It took a full lockdown for me to discover there was, in fact, a Death Note musical. How did I – musical connoisseur, recovering weeb – only learn about this this seven years after the fact? I remain unsure, but a brief history for the similarly uninitiated: 2013 spurred an English concept album (featuring Jeremy Jordan – yes, that Jeremy Jordan); rejected by America for reasons unknown, in 2015 it made it to the stage in Japan, Korea, and eventually Russia (which even had its own tie-in fragrance).
In fact, the only thing more unexpected than this whole thing coming into existence might be my dawning realisation that it’s sort of… fun? Quite a lot of fun, actually? Even pretty good?
This line between ironic and post-ironic enjoyment blurs many, many times over the course of a viewing. After an unintentionally hilarious start (Where is the Justice doesn’t deal in subtlety – this Light is fully screaming at his teacher), we’re swept up to the world of Shinigami: and nothing can quite prepare you for omnipresent Ryuk, hamming it up in every scene, upstaging like there’s no tomorrow. It’s a truly barnstorming performance.
However, by the time I get to Hurricane/Death Note – Light’s showstopping number – this ironic enjoyment is turning into something surprisingly sincere. Then you’re at the train station scene and, well, you’re not really laughing anymore. You’re sort of shit scared, instead.
Okay, so it’s not entirely the anime story we once knew. There’s no immortal potato chip scene, there’s no handcuffing (thankfully): but the tennis match is there in all its heightened glory. There’s a spinning stage. There are adoring crowds. There’s a Shinigami lying right in the middle of it. It’s fantastic.
But it occurs to me – as the show unfolds – that Death Note is almost uniquely suited to the medium of musical theatre. This was always a series which offered either individual introspection or ultra-hyped battles of wits, so the soliloquy performance isn’t contrived here: it was always integral. And boy does it run with it. Even Soichiro gets a couple of numbers to himself.
As a welcome addition, Rem’s love for Misa provides the emotional heart to the show, and Misa’s obsession doesn’t feel forced, her chilling ballad on the cross confronting us with the reality of L’s methods – perhaps for the first time. This musical is silly, sure: but it’s also grown up. It takes the evil both protagonists do and brings it to us.
In fact, at its best – if this isn’t sacrilege – the musical actually improves upon the anime’s plot and pacing. Primarily by giving L a gun. Okay, that’s not quite the whole story. But after countless attempted adaptions, Death Note might finally have found its ending: ultra-satisfying, strangely haunting (check Jarrod Spector’s concept-album original), and high-impact. It works. Honestly, if this musical went for anything less than 100% on the whole affair, we’d be calling it a sorry misjudged nightmare, because with a story as ludicrous as this you simply can’t afford to do it tongue in cheek. Instead, everyone leans completely in – we have J-Pop idols, omnipresent Shinigami, and L point-blank pulling a gun on Light. God bless, Death Note: The Musical. We hardly deserved you.
Katie Knight (@codaevermore) is a Classics grad and librarian working in the UK. She spent her first lockdown discovering the Death Note Musical. She’s spending her second lockdown trying to catch up on 5 years of One Piece (before its 1000th chapter).