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Submitted on
October 30, 2008


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Death Note: All Humans Go to Mu, Nothingness

Journal Entry: Thu Oct 30, 2008, 6:35 AM

After one of my recent stories, involving Mello and Matt's afterlife, Spoiled-kitten and I started a conversation around Death Note's canon theology.  What does Ohba say happens after death?   There are several clues to it, particularly in conversations between Raito and Ryuk, so there is something to go on.

This bit of dialogue provides the most insight:

Ryuk:  Don't think that any human who's used the Death Note can go to Heaven or Hell.  You'll find out about that after you die.
Raito:  Can't go to Heaven or Hell.  That's told me everything, Ryuk.
Ryuk:  Huh? What?
Raito: It just means that there is no Heaven or Hell.  Right?
Ryuk:  ! ... You really are something.  I thought all humans seriously believed in Heaven and Hell, but... you are absolutely right.  There is no Heaven and Hell.  No matter what you do while you're alive, everybody goes to the same place once you die.  Death is equal.

Then you get the rules in the Death Note:

*  The human who uses this book can neither go to Heaven or Hell.
*  All humans will, without exception, eventually die.  After they die, the place they go is Mu (nothingness).

Spoiled-kitten wrote, I actually thought that that the meaning under the "nor Heaven or Hell" thing was just that it pushed Raito to do what he did: since there's nothing at all after this life, and nobody will punish you for being evil, he decided that those who deserve it must be punished during this life.

Your interpretation works really well.  I also think that it's how it would be read by any Christian or anyone within a Christian country, which is pretty much the entire Western world.  That could well be deliberate and is probably the right answer!

My interpretation though is going to come from my own Wiccan bias.  It might be crack, I don't know, but here it is.

My initial thought is that Death Note was originally written for a Japanese audience.  They'd need a Near level of precognition in order to realise how big it was going to be elsewhere.  I've spotted things in the past that send out blatant messages to Japanese readers, that are diluted or missed entirely by the rest of the world, so I want to know what 'Mu', 'nothingness', 'Heaven' and 'Hell' mean to a Japanese mind.  Unfortunately, I'm not Japanese, never been there, barely touched the culture until Death Note, so I'm a bit buggered.

Google ftw!

Before I go there though, I'd like to state that it's my belief that Ohba is a Zen Buddhist.   My thinking here is thus:

*  Buddhism is one of the two major religions in Japan
*  Mu (and Nothingness) is a Zen Buddhist term
*  L meditates in a Buddhist pose early on in the Manga (implication is that L = Buddhist; interviews in DN13, plus the author profile, aligns Ohba with L (see how he sits on a chair), so wild leap of faith deduction Ohba = Buddhist.)

I've just been reading things about Zen Buddhism and, in that context, the dialogue between Raito and Ryuk can also sound like evangelism!  LOL  

I also looked up 'shinigami' to see where that fitted in with the Japanese religious world.  It doesn't.  It's a Western import, from Germany via Italy, that exists only in Japanese fiction. It's a translation of 'Grim Reaper' and doesn't have a correlation in any Japanese deity from any religion common there.

I did find something interesting though. There is a minor religion in Japan called Ryukyuan.  I couldn't find any death gods there; but that religion does allow for deities, spirits and other supernatural beings.  Could the name Ryuk have stemmed from this?

Back to the plot.  What is Mu?  I did find some links between Mu and the Chinese Meifu (land of the dead), however, the more I dug into that, the more apparent it became that Meifu was also a Western import.  It appears to turn up, alongside shinigamis, in a host of other manga.  Meifu is the home of the shinigamis in several stories.  I find it hard not to believe that Ohba was aware of this, considering that this is his field.  A big example is "Yami no Matsuei", where the shinigamis live in Meifu and resemble the spirits of Ryukyuan religion.  There are 12 of them, plus a king.  I also spotted a major character called Shidou, though he's human. :p  The shinigami in this story act more as guardians than destroyers.

I then looked for links about the concept of the Death Note itself in Japanese religion.  All I found was this:… to do with religion at all, just a strong argument that Ohba nicked the idea from another author.  

So what have we got?  I'd argue that the Japanese mind, reading Death Note, would have been familiar with shinigamis alreadys, from the millions of other manga referencing them.  However, it would be understood that they are nothing to do with 'real life' and therefore the Japanese reader would be looking to see what the aspect is in this story.  Are these shinigamis protectors, mischevious, guardians of something specific, what?  The traditional or default view is that the shinigami will come to take the souls of humans to Meifu.  

