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Grim Reapers and Shinigami:
Personifications of Death in Comics and Manga
My interest in this morbid subject began when I was teaching a college course
that explored the mythological dimensions of contemporary manga and graphic novels.
One of these works, Tsugumi Ohba's Death Note, presents a spectacular character named
Ryuk, who is a shinigami, or "death god," one of a group of such beings bearing close
resemblance to the Western Grim Reaper, particularly in their fondness for scythes.
Further investigation lead me to discover that there was a complete dearth of scholarly
work done on these figures. This discovery was quite surprising since both figures are so
prevalent in modern art and literature.
The personification of Death is universal and timeless, but the Grim Reaper and
shinigami are specific representations that have both emerged relatively recently in
Western and Japanese cultures. The scythe-wielding psychopomp, often skeletal and
hooded, does not appear in European art until the fourteenth century, and the term "Grim
Reaper" is first used in the twentieth century. The shinigami is an even more recent
figure: the word is not used until the eighteenth century, and its role as a psychopomp is a
very recent development in late twentieth century manga.
The origins of the Grim Reaper lie in the European Middle Ages, and many
historians associate its emergence with the Black Plague of the mid-fourteenth century.
There are two early artistic traditions that feature this figure, the Triumph of Death and
the Dance of Death. Scholars conjecture that the Dance of Death motif may have
originated in actual folk dances in which "one member of the dance would act as a corpse
while the others danced around him or her, pretending to mourn but actually taking
liberties with the 'corpse's' person" (Spinrad 1987, 6; Lydgate 1931, xiv-xv). Historical
records indicate that live performances of this dance definitely occurred in the fourteenth
century (Spinrad 1987, 7). There is evidence of actual dances taking place during the
worst years of the plague, a kind of mass hysteria, with "groups of three" dancing "in one
place for half a day, and while dancing they fell to the ground and allowed others to
trample on their bodies" (Radulfus de Rivo, describing the year 1374, quoted by Warren
in Lydgate 1931, xiii-xiv). One may assume that the popularity of these death cults was
in large part due to the Black Plague of the mid-fourteenth century, and in fact Lydgate
mentions, in the preface to his Daunce of Death, "cruel dethe / that ben so wyse and sage
/ whiche sleeth allas / by stroke of pestilence" (cruel death, that is so wise and sage,
which slays, alas, by the stroke of pestilence").
Other possible sources for this figure include classical myth and Christian story.
In Hesiod's Theogony, for instance, Cronos obtains a sickle in order to castrate his father,
and this god was conflated with Chronos, the god of time, whose emblem was the sand
glass. Both emblems (or at least similar emblems, since a scythe is much larger than a
sickle) appear in medieval and early Renaissance depictions of the Grim Reaper, for
example in Sebald Beham's German woodcut Death and the Courtesan (16th century) and
Albrecht Dürer's Young Couple Threatened by Death; or, the Promenade (c. 1498) and
Death and the Landsknecht (1510). In the Book of Revelations (14:14-20), one of the
angels is bid to use his sickle to "reap" humanity.
The earliest artistic rendition of a scythe-wielding angel of Death is found in a
famous fresco, composed between 1330 and 1340, by Buonamino Buffalmacco at the
Camposanto of Pisa.
Fig 1. Angel of Death in Camposanto Fresco (High Resolution)
In a section of this fresco that was heavily damaged by Allied bombing in World War II,
a bat-winged, scythe-wielding female figure with long hair and flowing robes descends
upon a group of lovers, oblivious to her presence as they converse in a grove.
This early representation is atypical of other Triumph of Death artwork in which
the personification is consistently portrayed as a skeleton mounted upon a wheeled coffin
drawn by bulls. The earliest example I have located is an Italian painting entitled The
Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death, created by an unknown follower of Andrea
Mantegna sometimes in the 1460's.
Fig. 2. The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death (School of Mantagna)
The top panels of this oil painting depict three allegorical figures, each standing above
people or, in the right panel, above corpses. The painting presents an iconographic scene
found in much Renaissance art with a skeletal standing erect, holding a scythe in his right
hand, above a coffin-shaped chariot drawn by two black bulls. A scanty cape is partially
visible behind Death's bony body, and three skulls lie on the top of the coffin.
