that Kira has become the law in our current world, maintaining order. He has become a justice. In this way, Death Note establishes itself as a contemporary form of Socratic dialogue, employing multiple participants to explore a universal question akin to Plato’s Republic.

From the moment Light introduces his vision of a new world in the first episode, he desires to make the world aware of his presence, someone who is dispensing righteous judgment upon wrongdoers, thus sparking a discussion on justice. While he briefly grapples with the ethical implications, his first significant challenger is Ryuk. Light outlines his plan to eliminate the most heinous criminals immediately while allowing the less severe offenders to perish. Only then, he believes, will the world progress in the right direction—a new world devoid of injustice, populated by individuals he deems honest, kind, and hardworking. However, Ryuk’s motivation stems from boredom rather than any sense of moral obligation. He recognizes the contradiction in Light’s argument, initiating the ongoing Socratic dialogue that shapes the rest of the series.

Selective Highlights of the Philosophical Exploration

We do not need to document every moment of this ongoing philosophical exploration in the series, but some notable examples illustrate the direction of this discourse. They conclude the episode by emphatically stating that they represent justice to ensure absolute clarity. Light portrays himself as a martyr, even if it means sacrificing his mental and spiritual well-being. It is peculiar, considering his years-long effort to become the ruler of the entire world. However, if we adopt his quasi-utilitarian theory of justice—where eliminating criminals and elevating one person to the status of a god will bring peace and happiness to the most significant number of people—then he perceives it as self-sacrifice, fully aware that becoming the deity of the new world entails a gradual transformation into Kira, gradually eroding his true self. It also means that in exchange for purifying a corrupt world, he must grapple with his corruption, which he acknowledges. Kira likely recognizes the inherent evil in his actions but is determined to reshape the world, even if it means becoming a martyr at the cost of his soul. It is his interpretation of justice.

In Light’s view, the world requires a Kira, and since he has been chosen, he is prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice to make it happen. Kira’s concept of justice resembles an Old Testament-style reckoning, where wrongdoers receive punishment, with blasphemy being the gravest sin. The church-like choral music, the homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the recurring imagery of apples, and even L washing Light’s feet all contribute to this representation. Given that Light spends most of the series assuming the role of Kira, the distinction between the two may be insignificant. However, Kira appears to embody Light’s ideal vision of justice: a truly just world devoid of criminals, achieved through any means necessary.

Nevertheless, L highlights the inconsistencies in Kira’s reasoning. If a just world is one without criminality, then the criminal act of taking lives is also an injustice. It resembles Ryuk’s objection in the first episode, but the difference is that Ryuk merely hints at Light’s potential malevolence, whereas L presents a competing argument. Not only is Kira unjust, but capturing Kira is itself an act of justice. The show refrains from explicitly defining what L believes justice is, but it underscores that L sees Kira as a transgressor of that undefined concept. This approach mirrors the Socratic method of engaging in dialogues, which involves scrutinizing and questioning ideas to understand the truth better.

Kira’s Vision of Justice

Kira envisions justice as a lofty ideal, a world free from criminals. Conversely, L only discusses justice as a response to injustice. Many characters in Death Note, including Misa, Light, and Mikami, align with Light’s vision of ideal justice, while others echo L’s perspective. Much like Light and Plato, John Rawls argues that to rectify societal injustices, we must first define what “justice” entails. Rawls and Plato may have differing viewpoints, but they both endorse “ideal theory”—the idea that when contemplating justice, we should initially strive to comprehend what it would look like in a perfect world where everyone behaves perfectly. This concept of justice under “ideal” conditions, which for Light and Mikami involves the demise of many individuals, comes into play.

Rawls presents two fundamental principles of justice in his theory: the principle of fundamental equality, which ensures equal basic rights and freedoms for all individuals, and the difference principle, which allows for inequality as long as it benefits the least advantaged members of society. In Death Note, Light employs the Death Note to punish those he deems guilty. It raises questions about whether Light’s actions violate Rawls’ principles of justice or if Light perceives his actions as a means to establish fair equality by purging the world of wrongdoing.

Rawls discusses the role of the state in preserving justice as fair equality. The state should act as a neutral institution that governs communal life and ensures the protection of individuals’ fundamental rights and freedoms. In Death Note, no state intervention is attempted to halt or regulate Light’s actions. It can be seen as a failure of the state to fulfill its Rawlsian role of preventing individuals from using their power for personal purposes that harm society.

Rawls allows for fair social differences as long as they benefit the least advantaged individuals. Light initially had noble intentions to cleanse the world of evil, but his actions resulted in extreme social disparities and harm to innocent individuals. It raises questions about whether the social differences generated by Light’s actions can be considered fair inequalities according to Rawls’ perspective.

