When it comes to Christian allusions, Death Note pulls no punches.
Whether it’s an artistic replication of The Fall of Man by Michelangelo, Light’s literal taking of the forbidden fruit, or the Gregorian choirs, crucifixes, and god-complexes, there’s a bit of Christian influence sprinkled across every chapter (and episode) of the series.
Perhaps the most conspicuous allusion, though, is L himself, whose very name harmonizes with el—the Hebrew word for God in the Old Testament. From his self-created trinity, to his seemingly omniscient and miraculous crime-solving abilities, L has the Christ-figure persona down-pat. Death Note director, Tetsuro Araki, even threw an exclusive foot-washing scene into the anime’s 25th episode, just to ensure that the imagery couldn’t be missed.
In the midst of all these iconic allusions to Christendom, though, there’s a subtle reference to Discipleship that gets lost along the way. It’s a shame, too, since it’s one of the manga’s most poignant representations of Christ’s provision.
During their mission to bring Kira to justice, L and his team of police force detectives hit a snag. Namely, that the main force is pulling all support from the secret operation in response to threats from Kira, and that any officers who wish to continue working alongside L will lose their jobs.
L allows his team to come to their individual decisions.
The catch? It’s a test of loyalty.
Of everyone remaining on the task force, it’s Aizawa who struggles to answer. He’s a married man with two children, and being away from home so much has already put a strain on his marriage. Losing his job might be the least of his heaping worries, but it’s certainly the straw he feels will break the camel’s back. Unlike Matsuda, the young bachelor of the team with no immediate familial ties, Aizawa hesitates to answer L, because he convinces himself that he has everything to lose.
Police Chief Yagami, much to Aizawa’s chagrin, also chooses to side with L. Yagami has a family of his own—a wife, a young daughter, and a son whose current position is #1 suspect in L’s eyes.
“Our situations are completely different,” he tries to assure Aizawa. But Aizawa disregards the sentiment, seeing it grounded only in the fact that Yagami’s own son is suspect in the investigation.
But it’s more than just that. Yagami has already come to unconditionally trust L because he’s been tested by him. In previous chapters, in what can only be called the series’ allusion to Abraham offering Isaac on Mt. Moriah, L tests Yagami by asking the police chief to stage his son’s execution… only to find the firing chamber of the handgun blank.
Like every other member of the task force, Aizawa has endured the weight and horror of the investigation up to this point—even remaining loyal to L when a fellow officer walked out—but he’s yet to be personally tested by the master detective himself. With the case coming to a dangerous head, L wants to be sure that he has Aizawa’s ultimate loyalty. To be even minutely less-so would pose serious risks not only to the team, but also to the world. If the task force fails, Kira wins, and the world simultaneously falls under his iron pen of judgement.
In light of those consequences, those who remain on-board must put their personal affairs second—something Aizawa isn’t sure he’s ready to do, so he tries to compromise.
L won’t have it.
And this is where the allusion emerges. Christ Himself also demanded high personal sacrifice and total dedication of his Disciples. During His earthly ministry, He turned many away because they showed interest based upon compromise—“let me first go bury my father,” “let me bid my family goodbye,” “let me make sure my house is in order, then I’ll join you.”
It may sound harsh that Christ would deny such seemingly selfless requests, but the problem lies in the fact that these would-be disciples were not ready for the cost of Discipleship. They were not ready to dedicate themselves 100% to Christ’s work and wanted to do so on their own terms and in their own time. To be a Disciple is to pledge our all to Christ and His cause, so much so that our focus on other things—our lives, our ambitions, our passions, even our families—seems miniscule by comparison. Compromise and waffling has no place in Discipleship (Matthew 6:24):
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Discipleship doesn’t promise an easy life—not unless you consider carrying your own spiritual cross (Matthew 10:38) and facing tribulation “easy.” (John 16:33) It demands that we place secondary importance on that thing that is otherwise most important to us. Christ encountered many seemingly willing disciples who ended up walking away because they could not “let go” of their wealth (Matthew 19:16-22) or their families (Luke 9: 59-62). For these, the cost seemed too high.
Overlooked, though, is that Discipleship also promises ultimate provision—that fully entrusting ourselves and our concerns to God will put us in a better place, because who knows better how to care for us than the Creator of the universe Himself? God promises to provide for us—in oftentimes miraculous ways—if we’re willing to put our faith in Him (Matthew 6:31-32). Rather than being “forced” to “let go” of those things that matter most to us, Discipleship is about entrusting those things to Christ and no longer “owning them” of our own accord.
In Death Note, L’s test is meant for one person, and one person alone: Aizawa—the grounded realist who doubles as the “Doubting Thomas” of the force. Just as he’s committed himself to leaving, it’s revealed—unintentionally—that L had long planned for this moment and set aside life-time funds for his officers and their families should they ever lose their jobs.
But this revelation, which should have brought relief, instead incites humiliation and rage in Aizawa, whose ego has been stung by the set-up. After verbally denouncing L in front of the remaining force he storms out, just in time to hear L’s farewell: “I’ve always liked you, Aizawa. Thank you for everything.”
No hatred. No dismissal. That Christ-like, unconditional forgiveness is more than Aizawa can stand.