Another work of art presenting Death as a central figure is Lorenzo Costa the
Elder's fresco located in San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna and created in 1490.
Fig. 3. Lorenzo Costa the Elder, Triumph of Death
In this magnificent work, Death is the central figure, a fully robed skeleton with scythe,
and two skeletons ride the bulls pulling his cart. Various men and women, mostly clothed,
peaceably assemble around the cart, and in the background a large circle depicts the Last
Similar iconography is found in other media. An ivory cassone, also from the
circle of Mantegna and dated 1477, shows the skeletal death holding his scythe in his left
hand partially covered with a scanty robe.
Fig. 4. Ivory Cassone (School of Mantagna)
On the sides of the sarcophagus are four human beings with their bellies slit open, an
image common to Dance of Death scenes, discussed below. Again corpses lie beneath
bulls and cart.
A third medium with this scene is print, notably three illustrations in a book by
the famous heretic Girolamo Savanarola (1452-1498). The work, entitled the
Predica del arte del ben morire (Sermon on the Art of Dying Well), is dated c. 1500.
Fig. 5. Savanarola, Predica del arte del ben morire
The title page consists of an illustration of Death's chariot being drawn to the right,
instead of the left, the more common direction. Death is fully robed and is apparently an
old man with long hair flowing behind him. Above, to the left, are various devils, and to
the right various angels. Four oxen pull his cart.
Contemporaneous with this artistic tradition is another one, the Dance of Death,
which also finds literary embodiment. The earliest known depictions of this theme once
belonged to a fresco, created in 1424-1425, painted on a wall in the Cimetière des
Innocents in Paris. When this cemetery was closed in 1669, the fresco was destroyed, but
fortunately an artist copied the entire work, which was published in a block book, La
danse macabre, in 1485 by Guyot Marchant (Clark 1950, 23-24).
The fresco of the Cimetière des Innocents is the earliest depiction of the Dance of
Death, a popular iconic motif that typically includes skeletons informing personages of
various classes that their lives have ended. Each page of the block book presents two
pairings, one to the left, the other to the right, with a Latin text above and an Old French
poem below; the arches above each pairing reflect the arcading of the original cemetery
wall. The artist has "modernized" the drawings by bringing the clothing up to date (Clark
1950, 24-25) and he has added floral decorations. There are twenty pairings, and in five
of these, Death (Mort) holds a scythe.
The Latin and French texts accompanying the illustrations function much like the
text boxes of sequential art. The fresco does maintain sequencing by beginning the
pairings with the most elevated members of the social hierarchy (Pope and Emperor),
then moving to other aristocrats and high clerical figures (cardinal and king; legate and
duke; patriarch and constable; archbishop and knight; bishop and esquire), and finally
progressing to various commoners, who are identified by profession (abbot and bailiff;
astrologer and citizen; schoolmaster and soldier; and so on). Thus the viewer would have
been following a kind of social subtext as he or she walked along the wall, though there is
no continuous narrative. Each group of four is separated by a column, creating a frame
not unlike gutters separating panels in sequential art.
In the second pairing (Death and Emperor), Death covers his shoulders with a
cloth and holds both a shovel and a scythe over his right shoulder as he reaches for the
emperor with his left hand, informing him and he must drop his golden orb and sword.
Fig. 6. Guyot, La Danse Macabre
Four panels later (Death and Bishop), Death is an unclothed skeleton grabbing the robe of
a bishop with his right hand and holding his tool over his left shoulder.
Fig. 7. Guyot, La danse macabre
The four-line Latin poem above the drawing states, "Man born of woman, you live for a
short time that is filled with many miseries, which like a flower comes forth and is worn
away, and flees like chaff, and never remains in the same state." Below, there is a six-line
poem spoken by Death and a response by the Bishop. Death is portrayed as a naked,
scythe-wielding skeleton as he leads away a monk several panels later (Death and Monk),
but in a fourth depiction (Death and Parson) he is wearing a loin cloth, he holds his
scythe in his right hand as its blade rests on the ground, and he seems to be removing the
surplice of a parson (or parish priest). And in the next pairing (Death and Summoner), a
naked Death holds both a shovel and a scythe on his right shoulder as he grabs the
"promoteur" or summoner by his robe. In other images of Death in this fresco/block book,
the figure carries spears, a crossed staff, and lumber, presumably for making coffins. In
three of these (Death and the Astrologer; Death and the Physician; Death and the Fool)
Death's shroud covers his skull like a hood. Musical instruments are notably absent from
James Clark (1950) explains that the running commentary in Latin and Old
French suggests that the emblematic illustrations preceded the written texts. Also, he
finds evidence that the theme was known earlier than 1424/1425—a poem written in
1376 or shortly thereafter, for instance, mentions "Macabre la danse." Similarities shared
by French, German, and Spanish Dance of Death poems may indicate a common origin
older than 1424/1425 that has been lost.
