Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deathnote: Where manga meets Chris Hedges

It wasn't my intention to use this blog for discussing books, but things have settled down for now—at least until the next indignity of living in a credit-driven, corporatist state is visited upon yours truly. I have a home, a room to call my own, and stimulating roommates. Winter's coming on, and with it the urge to curl and up read until the greening of the buds next spring.

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I recently found myself reading two books concurrently—re-reading, actually—and, as occasionally happens when I have more than one book on the go, I discovered unexpected parallels.

On the surface of it, the books couldn’t be more dissimilar. One was Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists (Free Press, New York, 2008). The other was Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga series, Deathnote (English tankĊbon, 12 vols., VIZ Media, San Francisco, 2007). Atheists dissects the secular fundamentalism typified by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. Deathnote is a story about a high school student who stumbles on a supernatural notebook that grants him the ability to kill simply by writing a person’s name. Atheists is aimed at an educated, adult audience. Deathnote is primarily directed toward teenagers. And while Hedges is a best-selling author, it’s doubtful whether sales of all his books combined approaches even a fraction of the more than twenty-six million copies of Deathnote sold in Japan alone.

Near the end of Atheists, Hedges makes the following statement:

“Our return to an image-based culture means the destruction of the abstract thought made possible by a literate, print-based society. Image-based societies do not grasp or cope with ambiguity, nuance, doubt and the many layers of irrational motives and urges, some of them frightening, that make human actions complex and finally unfathomable.”

While I’m predisposed to agree with Hedges on every point he makes against Dawkins and his ilk (including their staggering theological illiteracy and spurious application of Darwinian biology to culture), I respectfully disagree with his assertion that image-based culture cannot cope with ambiguity and nuance. As a novelist in the traditional mode, I’m well aware that we’re moving into a post-literary age. However, I do not hold his alarmist view. My position is cautiously optimistic. I believe what we are witnessing is analogous to the shift from an oral tradition to a written one. Much was lost by that shift, but much was gained.

I may be stretching a point, since manga is not purely images (it’s basically a Japanese comic), but what astounds me about the form is precisely its potential to convey ambiguity and complex human motivations. Not all manga realizes the potential; in fact, very little does. But when it is realized, the results are stupendous.

Deathnote is manga at its finest, and makes a particularly pertinent counter to Hedges’ doom-and-gloom view of image-based culture since it deals with exactly the same themes as Atheists, and does so in a manner that, contrary to his assertion, is complex, layered and nuanced.

Hedges’ main thesis is that the fundamentalist mindset, shared by religious types and science-worshipping secularists alike, always entails a Utopian future based on two related but demonstrably flawed assumptions: the possibility of collective salvation, ie. the idea that societies in their entirety can be improved (redeemed); and the myth of moral progress. Hedges rightly argues that as long as human beings are free-thinking organisms, any attempt at collective salvation necessarily devolves into totalitarianism and criminality. Furthermore, neither Religion, nor Reason, nor Science has ever occasioned any moral advancement in our race because, according to Hedges,

“Human evil is not a problem. It is a mystery. It cannot be solved...The forces of darkness are our own forces. If we fail to name or acknowledge these forces, they will destroy us. Acknowledgment means accepting that our encounter with evil is permanent and perpetual...The belief that we can achieve human perfection, that we can advance morally, is itself an evil.”

Light Yagami, the protagonist of Deathnote, is the embodiment of fundamentalist thinking. An A student of high moral principles, he is disgusted with the state of the world, which he characterizes as “a rotten mess.” When Fate hands him the means to kill at will in the form of a Shinigami’s notebook (Shinigami translates roughly as Death God), he mounts a campaign to purge the world of criminals and make it a place “...inhabited only by people I decide are good.”

The deathnote is “dropped” into the human world as a lark by Ryuk, a Shinigami seeking relief from the overwhelming boredom of his existence in the Shinigami realm—a sterile landscape inhabited by listless gods who no longer recall their purpose in Creation. The Beckett-like aridity of the Shinigami realm parallels the impoverished role of spirituality in contemporary Western culture, and it’s no surprise that it provides the seeds for Light’s Manichean Utopianism.

Light himself is an extraordinarily complex character. To start with, he’s impossible not to like. A model teenager, he’s charming, polite, well-spoken. His relationship with his parents is loving and respectful. He shows consideration toward his younger sister, even helping her with homework without griping. Girls find him hot, and guys think he’s cool. It’s as if the creators of Deathnote studied the Patricia Highsmith manual on how to get readers to side with psychopaths and monsters.

Because monster he is. Along side the very qualities that make him so likable is a monomaniacal appetite for power. Light will stop at nothing to become “...the god of a new world.” I say along side, not underneath, because his dark side and his light side, so to speak, coexist. One does not mask or eclipse the other. The synthesis of the two creates a character who’s at once both appealing and utterly blind to his own evil.

He’s also disarmingly frank. Ryuk, the Shinigami, is largely ignorant of human behaviour, a device that allows Light to explain how people think. It’s nearly impossible not to nod in agreement when Light elucidates the reason behind an explosion of Internet sites supporting his purge:

Light: “This is what human beings are like, Ryuk. Say in school, we have a discussion in class...there’s no way the subject would be, ‘Is it all right to kill someone evil?’ but let’s say that was the subject. Everyone would act all virtuous and say, ‘No, it’s wrong to kill anybody.’ And of course, that would be the proper response. People need to maintain that kind of facade in public. But this [Light points to his monitor] is what people really think. Cowards. Nobody will acknowledge my existence openly, but out on the anonymous Internet, ‘Kira’ rules.”

