Lady Geek Girl has posted about Death him (or her)self and Death’s role in relation to religion for OMPCJ before (cliffs notes version: Death is a major focus of a lot of religious doctrine in basically every faith), but what about Death’s representatives? Reapers who answer to Death are fairly commonplace if you know where to look, even just in the anime world. (Yes, I am going to avoid Supernatural for one post; no pony die of shock, please.) I could look at probably a dozen series (Bleach, Yami no Matsuei, Black Butler, Death Note, Soul Eater, the list goes on), but for the sake of brevity today I’ll just look at Bleach, Black Butler, and Death Note.
In each of these anime, the Japanese word used for Reaper is shinigami (死神, literally death god) and their English translation changes depending on their role in the show, so I’ll touch on that a bit as well.
In Bleach, these characters are called Soul Reapers, because that’s their job. (Or so they say—they spend most of their time fighting each other.) We learn early on that these Soul Reapers are responsible for helping benign spirits pass on into the afterlife, and for sending evil spirits to Hell. In this story, there is no visible Death figure to whom these Reapers answer; the Reaper organization is an independent military establishment that works to keep a balance between the spirit and physical world.
In Black Butler, the Grim Reapers are part of a bureaucratic organization—the Dispatch Management Division—that collects those souls scheduled to be reaped and logs said souls’ memories in their files. Stepping outside the boundaries and reaping those not on the list can incur massive penalties for a Reaper. This show doesn’t have a visible Death-like leader either, but all bureaucracies can be traced back to someone handing down orders from the top, so he or she has to exist in some shape or form.
Both of the previous groups are human in appearance; this isn’t always the case with Reapers. Death Note calls its ‘Reapers’ Shinigami or Gods of Death, alternatively, and they are truly otherworldly creatures. Where the previous groups reap specific souls to maintain the natural order, these Gods of Death are free to reap whomever suits their fancy, and each death adds to the Shinigami’s lifespan. These Shinigami are lazy and lack any responsibilities; humans in Death Note‘s world will eventually die on their own, with or without Shinigami help. These creatures are less ‘emissaries of the natural order’ and more ‘bored supernatural troublemakers’.
What’s your favorite kind of anime reaper? I’m a fan of Black Butler‘s bureaucracy and the noir-style detective agency of the Yami no Matsuei shinigami; let me know your faves in the comments, and tune in next time to get some religion!