The Dance of Death that once adorned the Cimitière des Innocents is merely the
first of a common artistic trope found throughout Europe. Another early, well-known
representation was located in a cloister of Saint Paul's of London and was commissioned
around 1430. Scholars believe that this painting, which no longer exists, was
accompanied by verses composed by John Lydgate, who himself claims that his work is a
"pleyne translacioun / In Inglisshe tunge" of the text found in the Cimitière des Innocents.
(Clark 1950, 11; Appleford 2008, 287).
In addition to these two traditions—the Triumph of Death and the Dance of
Death—the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper appears in other contexts. A Cologne Bible of
1478 (Der Hemeliker Apenbaringe) contains a color illustration of a skeleton smiling and
riding a horse as a monster devours live humans.
Fig. 8. Der Hemeliker Apenbaringe
A remarkable illustration from a French prayer book, dated c. 1500, depicts the
book's owner, Denise Poncher, on her knees praying before a grisly skeleton, apparently
dressed in rags, holding four scythes (in addition to a spear) whose handles touch the
ground. Behind him two maidens lie slain, while he straddles a dead soldier.
Fig. 9. Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death
The Dance of Death tradition is embodied not only in art, but in literature as well,
though the figure of Death is never holding a scythe nor is he given any special
appellation akin to Grim Reaper. In the fifteenth-century Spanish debate poem La danza
de la muerte, Death mentions his arrows only, and in John Lydgate's Daunce of Death
(early fifteenth century), there is no mention of a scythe.
These two traditions—the Triumph of Death and the Dance of Death—may be
related to other artistic traditions of the Middle Ages. The Legend of the Three Living
and the Three Dead, for instance, in which three men confront three skeletons, appears in
the thirteenth century (Spinrad 1987, 4), but the scythe-wielding Grim Reaper does not
appear in any of these.
While there is ample evidence that the figure we call the Grim Reaper first
appears in late medieval art, his representation in literature is rare before the twentieth
century. In a dramatic dialogue written by the eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert
Burns, Death complains about a doctor who keeps on curing people of their maladies and
who carries a scythe and a three-pronged fishing spear ("Death and Doctor Hornbrook").
In the nineteenth century the American poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow writes,
There is a Reaper whose name is Death,
And, with his sickle keen,
He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,
And the flowers that grow between.
But the earliest usage of term "grim reaper" occurs surprisingly late in the full title of a
dime novel published in 1903—The Finish of Three Rascals, or, Nick Carter and the
Grim Reaper—and The Oxford English Dictionary did not list the term until its 1977
The first appearance of a fictional character called the Grim Reaper is found in a
twelve-page comic entitled "The Grim Reaper: In the Heart of a Patriot," written by
Richard Hughes (February 1944). It is the second narrative in the Nedor Comics'
Fighting Yank 7.
Fig 10. "The Grim Reaper: In the Heart of a Patriot"
The Grim Reaper wears a black outfit and white cape emblazoned with skull and
crossbones. The story begins with the Grim Reaper strangling a Nazi captain and leaving
his calling card with a drawing of himself and the words "Claimed by the Grim Reaper!"
He later saves a pilot from a German concentration camp, using a gun and swinging
down a telephone wire; seizes a German soldier's rifle and strikes him with its butt; and
launches a grenade at a gasoline tanker, which explodes, destroying the camp. He never
wields a scythe.
This figure was soon promoted to the cover of Wonder Comics and, over a six-
year period, made nineteen appearances.
Fig. 11. Wonder Comics 1 (Hughes May 1944)
The second story again features him as a typical World War II superhero who fights
Nazis. Now his cape is purple with white skull and cross bones, and he punches his
enemies or shoots them with a gun, still not using a scythe.