Injustice Theory

On the contrary, philosopher Naomi Zack advocates a concept known as “injustice theory.” This approach does not rely on ideals of “justice” and a perfectly fair society. Instead, it focuses on identifying instances of injustice as they occur. It is much more practical to pinpoint specific cases of injustice rather than starting with a broadly applicable definition of justice. According to this perspective, justice can only be applied to rectify a situation after injustice has been recognized.

One of the critical aspects of Death Note is the power possessed by the book’s owner—the ability to kill someone simply by writing their name in the book is an extraordinary power. It raises ethical questions about how much power can be potentially abused. From Zack’s viewpoint, bestowing excessive power upon specific individuals can be seen as a form of injustice because it disrupts the balance of power. Light uses this power to eliminate criminals and create a fairer world. However, moral considerations about whether Light has the right to make life-and-death decisions for others take center stage. Zack focuses on the moral question of who has the authority to determine the fate of others, and in this case, Light’s use of the Death Note can be regarded as a moral injustice.

In Death Note, elements of systemic injustice manifest in various forms, such as inequality within the legal system, the exercise of power by government institutions, and so forth. Zack might highlight how Kira, Light’s pseudonym, using the Death Note creates new inequalities in society and leads to greater injustices. Another significant character in the series is L, a detective who strives to stop Kira. Zack might assess L’s actions in combating Kira as an effort to restore justice in a situation distorted by the use of the Death Note.

Differing Philosophical Approaches

Although Light and those who share his views prefer a Rawlsian approach, envisioning a world built upon the ideals of justice, L is more concerned with addressing injustices as they arise, making any concrete definition of justice a secondary concern. The conflict and discourse between these contrasting beliefs significantly shape the show’s philosophical method. However, other characters, such as Matsuda, add complexity to the conversation, preventing it from being neatly divided between two ideologies.

In many instances, characters like L, N, and M are primarily interested in engaging in a battle of wits. This “game” may symbolize a clash between competing moralities or reflect the obsession of narcissistic geniuses with solving puzzles. Regardless, this absence of solid convictions regarding a definitive concept of justice serves at least one vital purpose. It means that L often assumes the role of an inquisitor, not unlike Socrates.

Another somewhat unexpected inquisitor is Matsuda, who raises genuine questions about the moral judgments of various characters, including Light, Kira, the Japanese Police, and L. Simultaneously, he faces mockery for his inability to conform to the established norms. Early in the series, he challenges L’s characterization of Kira’s morality as childish by pointing out a decreased violent crime since Kira’s actions began. He clarifies that he does not endorse Kira’s vision or actions but remains skeptical of L’s unwavering stance. Later in the series, Matsuda engages in a discussion with other Task Force members that questions the very foundation of their group: the belief in Kira’s inherent evilness.

With his constant self-doubt, Matsuda serves as both a representative of the audience and a philosophical counterpoint to the other characters. Unlike Light, who is resolute in his project; L and N, who are fixated on capturing him; Chief Yagami, who is determined to find the faithful Kira to clear his son’s name; and the rest of the Task Force, who have staked their lives and convictions on ending Kira’s reign of justice, Matsuda consistently questions the values presented to him as indisputable facts. Matsuda’s demeanor differs significantly from the confidence of Plato’s debating club members, but he foremost recognizes his ignorance, a crucial aspect in exposing the ignorance of those around him. Even in the end, as he takes Light’s life, he does so with questions rather than answers.

Challenging Notions of Justice

Matsuda’s role in challenging the audience’s and characters’ notions of justice helps to bring some order to a series of conflicting ideas, making the conversation more understandable. Over ten years of discussions on fan forums, it has become clear that there needs to be a consensus on who truly embodies justice or whether Light’s vision of the New World justifies the means employed. However, precisely, this ambiguity gives the show its emotional impact. While Death Note is an engaging detective procedural, it never deviates from its fundamental question: What constitutes a just world? Most importantly, it needs to provide a definitive answer.

In the thirtieth episode, aptly titled Justice, Light essentially sums it up by stating that if Kira is caught, he becomes evil, but if he wins and rules the world, he represents justice. As the show concludes with Kira’s defeat and N’s brand of justice seemingly prevailing, it leaves us with a lingering sense that things might have taken a very different turn if Kira had survived in the warehouse. Instead of offering closure by suggesting that L and N inherently embody more justice than Kira, this notion of a winner-takes-all approach to morality reveals that the conflict between competing moral codes was akin to a logical game rather than a quest for ultimate truth.

While N may represent justice within the show’s world, the distinction could be more precise for us as viewers. Regarding the interpretation and implications of justice, Death Note opens up more possibilities than it closes. Concerning whether figures like Socrates, Rawls, or Zack would consider L or Kira as paragons of justice, the short answer is certainly not. Although there are some other unexplored similarities, such as themes of tyranny and the focus on a just city, the natural connection between the justice depicted in Republic and Death Note lies not in their definitions but in their methods. Consequently, this approach sets Death Note apart as a show actively engaged in philosophical exploration rather than merely borrowing philosophical concepts.

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