Shinigami are the god of death, as it is believed in Japan. The Western equivalent of this term may be ‘Grim Reapers.’ Over time, the meaning and lore behind Shinigami has become fluid. Generally, a Shinigami serves the purpose of assisting a wandering soul or departed soul to the other side, but some Shinigami are seen to have malicious intentions that carry out particular tasks that benefit them, such as leading a soul astray or pushing certain humans towards death, etc.
In popular representation, Shinigami are seen in varied forms and with different aesthetics. For example, Ryuk from Death Note looks and acts differently than the members of the Soul Society in Bleach. Though they retain their usual black aesthetics for the most part, it does not have to be in that way, as seen in the case of Death Parade. Suffice to say, Shinigami enjoy a good influence on popular culture and media and continue to interest people with their unique powers, personalities, and flair. So, here’s five anime from recent times that have been popular partially because of its inclusion of Shinigami.
Bleach and four other anime that portray Shinigami as characters
1. Death Note
Takeshi Obata’s Death Note is one of the most popular anime that features Shinigami. Although the story centers around Light Yagami, a genius who comes across the titular ‘Death Note’ that belongs to Shinigami Ryuk. The strangest (or maybe the most powerful?) thing about this notebook is that it allows the users the supernatural ability to kill people once their name(s) are written on its pages, but only if it is compliant with certain rules that guarantee death. Light basically goes on a spree where he thinks of himself as a divine being that can remove crime and criminals from the world. However, the decision he makes ultimately backfires on him, and the only winner out of this situation is Ryuk, who gets an extension on his lifespan.
Although Death Note features several Shinigami within the anime series, such as Armonia Justin Beyondormason, Gelus, Sidoh, and Zellogi, among others, only two of them were able to steal the show – Rem and Ryuk. In the Death Note lore, Shinigami are described as extra-dimensional beings with selfish motives, which involves leading humans towards an early death through offerings such as the eyes of the Shinigami, whose use cuts the human life by half. This was seen in the case of Misa Amane and Rem. Each one of them look different from the other, with some having a bestial appearance while others resembling an insect or crustacean. Although not explicit, the motive of a Shinigami to lure humans to die early factors their own lifespan, so the need to survive and meddle with human affairs is paramount to them.
Tite Kubo’s Bleach follows the story of a teenage boy named Ichigo Kurosaki who obtains his parents’ destiny after accidentally gaining the powers of a Shinigami from Soul Reaper Rukia Kuchiki. What follows is a shonen-rifed adventure where Ichigo and his friends go through several incredible battles to ascertain their personal beliefs and uphold the justice system of Soul Society. Aside from that, Ichigo even takes an active role in the protection of humans from corrupt spirits and guiding the departed souls to the afterlife.
The concept of Shinigami, or Soul Reapers, are wholly different from Death Note. Tite Kubo’s Shinigami world has a proper power structure that resembles a military unit or division, with the members donning a traditional uniform called the Shihakusho. The power and justice system is exclusive and honorable, and some of the Gotei 13 members like Byakuya Kuchiki are even seen as the sticklers of rules. Here, the Shinigami often serve a noble purpose, as they are called guardians of the souls who go through the circle of transmigration.
The Shinigami purify Pluses, or wandering souls, or Hollows, i.e., spirits with malicious intents. These corrupt spirits are born out of human souls that don’t cross the Soul Society, so the responsibility of safe crossing to the other world or or soul burial falls on a Shinigami. The Shinigami excel in swordsmanship and combat skills, being able to wield their primary weapon called Zanpakuto or advanced spell techniques that require spiritual powers (Kido).
3. Black Butler
In Black Butler, Shinigami take a back seat as the main focus of the story is on Ciel Phantomhive, the 12-year-old Earl of the Phantomhive who serves as the Queen’s Watchdog. He is accompanied by the demon Sebastian Michaelis, with whom Ciel has formed a contract and now Sebastian disguises himself as the Earl’s butler to assist him in his journey to find out his parents’ murderer in Victorian England. However, once the task is fulfilled, Sebastian will get to consume Ciel Phantomhive’s soul.
Grim Reapers or Shinigami in Yana Toboso’s series are born out of a punishment for those who commit suicide while they lived as humans. Their task is to collect souls for safe passage and review and observe their deaths. Like the previous two entries, Shinigami in Black Butler occupy a liminal position, as they cannot interfere with the human or Gods’ affairs. Moreover, they are tasked with eliminating anyone who they perceive as threats and come in their way of soul retrieval.
Their task has a more administrative vibe, as they use their Death Scythes to erase the memories of a soul, resulting in instant death for the human concerned. They can quit or retire, but their Death Sycthes would be confiscated, and should they make any mistakes, they have to submit written apologies and await punishments. The prominent recorded Shinigami from the British Branch include Grelle Sutcliff, William T. Spears, Ronald Knox, Undertaker (former), and Othello. The German Branch, on the other hand, sees only Ludger and Sascha.
4. Soul Eater
As per IMDb, the summary of Soul Eater reads:
“Set in the Shinigami technical school for weapon meisters, the series revolves around 3 duos. These pairs are a partnership between a weapon meister and a human weapon. Trying to reach a ranking of “Death Scythe” (and thus fit for use by the Shinigami) they must collect the souls of 99 evil humans and 1 witch. However, forces outside of the Academy make it more challenging of a feat, causing trouble around the world.”
Like the Shinigami of Soul Society, the Grim Reapers in Soul Eater also exist to maintain balance, order, and justice. Moreover, they also have various types of Shinigami within them, comprising of ‘Immature,’ ‘Mature,’ ‘True,’ ‘Kishin,’ and ‘Great Old Ones.’ As of now, the current two active reapers include Death the Kid (True) and Asura (Mature). Exercising special abilities such as regeneration or enhanced physical strength and endurance, they are also called true gods who can be worshipped. An example of this can be seen when Flying Dutchman worshipped Asura as the Kishin, while Justin Law revered Death until he defected.
5. Descendants of Darkness
Yoko’s Matsushita’s Descendants of Darkness revolves primarily around Shinigami Asato Tsuzuki, who works for the king of the dead called Enma Daio to supervise the Kyushu region. Here, they work at the Underworld, and go through the painstaking task of keeping track of the unexpected and expected arrivals of departed souls. As is the case with monotonous tasks such as this, Asato finds it boring with infinite paperwork and an unsatisfying work environment.
However, amidst this, he finds happiness and develops a spark in life through the company of his new partner, Hisoka Kurosaki. In a suspense thriller narrative that is similar to Black Butler, the duo investigate and come closer to the conspiracies of the main antagonist, Dr. Muraki Kazuka. However, the narrative also focuses on Asato and Hisoka’s relationship, which culminates with the discovery of the former’s dark past.
With Descendants of Darkness invested in exploring Asato and Hisoka’s relationship and the mystery surrounding the killings, the concept of Shinigami in general remains underdeveloped. As such, while Asato is shown to be the only Shinigami who possesses the power of twelve shikigami (guardian spirits from the Imaginary World), he is also seen to wield the power of Ofuda magic, regenerative abilities, illusory spells, and flight.
As compared to him, Hisoka’s powers are different. Given that he is an empath, it allows him to feel others’ emotions and read their thoughts, sift through memories, and possess clairvoyant abilities. He is also seen to summon a shikigami, but unlike Asato, he can only call for one. Similarly, other Shinigami can also summon shikigami from the Imaginary World, but they usually possess a bond with one to three. Another Shinigami who remains quite popular within the fandom is Seiichiro Tatsumi, who currently works as a secretary for the Shokan department but was earlier Asato’s partner before Hisoka.