In this action hero's third appearance (Hughes August 1944), we learn his
backstory: while Bill Norris was a student at the Sorbonne, he tried to intervene when
Nazis were beating a civilian, and he consequently ended up in a concentration camp,
where he met Pierre Laroux, the leader of the French underground. Norris strangled a
Nazi guard to death, escaped the camp, and joined the resistance in Paris. He then
decided to don black to instill terror in his enemies, much as Bruce Wayne is inspired by
the bat. The Grim Reaper's weapons are a pistol, noose, knife, and chloroform.
The next five issues of Wonder Comics (3-7) involve the Grim Reaper in various
struggles against the Nazis and usually include the resistance. In the next ten issues, he
returns to the United States and becomes a crime fighter, defeating bank robbers,
murderers, and other criminals.
Other than his name, this Grim Reaper bears little similarity to the iconic figure of
death that pervades our culture. He does not possess a scythe, and instead of wearing a
black hood, he dons a purple cape attached to a black mask covering his eyes. While the
Germans quake when they learn that the Grim Reaper is in town, they are hardly awed by
his appearance when they fight him. When the Grim Reaper captures criminals in the
USA, he does not kill them, but brings them to the authorities. He is far from a figure of
A much better known comic book character called the Grim Reaper is a major
villain in the Marvels Universe and bears stronger resemblances to the iconic figure. He
first appears in Avengers 52 (Thomas May 1968) and has remained a familiar antagonist
of the Avengers since then.
Fig. 12. Marvel's Grim Reaper (Avengers 52)
He does possess a scythe, but curiously, instead of swinging it to inflict death, he uses it
as a propeller to escape Goliath, a shield to block Hawkeye's arrows, and as a sort of gun
that releases electrical charges when directed at his enemies.
Fig. 13. Marvel's Grim Reaper (Avengers 52)
In his first appearance, instead of wearing a black hood, the Grim Reaper dresses in a
colorful outfit of red, green, purple, and blue (the color of his cape). In subsequent
appearances his spandex tights become monocolor (blue, purple, green, or black) and his
cape is purple or blue; the skull and crossbones, instead of being depicted on his cape, are
displayed on his chest.
In the first story he arrives at the Avengers' compound riding a "glider"
resembling the Green Lantern's.
Fig. 14. Marvel's Grim Reaper (Avengers 52)
He swings his scythe at Hawkeye, Goliath, and Wasp, but always manages to miss;
eventually he stuns them, producing death-like comas. After the three Avengers are taken
to the hospital, the Black Panther shows up, fights the Grim Reaper, and takes his scythe
in order to neutralize its effects by blasting the three defeated heroes. The story ends
inconclusively, with the Avengers wondering why they were attacked.
This villain makes over sixty appearances in Marvels comics, and it is not until
much later that we learn his backstory and his origin story. In Wonder Man 25 (Jones
1993) we discover that the Grim Reaper is Eric Williams, whose brother is Simon
(Wonder Man) and who started a fire when they were young that killed their parents. The
Reaper's "origin story," recounting how Ultron, with the help of the Tinkerer, designed
the coma-inducing ray emitted from the Reaper's scythe, is found in Avengers 3(21)
(Busiek and Pérez 1999).
Central to this villain's career is his relationship with his brother Simon, or
Wonder Man, and another Marvel villain named Vision, who comes to possess Simon's
brain pattern (Avengers 79, Thomas August 1970). The Grim Reaper also manages to die
repeatedly and come back to life, sometimes in the form of a zombie.
In his first
appearance as a zombie (Thomas and Thomas December 1990), he must consume a
human being every twenty-four hours in order to stay "alive"; he also loses his skin and
becomes semi-skeletal, resembling the traditional Grim Reaper.
Of the two major superhero archetypes described by Christopher Knowles in Our
Gods Wear Spandex (2007), Messiahs and Golems, the Grim Reaper of Nedor Comics
clearly belongs to the Golem type, a dangerous antihero acting out a "need for
vengeance" (145). Like Bruce Wayne, whose bat outfit is designed to inspire terror in
criminals such as the one who killed his parents, Bill Norris creates a black suit to inspire
terror in the Nazis. Both of these anti-heroes lack superpowers and rely on weapons.
