Shinigami: Japanese Death God

Shinigami is an interesting supernatural concept in Japanese mythology. It’s been featured in many Anime shows like:

Death Note - Ryuk

The Shinigami Ryuk via flickr.com

Death Note: A shinigami named Ryuk drops a Death Note in the human world because he is bored.

Soul Eaters: Death runs a school for “Reapers”.

Bleach: There exists a society of shinigami who battle evil spirits and monsters.

You might have noticed that the shinigami depicted here vary. Some of them are good and some are neutral. In Death Note, the shinigami are a race of extra-dimensional beings whose lives are extended when they kill people. In the other two Anime shows, the shinigami battle monsters.

Shinigami in Literature

There is a reason the shinigami is a malleable supernatural creature. The term “Shinigami” (literally “Death God”) didn’t appear until the Edo Period (17th – 19th century Japan), where the term was used in Japanese puppet theater (bunraku or Ningyō jōruri), in the works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon that mentioned double suicide (Sonezaki shinjū).

These 18th century plays depict the shinigami as a death spirit (or personification of death) that invite or lead people into taking their own lives – not inherently bad, but certainly not welcome.

According to some kabuki plays, the shinigami can possess a person’s body and make them commit suicide (or at least give them depressing thoughts that make them want to take their own life).

Regional Shinigami

Many folk tales about the shinigami vary from prefecture to prefecture. Some say that those who go out into the night must eat a bowl of rice or drink tea; otherwise, the shinigami will pay them a visit.

Others say that the shinigami will possess a person’s body and lead them to mountains, seas, or railroads where they commit suicide. Generally, the shinigami is a creature of folklore told to guard people against suicide.

Shinigami in the Modern Era

Now, the shinigami is famously portrayed as a psychopomp (a being that “ferries” or “guides” spirits to the underworld like modern Grim Reapers in urban fantasy).

There has been no clear history of the shinigami, which makes this supernatural creature more interesting. It has changing portrayals, and the potential for it as a protagonist or antagonist in a story is limitless.

bleach

The shinigami Ichigo via flickr.com

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