Ohba sets out the supernatural world of Death Note in the first chapter.  The short version is that it dips into the fictional afterlife culture prevalent in manga, then spins it off into Zen Buddhism.  That's my take anyway.

The first words on the page are 'The Realm of the Shinigami', which would be assumed to be Meifu.  One of the first things that Raito asks Ryuk is if he's come to take his soul. Ohba then sets out his version of shinigamis and the afterlife.  Raito is led into asking, 'so there really is no penalty to pay for using the Death Note', which prompts Ryuk to answer, 'Ryuk:  Don't think that any human who's used the Death Note can go to Heaven or Hell.  You'll find out about that after you die.'  We don't get Raito's deductions, that immediately followed, until the end of the manga.

In chapter three, we are introduced to L.  He's already been built up as very, very clever, and our glimpses of him show a room stripped of all unnecessary clutter.  In case we missed the Zen Buddhist hint there, chapter four opens with him meditating in a Zen Buddhist pose.  So the great genius of Death Note is a Zen Buddhist.  Got it.  Meanwhile, the great baddie of the story, Raito, waffles on a lot about templates of good and evil, while quoting Paradise Lost and refering to God.  All of these things are Western imports.  Zen Buddhism doesn't need a template of good and evil, because everything just is.  Even Raito, it is revealed at the end, is far too clever to blindly believe in concepts of Heaven and Hell.  He deduces immediately, from Ryuk's words, that such things don't exist.  Yep, a Buddhist view of the universe.

Finally, we get Ohba's final spin on manga pop-religion, which is to transform the expected Meifu into the Buddhist Mu.  To emphasise the point, we also get (nothingness) tagged onto it; a definition which would be necessary, because it's implied that Mu is a place in the statement that 'all humans go to Mu'.  Mu isn't a place, it's a concept.

Mu (Japanese/Korean), and Wu (Chinese traditional: 無, simplified: 无 pinyin: wú Jyutping: mou2} is a word which has been roughly translated as "none", "without", or "not-being". While typically used as a prefix to imply the absence of something (e.g., 無線 musen for "wireless"), it is more famously used as a response to certain koans and other questions in Zen Buddhism, intending to indicate that the question itself was wrong.

Think of nothingness, and it becomes something. The word "nothingness" is a wrapped package containing our own interpretation of what nothingness should be. True nothingness
can never be fathomed. True nothingness exists in the instant before we think about it. Nothingness.…

From the Zen standpoint since nothing can be definitively settled on this argument it becomes a futile cause...  Zen doesn't talk about the idea of an afterlife for many reasons.  For one, it begs the question who was it that was born and it going to die or reincarnates?  How can we talk about an after life when we don't know who we are that is born?  Any idea we have about this is a premise based on knowing who or what we are and we don't know that. Who were you before your birth?  We can hold any viewpoint we want but that does not make it a reality.…

So, what is God?  Mu.   Is there an afterlife?  Mu.  What would have happened to Mello and Matt if they'd survived?  (hides my stories)  Mu.  It's unknowable and therefore futile trying to speculate.  We should live our lives for now, not some future that may or may not exist; may or may not be even able to be comprehended by us in our human world.  It's not so much the void of Christian genesis, but something that is meaningless.  In other words, stop asking the question!

The interviewer in DN13 asks Ohba if there was a theme he wished to express during the series.  He replied, Not really.  If I had to choose something, I'd say, "Humans will all eventually die and never come back to life, so let's give it our all while we're alive."  

Not really?  Eh? :iconobjectionplz:  I think not!

At the beginning of the same interview, Ohba is asked if the story progressed as initially planned.  He said that he wanted it to end in the Yellow Box, but that was it for actual plotlines.  Then goes on to say, One thing that I didn't allow to be changed was the notion that "when you die, you become nothingness."  Luckily, I was able to keep this part...  In other words, the one thing that he was adamant about was Mu.  

For a third time the issue comes up, in the middle of the same interview.   The interviewer asks about what's behind the concept of Mu, in Death Note.  Ohba states, For me, one of the premises of the series was that once a person died, they could never come back to life.  I really wanted to set a rule that bringing characters back to life is cheating.  That's why death equals "nothingness".

In short, we'd never see L returning, like Banquo's ghost, to accuse Raito of being Kira.

Then a final, FOURTH mention came with the question about why "nothingness" was written on the corners of the black spread, when the chapter appeared in Weekly Jump.  It turned out that editors are normally responsible for that sort of thing, but on this occasion, Ohba himself ensured that it was written there.

