Sobriquet doesn’t write in a notebook that kills people, but he does enjoy writing about a notebook that kills people.
The Iconic Rivalry
If you were to ask a stranger who he or she thinks the two smartest anime characters are, that person would probably say, “I don’t watch anime,” and walk away uncomfortably. But in the off chance a stranger does answer, chances are his or her two picks are going to be from the same anime: Death Note.
Death Note was a battle of intellect, unlike the typical shōnen battle of strength or mystical power (although, there was that, too.) Therefore, when Tsugumi Ohba created the protagonist and antagonist, he needed to create two of the smartest characters of all time. Light Yagami and L Lawliet were born, both with undoubted godlike levels of intelligence. What is doubted is which one of them was more intelligent.
Spoiler alert, they both died. L’s side technically won, but only after a long run by Light. The fanbase seems to be split down the middle when it comes to the topic. I’m not going to push you either way; I’m just going to give you the facts. Hopefully, after reading this, you will know who was truly “justice”.
Light Was Smarter Because He Outlived L
Light and L were engaged in a battle to the death. L was killed by a plot thought up by Light. Sure, Light died, but six years later. When you put it like that, it definitely sounds like Light won the competition.
Can any victories against Light really be attributed to L while he’s dead? If you look at the competition purely within L’s lifespan, than surely Light Yagami won. L wasn’t able to save himself or stop Kira in that time frame. It would be logical to conclude that L lost within his lifetime, or really just lost overall.
L Was Smarter Because His Side Won the War
L’s main goal was to rid the world of the murderous vigilante Kira. Light’s main goal was to rule the world by his justice system until he peacefully died of old age. Only one of these goals was accomplished. In the end, L got what he wanted and Light did not. Wasn’t that a victory?
Yes, L didn’t survive to defeat Light, but wasn’t it his planning that led to his downfall? L walked so Near and Mello could run. They came from the same program he did, and so he knew he could count on them as a backup plan. He had personally chosen them as the last two candidates to be his successor, and they went on to beat Light. L’s side won the war against Kira, and, even though he died before they could win, it wouldn’t have been possible without him.
Light Was Smarter Because He Was at L’s Level With Far Less Experience
Let’s turn away from the results for a second and just think about the intelligence level it took to partake in such a battle of wills. Undeniably, these two were at a similar level of extremely high brainpower. Here’s the difference: L was an experienced detective who had solved more than 3,500 cases in his career. Light was a high schooler, for God’s sake.
The fact that there was even a competition was a testament to Light’s skill and a bit of an embarrassment for L. Based on the results, one might conclude that if Light had also been a detective for as long as L, he would have easily outwitted him. They may be on the same degree of intellect, but L had had far more experience to bring himself to that point.
L Was Smarter Because He Figured Out That Light Was Kira
I already said that L’s main goal was to rid the world of Kira. That meant that once he figured out who Kira was, he had basically completed his goal. I truly believe that L knew Kira’s identity, the only problem was that he had no proof.
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Generally, L told the people around him, including Light, that there was about a 5% chance Light was Kira. In an extension manga, it was said that when L gave a percentage on someone, he suspected them at least 90%. In the hours leading up to his death, L asked Light if he ever told the truth. In the manga, one of L’s final thoughts after Light’s classic “I just murdered you” smirk was “I wasn’t wrong.” He knew, he just couldn’t prove it, or he was worried people wouldn’t believe him because he didn’t have any other major suspects. L beat Light because he solved Kira’s identity.
Light Was Smarter Because He Would Have Lived if Not for Mikami
Think about this: if all of Light’s allies had followed his plan exactly like he told them, he would’ve survived. The Special Provision for Kira had fallen for Light and Teru Mikami’s fake-notebook trick until Mikami took it upon himself to use the real Death Note to kill a captured Kiyomi Takada. Light had made it known that he would be the one to kill Takada himself in a situation like this.
The SPK then acquired and replaced the real notebook, and used it to ensnare Yagami and Mikami. Had Mikami just left it up to Light, he would’ve been able to kill all of Light’s enemies in the final confrontation, just as Light planned. Light would have been completely victorious if not for others’ mistakes.
L Was Smarter Because He Would Have Lived if Not for Rem
Rem was a Shinigami. With his or her notebook, eyes, and invincibility, once a god of death decides to kill you, there is no way of avoiding it. L couldn’t even try to convince Rem not to kill him, because what L was trying to do was convict Light, and that would likely shorten Misa Amane’s life either by suicide or the death penalty. There was absolutely no way any person in L’s position could avoid dying. Light had the unbeatable trump card that had nothing to do with his intellect.
Additionally, Light’s aspiration was to kill L himself. This was something he had vowed to do several times in the series. He never could accomplish this. L made it impossible for Light or Misa to ever get close enough to figure out his name. Light could only beat him with his lucky trump card.
Light Was Smarter Because L Could Not Beat Him While Light Was Not Actively Fighting Back
One specific example of a victory by Light over L was the period of time where Light had no memory of the Death Note. Actually, this was more of a loss for L than a victory for Light. The duel between Light and L had paused, and Light was actually supporting L. Still, L was not able to use this time period to catch the original Kira.
The fact that L didn’t accomplish much without any retaliation from Light is a good argument for Light’s superiority. Not only that, but one could even say that Light was a better investigator than L while they worked side by side. Remember, he was the one that originally suspected the Yotsuba Group while L was feeling hopeless.
L Was Smarter Because He Competed Without Any Knowledge of the Death Note
How dare I suggest that Light was smarter because he competed with no knowledge for that small period of time! L didn’t have any knowledge of the Death Note until eight days before he died. That’s not quite the same as completely forgetting what side you’re on, but it was still a tremendous disadvantage.
Death Note was a duel of intelligence between Light Yagami and L, but it was not a fair fight. Light was the only one who knew the rules of the game while everyone else had to play catch-up. Ohba even said that L was smarter, because “the plot requires it.” In order to have not immediately lost to a Death Note user, L had to be sharper.
Light Was Smarter Because He Was the Main Character
This one isn’t quite as fair as the others, but hear me out: storywriters usually have their main character be the most powerful, or at least end up being the most powerful. Eren had the Founding Titan. Aang was the Avatar. Michael Scott was the world’s best boss.
It is possible that Ohba created Light to be the smartest character ever, and he then created L to be nothing more than a challenge to him. Some evidence for this can be found in the official Death Note data book. Light’s intelligence was put at level nine while L’s was put at level eight. Checkmate, sort of.
L Was Smarter Because He Never Wanted to Release Light
L had the guy in his clutches! He has to be commended for that, right? He had the first two Kiras imprisoned. Sure, Light turned himself in, but L was hellbent on not letting him out. He wasn’t even going to release him after the killings resumed. He didn’t fall for that crap.
Obviously, he eventually let Light out, but only after being pressured by everyone else on the Kira Task Force. Earlier, I said that Light would have survived if everyone on his side had done exactly what he wanted. Perhaps it was the same story for L.
And So, the Smartest Death Note Character Was…
Near! Just kidding. In reality, this contest could go either way. Ohba created two genius characters that would forever be a part of a heated debate over each other’s superiority. There wasn’t meant to be one character that could be proven as better, but we all can make our pick. I have my opinion. Hopefully, I helped you reach yours.