It might sound obvious to conclude that Death Note's Light Yagami is a serial killer, but the definition of such might not so easily collude.
However there are also sub-categories of serial killer which may fit more precisely. Not to mention other classifications of murderer, which approach the sheer scale of slaughter committed by Light Yagami through his Death Note and might even address it.
Near denounced Kira as 'just a murderer'. Fine. But would the FBI concur? Or might a more distinct label apply in its casebook? Time to find out if, as most readily assume, the designation serial killer actually does check out when held up against Light.
What is a Serial Killer?
According to Segen's Medical Dictionary (2012), a serial killer is usually - but not exclusively - an individual who:
The FBI's Behavorial Science Unit (BSU) identifies a proto-typical serial killer (in the US) as:
That latter grouping is easily dispensed with. So let's quickly get it out of the way first.
Is Light Yagami a Serial Killer?
Comparing the Typical Attributes of a Serial Killer to Light Yagami
There's an issue with the data concerning serial killer attributes. Unlike much of the other information provided by the BSU, this chart doesn't cover international cases. Its criteria solely relates to US citizens. (Read the PDF.) Nevertheless, we'll give it a go.
Ethnologically Japanese, Light Yagami dodges a bullet in the FBI's definition of Caucasian - or 'white' as its literature elsewhere puts it - encompassing those races natively derived from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Kira doesn't count.
However, the notion that most serial killers are Caucasian is subject to fierce debate. Even the FBI's own statistics show Caucasians account for only just over half - 52.1% - of serial killers. The prevailing argument amongst academics is that such murderers, who otherwise fit the profile, may be found throughout all racial classifications. But non-Caucasian serial killers are unlikely to be the focus of blanket media coverage; much less central to several books, biographies, dramatized TV documentaries and finally a major motion picture release. In fact, most are lucky if they're even tagged 'serial killer' by the under-reporting press.
The rule of thumb seeming to be that, in the media, Caucasians may be serial killers, but non-Caucasians are always 'just a murderer'. It's less glamorous.
In short, Light Yagami may be a serial killer - albeit unlikely, as Asians made up just 0.7% of those profiled - but the US press is unlikely to bother with him. Ordinarily anyway. As Kira, he made quite a splash in the world's media. But by the time he got there, Light was deemed Saviour and Messiah, rather than any negative type of mass murderer.
Without knowing much about Japanese social hierarchies in comparison to what 'lower to middle class' might mean in American society, it's difficult to call the next criterion. Would anyone else like to jump in here? While the final one - was Kira Sociopathic? - is well beyond the scope of this analysis. Hopefully it will be addressed in another article at a later date.
As for the rest of the data, eighty-eight of the serial killers profiled by the FBI came from Japan. We can only assume that once of them was Light Yagami, while the other 87 were despatched by him via his Death Note by and by. Unless, of course, we conclude that Kira wasn't a serial killer. In which case, the latter figure leaps by one and all unanimously become victims of Kira's regime.
This section of classification seemed doomed to be unhelpful from the start. Nor did it disappoint in that. To my mind, the result remains inconclusive in assessment of Death Note's protagonist and his murderous tendencies, though more discussion may pay dividends as regards the last two points.
Nevertheless, we can trust the BSU's serial killer demographics to be internationally pertinent from now on, thus relevant in examining Light Yagami.
Criteria of a Serial Killer in Relation to Kira
By writing the names of his victims into a shinigami's Death Note, Kira certainly kills more than three people over the course of much longer than thirty days. He has access to at least one notebook of death from 2003-2010, a period of seven years.
Within hours of picking up that initial notebook, Light Yagami has written his first victim's name inside the covers.
By the time he's dealing with Ryuk's sudden visibility - five days later - Light has filled whole pages of his Death Note with neatly written rows. Four abreast, each name denotes another slaughter; creating columns stretching down over 40-50 lines.
At the most conservative estimate, a single page holds around 160 murder victims - revealing their identities, as well as representing the mode of their demise.
We will never know precisely how many individuals were killed by Kira, but we can be very sure that it was more than three.
Moreover the time-scale stretches out over that entire seven year period. One of Light's very last acts was the attempted murder of Near. Just two days previously, he'd also written Kiyomi Takada's name onto a scrap of paper ripped from his Death Note.
His killing never stopped.
Was there any other occasion when Light Yagami paused his usage of the Death Note? Without first setting up a series of secondary Kiras to do his killing by proxy? I'm struggling to identify one. Misa Amane; the Yotsuba Group; Teru Mikami; and Kiyomi Takada; all assisted in maintaining those relentless murders reaching across the globe, at Light's direct or indirect instigation, throughout the entirety of that seven year reign of terror.
It's difficult to see where any cooling off breaks occurred in their midst, let alone those regular enough for Kira to be considered a serial killer.
