All the world's a stage!

aromantic asexuality and light’s “coldness”


A frequent descriptor among people who watch Death Note and try to come up with a way to describe Light is that he’s “cold” “unfeeling” and “a psychopath.” All diagnosis aside, what is the element here that is being understood and interpreted in that way?

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Misa: Don’t you believe in love at first sight?
Light: (...) ...No. (Death Note, chapter 30)

A frequent descriptor among people who watch Death Note and try to come up with a way to describe Light is that he’s “cold” “unfeeling” and “a psychopath.” All diagnosis aside, what is the element here that is being understood and interpreted in that way? Is it because he lies all the time? (So does L). Is it because he murders all the time? (So does Misa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her described as “cold” or “unfeeling” although she casually betrays her friends and is not shown to have a single care for anyone who’s not Light.)

Maybe it’s more than Misa’s cutesy manner versus Light’s reserved front that make people assign to one the idea of “cold” and not to another. After all, Misa has a very “understandable” motivation. She’s in love. She’s head-over-heels. She’s obsessed. She murders more people than anyone else in the entire series.

Light has strict ideals. He doesn’t sway from them, even when he should. L is his opposite, his foil, the only person who ever understood him, and Light kills him easily. He feels bad about it, but he never once considers changing his ways.

Plenty of other people in the series have strict ideals and wouldn’t ever consider changing their ways. Not least among them is Soichiro, who would probably kill Light and then himself if he ever found out that his son is Kira. Is he “cold” or “unfeeling”?

L is described in similar terms, although in peripheral canon. “He had been called a kinky detective who relished bizarre murders, a human computer capable of measuring mass murders in terms of cold numbers, a reclusive sociopath.” (L: Change the WorLd novelization). The novelization then goes on to say that this estimation of him is entirely wrong.

Maybe it’s the fact that Light pretends to feel things when he doesn’t. He “uses” people.

When people are shown to have something Light needs, particularly information or the ability to obfuscate something he’s doing, he generally uses flattery to convince people to do what he wants them to. Most often, he uses these techniques on women, especially those shown to have a romantic interest in him. This behavior brings to mind an American film trope, the femme fatale, a woman who uses seduction in order to manipulate the men around her. Like the femme fatale’s focus on seduction techniques in order to get ahead, Light calls these women beautiful and uses romantic ideas like fate to keep them interested in him and therefore useful to his goals. (rachello344)

In the Sino-Japanese folklore “red string of fate” (unmei no akai ito, 運命の赤い糸), an invisible red string around one’s little finger, connects two lovers to each other. (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

And yet a femme fatale is usually at least a little bit in love. Terrible, twisted, desperate love—that’s the center of noir! Light is not in love. He never seems to feel it. (Except for his actions toward L, which could easily be interpreted through a noir lens). None of Light’s interactions with his “potential love interests” have any hint of him falling in love, or feeling even remotely attracted to them in the slightest.

Overtaken by evil, Light even takes advantage of love to achieve his goals. (HTR13, page 9)

What exactly do we mean when we refer to “love”? In English there’s only one word for it. We can add descriptors, of course, say “romantic love” “familial love” etc, but mostly, we just use the word love.

In Japanese, there’s two big words that mean “love”—ai (愛) and koi (恋). Here is a small description of the difference. In short, koi is romantic or passionate, while ai is a general feeling of love, “‘koi’ is always wanting and ‘ai’ is always giving.”

Cultural discourses in Japan acknowledge also the spectrum of affectionate feelings of different kinds. Besides feelings of romantic love (ren’ai, 恋愛) or sexual love (seiai, 性愛) the language has different expressions for romantic love in a sudden, passionate sense (koi, 恋) and love as an affection that can grow into a person (ai, 愛). The latter can include the love felt for one’s spouse or romantic partner, as well as love towards one’s family or friends. The expression “I love you” in Japanese is “Ai shiteiru”. “Koi shiteiru” on the other hand refers to “falling in love with someone”. (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

Misa epitomizes koi in all ways throughout the series—passionate, romantic, frequently selfish, a “love at first sight” kind of deal. When she’s first seen Light in Aoyama and looks him up on the internet, Misa says “so it’s spelled with the kanji for ‘moon’ but read as ‘Light’ ... that’s kinda hot.” (Death Note, chapter 29). Her computer even has a sticker on it that reads “sexy dynamite” in the same panels, as if to drive home the association between Misa and sex/romance.

