From myth to anime: The Shinigami

The word pops up in many anime. In Bleach Shinigami are whole societies of human-like beings that help spirits to cross over to the other side or fight restless spirits that became ‘Hollows’, where as in Death Note we meet the skeletal apple-junky Ryuk and other scary looking Shinigami that stays alive due to the effects in the Death Note (gaining the years a person would have lived if his or her name did not end up in the Death Note).

Shinigami are death gods, as the name in Japanese implies and they are supernatural beings that invite humans toward death. Some say its origins might be in the Mrtyu-mara, a Buddhist demon that makes humans desire to die. Mrtyu-mara can possess humans, and suddenly the urge to commit suicide overcomes them. Some people think this myth originated to explain suicide.

Some of the earliest references to Shinigami appears in literature from the Edo period in Japan. In the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari by Shunsensai Takehara there are Shinigami mentioned that would possess humans from the tale entitled ‘Shinigami’. In the ‘Shinigami’ tale the spirit of a deceased person (but this one with evil intend) leads people on bad paths, toward accidents.

In modern times, especially after the war the belief in Shinigami became part of folklore in regions in Japan like some people belief that you must drink tea or eat a bowl of rice before going to bed otherwise the Shinigami might visit you. A type of urban boogeyman myth.

There are also modern legends that a Shinigami might posses a person leading them to mountains, seas and railroads where people have died, then the possessed person dies there the spirit of a person that died there before can then ascend to the after world, a sort of ‘death turn’ (shiniban) believe.

It all sounds very scary but there is a gentler belief that the Shinigami actually acts as a type of psycho pomp (meaning guide of souls – a being who escorts the newly dead to the afterlife). They also believe that it is the Shinigami’s responsibility to make sure that people dies at their destined time and does not perform the killing of the person itself. These Shinigami are invisible to people but can be seen by people whose death is near.

As we mentioned, Shinigami are found in anime and manga like Bleach and Death Note. Here are two more examples of Shinigami in anime:

Takuto and Meroko are two cute Shinigami in the anime Full Moon o Sagashite that helps a girl dying of throat cancer to have a chance to reach for her dream to become a singer. Here is a video of the song New Future by Changin’ my Life from Full Moon o Sagashite. To listen please follow the link:

Botan in the anime Yu Yu Hakusho is a Shinigami charged with ferrying souls of the deceased to the underworld to face their final judgment. Here is a video of the season 1 trailer of Yu Yu Hakusho, to watch please follow the link: