Why Netflix’s Death Note anime was banned in China

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 28: A Death Note notebook from the Tsugumi Ohba Takeshi Obata manga seen during London Film and Comic Con 2019 at Olympia London on July 28, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 28: A Death Note notebook from the Tsugumi Ohba Takeshi Obata manga seen during London Film and Comic Con 2019 at Olympia London on July 28, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images) /

How do you measure the success of a story? Is it in the number of copies sold, views counted, or awards received? For writer Tsugumi Ohba’s Death Note, it may have been its multi-city ban in China that signified the story’s overpowering popularity and, as some would say, “poisonous” influence. Let’s dive into why Netflix’s Death Note anime, and original manga, was banned.

Ohba’s manga, published in 2003, narrates the journey of Light Yagami, a too-smart-for-his-own-good high school student who stumbles upon a black notebook titled “Death Note” and discovers that he can take the life of anyone by simply writing their name and cause of death in the book.

The Death Note is later explained to have belonged to a “shinigami,” or god-like monster, named Ryuk, who tags along with Light as the high school student gets a handle on becoming the book’s new master.

At first, Light uses the book to right the wrongs he sees in society, from killing off high-profile criminals to smiting those who wish to bring others harm. But Light, not surprisingly, starts to become drunk with power and decides to use Death Note to build an “ideal society.”

Of course, Ohba’s Manga, as well as Netflix’s Death Note anime adaptation from director Tetsurō Araki, makes Light a clear antagonist by the end of the series and don’t shy away from the twisted psychological morphing Light has experienced being the owner of the Death Note.

But still, fans will take away from any story whatever they choose. And, in Death Note’s case, more than a few middle school students in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning (People’s Republic of China), grabbed onto the wrong thing from Ohba’s story and caused a government-enforced ban on Death Note.

Death Note was first banned in China, and eventually caused panic globally

In a translated article written for XINHUANET.com in 2005, a Chinese journalist details sold copies of Death Note notebooks owned by students at a local middle school, who had been using the books to write the names of fellow students and teachers they disliked.

The article reads…

“The Death Note is beautifully packaged, and the word ‘Death Note’ is written in gilded English letters on the black cover. When you open the first page, a skull logo inside a circle makes you shudder. The thickness of the notebook is similar to that of an ordinary notebook, except that every few pages there is a page of black paper, on which are written some words in yellow letters in both Chinese and English: ‘As long as the Death Note is in your hand, the Grim Reaper will be by your side until you die.’”

Why Netflix's Death Note anime was banned in China
Photo by Ollie Millington/WireImage) /

The notebooks were also incredibly specific about how students could write people’s names in the books and what ways were most optimal for achieving the desired type of death. Students had even been altering normal notebooks to resemble Death Notes.

The reporter also noticed some middle school students reading Death Notes nearby with enthusiasm, saying things like “Hey, this way of dying is very interesting.”

The following month, a middle school student told the Shenyang Night Report, “Many of my friends have [a] Death Note. When they are tired of studying, they have fun by writing down the names of teachers they don’t like.”

School officials in Shenyang officially banned Death Note that year, designed to protect the “physical and mental health” of their students.

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The ban–which included the manga and any adaptation–was extended to other Chinese cities in 2007, the same year Death Note’s anime adaptation was released. The cities included Beijing, Shanghai and Lanzhou in Gansu Province.

Students in Lanzhou fought back against bans and confiscations, leaving threatening phone calls to city officials, such as, “I am the Death God, and I will curse you and watch you die, let’s see if you still have the courage to confiscate Death Note.”

Chinese students’ obsessive fandom for Death Note, along with the Chinese official’s response led to a global-reaching panic.

In 2010, the Death Note ban made its way over to the U.S., and Albuquerque public schools in New Mexico held a hearing to ban the Death Note manga from their district’s schools, though their attempts failed as the notion was ultimately voted down.

Then, in 2013, after volumes of Death Note were found at the suicide of a 15-year-old girl in Yekaterinburg, Russia, a local parents’ group campaigned to regulate all media based on the series, despite the fact that it was later ruled Death Note did not play a role in the young girl’s suicide.

On June 12, 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Culture listed Death Note among 38 anime and manga titles banned in China, along with Attack on Titan.

So much widespread panic over one story and the superstitions of a black notebook might suggest Ohba’s Death Note was ultimately a disaster of entertainment. But, on the flip side, few manga or anime have had such a shocking influence on a generation of kids on a global scale that parallels the very weakness of humanity that serves as the backbone of Death Note’s story.

While some label China’s ban on Death Note as “superstitious” or an “overreaction,” it could also be said that Death Note brought out the Light Yagami in all of us, and held up a mirror that revealed an unflattering reflection and that we’re all capable of turning into narcissistic antagonists when someone offers us a free ticket to power.

In that way, Death Note is possibly one of Ohba’s greatest success stories.

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What do you think? Was the Death Note ban an overreaction? Is there any merit to it? Let us know in the comments below!