A regular column looking at Death Note
through the symbolic medium of tarot cards,and their actual usage in canon
by Tarot Mikami
Exploring the Royal Road - or Fool's Journey - as told in the Death Note story. Though not, as you may expect, featuring Light Yagami.
He lost at the penultimate hurdle.
From the mouths
of babes and fools
comes great wisdom.
~ Old adage
(fool sage variants dating
from the 12th century)
"Matsuda! Don't be silly! We're not fooling around here!"
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Touta Matsuda is the most archetypal Fool in Death Note - not Ryuk, Light, nor any of the Wammy cohort, as would otherwise be the most obvious choices, though all are the Fools in their own story-lines and some take the role through other avenues. In the most common iteration of tarot storytelling, the Fool needs to begin the tale in ignorance; commit to the quest; learn incrementally; then finish with their overview of the world complete and often unparalleled, ergo in possession of said World.
Throughout Death Note's epic story, the World is up for grabs. The opening theme tune check-lists it. L is introduced against the background of a globe. Light famously declares himself 'God of this new world'. But ultimately Light loses his grip upon said world, and his life too. L and Mello equally slip from this world to the next. Near can be said to both understand and articulate the Finis Death Note world, but he wasn't there at the beginning, nor did he start in all innocence of the facts. Ryuk is fabulously Foolish; however, he fulfils the characterisation in the Jester/Joker sense - a Wise Fool indeed. Only one character can be seen to fully embrace the tenets of the Royal Road protagonist tarot Fool and that is Touta Matsuda.
Which makes Death Note fundamentally the story of Matsuda's Fool's Journey.
Moreover, he takes us - the reader/viewer - with him, delivering us back to the beginning with our world utterly changed, ready to strike out again into the unknown. Our outlook wiser; ourselves more accomplished; experience discerning so much now in what we survey; and our skill-sets honed to perfection within this narrow realm.
No more the Fool, but the Master of this now known domain. Which always makes us much more stupid. Poised to become the Fool again, or else stagnate without stimulus within an overly familiar terrain.
What is the Fool's Journey Through the Tarot?
Ninety percent of all Hollywood blockbusters and best-selling novels are telling - and retelling in the sequel, then again for the third in the trilogy - the story of a Fool, who embarks upon a great adventure, which changes them and their world(view) forever. A great many of them also do so by touching upon a series of meetings or circumstances, each relayed in a precise order, which matches that of the Major Arcana in tarot.
It's not that the movie or literary worlds are swamped with secret tarot readers inserting some vast and dodgy agenda. It's that the Fool's tale mirrors the span of human life itself, therefore has a commonality across all cultures, globally or historically.
Everyone can relate to a plot with such basic building blocks as 'the hero knew nothing, learned some stuff, grew up (physically/mentally/spiritually/whatever fits best), put such learning to the test and/or applied it practically, then the hero knew everything'. Or at least 'something', often with a reward - if only survival - when retold via celluloid or the printed page. We all like a happy ending, or failing that, some satisfaction at witnessing just desserts occur.
Those markers set out along the path of the Major Arcana tend to be used by writers and directors for no particularly mystical reason either. It's because they also represent the most intuitively efficient plot devices to get the Fool from the beginning to the end.
Touta Matsuda on the Royal Road - Death Note's Fool's Journey
See what I mean about intuitive, commonplace and common sense storytelling? That's effectively the end of the first arc in the Major Arcana.
Having learned all they can about what the journey is, why they should undertake it, committing to it, getting in supplies and information, then perusing the full game-plan, our hero has a choice to make. Do or do not, there is no try. Take the quest on, or go home now, there is no time for dithering (The Lovers).
Alternatively, it can mean what it says on the packet. The introduction of a love interest and/or partner is beloved of film-makers and book authors both. The inherent dualism usually strengthens or otherwise propels the plot forward, while the will of the individual to stay the course is generally now a foregone conclusion (The Lovers).