By the chapter’s end, he’s crying brokenly at the sight of his family. It’s most painful to watch because Aizawa seems to realize that he’s misplaced trust in his own abilities and misjudged L’s care for him. His family may be his most important possession, but remaining on the task force alongside L would have been the only way to truly protect them. Alone, he can do next to nothing. He can’t stand and fight Kira the way that L can. His lack of faith has caused him to play the coward.
I think our relationship with Christ can be a lot like that—we make plans and act in a way that we think is best when, in actuality, our short-sightedness leads to a much more crippled and unwieldy situation than we could have ever intended. It’s not until we commit ourselves to fully following Christ that we receive His clarity and guidance.
It’s rewarding that, several chapters later, Aizawa returns to L’s task force, fully committed and ready for the cost of detective work. By the series’ end, he becomes the force’s sole, unwavering member in opposing Kira and decides to risk everything he has—even his precious family—for the cause that L began.
And I think that’s one of the marks of real Discipleship—the experience changes us. We become bolder, more visionary, because we realize that if our actions line up with God’s will, He’s got our back. More importantly, He has a plan, and we’re part of it.
In light of this discussion, you might say we become the agents on God’s personal task force.
10 thoughts on “Between the Panels: Disciples of e(L) – (Ch. 40)”
Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
A very good article on the Christian paradigms in Death Note.
I’m honored. Thank you for the re-blog!
You’re welcome! I really like how you pointed out the Christian motifs in Death Note. I had no idea that there were any besides the apple.
The apple is just the tip of the iceberg 🙂 I’ve spent a lot of time diving into the symbolism of this show (it’s a hobby of mine), and I’m putting together a comprehensive mega article on the subject. I hope to have it published before the end of the year.
Good on you for catching the apple, though. It seems like an obvious symbol, but a lot of people overlook it because it’s just too obvious I think, haha.
Wow, always great articles but this one pointed something out I didn’t even notice when watching Death Note the first time through. Fantastic.
Awesome! Death Note is my favorite anime, due largely to its Christian themes and allusions, which I find utterly fascinating. I’m glad that you were able to take something new from the series after reading.
That being said, this is a mere drop in the bucket 🙂 There is so much more within Death Note to discuss. I’m putting together a mega article on every bit of Christian symbolism in the series. It’s a long process, but I think it’s going to be something pretty neat in the end.
As always, thank you for reading and commenting! See you around on Tangles.
Great article! Makes me want to go and watch the entire series again, and keep my eye out for all the themes and allusions I missed.
In the words of a wise man: “Do it! Just do it!”
I’m just kidding 🙂 But seriously, there’s never a bad time to re-watch Death Note. This series is ripe with symbols and allusions. You catch something new each time. Thanks for the feedback!
Oh that’s awesome! I didn’t even think about the disciples theme, but it kind of feels obvious after you pointed it out.
I wonder if you have written (or seen someone else do) about the symbolism that surrounds Light? The glam rock look of Ryuk, the goth/metal style of Misa, even the choice of the second opening music, I feel it can’t be “just there”, those allusions to specific types of music styles has to have some meaning in the context. I can make a vague statement that this type of modern culture symbolizes denial of traditional morals… but that is just too vague for me to feel satisfied =)
Thank you for the good post.
Oh boy, you just asked the minefield question :3
Let’s just say that I’m working on a comprehensive mega-article encompassing all of the Christian symbolism and imagery used in Death Note. The notes for this article alone amount to 10 pages. There’s a lot of stuff in this show, and it’s easy to miss some of it!
Light is a fascinating character in sight of the Christian imagery. He chronologically symbolizes every major biblical villain–starting with fallen man, going to Lucifer, then Judas, and then ending with the anti-Christ. His name, “Light,” carries the same meaning as Lucifer (which also means “light”). I’ll be going into more detail in that future article, which will be published through Geeks Under Grace. I’m sure TWWK will link to it in his periodic “Something More” section once it’s published, so you won’t miss it. 🙂
In the meantime, you can check out this article I wrote for Geekdom House about Light and just a little of the symbolism he carries with him: http://geekdomhouse.com/lights-favourite-word/
As for the rock/glam/gothic look… I think a lot of that ties into the Gothic architecture of era-day churches and cemeteries that Death Note’s artistic direction is based off of. However, the creator of Death Note once said that he had a thing for Gothic–particularly Gothic Lolita (Misa’s style of choice). It was a fashion he was personally fond of, so it flavored a lot of the designs in the show. He was also inspired by the works of Tim Burton, and based Ryuk off of Edward Scissorhands to some extent.
It’s possible that there’s some rebellion against morals in there, too. The show very much speaks to the effect of “playing god” and taking morals into your own hands. I find it interesting that L is the only one of the main players not portrayed in Gothic attire (Light never does in the show, but his official artwork often shows him carrying a scythe or transforming into a shinigami himself). Oppositely, L has an official artwork where he is depicted with a cross, white roses (the symbol of purity and death in Christianity), the virgin Mary, and the Heart of Christ symbol. He’s depicted as very Christ-like in this artwork, and it’s far from unintentional.
All that to say: good observation on the Gothic style. It’s something that the series definitely contrasts with L, as all of the other lead players (besides him) portray that Gothic, variant look. I enjoyed reading your insight! Thank you for enlightening me.