That would appear to be that. Kira cannot be a serial killer, if he doesn't fit all of the criteria. However, he isn't the first to fail at this part of the classification. It's occurred in reality too - notably with Andrew Cunanan - leading criminal justice historian Peter Vronsky to suggest a hybrid tag of 'spree serial killer' or 'serial rampage killer' could be usefully employed.
And look how he describes this sub-section of serial killing:
There are serial killers who live only one identity - that of killer. They seem to have no cooling-off period; they do not return to a normal routine, but remain focused on evading capture and perpetuating their compulsion to kill.
Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters (2004), p 223
I think Kira fits the bill right there, completely. Death Note's spree serial killer.
Finally, there's the fourth criterion - did Light Yagami kill for psychological gratification? By which is meant that the motive wasn't material nor honour based (such as robbery, profit, revenge etc), but something much more internally self-fulfilling.
Why Did Light Yagami Kill in Death Note?
The Power Controller
Doing it all to feel powerful; subjugating their victims in any way possible, just to have that rush of absolute domination. Light touched here when he had prisoners across the world do strange things before their deaths. But that wasn't really about power and control. It was merely testing his Death Note's capabilities.
Thrill-seeking; pleasure pandering; killing because they can, and people are expendable. Forensic psychologists further split this group into three sub-sections: comfort, thrill and lust. Comfort hedonists are the closest serial killers get to robbery-based murders. It's all about getting hold of the material possessions of their victims, or eliminating an obstacle to personal power. Thrill hedonist serial killers want the adrenaline rush of causing terror and pain, whilst exerting absolute control over their victims. Lust hedonists are your Jack the Ripper types, getting their kicks from mutilation, torture, dominance et al, but mostly what's implied on the label.
Light Yagami wasn't beyond this category. His elimination of Lind L. Taylor, twelve FBI agents and Naomi Misora established that within the opening chapters of Death Note. But it wasn't his main raison d'être.
This serial killer is on a mission from God, or the Devil, or any other supernatural and/or divine entity. They haven't merely an urge to kill, but a mandate to do it. A duty; responsibility; instructions from something beyond speaking solely to them.
Or else they are the Devil. Possessed and given the right to murder all in their vision, as per ancient entitlement.
Or else they are God of this new world.
Then nothing must be countenanced to stand in their way. They have deified judgement to be exerted as mercy, punishment or whim.
A rationale punctuated with psychotic episodes divorced from reality.
The Mission Orientated Saviours of Society
The world is rotten and the only way to save it from itself is to commit murder over and over again. Weeding out undesirables that society might heal itself and civilisation thrive.
Kill the baddies, so that decent people feel safe to walk the streets without finding themselves beset by murderers, assailants and thieves. Cleanse humanity by sending those deemed sub-human to their deaths.
Improve the world; make it a Utopia without evil.
Strangely these serial killers aren't generally psychotic (unless they have Visionary episodes). They genuinely believe their actions are just, and may even agree that the slaughter is unsavoury. It's a means to an end, that's all.
They have the strength to see their mission to conclusion; mentally prepared to kill everyone on the planet to save it from itself.
I think it goes without saying that we have a winner there. Two in fact, with an option on a third, though overlapping between categories of psychological gratification is usual in the motivation of serial killers.
BSU Serial Killer Background Check and Light Yagami's Life History
In all likelihood, the background information in a serial killer's profile will include elements from this list:
- Animal cruelty;
- Biochemical/genetic abnormalities;
- Bullied in childhood or adolescence by their peers;
- Childhood abuse victim;
- Compulsive behaviour;
- Drug abuse;
- Drug addicted or alcoholic parents;
- Engaged in petty crimes (like shoplifting or vandalism) for the thrill or because they could, rather than any material need nor as action under peer pressure;
- Isolated socially as children or adolescents;
- Low self-esteem;
- Pathological lying;
- Perinatal head injury;
- Powerlessness in the face of their own urges to kill/unable to prevent or stop actually killing;
- Propensity to retreat into habitual daydreams or a rich fantasy world, as an escape from reality;
- Ritualistic behaviour;
- Severe memory disorders;
- Sexual assault - perpetrator and/or victim in the past;
- Sexual deviancy;
- Suicidal thoughts/attempts at suicide;
- Unhappy childhood, or periods of profoundly interrupted happiness in childhood;
- Unstable family life during childhood - broken home; divorced parents; separation from family; or some other breach in the parent/child relationship - commonly seen. Some studies suggest it's all about an absent father and domineering mother.
So how does the profile of a standard serial killer compare to Kira? I have my thoughts, but I'll leave this one open to discussion. Comment if you recognize anything from Light Yagami's past in there; or if you see nothing to fit him there at all. Let's hash it out between us.
But for now, I think it's fairly determined that Kira IS a serial killer, only he's one of the emerging sub-section suggested by Peter Vronsky labelled 'serial rampage killer'. Do you concur?