The sentence (from the first episode of Death Note)

書く人物の顔が 頭に入っていないと効果はない

means something like

If the written person’s face is not in your head, there will be no effect.

For this post I'm struggling to understand "書く人物":

  1. The translation provided is something like "person who is written" or "written person's". But how would we know this doesn't just translate to "person who writes" or "person who will write", since 書く is in the non-past (and non-passive) tense? Is it just through context alone?

  2. If instead of 書く人物 we used instead 書かれた人物 (to more closely mirror the way things are idiomatically spoken in English), would this just be total nonsense in Japanese, or would it have some other different meaning than "written person"?

NOTE: This question also discusses this sentence, as well as the inherent ambiguity of Japanese relative clauses. For this question I'm more focused on how the tense/conjugation of 書く impacts the way we interpret this sentence.


2 Answers 2


It’s highly dependent on context.

In this particular context, I suppose 頭 belongs to the person who does the writing. My reading of the sentence is that it describes a state where Person A writes (about/to) Person B but Person B’s face is not committed in Person A’s head. Then, it would be natural to say 書く人物 from the perspective of Person A as the subject, and 人物 would be naturally understood as the object of writing, which is Person B. In other words, it is because of 書く人物 that I understood the sentence the way I did.

書かれた人物 is not nonsense. It just sounds like Person B is already written (about/to), and by someone other than Person A (i.e. the owner of 頭).

書かれる人物 would solve one of the problems but it would still sound like the writing is, or will be, done by someone else.

If you want to eliminate the ambiguity, you can make the subject explicit.


  • Could we theoretically replace 書く人物 with "(Person A)が人物を書く人物" to form a new, grammatically correct sentence with the same meaning? (Here 人物 = Person B).
    – George
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 5:23
  • @George - Why would you say 人物 twice? It would be like saying "the person whom A writes them".
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 5:28
  • Sorry, I'm just trying to understand how the grammar/semantics are working. I understand in practice we'd never write 人物 twice.
    – George
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 5:31
  • 1
    @George - 書く人物 could be the result of forming a noun phrase modified by a relative clause from either one of the following statements: a)(Aが)人物(=B)を書く (A depicts B), b)(Aが)人物(=B)について書く (A writes about B), c)(Aが)人物(=B)に書く (A writes to B), d) 人物(=A)が書く (A writes (something)). Unlike prepositions in English, particles like が and を go away in the process. It’s inherently ambiguous. You need to restore it from context.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 5:43
  • aguijonazo: Thanks, now everything is really clear to me!
    – George
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 5:53

It seems the artist omits "(自分が)デスノートに名前を" from the line:

  • Japanese: デスノートに名前を 書く人物の顔が 頭に入っていないと効果はない
  • English: I cannot kill a person who I don't remember one's face even if I write one's name on the Death Note.

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