Sunday, January 07, 2007

Post No. 98: Afterthoughts On "Deathnote"

ast Saturday (30/12/2006), I, together with my elder sister, went to watch the “Deathnote” movie marathon (i.e. the consecutive screening of “Deathnote I” and “Deathnote II”, with a half hour break in between) at GV Tampines.

After watching the 2 movies and thinking back to the manga series which they were based on (and which I have finished reading through just a week before I watched the 2 movies), it seemed to me that “Deathnote” has made reference to several thought-provoking themes that people have been debating about for a very long time.

Thus, for the benefit of those who are interested in such stuff, I, in this essay, would attempt to describe and discuss the various (philosophical) themes contained within “Deathnote”.

And, for those who are not that interested in knowing about the philosophical themes contained within “Deathnote” and/or have not watched the movies & are eager to find out whether they are worth the movie tickets’ price, I will also include a short review of the 2 movies in this essay of mine.

Hence, with that in mind, this essay shall be divided into 2 parts. Part I would be the short review of the movies (some spoilers are inevitable but I will try to minimise them) and Part II would be a concise discussion of the main philosophical themes contained within “Deathnote”.

Part I: A Short Review

First & foremost, for those who have no clue what “Deathnote” is about, perhaps you all should refer to this Wikipedia entry for more information (warning: possible spoilers!).

That aside, in retrospect, I suppose it was somewhat a bad move for me to finish reading the “Deathnote” manga series before watching the “Deathnote” movies. This is considering that I went to watch the movies with quite high expectations; expectations which were somewhat dashed as I began to compare the movies with the manga series to see where the former differed from the latter and with me knowing how the movies will end eventually. That said, strangely though, my reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” before I watched the movie adaptations did not diminish my enjoyment of watching the movies.

Moving on, personally, I would say that “Deathnote I” was 90% faithful to the original storyline of the manga series while “Deathnote II” was about 75% faithful. Thus, on average (not in a mathematical sense, of course), I would say that the movies were about 80% faithful to the manga series’ original storyline.

Also, in comparison, it seems to me that “Deathnote I” was better than “Deathnote II” (despite the presence of more “eye candy” in the latter). I say this because the pace of “Deathnote II”, in contrast with that of “Deathnote I”, was quite draggy, especially approaching the last quarter of the movie (coincidentally, this was also the part of the movie which deviated quite a lot from the original storyline of the manga series).

Brickbats aside, I would like to commend the actor acting as “L” for his impressive job of being able to mimic the mannerism and to project the “feel” of “L” from the manga series. Even my elder sister, who has not really read the manga series, thought that this actor did a good job portraying “L”.

Furthermore, I thought it was a clever move for the movies to “colour-code” the attire of the actors acting as “L” and “Light Yagami/Kira” respectively. By this, I mean that “L”, who is the “good guy”, is always shown wearing white, while “Light”, as the “bad guy”, is shown wearing mostly black. And, though this may be a case of me noticing something when there’s nothing to notice about, the movies were so particular about this “colour-coding” that they had “Light” wearing a white jacket over a black T-shirt during scenes in which he had lost his memory and was working together with “L” to track down the third “Kira” (a reference to “Light” being a “good guy” on the outside while he was actually a “bad guy” on the inside?).

Next, I also thought that it was an interesting and intelligent move for the movies to show “Light”, in one of the scenes in the first movie, reading what seems to be a philosophical text by Friedrich Nietzsche (in its original German, no less!), which, considering the context of the movies, would most likely either be "Beyond Good and Evil" or "On The Genealogy of Morals". Well, I shall reserve the explanation as to why it is interesting that “Light” is shown reading something written by Nietzsche for my discussion in Part II.

Moving on, I was also quite disappointed that quite a large chunk of the original storyline from the manga series was absent from the movies (something which most readers of the “Deathnote” manga series would surely notice if they read beyond Book 7 of the series). Personally, I think that this was something which can be remedied if those behind the movies decided to expand them into a trilogy and not just 2 movies. Oh well, perhaps they thought that few moviegoers will be interested to see the “Deathnote” movie storyline drag on into a third movie (Hmm… “The Matrix”? “The Lord of the Rings”? “Star Wars”? “Infernal Affairs”?).

