At its core, the anime series Death Note is a story about two geniuses who participate in an epic clash over their beliefs about justice. Throughout the series, two men, Light Yagami and L, participate in a dangerous battle of wits with massive implications. These two men, the handsome psychopath Light, and the quirky-yet-endearing L, push forward in one of my favorite narrative struggles ever.
You might be wondering what this has to do with tennis.
Let me explain.
At this point in Death Note, Light Yagami has stumbled across a notebook that allows him to kill someone simply by writing their name in it. Light begins to see the massive implications of this Death Note, and uses it to begin killing off prisoners and criminals on a massive scale, prompting him a cult following on line, the nickname “Kira,” and finally, the interest of L.
L is an investigator. No. L is THE investigator; a man who has devoted his life to only solving unsolvable mysteries. And for L, the mystery of an anonymous man who is able to kill hundreds of people per day without making contact with them is certainly an interesting case indeed.
L decides to go undercover, and begins looking into Light as a potential suspect of being Kira’s true identity. L first meets Light when the two both take college entrance exams, and then later get into college. It is during their entrance ceremony to this college, that L whispers his identity to Light, to see how Light would react to this, and from there, an dangerous game begins. However, this game is preceded by a less dangerous game of tennis.
And what follows is one of the most amazing psychological duels ever to exist around a leisurely game of tennis I have ever seen. Here is the clip for a bit of a refresher:
This scene really sets the grounds for the rest of the series, establishing through only a tennis game that is on screen for less than 5 minutes, the characters, what their primary motivations will be, and the narrative structure that this story will begin to take going forward.
Death Note now changes from the two main characters of the show working to outwit each other anonymously, to the two men working in an intimate setting, and trying to outwit each other through their conversations and actions, as well as how the other analyzes these moments.
We now are given an insight directly in to L’s mind, how he thinks, and how he plans to operate moving forward, trying to stay several steps ahead of Light, as well as trying to keep Light off balance, and unable to predict what will happen next.
Meanwhile, Light spends this tennis game attempting to interpret L’s various advances in a way that doesn’t give away his identity as Kira. He also tries to, in turn, plan out L’s next move so that he can react to it accordingly.
THE FOLLOWING SMALLER SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS, IF YOU DO NOT WANT DEATH NOTE SPOILED, PLEASE SKIP TO THE PICTURE OF L UNAMUSINGLY EATING CAKE.
This scene also foreshadows future events of the show in an incredibly subtle and delightful way via the end of the match. Throughout the match, L and Light seem to be somewhat even, both outworking each other, but the game is close. Light seems to be waiting for L to take shots in order to out-think him and respond with offense of his own. However, it is only when Light takes matters in his own hands and moves to the offense does he catch L by surprise, win the volley, and the game.
By forcing L to move out of his comfort zone to confront Light’s own attacks, Light wins the game.
This is incredibly similar to how Light eventually wins the battle between the two, by working to create a comfort level with L, and then acting sporadically, forcing L to step outside this comfort zone in order to confront Light, Light is able to catch L when he is vulnerable, and finally defeat him. This scene, mainly final volley in it, does an excellent job of portraying this plot movement for later, and is something most people miss the first time through when watching the show.
Alright, here we are, back in NON-SPOILERVILLE, Land of the few, home to of the tenacious.
All in all, I give massive amounts of credit to the Death Note team for taking something as simple as a friendly game of tennis, and turning it into an excruciatingly intense battle between two great minds.
It is moments like this that really make Death Note so unique from other psychological thrillers. Death Notes ability to make even the most minute events of pieces of dialog some of the most intense bits of the series is nothing short of masterful.
Even if the quality of the narrative dips a bit in the final arc of the show, it is still nothing less than masterful. As a matter of fact, I would argue that the first 2/3rds of the show are as perfect as one could get, as far as what the show was going for and what it accomplished.
While that final third of the show really does bring down the narrative quality quite a bit, it does not dismiss the show entirely as a masterful work of fiction that I would certainly recommend to anyone who is interested in this show and has not seen it yet.
Death Note is one of my favorite stories, because of the unique characters, interesting concepts, strong themes, and strong perception of how to accomplish its narrative goals with what it has. And it is scenes like the tennis scene that really allow this show to shine and attain the level of excellent storytelling that this show does so well.