Kaisa Lehtonen writes,

As will be seen from the accounts of the people I spoke with, in Japan, asexuality can also be described as ‘lack of romantic feelings.’ [...] generally Japanese who feel neither sexual nor romantic attraction (overlapping category to AVEN's “aromantic asexuals”) seem to identify themselves as “asexual” written as asekusharu (アセクシャル). [...] in Japanese it is also common to describe an asexual person as a person who ‘does not have romantic feelings’ (ren’ai kanjou, 恋愛感情 ).

This fits extraordinarily well with Light’s insistence that he doesn’t believe in “love at first sight” and his claim that “for example... if you write ‘Light Yagami falls in love with Misa Amane,’ the part about me falling in love will not happen but I’ll die from whatever method is outlined after that.” (Death Note, chapter 29). Light refers to the death note rule that when writing names and actions of death “the causes and situations of death are not impossible to occur” to justify the fact that “the part about me falling in love will not happen.” What Light is textually trying to say is that you can only control people’s actions, not their feelings; and yet the Death Note is certainly shown to have the ability to change people’s state of mind.

For the informants “not having romantic feelings” towards anyone seemed to be the key point of their experiences; Everyone told me that their internet searches had included something along the lines of “I don't have romantic feelings” (ren'ai kanjou ga nai, 恋 愛 感 情 が な い ) or “I don't understand romantic feelings” (ren'ai kanjou ga wakaranai, 恋愛感情がわからない). [...] I found for instance a blogger who argued quite straightforwardly that it is impossible for a person to be both “asexual and heterosexual” or “asexual and homosexual”, since there are no asexuals who feel romantic attraction, and thus the terms “asexual” and “nonsexual” should never be confused with each other. … I got the impression that nonsexuals were seen as people who could fall in love and feel romantic attraction towards others, but who did not want to have sex or were for one reason or another not interested in it. (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

Lynkemma adds, “assuming he is telling the truth here, as far as Light is concerned, the idea that he might fall in love with a young and sexually attractive girl is something that is «impossible to think of». And this in spite of the fact that he knows that people can be made to commit suicide, hijack buses, cut themselves and draw pictures in their own blood...” (Lynkemma, Death Note—A Queer Reading). When Light experimented with the deaths leading up to Raye Penber, Light discovered he couldn’t make someone draw a picture of L without having seen him (in other words, make someone possess knowledge they didn’t already have), hop across the globe in an impossible time frame (in other words, make someone break the laws of physics), or in any other way do something they weren’t “capable” of.

Light: All right... I can’t become your boyfriend, but I can play the part. (Death Note, chapter 29)

What Light promises to Misa is that he will act the way a boyfriend is expected to, but that there’s no way he’s ever going to “feel” it. Of course, to Misa, this is just a hurdle on the way to their true love and him finally falling for her in return.

It was clear that the cultural image of men as naturally sexually active and women as not that interested in sex was also present in the Japanese discourses. (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

In chapter 17, Light makes a big show of why he has traps on his door, and gazes unenthusiastically at sexy girls. As L watches through the surveillance cameras, he muses, “it’s only normal... but... to me... it looks like [Light’s] making a show of saying, ‘I was checking if anyone entered my room because I have books like this stashed inside.’” Light then tries to justify his non-interest to the cameras by saying, “jeez, tricked by the cover again.” As though maybe the girls inside just weren’t sexy enough, or his type, or something like that.

Sachiko: You sure are late, Light.
Light: Yeah... I have a girlfriend now... I'll introduce you next time.
Sayu: Whoa! What? Light has a girlfriend? Wow!
Light: Come on, now. I'm an 18 year old college student, of course. [...] I got room service at the hotel.
Sayu: Whoa! Hotel? What's this? Scandalous!
Now, there are several things to note about this. First and foremost: Light is lying, he doesn't have a girlfriend. This is even before Misa enters the picture, the girlfriend is entirely fictitious. The lie serves the purpose of keeping his involvement with the Kira investigation secret. But note his comment I'm an 18 year old college student, of course. This is one of the few examples of Light articulating what is essentially his role, the act he puts on. He is an 18 year old college student, so it is «natural» that he should have a girlfriend. It fits his image, it fits the normality he is trying to project. (Lynkemma, Death Note—A Queer Reading)

Light knows that sexual interest (in girls) is a convenient excuse. He uses it all the time as just that—an excuse. While this can be interpreted as him being gay, what ends up being shown in the series is Light consistently using the assumptions other people have that he’ll be interested in sex to hide the fact that he has other goals entirely—killing L, yes, and then after that changing the world; being Kira; becoming a god; saving humanity. These ideals matter to him with the same intensity that having Light’s love matters to Misa, and he will do just about anything to accomplish them.

