Death Note: Who is the villain?

DNThe role of the protagonist and antagonist is not always fixed in literature as characters often refuse to fit into a formula. Indeed, character roles and stereotypical characteristics can be reversed in an attempt to provide us with more realistic representations of people in texts. Instead of clear-cut representations of heroes and villains then, we are presented with anti-heroes, anti-villains and morally grey characters. For instance, it is Satan that fits the role of protagonist rather than God in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Julianne Potter is actually ‘the bad guy’ in My Best Friend’s Wedding while The Doctor in Doctor Who is neither hero nor villain, just ‘a mad man with a box’ that causes more problems than he solves.

A text that takes this idea of role reversal to the extreme is Death Note. In this anime, viewers are asked to take the perspective of the villain rather than the protagonist. Death Note centres on Light Yagami, a high school student, and his discovery of a notebook that grants its user the ability to kill anyone they wish by writing their names in it. While Light initially plans to turn vigilante and eradicate his city of its criminals, such power becomes dangerous and he begins to write the names of those he feels might get in the way of his ‘mission’. The inexplicable deaths of the city’s criminals, however, starts to draw attention. This is when a detective known as L begins to investigate the situation. He is determined to catch Light and the rest of the series depicts the intellectual cat and mouse chase between the two. It is evident then in the series that Light and L reverse the conventional representation of protagonist and antagonist in that we take on the point of view of the villain while the hero attempts to prevent him from achieving his goals. While Light is clearly the central character, he is responsible for the murders that occur throughout the series. However, he possesses all the traits of a protagonist. For example, his thoughts are narrated to us via voice over whereas the inner psyche of the conventional villain generally remains a mystery to the audience. He is also shown in normal environments such as high school classrooms and his brightly lit suburban household with his parents and sister. L, on the other hand, the character attempting to prevent the murders and bring the vigilante to justice, has all the characteristics of a villain. For instance, while we do hear L’s thoughts, much of his backstory remains a mystery. In contrast to Light, he is usually shown lurking in the shadows of underground basements not unlike a secret lair of a comic book super villain. A scene which brings home the idea of the protagonist/antagonist reverse is when Light and L stand beside each other on a stage at a college ceremony. Here, Light looks like a TV protagonist while L looks like a villain. Indeed, Light wears a suit, stands upright and confidently addresses the audience whereas L is hunched over, wears scruffy oversized clothing and appears disturbed. He immediately stirs suspicion among the audience and Light and L’s deceiving appearances are further emphasised in this scene when a conversation between two audience members can be heard. Judging Light and L on their appearance and personality traits, one comments: ‘These two are total opposites’ to which the other replies: ‘Yeah this one looks like a sheltered genius whose been groomed for success his whole life but the other one, there’s something not right about him, he’s just…weird’ (‘Encounter’, Death Note). These two audience members act as a stand in for the audience of Death Note and television in general in that we too have a tendency to read characters according to conventions and stereotypes. Series like Death Note break with these conventions then and instead attempt to give us something closer to reality where we can never tell who the villain is.


This is the scene where Light and L meet. Both of their appearances contradict their thoughts. L even remarks that Light does not look like a villain while Light takes note of L’s strange appearance:

This is an outline of some of the main villain/hero characteristics and distinctions. Note how the characters Light and L contradict most of these:

An article concerning the rise of the anti-hero in popular culture:

A discussion of Death Note that debates the character roles in the series:


Death Note. Dir. Tetsuro Araki. Madhouse, 3 October. 2006. Anime.

Nargis. ‘Death Note Revisited: The eternal battle between good and evil.’ Anime UK News, 13 Jan. 2008. 10 Mar. 2015. Web.

Smith, Murray. ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know: TV’s anti-heroes.’ Times Higher Education, 17 Jul. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2015. Web.


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