Any one of the below could feature as The Lovers moment in the Fool's Journey of Matsuda, and they all happen in quick succession.
Afterwards, there must be a period for reflection, evaluation of the tactics employed, tinkering with them etc, or recovery, depending on what the strategy actually cost in its application (The Hermit). Otherwise it's time to bring in another expert, usually - again for dramatic tension - the one who won't come out to play for anyone else, but who the Fool charmed with their earnestness and/or passion for the quest (also The Hermit).
End of part two in the Major Arcana's basic story-telling plot touchstones.
However, all being well, everyone should get their just desserts. The hard worker should bring home a decent pay. The victimised should see recompense in whatever way is most appropriate. The baddie should get their comeuppance. Real life doesn't work like that, but neither is it totally devoid of the same. Just as with fortune and luck, justice is more often served than the cynical could admit. (Justice.) (NB Some modern, and all earlier, tarot decks placed Justice after The Chariot. The Golden Dawn switched it around in the 1920s, and most decks since have copied them.)
With all of the elements known and/or in place, the Foolish hero enters a formative stage in their lives. A time of willing sacrifice for the greater good and/or in exchange for greater insight - Odin in Yggdrasil or Christ on the cross; Light submitting to tortuous detention under the auspices of L; the average student sitting down to write their dissertation. (The Hanged Man.) Which, all being well, results in a transformation in being; a sudden escalation of understanding; or something else which sees our Fool shed all past ignorance and grow in whichever way is relevant to their journey. (Death)
It's not so much the physical deaths per se of Rem, Watari and L, which makes this a transformative period for Matsuda. It's the changes wrought upon his life caused by their demise. Including the impact of their loss on the investigation, with dire implications for Matsuda's own continued well-being.
Our hero looks for diversion - any diversion - something to break up the day and/or a life. Temptation hums everywhere (The Devil). And not every diversion is entirely sensible. After all that hard work building up to whatever the quest required of its Foolish hero, frustration or the sheer monotony of being did its steady job of erosion. A mistake which can see the whole edifice falling down (The Tower). It's time for our hero to learn the lessons of destruction, and how to accept it as the necessary (and often welcome) flip side of creation. Or, as Kipling put it in the poem If, 'meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same'.
If our once Foolish hero is able to rise up again from the collapse of everything, then he/she/it can rebound from anything. Theirs is the confidence come from knowing nothing can hurt nor touch them again, at least nothing from which they can't recover (The Sun). Then comes the hardest moment of all - the ability to look at oneself, and others, as they truly are. Without excuses, prejudice, projection nor bias, and gain the final insights available through comparison, acceptance or rejection. In short, making a judgement call fuelled by all that's been met, learned, experienced and practised on the journey thus far (Judgement).
And if all went according to plan, with no lessons skipped nor learning shirked as irrelevant, the Fool has the wisdom necessary to complete their quest. They have mastery in this universe. They own The World.
Death Note's Fool's Journey Tarot Imagery Could Be Deliberate
In the manga, this chapter is entitled Curtain, as 'black curtain' (which additionally describes the aesthetics of these pages' black frame) suggests someone orchestrating events behind the scenes, in how the words sound in Japanese. This according to Tsugumi Ohba, who revealed his reasoning behind the choice of title in Death Note 13: How to Read. He just skipped the 'black' because there already was a chapter with that in the title, and he didn't want to imply a new character was about to emerge. His Fool (and therefore unwitting focus for his audience) was already there, hidden in plain view, amongst so many other contenders for the role.
One doesn't have to deliberately, or even knowingly, move events along in order to be the force behind their momentum. Fools, in many a popular epic, tend towards being a catalyst rather than an instigator. Right up until their moment of fruition, when they become the best placed individual to confront whatever rocks their world. Thus the journey is brought to a climatic end and the Fool is momentarily a Fool no more. They have gained The World and its secrets have all been revealed.
To which there is no point. Every story ever has been about the quest. The ending is just the precursor to the credits starting to roll.