lynkemma (lynkemma) wrote,

Death Note – A Queer Reading

Months ago, I wrote a short essay on what I saw as some central themes of Death Note. At the time, I promised to maybe eventually get round to a queer reading of the series. Here it is. As with the previous essay, this one is full to the brim with spoilers. It's also badly organised and very Light-centric. I hesitated to write this, because it felt altogether too much like shooting fish in a barrel, so apologies if the following is a bad case of stating the very, very obvious.


Important Disclaimer: First of all, I feel it is imperative to emphasise that the following is my own interpretation/reading of the series. I look for and try to demonstrate certain patterns in the story; I do claim that they are there, but I do not make any claims for their being there as a result of authorial intent. In other words, I make no claims regarding Ohba's intentions, I do not speculate as to whether she put the patterns there deliberately or not.

It ought not to be necessary to include this disclaimer, but I've experienced, a few times, that people who are unfamiliar with literary analysis tend to think of the author as the ultimate authority. She's not – the ultimate authority is the text itself. Any interpretation is valid, as long as it refers back to patterns in the text. I'm glad to say that Ohba herself seems to want to leave the matter of interpretation to her readers: in «How to Read» she repeatedly refuses to make definitive statements about key issues, citing that she wants people to make up their own minds about them.

Secondly, by «A Queer Reading», I really do not mean that I intend to make a case for Light being gay, or definitively stating the sexuality of any of the characters. Rather, I'm reading the story from a queer perspective. I'm seeing what sense the story makes, if a gay perspective is assumed. So rather than «a case for Light being gay», this is more along the lines of «what does this story look like if Light is gay». Having said that, I do try to include the available information in the text that supports the notion that Light may, in fact, be gay.

Is Light gay, then?

Light does not like girls. He is utterly devoid of sexual interest in the opposite sex. This is made clear repeatedly in the story, painfully, painstakingly so:

- Light reads porn for the sole purpose of demonstrating that that's why he monitors who gets into his room. He gazes at the half-naked female form without seeing it, his mind full of L and what L is doing.
- In the anime, he states that there would be «no point» in going on a date if Ray Penber didn't still follow him; he has no interest whatsoever in the girl he is going out with, and looks uncomfortable when she hooks her arm through his. In the manga, as soon as the objective of the date is achieved – getting Penber's name – he tries (unsuccessfully) to dump his date.
- He is repeatedly shown to use girls for the purpose of camouflage. He despises both Takada and Misa, and uses and manipulates them without any emotional attachment whatsoever, killing Takada as soon as she has outlived her usefulness.
- He begins to plan how he is going to kill Misa the very first time he meets her. The only reason he does not kill her is because she is protected by Rem; after Rem's death, Misa is kept alive because she is useful to him.
- In the first episode of the anime, two girls sitting on a bench in the school grounds giggle and look excited at Light passes; he is evidently popular. However, he neither notices, nor cares about, their attraction to him. He is intellectually aware of his popularity, as indicated by his discussions with Ryuk on the subject, but has evidently no interest in exploiting it for sex.
- In the manga, it is stated that Takada asked Light out, not the other way round. The same is implied by the girl he dates on the Penbar/Spaceland date; she comments «I thought you weren't dating until after the entrance exams,» which makes it sound like she's asked him out earlier and been turned down.
- When L asks Light if he returns Misa's feelings, Light is drawn with a sweatdrop of embarrassment on his face – one of the very, very few instances of visible discomfort for him in the entire series.
- When talking to Misa for the first time, Light states: «If you write 'Light Yagami falls in love with Misa Amane', the part about me falling in love will not happen but I'll die from whatever method is outlined after that.» Assuming he is telling the truth here, as far as Light is concerned, the idea that he might fall in love with a young and sexually attractive girl is something that is «impossible to think of». And this in spite of the fact that he knows that people can be made to commit suicide, hijack buses, cut themselves and draw pictures in their own blood...

It must be considered an established, canonical fact that Light has no sexual interest in the opposite sex. Whether or not that means he has an interest in the same sex is of course another matter entirely. I'll look at the dynamic between L and Light in some detail later; in terms of non-L related potential for same-sex attraction, the series is very sparing. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is the rather endearing – and rather strange – moment early in the series when Light tells one of his male school friends it's not too late to send him a New Year's card. His friend replies «Sorry, Light, I only send cards to girls.» It is difficult to know what to make of this little exchange – it seems almost non sequitur – but it could, at a pinch, be read as a failed attempt of Light's at flirting.

Crime as queer

I remarked above that Light uses girls as camouflage. He does, and this concealment has a rational function; to conceal his criminal intent. He is capable of getting Ray Penber's name through ostensibly going on a date; he is able (for a time) to conceal that Misa is the second Kira by also dating Takada, he is able to conceal his connection to Mikami through going out with Takada.

