The explosion of shinigami characters in manga and anime is a fascinating phenomenon that has lead to unique plots and characters. Whether it is the huge success of Tite Kubo’s Bleach or the entertainment factor in Soul Eater the Death Gods are sticking around.
The figure of the shinigami is a relatively new addition to Japanese culture. The word first truly enters the Japanese lexicon in the Meiji period and is the title of a play. The first image of a shinigami shows up in a book of supernatural beings called the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari. Lately the shinigami have resurfaced as a major set of characters with their own tropes and plot functions. The archetype of a being that rules over death is useful for storytelling and the Death God’s supernatural nature allows for many variations on the theme.
Variations on a Theme
Like all characters of a type there are definitely differences between the shinigami in each series. One of the most well-developed shinigami worlds exists in Bleach. Tite Kubo’s shinigami are beings who defend humans from evil soul-devouring spirits while ushering innocent souls into the afterlife. Their roles are well-defined and this gives a strong framework for storytelling. Interestingly the focus of Bleach revolves more around conflict between shinigami as opposed to their interaction with the human world.
The opposite is true of another popular series – Death Note – in which the shinigami are much less benevolent (and much more monstrous). The relationship between humans and shinigami is further explored with the shinigami playing a much more direct and sinister role in human life. Unlike Bleach there is no moral code that mandates non-interference with humanity except in certain cases. Death Note uses shinigami as a plot device to expose the treacherous and dark motives of the human race and to serve as a mirror to humanity.
In the case of Soul Eater there’s virtually zero focus on human-shinigami interaction and more on the capers of two rather silly shinigami (Death the Kid and Shinigami-sama). The whole manga has a much lighter touch and uses the two shinigami as a way to play up the interactions between supernatural beings. The idea of arbiters of life and death doesn’t deeply enter into the plot other than to explain why the shinigami need to take souls and fight against their witch enemies.
Appearance and Storytelling
The appearance of the shinigami also varies across the manga and anime that use them as a trope. In fact their appearances could be said to reflect their purpose and role within each of the different storylines. The nobility and strong sense of mission of the shinigami in Bleach are reflected in the samurai-style uniforms they wear and the stark black and white of those robes. The fact that they aren’t portrayed as monsters in any way would seem to support the basic idea of shinigami as moral actors in Bleach.
This image of a race that believes in order and has a code of behaviour is bolstered by the shingami world and its appearance. The fact that Rukongai exists as a city of souls and within it Seireitei where the shinigami live gives a sense of structure to their existence and provides a framework to hinge the relative good and evil of the actors in the story on.
Death Note is a marked contrast in which the shinigami are shown as ugly, demonic and monstrous. There is nothing terribly human about them and their interactions with people are largely destructive. There are some hints at a code of behaviour but for the most part the death gods are a simple vehicle to show the danger of human judgment and absolute power. The fact that the world of the shinigami is a blasted desert full of disorder again adds to the impression of ugliness and monstrosity.
It seems difficult to relate the shinigami’s appearance (with the exception of Shinigami-sama) in Soul Eater to anything within the storyline other than that the sheer over-the-top look of the characters and their environment. There is some correlation between the fact that while the shinigami inhabit the earthly plane they are still isolated within their own specific city that doesn’t necessarily have bearing on the outside world. However the metaplot of the story does bring their mission into some contact with the human world as without them the world will cease to exist.
The idea of a being that rules of the realm of human mortality is an ancient one that is repeated over and over in various forms. There’s no surprise that the trope worked to good effect in the supernatural world of manga. It also seems to have crossed borders in its popularity to catch the imaginations of North American fans of manga and anime. The universality of the themes has given extra traction to the idea and the creative nature of the mangaka and anime studios has seen the idea open up and embrace many storytelling possibilities.