To end off this review, I would just like to say that if you all have watched the movies, do try to read the manga series to see what you all have missed out. And if you all have read the manga series, try not to watch the movies to avoid disappointment but if you all must really go watch the movies, try to lower your expectations somewhat.

Part II: A Discussion of the Philosophical Themes In “Deathnote”

One obvious philosophical theme that was referred to in Deathnote”, as reflected in the storyline when crime rates are said to have fallen greatly due to the presence of “Kira”, would undoubtedly be the question of whether people (i.e. us) avoid doing evil and/or committing crimes just because we are afraid of receiving punishment for doing evil and/or committing crimes and whether we do good because we hope to be rewarded for doing so. Or do we do so because we truly believe in the intrinsic value of doing good and not doing evil?

Well, the question of whether we avoid doing evil because of our fear of punishment and do good because of our hope for reward is one which has been discussed by philosophers and other thinkers for ages. And it seems to me that there have been quite a few who have agreed that we human beings are “moral”, not because we believe in being “moral”, but because of a sense of enlightened self-interest. For example, in Book I of Plato’s “The Republic”, Thrasymachus (a character in the text) remarked that “men denounce injustice because they fear they may be victims of it, not because they are averse to committing it themselves”.

Also, as critics of Christianity/Religion (of which Professor Richard Dawkins is a notable example) would surely point out, the commonly preached ideas of Heaven and Hell are just another way of saying: “You all better behave! There is a ‘Big Brother’ in the sky who’s monitoring your every action & thought and He will reward or punish you accordingly after you die” (note: I seriously mean no offence to anyone with this statement) and that this cheapens the value of people doing good and avoiding evil. This would not be morality but enlightened self-interest. As Albert Einstein has remarked: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed” (I got this quote from Professor Dawkins’ "The God Delusion").

And even if we do not believe in Heaven and Hell, I suppose most of us all still have some belief in this maxim of “善有善报,恶有恶报” (“Good begets good, Evil begets evil”). I do not know about you all but, once placed into the context of this discussion, it seems to me that this seemingly non-objectionable maxim may perhaps hint at an element of enlightened self-interest.

Do not be mistaken. I am not saying that enlightened self-interest is the only motivation behind why most of us are “moral” but that it is perhaps a significant motivation. Be honest with yourselves and ask yourselves this question: “If it is possible for me to fulfil all my desires & wants through committing evil & crimes but without suffering any negative consequences whatsoever, would I do so?”. Well, personally, I am not sure what my answer to this hypothetical question would be but, thankfully, none of us will perhaps be placed in such a tricky situation. It is not for no good reason that Thomas B. Macaulay said: “The measure of a man’s true character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out”.

And, of course, I am not denying that there exist acts of goodness which are altruistic in nature. However, such acts are perhaps rare in occurrence (if such acts were common, people would not value them so much, would they?) and in some cases, one may perhaps still detect a non-altruistic motivation behind the seemingly altruistic acts.

Also, do not be mistaken, while I am inclined towards the opinion that we are motivated in part by enlightened self-interest when doing good and/or doing evil, I am not in any way denying the intrinsic value in doing good an/or avoiding evil. In the end, perhaps the Legalist school of thought is correct in that, besides relying on moral education to bring out the good in people and to curb their tendencies to evil, it is necessary that we put in place an appropriate system of reward & punishment.

Moving on, another philosophical theme I detected in “Deathnote”, from the part in which “Light/Kira” tried to justify his killing of criminals as something necessary to create a crime-free society, would be the ends versus means debate. To keep a long story short, this debate is about whether the use of “evil” means can be justified by the “good” ends that these means seek to achieve.

On one hand, there are those who would argue that “evil” means can indeed be justified by “good” ends. In fact, it is argued that it would be a greater “evil” if people, not wanting to employ “evil” means, prevent the fulfilment of “good” ends. According to the proponents of such a stance (which some may refer to as consequentialism), it is the end results of an action that should matter. In other words, if the use of “evil” means can lead to the achievement of “good” ends, the use of “evil” means is therefore allowed and justified.