In other words, these dates function as a perfectly reasonable way of concealing Light's criminal tendencies. But given that Light's disinterest in girls is emphasised time and again, it's also very easy to read these encounters as concealment of another kind. Consider the following exchange:

Sachiko: You sure are late, Light.
Light: Yeah... I have a girlfriend now... I'll introduce you next time.
Sayu: Whoa! What? Light has a girlfriend? Wow!
Light: Come on, now. I'm an 18 year old college student, of course. [...] I got room service at the hotel.
Sayu: Whoa! Hotel? What's this? Scandalous!

Now, there are several things to note about this. First and foremost: Light is lying, he doesn't have a girlfriend. This is even before Misa enters the picture, the girlfriend is entirely fictitious. The lie serves the purpose of keeping his involvement with the Kira investigation secret. But note his comment I'm an 18 year old college student, of course. This is one of the few examples of Light articulating what is essentially his role, the act he puts on. He is an 18 year old college student, so it is «natural» that he should have a girlfriend. It fits his image, it fits the normality he is trying to project.

But Light isn't normal. He is a killer, he has supernatural powers, he is ruthless and lacking in empathy to the point of possible psychopathy, he is a skilled liar. And he's not interested in girls. It's really awfully tempting to read his dates as a concealment not only of his crimes, but of his lack of interest in the opposite sex. The «hotel» remark is a nice example of this textual ambiguity: his sister interprets it as an indication that something «scandalous» - i.e. sexual - has happened, wheras in actual fact Light spent his time in the hotel with L.

There are other examples of the theme of concealment, of dissimulation. One that occurs several times early in the manga is the following: Light goes up the stairs to his room, locks the door behind him (usually with a close-up of his hand as he turns the lock) and leans against the door, heaving a sigh of relief. In other words, it is only when he is alone that he can truly relax, it is only with the door locked behind him that he no longer needs to keep up a front.

One one occasion, his sister tries the door, expresses annoyance that it is locked, and when she is let into his room, she picks up a magazine lying on the floor:

Sayu: Hey, you were reading this magazine? Isn't it kinda dirty? Oh, I know. Is this why you locked your door?
Light. Hey, you. I was looking at the articles about Kira and L.

Another exchange:

Light: Oh, and mom... I'll clean up my room myself, so don't come inside.
Sachiko: You know I never clean your room. You've been doing it yourself since starting high school.
Sayu: You know... Light's starting to act like a real teenager.

In other words, Light has recently started to close himself off, to lock himself in, or to keep others out. In purely practical terms, the reason for this is of course that he wishes to prevent his family from finding the Death Note, or from interrupting him when he is killing. His elaborate concealment of the note itself is also, naturally, possible to explain in perfectly reasonable terms; he wants to make as certain as possible that it won't be found. However, it's more than possible to read these actions in a different light. The most obvious one would perhaps be that he is setting himself apart from the rest of humanity, that he has started on the path of isolation that eventually leads him to perceive himself as a god.

But in the perspective of a queer reading, there are several elements that support an interpretation of Light as «closeted». He is only himself when he is behind a locked door, and he has a major secret that he's desperate to conceal at all costs. His sister's remarks regarding the magazine and the fact that Light is starting to act like a real teenager seem almost calculated to make us see his behaviour as explicable in sexual terms.

"What's up with those two...?" Light and L

The relationship between Light and L is impossible to ever describe exhaustively. In my opinion, their relationship is what drives the plot of Death Note, and after L's death, all narrative tension falls out of the story. As far as I'm concerned, after L's death, the only thing left to be interested in is Light's mental deterioration and eventual death, and that, unfortunately, is not enough to carry the story. There is a notable drop in the literary quality of the story after L's death, and I do believe this is because the tension between the two characters has been so overwhelmingly important throughout the first half of the narrative; nothing ever steps up to replace it.

L is introduced into the narrative at the end of the first chapter; the second chapter is spent entirely on establishing the budding tension between L and Light. As early as the second chapter, we get an example of their mutual obsession («I'm going to find you and dispose of you, if it's the last thing I do!!») and this is also the first example of many where we see them having identical thoughts, following each other's thought patterns exactly. This obsession leads them both to lose sight of their goals; they become more interested in winning the battle against the other than in achieving their moral ends.

The one defining characteristic of their relationship is desire. They both share the desire to identify and find the other, the desire to outwit him, the desire to win against him, and the desire to kill him. Both L and Light are removed from others, both of them are detached from the society they live in. Only in each other do they find a genuine connection. This is especially obvious in the case of Light. He is normally calm and unemotional, yet L inspires uncontrollable emotion: fury, hatred, reluctant admiration.

