The Japanese version of The Grim Reaper. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't part of traditional Japanese mythology, but got imported from Europe in the 19th century. Originally used to refer to a single entity featured in the play "Shinigami" (usually translated as "death god," but the word is "kami of death" with its own set of connotations), the term has since evolved to refer to an entire race of Psychopomps in Japanese culture. Or evil demonic soul eaters. Or those assigned to kill evil demonic soul eaters. Each tale tells it differently.
Japanese religion and spiritualism being highly syncretic, features of preexisting Taoist, Buddhist, and Shinto death entities appear to varying extents in different depictions of Shinigami. For instance, the idea of a highly stratified and bureaucratic society of psychopomps and divine judges seen in series like Bleach, Descendants of Darkness, and Yu Yu Hakusho originated in Chinese Buddhism, on the model of the massive Han bureaucracy in the living world.
Since being with every human who ever dies would require omniscience to a story-breaking degree, it's often explained that Shinigami are only related to special cases of death, and hopefully whatever universal mechanism in place applies to non-special cases. For these reasons, opposing the work of a Shinigami is both harmful to the dying and the opponent.
Shinigami are sometimes depicted as goblin or skeletal creatures who cause death and accidents, but some popular and more recent depictions of Shinigami are closer to western vampires, with them being portrayed as Immortal, attractive hip young people who wield a variety of superpowers, chief among them Soul Power (dancing skills not included). They will usually either cause death to sustain themselves, peacefully escort souls to the afterlife (see Psychopomp), slay demons and poltergeists who cause unnatural deaths, or be the result of unnatural deaths themselves (interestingly similar to the first definition of Shinigami, though this is almost never brought up). Or various combinations of the above.
No real life examples, please; sorry, we have to impose Wikipedia's "reliable sources" rule on this one.
Anime and Manga
- Black Butler uses these pretty standardly, as supposed-to-be-neutral beings managed by a bureaucratic regimen (e.g., much grumbling about overtime), who review the lives of people destined to die, deciding whether or not they should live. They and demons seem to dislike one another...
- Bleach is an anime and manga about an entire society of shinigami who seemingly spend more time fighting The Heartless than actually acting as psychopomps.
- In the English dub, Shinigami are known as Soul Reapers. Kubo has said that the term "soul reaper" is closer to what he meant than "death god". This does have the unfortunate effect of negating some god-related puns later in the series, but it's probably an acceptable trade-off for making sure Western fans realize Shinigami/Soul Reapers aren't meant to be divine beings.
- Death Note features Shinigami who come in a variety of monstrous forms, from Ryuk, who resembles Monster Clown, to Rem and Sidoh who both look like mummies. They all have retractable wings that can be used for flight, they're immune to any weapon from a human, and can phase through objects. They're Invisible to Normals, unless said normal touches the Death Note owned by that Shinigami. They sustain themselves by writing names down in their Death Note, which magically kills the person, and then gaining the remaining years that person would've lived. Despite their power, they're very lazy as a society, and do little more than play cards. Ryuk only dropped a spare Death Note into the human world because he was incredibly bored.
- Full Moon o Sagashite has two cute spiffily dressed shinigami giving age inducing Idol Singer powers to a charge who will die within a year to throat cancer. (It's actually a lot more complicated than it sounds.)
- Note that, according to revelations at the end of the series, it's a little different. Shinigami are taken to be humans who had committed suicide, and becoming a shinigami is supposed to be a punishment for "committing the crime of suicide". The apparent shinigami job is to extract the soul from the body when someone dies, fulfilling the perception of the ideal. However, Mitsuki looks into this a bit further and asks the question: "Who decided that you are shinigami"? The answer? The first shinigami got this label from the first girl whom she extracted a soul from and based everything about that. Mitsuki, however, disagrees with these labels: the shinigami, born out of a soul tormented by life, has the job to guide a soul to the afterlife peacefully after one's death. She then states that she has a name for people like this: angels.
- Gundam just loves the Shinigami trope. To wit:
- The most famous example is Duo from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, who calls himself "Shinigami" because of his tragic past (namely, his surrogate families dying around him). The US dub rendered this directly as "God of Death", with the cable TV edit replacing this with "The Great Destroyer".
- In MS IGLOO 2: The Gravity Front, the Feddie soldiers referred to the Zakus as Shinigami. This was before the Federation produced Mobile Suits and the only methods they had of anti-MS combat at the time were tanks and guided missiles, both of which usually failed, so fearing the Zaku was quite understandable.
- Lieutenant Ben Barberry, the protagonist of the first episode was also referred to as a Shinigami, because the men with him in the Anti-Mobile Suit Unit usually died and because he held the highest MS kill count at the time.
- Also, that Shinigami with a familiar voice described herself similarly to a Zaku with an "I have landed on this planet" reference, showing that she may be Lieutenant Barberry's delusions of a Shinigami.
- Mobile Fighter G Gundam had Kyral Mekirel, Nepal's pilot, who was called "Shinigami" because he kills his opponents outside the ring before their scheduled fight. After Domon beats him up, he undergoes a Heel Face Turn and joins the heroes.