However, opposed to the abovementioned stance, there are those who would argue that “evil” means cannot be justified by “good” ends because the means are just as important as the ends and that “good” ends will be somewhat corrupted if “evil” means were used in the process of achieving these ends. As the supporters of this stance would argue, an “evil” act, due to its very nature of being an “evil” act, should never be allowed despite any possible mitigating circumstances. Also, if we accept the logic of “good ends justify evil means”, we will perhaps soon be going down a slippery slope and all sorts of “evil” acts will become justified (here, the ongoing debate of whether scientists and researchers should be allowed to harvest stem cells from embryos is particularly relevant). Lastly, perhaps some acts are just too “evil” (e.g. genocide) for them to become justified by any “good” that may perhaps come out of them.

Personally, while I do sincerely acknowledge and understand the concerns of those who support the second stance discussed above, I think I am inclined towards the first stance discussed above. I say this because, in my opinion, people should have the flexibility to realise that while, under normal and ordinary circumstances, the committing of any sort of “evil” should not be allowed, there are may perhaps exist special circumstances that can allow for “evil” means to be used so as to prevent a greater “evil” and/or to achieve “good”. For example, while abortion is perhaps reprehensible under most circumstances, I suppose most of you all agree with me that abortion should be allowed in the special case of a poor pregnant mother who already has 9 young children and is struggling to provide for them & herself. And, yes, I concede that there is a danger of “slippery slope” but, call me overly optimistic, I think we have the good sense and intelligence in us to know when things are going too far and put the brakes on something.

Last but not least, another philosophical theme which one can detect in “Deathnote”, as reflected in the storyline when “Light/Kira” tried to justify his killing of criminals as the removing of “undesirable elements” from society, would be the idea that there exist in society people who should be eliminated so as to allow society to progress further.

This idea of removing of “undesirable elements” from society originated, correct me if I am wrong, from the misapplication (emphasis on “misapplication”) of certain philosophical ideas of Nietzsche (who, as far as I know, saw human beings as unequal beings and that the problem facing society is one of “equal recognition of unequals”) and of Charles Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” (technically, it was Herbert Spencer who coined this term) from the realm of biology into the realm of human society by Herbert Spencer (and gaining the epithet of "Social Darwinism" in the process).

And, as many have pointed out, this idea of Social Darwinism was perhaps the theory behind the Nazis’ extermination programmes of those whom they saw as “undesirable” and/or not fit to survive e.g. Jews, homosexuals, Communists, gypsies, Slavs and the physically & mentally disabled. Well, though the Nazis may no longer be around, I suppose that Social Darwinism still perhaps have a strong influence on many (of course, these Social Darwinists perhaps no longer advocate the elimination of society’s “undesirable elements” but they hold on to the notion that certain groups are “better” and/or “superior” to other groups).

Hmm… In my opinion, if we actually accepted the logic of Social Darwinism and go to the extent of eliminating those who we see as “undesirable” and/or “less fit to survive”, we would not be bringing about progress to our society. Instead, we would be bringing about a retrogression to our society for while I cannot say that we humans are exempted from the operation of natural laws, surely we are not totally the prisoners of such laws either. Anyway, Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” was based on natural selection, not human selection.

Okay, I suppose I have written enough for today and you all have read enough for one day. Thus, with that in mind, I would just end this essay of mine here.


Julia said...

ah yes, i know the manga is much more exciting, but i haven't gotten down to reading it yet. And yes, the colour-coding is evident. Also i guess the movie-makers had their own concerns and there are things u can't translate totally from manga to screen.

And about Nietzsche in the movie, yes, i read about that too. Good and evil. Interesting entry of yours.

reader said...

It's a rather interesting entry. I hate to say, but no matter how we deny it, we gauge our behaviors upon "enlightened self-interest", just so because we are all born sinners. It doesn't discount us as immoral, or less ethical, because we are not saints anyway. And God understands it, and set ground rules for governing our behavior. Ditto for the law and punishment system in our society now. It's a good philosophical debate, nonetheless.

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