Kira, derived from the Japanese mispronunciation of “killer,” is the name by which Light’s criminal-killing spree is known. It’s not an alter ego; Light is not “sometimes-Light” and “sometimes-Kira.” It’s the label for a phenomenon that appeals to people’s desire for simple solutions to complex problems:

Light: “Media reports still refer only to ‘the series of mysterious deaths among violent criminals,’ but people all over the world already feel it—that someone is passing righteous judgment on them [criminals].”

Light dislikes the term, but intuitively grasps that ‘Kira’ encompasses more than just himself. It’s a doctrine, one that promises its followers paradise on Earth. In manga, as in real life, paradisaical futures, religion-based or secular, demand belief in dogma.

Light is gifted with a high IQ, and, in truth, much of the entertainment value of Deathnote comes from the battle of wits between him and his equally gifted nemesis, the enigmatic L. Reading the series is a bit like watching two grand masters trying to outwit each other in a marathon game of chess. But Light’s intelligence is paired with a grotesquely childish concept of justice. His plan to make the world a better place by killing criminals is utterly jejune. Like any radical Utopian scheme, it reduces evil to a single target and proposes that removal of the target will lead to an era of prosperity and harmony. His plan is as doomed to fail as gassing Jews or bombing Muslims. Or, as secular fundamentalists propound, excising spirituality from human experience.

Not surprisingly, Light’s target list expands when he encounters opposition. At one point, L accuses Kira of being evil, and Light, speaking to Ryuk, has this to say:

Light: “Me...evil...? I’m the hero who’s liberating people from fear. I’m the saviour who’s going to be like the god of this perfect new world! Those who try to fight me...they’re the evil ones!!”

In order to advance his Utopian scheme, he must now purge anyone who opposes Kira or seeks to unmask him. It’s an infantile reaction, one that leads irrevocably to the fanaticism that George Santayana so astutely defined as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

Light’s opponents are, in many ways, as childish and fanatical as Light himself. Their protestations that Kira is nothing more than a murderer come across as rote expressions of schoolbook morality. Like Light, they’re blind to their own evil. Abduction, torture and forcible confinement are part and parcel of the battle to bring Light/Kira down. L and his successor, Near, are perfectly content to stand by while lives are sacrificed. Their fanaticism overwhelms any initial sense of justice. In the end, all that matters is winning.

In Atheists, Hedges maintains that failure to acknowledge the innate flaws in human kind, that denying the full, irrational complexity of human beings, and that imagining evil is “out there” invite the catastrophic violence of fundamentalism.

“...once evil is seen as being only external, once some human beings are proclaimed more moral than others, repression and murder becomes a regrettable necessity to improve the world.”

Only one character in Deathnote is natively responsive to the emotional complexity and warring moral impulses that make him human, a police detective named Matsuda. Significantly, he’s the buffoon of the series. While the supposed good guys are reviling Kira for his wickedness, it falls to luckless Matsuda to point out that Kira’s killing of known criminals has indeed resulted in a significant drop in crime. He offers the observation tentatively, in the spirit of wondering, and for his courage in saying what no one else will receives embarrassed, foot-in-the-mouth silence from his fellow police officers. While everyone else is being deadly earnest, only he is capable of spontaneity. He laughs at what is funny, is moved by what is touching, gets excited when there’s cause for optimism. For this he’s treated like a fool. He sincerely wants to bring an end to Kira—for him, “killing anybody is wrong” is not a public facade—and constantly asks: “What can I do to help?” In one telling panel, L brushes him off with: “Well...you could make me a cup of coffee.”

Matsuda’s just not smart enough, not grimly righteous enough, to play with the big boys. He’s marginalized, much as in the real world those who place humanity above big schemes and sweeping reforms are trivialized and dismissed.

However Matsuda, in his role as fool, makes everyone else look bad. From the start, L suspects that Light is Kira. Proving that he is forms the heart of Deathnote’s plot. But Matsuda likes and respects Light, and rejects L’s notion that Light is guilty until proven innocent. He defends Light at every opportunity, rejoicing whenever the evidence overwhelmingly supports his innocence, which frequently, and quite reasonably, it does—if you subtract the supernatural element of the story. That Matsuda’s wrong is not an indication of intellectual deficiency; it’s evidence of loyalty, decency, and humanity.

It’s no accident on the part of the creators of Deathnote that when Light is finally unmasked, in a stunning progression of images that incorporates one of the most expressive panels in the entire series—Light naked and howling like a beast—it’s Matsuda, the avatar of Everyman betrayed, who fires the shot that brings him down.

I’ve only touched on some of the ways Hedges’ arguments in I Don’t Believe in Atheists are vividly depicted in the pages of Deathnote. Light and L’s relationship alone deserves a book, so finely layered and mytho-psychologically nuanced is the friendship/enmity. Hedges is correct in his blistering criticism of the Utopian ideals that fuel both religious and secular fundamentalism, however he is wrong to imagine that image-based culture—here exemplified by manga—is a priori incapable of coping with the layers of ambiguity, nuance, and doubt that ultimately define who we are as a race.