- Terry Sanders Jr. from Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team was given the "Shinigami" nickname as an insult, because both of his previous units were wiped out on their third mission, leaving Sanders the Sole Survivor. He actually attempts to get transferred out of the 08th Team after their second mission, but Shiro convinces him that it's all just superstition and to believe in his teammates. It turns out the third time IS the charm for Sanders, at least this time around.
- Sesshoumaru's Tenseiga in Inuyasha actually works by slaying goblin-like shinigami near recently deceased corpses.
- Murder Princess features a shinigami which is goblin-like, but still hip and young; the fact that he works for the titular character speaks on how Badass she is. At the start of the series when she sees her own body, she assumes that she's dead and tells him to show her the way to Hell.
- In Naruto the Shinigami is a powerful summon spirit that looks a lot like the ones in Death Note: a giant ghost/goblin with long white hair and several arms. It is able to eat the soul of the user and its target, forcing them to fight against each other endlessly in its stomach.
- RIN-NE has the eponymous hero, Rinne, act as a 'sort of Shinigami'. His grandmother Tamako is a full Shinigami who has fallen behind on her quota and he has to help working off her debt. Though most of the debt on Rinne's shoulders was put there by his deadbeat, Jerkass, majorly hot father. It's better than it sounds.
- In Risky☆Safety, Risky is a shinigami in training whose job is talking people into commiting suicide. Risky's also six inches tall, adorable, and on a body time-share with a cute little angel who tries to undo Risky's work. It's a
comedylight-hearted series, despite the dark-sounding subject matter.
- In Soul Eater, the Shinigami is a near Physical God-like being who lives in Death City and has apparently made it his life's mission to keep humanity free from the yoke of witches, malign supernatural beings and corrupted humans. For this purpose, he formed a Extranormal Institute for humans who are sent out into the world to hunt down and eradicate such beings before they can become a threat to humanity. Shinigami-sama (as he is called) also has a son, called Death the Kid; both of them are referred to as Shinigami, implying that they're also a class of supernatural being.
- Clamp's manga Wish depicts Demons as Shinigami, eating human souls for sustenance. They're Punchclock Villains in this regard, though.
- The shinigami in Yami no Matsuei (sometimes known as Descendants of Darkness) are of the attractive, angsty, superpower-wielding ex-human kind. They are most often seen fighting
crimevampires, demons and evil doctors, but their overall function is to make sure fate is carried out and souls die when they are supposed to.
- Botan from Yu Yu Hakusho is a Shinigami with character details (such as the oar she rides on and her blue hair) referencing the Japanese Buddhist myth of the Sanzu River, analogous to the Western River Styx. Her primary function is as a psychopomp, although that appears less and less as the series focuses more on Yusuke's battles with demons.
- The English dub has her call herself the Grim Reaper and Guardian of the River Styx instead.
Religion and Mythology
- The Korean version, Jeoseung Saja or "Messenger of the Other Side", shows up once in a while in manhwa. They tend to be much creepier than their Japanese counterparts, possibly because Saja, with their traditional jerkassness, are an integral part of Shamanic funerals, which are still practiced in most rural areas. They're traditionally portrayed as corrupt government agents, who threaten to abuse the departed soul in their custody unless bribed with offerings. An anthropologist studying Korean shamans reported that when the shaman was playing Saja, it scared the hell out of her.
- Even though they're not called by the name per se, the player characters in Geist: The Sin Eaters in many ways seem to be the Shinigami trope re-exported back into the US based on the "cool dead people with ghost superpowers who act as psychomps" version popularized through modern anime.
- The shinigami of Scion are the most powerful minions of Mikaboshi, prime avatar of the Titan of Darkness. They can kill with a touch, and are a serious threat to gods.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh!, the card Shinigami is represented as pretty much the Western conception of the Grim Reaper (though hovering).
- Shinigami appear in Odin Sphere as the keepers of the Underworld of Endelphia. They're also known as Halja in the English dub. They're huge scary rotting wraiths with deep voices and large curved sickles as weapons. They're fought as minibosses several times, usually in the Underworld.
- Komachi Onozuka of Touhou is the laziest shinigami on this page. Unfortunately for her, her boss can see ANYWHERE, so there's very little chance for her to do so. Or at least, little chance to do so without getting caught. Also note that her role is more of a Charon analogue than the Grim Reaper - her job is to ferry the souls of the dead across the Sanzu River and into the afterlife proper.
- There are other (unseen) Shinigami who have the Grim Reaper role. One character, the Celestial Tenshi Hinanawi, achieves de facto Immortality by beating up the Shinigami who come to collect her. Komachi defeats Tenshi, but has to let her go because she's not allowed to reap souls—she's the wrong "type" of Shinigami for that.
- The protagonist of the upcoming[when?] Ushiro, whose powers include possessing the suicidal and thoroughly creeping the player out.
- The World Ends With You - Shinigami are trendy young dead people resurrected with amazing powers who exist to test human souls to let them live again or become Reapers themselves.
- Furthermore, they look like what would happen if Bleach and Death Note shinigami ever mated. Likely intentional as those two anime/manga tend to be most closely associated with shinigami.