If you haven't been reading the Death Note series, pick up and try volume one. This is not manga as most Americans know it. It is mature in its themes, unflinching in its depictions of the "hero's" actions, intellectually challenging and incredibly brain-bending. If you've already become ensnared in this high-stakes story, you'll be happy to know Ohba doesn't dissappoint in volume five.
It's hard to discuss the plot without giving too much away, and going spoiler-free is the way to be with this series, since its thrills and drama depend largely on twists that will make you gasp. Out loud. I'm not kidding. I read a lot of fiction and I seldom if ever say "holy crap!" out loud while reading a story. Volume five held a couple of those moments for me.
Without giving anything away beyond the very beginning, the volume picks up with our protagonist Light Yagami in chains, incarcerated on suspicion of being the mass murderer Kira. Also under lockdown is Light's supposed girlfriend/stalker, Misa Amane, suspected of being Kira #2. While super-detective L is almost certain he's caught the killers, he still doesn't know how they did it, and has no evidence to prove his case. The plot seems to have reached an impasse, but once again writer Tsugumi Ohba kicks things into another unexpected direction that will change everything you thought you knew.
Backed into a corner, Light is prepared to put his most dangerous plan into motion -- giving up his Death Note and all the memories associated with it. But what will happen when the innocent Light, seen so briefly in the first pages of volume 1, returns? What will his idealistic former self make of Kira's actions? And what has happened to Light and Misa's Death Notes?
If I haven't made it clear so far, the Death Note series is an entirely unique thrill amongst comics/manga and supernatural trillers in general. It's a story I have trouble imagining coming out in any other medium than as an episodic manga. It's a story I know couldn't originate in the U.S. -- no American publisher would touch it. And I doubt any western writer could have "gone there" the way that Ohba has. My culturally formed expectations of how characters behave have been knocked for a loop by this series, yet it is entirely consistent. Perhaps the series does serve a number of Japanese manga cliches (the supernatural spirit friend, for instance) but it obliterates many "rules" of western storytelling. The protagonist is a cold-hearted killer, the story hinges on strategic moves and ruthless murder, there are no fight scenes or chases or kidnapped innocents waiting to be rescued. We know who is "right" and who is "wrong," but the question it asks is, "Who are you going to root for?"
Obviously, I'm a fan of the writing here, but I must also give my exuberant praise to the artwork of Takeshi Obata. He has a style that wonderfully bridges comics and manga stylings with an eye for illustrative detail that astounds on every page. His living and organic characters pop out at you from his deceptively simple backgrounds -- backgrounds brimming with just enough detail to evoke photo-realism without cluttering the page. One's eyes can linger on each panel for a good long time soaking up the ambience, or skim rapidly through the story with no confusion as to the time, place, mood or level of tension. His grasp of facial expression is top notch, without going manga-cartoonish -- with a few notable exceptions, deliberate choices to show a dramatic change in the story's mood. Obata is a cartoonist and an illustrator who uses both sets of skills to truly take you inside the story.
As I can't read Japanese, I can't directly compare this translation to the original. But I can say the english dialog here is clear and natural-sounding and perfectly suits the story, and the retouched artwork is undetectable (to me anyhow). Tiny things like sound effects and vocal asides are handled with economy and style, and there are no mysterious kanji characters hanging in the air without explanation. Mad props to translator/adapter Alexis Kirsch and artist Gia Cam Luc for making my reading experience enjoyable and transparent.