Caveat: Perhaps Dubya is the real Kira?

I have become substantially absorbed in the ongoing episodes of the manga series called Deathnote.  I bought volumes 9, 10, and 11 on Sunday and have ploughed through two of them in the last two days. 

These texts definitely have a lot going on in them, and I've decided it's quite a bit more than just a serialized graphic novel in the suspense/thriller genre.  The main characters are quite complex, and moral ambiguity is pandemic – no one is faultless, and you can't even decide who the good guys are – as opposed to the bad guys – although the authors do tend show some of them in a more sympathetic light than others.

The central protagonist is Light (Raito) Yagami, an academically gifted Japanese teenager who's father is a career policeman.  He gains the power to kill people by merely knowing their names and faces, and sets out to "make the world a better place."  I won't go into the details of the plot and character development here – If you're interested, you can start at wikipedia or any number of other places on the internet to find out more.

From what I've read in my own explorations online, the authors did not specifically intend for the series to be philosophically deep, nor did they set out to create a semiotic masterpiece.  The main writer (Ohba) explicitly states that he tried to avoid being "ideological" – whatever that means.

Nevertheless, the text is brimming with all kinds of tasty ideological morsels (and morasses) – to such an extent that I think it would be extremely fruitful and interesting to undertake an in-depth semiotic study of the text, perhaps something in line with Frederic Jameson's method, as he outlines in his seminal work, The Political Unconscious.

I can't help but be constantly aware of the geopolitical backdrop for the writing of the series – these times we inhabit, the first years of the 21st century.  It's set in a Japan still basically attached to the U.S. strategically, but increasingly unrooted culturally and economically.  The early books constantly had me flashing to the awkwardness of Japan's postwar identity, and also to the looming moral cypher that is represented by the United States' nuclear umbrella.

But in the most recent episodes I've been reading, I keep thinking about righteous hegemonies… about U.S. unilateralism, vis-a-vis the character of Kira (the machiavellian boy Light, who's become a demonic-powered avenger, Kira, but is also masquerading as one of his hunters, the character named "L").  In chapter 75 (book 9), Light says "If we catch Kira, then Kira is evil.  If Kira rules the world, then Kira is good."  To which Aizawa responds, "So the victor is righteous…"  Which is to say, righteousness has less to do with morality than with might and victory.  "Might is right."

And isn't that what's going on in Iraq, now?  Isn't that what happened in Japan 60 years ago, for that matter?  Yet there's a muddled moral imperative, however contrived, that drove both that old war and the one we are witnessing now.  Personally, I continue to be compelled to reject those revisionists who insist there's some qualitative moral difference between any given war and any other.  I have decided that Kira represents the exercise of inordinate power, whenever blinded by its own moralizing rationalizations.  Yet one finds oneself sympathizing, at least sometimes, with those rationalizations.  Because they're "rational," of course.  And because Light-Kira is the protagonist.

I like the way that the authors exploit the graphic format, also.  In book 11 there's this long, complex dialogic thing going on, involving a conversation between Light and Takada, who are speaking for the benefit of known eavesdroppers, but secretly supported and manipulated by notes being passed between them, and at the same time commented and subverted by the listeners, all in a chaotic progression of comic-book frames that becomes dizzingly non-linear.

Caveat: Champions

Two weeks ago we had a debate competition among the ER-ban students (advanced-level elementary).   This was a kind of consummation of all my efforts, and overall I was pretty happy with how it went.  Some of the students clearly enjoyed participating and put in a great deal of enthusiasm and effort, which was great to see.

The classes divided into teams of 3-5 students, and at the end of the competitions (one on Monday and one on Tuesday), each of the ER classes had a champion team.  Here are some quick portraits of my champion teams.


This is the ER2-Tuesday team.  The most talented students, from the highest-level class.  From left to right, that's Tina, Christina, Maria, Cathy, and Stephanie.  Tina is smart and a little goofy.  She has a great sense of humor and is not afraid to try it out in English.   Christina will someday be a famous cartoonist or manga author, and although she's not intellectually inclined, her English is actually quite good.  And she's a great artist.  Maria is brilliant and academically motivated. Not to mention brutally competitive.   Cathy is one of those always-positive personalities that can make anyone around her happy, and never gives up.  Little Stephanie, despite being several grades lower than the others, speaks phenomenal, idiomatic English and is quite thoughtful.

200806_IlsanKR_debatechamps3This is the ER1-Monday champion team.  Actually, the reason they won was because John2 was visiting the Monday class from his home class, which was ER2-Tuesday.  Otherwise the girls would have won this class championship.  But they're good guys, and I was happy to declare them the winners.  From left to right, that's Jake, John2, John1, and Joey.  The ER1-Monday class has an informal tradition of making sure everyone's English name starts with the letter J.  Jake is extremely smart and very focused as a student, but needs to work on getting along better with his peers – he can seem kind of standoffish.  But he reminds me of myself at a similar age.  John2, as I said, was just visiting from the Tuesday "ban," but he bonded quickly with the guys because they realized he was a huge asset to the team – he was only debater in the overall competition who actually spoke completely extemporaneously.  John1 is the class goof, quite intelligent but uninterested in anything involving actual work.  But he's also almost always an asset to a class, because he's constantly got something interesting or off-the-wall to say, to keep things entertaining.  He says he wants to be either comedian or a doctor, but that he suspects being doctor involves "too much study."  Joey is moody but quite brilliant.  He can often argue with his peers, but he also can surprise with his idiomatic, well-formed fragments of English.

This is the ER1-Tuesday champion team.  They weren't perfect, but they were impressive partly because they managed with only three members.  These girls are among my favorite students in the school  They are, from left to right, Taylor, Gloria, and Ellen.  And me, looking bemused and dorky, as usual.  Taylor is an extroverted yet amazingly intellectual kid, with stunning enthusiasm and a true gift for not only learning but also pulling her peers along selflessly.  Yet she can also demonstrate a very competitive spirit.  She's a natural leader – and if she keeps her confidence, might someday be a stunning success.  She wrote all of Gloria's speeches for the competition, and refused to take credit for them, but I saw her doing it.  Gloria is a super friendly girl who often gives the impression of understanding more than she does.  She just grins and nods and shrugs, and only later do I realize she was faking it.  But she has managed to make friends with the two smartest girls in the class, and she leverages that friendship to her own academic benefit, I don't think cynically, but just as if it's part of the natural order of things.  I actually think she would do just fine in an immersion environment, because although she lacks a lot of knowledge, she's extroverted and has good non-verbal communicative competence.  Lastly there's Ellen.  She initially can seem very shy, and she's much less extroverted than the others.  But she's got a quiet confidence about her, and in any one-on-one conversation, she's among the best in the entire school – and not just among the elementary students, but including the middle-schoolers too.  It's not so much her level of ability as the fact that she refuses to ever give up.  She just circumlocutes and puzzles along until she's made her point, whatever it is.  She will never take the linguistic cop-out and leave you with "I don't know" or "I can't explain."