The interview then goes on to state that Ohba did not want to be in a position of debating good and evil within Death Note. It was meant to be pure entertainment, for a younger audience.  Once you start including a template for good and evil, ie a Western concept of the afterlife, represented here by Heaven and Hell, then you have to explore such issues.  

So there's the crux of it:  

* The shinigami had to exist, because otherwise Raito would have no-one to discuss this with and the story couldn't progress.   

* Ordinarily, the whole point of a shinigami is to convey souls to an otherworld.  Ohba didn't want there to be a stated otherworld, as that implied templates of good and evil, and that was too deep for the story (and target audience) here.

* An alternative view to the otherworld is also the most common view in real Japanese religious thought:  it's unknowable, therefore stop harping on about it.

* The introduction of Mu allowed for three things:  an explanation as to why, in the decidedly supernatural world of Death Note (see shinigamis, the note itself, tarot cards etc), we never see a ghost.  (Except in the anime.  Obha doesn't mention how that one got through.  Secondly, while side-stepping theological debates, it also allowed for a global appreciation of Death Note.  (Anything that is unknowable immediately implies that it will be speculated about and therefore become something.  The Buddhists can scream at us all they like that we've missed the point, but for me Mu = Annwn.)  Thirdly, it removes the risk of creating a theology that seeks to evangelise small children.  Despite the fact that Christian parents might raise their eyebrows at the 'there's no Heaven and Hell', their kids can point to Mello's rosary at the end and say, 'but he did pray!'  Then it's all ok again.

I've seriously waffled here.   Sorry.  But one final point is that Ryuk does differentiate between humans who have touched the Death Note and those who haven't.  While the rules state that all humans go to Mu, he does prefix his statement on the subject by singling out those who were Kira.  What happens to them?  Pure speculation, but I reckon that they become shinigamis.  They've got the work experience, after all. *smirk*

These clubs have permission to use my st00f:

:iconmattgasm: :iconmatts-army: :iconmello-x-matt: :iconmello-always-lives: :icondn-matt-loversclub: :icondeathnoteyaoiclub: :iconinmemoriummxm: :iconseme-mello:
  • Mood: Exhilarated
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  • Watching: Heroes Season 3
  • Playing: CubeGame - Platinum on all levels pl0x
  • Eating: .. *looks around* I'm smoking a fag
  • Drinking: Tea
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PhoenyxAngel Featured By Owner May 30, 2012
Very, very interesting. But I'm not really sure I understand your idea of MU from a Wiccan standpoint. Could you clarify what you mean by that? I saw you mention it a few times, but from what I read you seem to go with the more atheistic view that MU means cease to exist. I studied Wicca for about 10 years, on and off, so I'm interested in what your view of MU to mean.

I, personally, like the view MU as the afterlife of nothingness. Everyone goes there, so everyone is still equal in death. I just don't like the idea of my favorite characters ceasing to exist. lol. XD
badbadtzmaru Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2008  Student
Ohba,from an interview:"I did not put much deep thought into subjects like "life and death" or "justice and evil"."
....No,this just make me SAD.
MrsJeevas Featured By Owner Nov 4, 2008
Mmmm... It's hard to know what (s)he did or didn't do. If (s)he spent as much time developing plotlines as smudging over the weak points, we'd have an even more amazing manga to pour over. :p
badbadtzmaru Featured By Owner Nov 23, 2008  Student
OH YOU'RE SO RIGHT!!! :faint:
badbadtzmaru Featured By Owner Nov 3, 2008  Student
I would have liked to see in the very last last panel Ryuk taking Kira to hell saying"surprize!!!"...yep,i would have find it very funny...and we would have seen one of those wonderful Kirafaces...:iconhappylightplz:
Yep,perhaps Ryuk could have really cheated Raito for once,he never really said that H and H does not exist,:XD:...even if we know that the author made it like this for young audience(OMG)and in fact,at the last pages of DN what I feel is exactly:NOTHING -_-
Argh.It made me angry that we make all those wonderful speculations then we hear that there are some marketing tricks on the back,nothing more... -_-
like the: "ohemgee I made Mello TOO MUCH wonderful,let's kill him YAYYYY".............
MrsJeevas Featured By Owner Nov 4, 2008
I hear you and agree with every word. :D
badbadtzmaru Featured By Owner Nov 23, 2008  Student
aww :hug: finally I can reply to you TvT
MrsJeevas Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2008
Indeed, though if you come to MangaBullet, we'll probably have a more permanent communication. :D
badbadtzmaru Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2008  Student
Orz...Yes I see,a great part of the MxM fandom is already here...:P
MrsJeevas Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2008
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