Their relationship is passionate and intense, and they both spend a great deal of energy trying to probe the other, to truly know the other. In the manga, Light is almost as uncertain that L is in fact L (rather than a proxy) as L is uncertain that Light is Kira. This mutual obsession with indentifying the other's true nature is emphasised again and again. The most obvious example is L's tendency to stare at Light – directly as well as through cameras, and by proxy, such as having him followed. This gaze isn't entirely one-way, though – the first time Light sets eyes on L is drawn out over three pages: Light turns, we see «close-ups» of L's hand and feet, and of Light's eye, staring. Then follows a two-page spread of the two of them staring at each other, L ignoring the officious official who told him to sit properly. The chapter ends with a close-up of L's and Light's eyes; still staring.

Light is just as obsessed with L as L is with Light. There are three instances of Light's obsession with his adversary that I find deeply and intensely ironic when the text is read from a queer perspective. I've already mentioned all three: Light's porn-reading, his statement to his mother that he has a girlfriend, and his sister's comment regarding the «dirty» magazine he's reading. In each case, we get a surface explanation – Light is sexually interested in girls – and in each case, the surface explanation is shown to be a lie which serves to cover up his interest in L. In other words, the narrative offers up a heterosexual explanation for Light's behaviour, and this explanation is immediately rejected in favour of emphasising Light's interest in one particular man. (This, I must admit, is one example of a narrative pattern that I have severe trouble believing is coincidental. The pattern «Light makes certain to appear to be sexually interested in girls at a time when he is in actual fact obsessing over L» is too pronounced and consistent to be anything but deliberate.)

Connection: "I wanted you to be Kira"

One of the most crucial scenes in the context of obsession is L's confession he wanted Light to be Kira.

L: It's not just that my reasoning was wrong... It's the fact that the case can't be solved as «Light Yagami is Kira and Misa Amane is the second Kira».
Light: [...] The way you talk, it's like you won't be satisfied unless I'm Kira.
L: Not satisfied unless you're Kira? Yes, that may be true... I have just realised something... I wanted you to be Kira.

As far as I'm concerned, this exchange can only be read to mean one thing: L's disappointment is not just due to the fact that he has been unable to solve the case. It is also due in a large part to the fact that he may have to accept that Light isn't Kira. And why is this a disappointment? I think it goes something like this: in battling against his unknown enemy, L has come to enjoy the fact that the two of them are well matched, are worthy opponents. He has come to respect Kira's intellect, has let himself be drawn in emotionally and feels a genuine connection to him. I am very much not suggesting he is in love with Kira, but I am saying that he is emotionally and intellectually engaged with him. And he wants that connection to be with Light, not with anyone else.

The way the narrative is construed does seem to encourage the readers to see this intense emotional connection between them. Even before they meet, there are split-screens/panels where they are talking to each other (such as the Lind L. Tailor scene), or thinking the same things (the «just one more» scene). This carries on after they meet, we see them repeatedly thinking along the same lines – sometimes thinking the actual same lines, in fact – and repeatedly demonstrating an exceptional understanding of each other's motivations and thought processes. Light repeatedly sees through L's lies and states what he is really thinking, shocking the oblivious task force in the process. And L, although he can't prove it, has seen through Light's lies and knows who and what he is («He says 'I might be Kira'...? It's an act. It's not that you might be Kira, you are Kira... What are you trying to do...?») This ability to see through the other is emphasised in the anime; there is a lovely moment in the rooftop scene where L asks Light «In your entire life, have you ever spoken the truth?» and Light's shock at being seen through (at being, in fact, understood) is emphasised by several seconds of pure silence before the sound of rain comes back.

Light's obsession with/attraction to/respect for L even leads him to one of his few instances of playfulness. He teases L before they meet by dint of manipulating several criminals to write L a message. This serves no practical purpose, it's evident that he does it merely to tease and annoy. He is also swift to point out the intended mockery of the message as soon as he can; while in the café, he points out that the notes «contain a hidden taunt to L».

This is another instance of L's special position in Light's life. Normally, Light is very pragmatic, and does not waste any time – he kills and moves on. Neither Ray Penber nor Misora Naomi inspired any such displays of playfulness; it is evident that Light gets caught up in the game that he is playing with L. Just in case we missed the point, the extended metaphor that is the tennis match makes it clear for us: they are evenly matched opponents, they are totally focused on each other, they obsessively try to determine what the other is planning, they both go full out to win. Light's respect for L lasts even after L is dead; he thinks of him repeatedly, and is resentful of Near for comparing himself to L, insisting that Near is nowhere close to L's level.