[Light is] likely not capable of loving a woman. This is probably because he looks down on everyone. He does possess love for his family and for humanity as a whole, however. He also had many friends. (HTR13, page 60)

Kaine-san: I can understand affection (ai, 愛) but what I don't get is romantic love (koi, 恋). (“Ai” wa wakaru kedo, “koi” wa wakaranai, 「愛」は分かるけど、「恋」は分からない。)
KL: Ah, in Finnish both “ai” and “koi” are the same (rakkaus, love), so I still feel sometimes that I don't quite get the difference...
Kaine-san: “Ai” is something that comes gradually, something you have growing on you, like the love you feel towards your family...(Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

However, the one thing that can sway Light from his goals as Kira is considerations about his family. His love for Sayu is what causes him to ruin the entire plan he’d created to clear his name, when she gets kidnapped, and his relationship with his father is complex and drives many of his actions.

But while Light cares about his family, and about humanity as a whole, he is still cut off in a distinct way from them.

It was often the people around them, that made the informants first realize that they saw and felt the world somehow differently from the others. Satou-san had started to feel left out as a high school student, after realizing how hard it was to follow the peer talk about crushes and relationships. Okutsu-san described her experiences similarly: “I felt somehow different, restless with other people”. Not being able to relate or identify with others came up often in the interviews. (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

In Death Note, chapter 1, Light is shown looking listlessly out the window at school while his classmates around him chatter, read magazines under their desks, sleep, or study; he’s the only one shown looking upward, out the window, and away from everyone else. He thinks, “same old thing, day after day... what a bore. This world is a rotten mess.” In episode 1 of the anime, “Rebirth,” we get a whole montage emphasizing his feelings of restlessness and alienation from the world.

“Of course I was not interested in love in the first place, but I just tried to date someone as an experiment like decent people do.” (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

Doesn’t this sound like Light? Not interested in love, and yet he’ll date because it’s expected of him. Throughout the series, he never shows the slightest interest in even the idea of love. In chapter 60, Light thinks, “I’ll be killing [Misa] eventually... I can’t develop feelings. That’s how most idiots screw up.” Fortunately for him, he never seems to develop feelings for her, even six years later when they’ve been partners in crime for a long time. Even his relationship with L could be easily described in the same way; you could have him say “I’ll be killing [L] eventually... I can’t develop feelings. That’s how most idiots screw up” and it would make sense. He enjoys L’s company, but L’s presence never sways him from his ideals. It never even makes him consider it.

Light defines himself fundamentally as a decent person. He does so many of the things he does in life because decent people do them, and so, so will he.

During college he had about five or six girlfriends, some being merely camouflage. (HTR13, page 60)

Kaine-san: I tried to go out with people, but well yeah. When I tried they were like “You have not gone out with enough people.” So, like, how many people does one have to go out with to prove that they are asexual? (KL: Ah, ah, ah...) Right? It's like the Devil's Proof [...] In the end, even if I'll never fall in love with anyone ever, they can just say that she had not met The Right One yet, right? (Kaisa Lehtonen, “No Romantic Feelings—Asexuality in Japan”)

In chapter 55, when Light has regained his memories and is coming up with an excuse to continue seeing Misa, he tells L, “Ryuzaki, we’re talking about a woman who not only says she loves me, but risked her life to help me out. [...] After receiving that much affection and dedication, any human with feelings would be moved.” L then asks, “so you’ve developed feelings for her?” Even though this is exactly where he’s wanted the conversation to go, Light is quiet for an entire panel, unable to answer in the affirmative. Finally, he lies, “yeah, maybe I just hadn’t noticed it until now...”

There’s something so deeply ironic and poignant about this line. Light claims, “after receiving that much affection and dedication, any human with feelings would be moved” and yet he’s not moved; he knows he’s not. For him, this is something impossible to think of—Light falling in love is something not even the death note, with all its powers, could contrive. And so, living in a world where everyone seems to be obsessed with sex and romance to one extent or another, Light comes to the conclusion that this is something intrinsic to being a “human with feelings.” And—if not a human with feelings—what does that make him?