That chain

This intense desire to win – the desire to kill the other – is not indicative of affection. But it is indicative of respect and emotional connection. The infamous chain is a very good illustration of what is going on: Light and L are equal. They are locked in a battle they have no way of escaping, and have no desire to escape. And they are connected; connected to the extent that only a death can sever the connection. It isn't a happy or even voluntary connection, and it is based on mutual dislike as least as much as mutual liking and respect, but it is quite the strongest attachment to another human being either of them will ever experience. The symbolic importance of the chain is emphasised by the number of times it crops up in the full-page art/chapter covers.

The chain is also important for another reason: It makes the gay subtext explicit and canonical. Misa reacts with disgust when the two of them are first chained together - «Two guys chained together is gross... This is what you're into? You were with Light at school, too...». This comment, in other words, alerts the readers to a possible interpretation of the relationship between Light and L. I find it quite extraordinary, to be honest: we are directed by the narrative itself to perceive the presence of the chain as possibly indicative of homosexual and/or kinky desires on the part of L.

It doesn't end there. Once this possible interpretation is established, we as readers are left to fill in a very big hole: Their chained-together existence is one of the biggest textual silences in the story. We are not told anything at all of their daily life, we see nothing of how they function together. We don't know how they shower, how they go to the toilet, how they change clothes and sleep. However, as they are chained together, they must necessarily share these moments, thus sharing a degree of intimacy normally reserved for spouses/significant others.

Matsuda makes an oddly tantalising comment as he turns on the cameras in Misa's room, prior to the fight scene: «This building has cameras set up everywhere. Though in terms of inside the private rooms, you can normally only monitor Misa-Misas room.» In other words; the existence that Light and L share is entirely private, is kept from the task force just as it's kept from us, the readers.

And the pattern of «Light isn't interested in heterosexual sex, he is interested in L» is maintained. Indeed, after Light and L are chained together, Light's lack of interest in heterosexual sex is made explicit. Consider the following exchange:

Misa: When Light and I are alone, I'll close the curtains and turn off the lights.
L: There are infrared cameras too.
Misa: Then we'll get under the covers, right, Light?
Light: Whatever. We have this great facility now, yet you don't seem very into it, Ryuzaki.
Misa: Whatever...? Meanie!

This is perhaps the most blatant example of this pattern – Light barely acknowledges Misa's existence, doesn't respond to her attempts at flirtation, doesn't even look at her: the panel shows him looking directly at L. The Misa/L/Light triangle is vaguely amusing in its failure to include mutual heterosexual attraction, in undermining the traditional dynamic of a triangle which features two men and a woman. There is a second, and similar instance, though this is rather more lighthearted:

Misa: Light, want to come to bed with me?
Light: What are you talking about, Misa...?
Misa: I know, we're saving that until after you catch Kira. Don't be so shy, Light.
L: Don't be so shy, Light-kun.
Light: I'm not.
L: Why are you answering so seriously, Light-kun?

Half-arsed attempt at a summary

Much has been made of Light's detachment from the society he lives in. That is perhaps the most immediate reading of the story; it's a depiction of alienation, of the lack of compassion that distance can create, a depiction of disconnect.

But this, I would argue, does not undermine the possibility of a queer reading. Quite the contrary. If Light is seen as gay – either in fact or symbolically – his story makes sense. He has no choice but to be an outcast. He is set apart from normality, the aspirations of a heterosexual relationship and eventual fatherhood are not possible for him. Instead, he aims to become a father figure for humanity as such; rewarding the obedient and punishing those who oppose him.

Even in the most liberal of societies, being anything other than heterosexual means that you are still at a disadvantage. Most civilised societies have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, but that does not, unfortunately, mean that non-heterosexuals are not likely to face discimination, condemnation, even violence. You are set apart from the norm whether you like it or not, you will always be an outcast to some extent. I would argue that this disconnect is not fundamentally different from the disconnect that Light experiences, both as an idealistic young man, and as someone with supernatural abilities. As Kira, he is removed from normality, he keeps secrets, he is paranoid that someone will realise who he truly is. When his true identity is demonstrated, he is utterly traumatised, and tries and fails to defend himself, to gain acceptance by society at large. He can only connect with someone who, like him, tries to keep his true identity a secret, who tries to avoid being caught out. Death Note works far too well as a parable for the homosexual experience, down to and including the fact that Light is killed by his secret.

This ungodly mess essay has been focused almost exclusively on Light and L. That does not mean the possibilities for a queer reading of Death Note have been exhausted, by any means. Further possibilities are found in the relationship between Misa and Rem (a canonical example of same-sex love) and Mikami's relationship with his God.
Tags: culture, fiction, musings
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