The Marvel Grim Reaper is not a Golem figure, according to Knowles' definition
of the Jewish mythological character, for he is purely villainous and lacks antiheroic
qualities. The good brother-bad brother theme in his story is analogous to the Cain and
Abel dichotomy, and when he becomes a zombie, his need to consume a human body
every twenty-four hours to extend his life resembles the behavior of shinigami in Death
Note, who prolong their lives by killing humans before their scheduled demise (Ohba and
Obata 2005, 1:141). It is interesting to note that in later incarnations of the Grim Reaper,
a Shinto god of evil or primordial chaos, Amatsu-Makaboshi, becomes the Grim Reaper's
master (Van Lente 2011), demonstrating cross-cultural influences between Japanese and
One of the few exceptions to this Grim Reaper's villainy occurs when he ends the
life of Alex, his brother's girlfriend, in order to reduce her suffering (Jones 1993, Wonder
Man 23). This kindness resembles that of the ancient Thanatos as well as the shinigami
depicted in contemporary manga.
In contrast to these villainous incarnations of death is the sexy Goth girl who
recurs in Neil Gaiman's Sandman. She is one of the Eternals and frequently communes
with her brother, the main character, Dream. The first volume of this masterpiece, The
Sandman: Preludes Nocturnes, ends with a chapter entitled "Sound and Fury," and Death
proves to be a kindly figure who ends people's misery. Instead of displaying a skull and
crossbones on her tank top, she sports an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of eternal life. In a
later volume of this lengthy graphic novel, The Season of Mists, she jokes with her
brother Destiny, who criticizes her informal clothing at a family gathering, that soon he
would be "moaning that [she] ought to get a scythe," though she bears no resemblance to
the Grim Reaper, neither in character or appearance.
It is most surprising that the iconic Grim Reaper does not appear in fiction until
the 1940's in an American comic book, though earlier allusions indicate that the term was
used for death as early as 1903. Similarly, the shinigami ("death god") so popular in
contemporary manga appears to be a recent mythological development.
The idea of a death god or psychopomp is not foreign to Japanese mythology.
Indeed, in the earliest Japanese myth, which recounts how the divine siblings Izanagi and
Izanami create the Japanese isles, Izanami transforms into a goddess of death.
Fig. 15. Izanagi and Izanami
After she dies giving birth to one of the children, her brother-husband retrieves her from
the realm of Yomi, the king of the underworld, but as they return to the world, he sees her
rotten condition and flees from her in terror. She is so enraged that she vows to kill one
thousand people a day.
Psychopomps who lead the dead to the Underworld appear early in Japanese myth,
as can be seen in the earliest compilation of setsuwa, the eighth century Nihon ryoiki
(Kyoko Motomochi Nakamura 2014). In several of these stories dead people return to life
and describe how messengers of King Yama conducted them to the afterlife. In one story
these messengers are oni (demons) called "fiend messengers" who are "from the office of
King Yama" (Story 2, p. 192). In another seven "subhumans, each with the head of
an ox and a human body," lead the dead person to King Yama to complain that they were
oxen killed by the dead man (Story 2, p. 165). These messengers take on other forms:
in one story they are "men with moustaches growing straight up, clad in red robes and
armor and equipped with swords and halberds," which they use to prod the man on,
explaining that "the Office has suddenly summoned you" (Story 3, p. 234); yet another
has a horn on his forehead (Story 2,, p. 183). These spirits are not necessarily evil,
and in one tale they tell the narrator that he "need not be afraid of us," and he invites them
to his house and gives them a feast (Story 2, p. 193). These supernatural entities are
never called shinigami, nor do they ever wield scythes.
The word "shinigami" is a relatively recent coinage. Its earliest usage is found in
Chikamatsu Monzaemon's play The Love Suicides at Amijima (1720), in which the
narrator states that the paper seller Jihei, "led on by the spirit of death—if such there be
among the gods—is resigned to this punishment for neglect of his trade" (Keene 1998,
Fig. 16. Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (Picture Book of a Hundred Stories)
The second oldest usage of the word (and the first illustration of the figure) occurs in
Shunsensai Takehara's short story entitled "Shinigami" in his Ehon Hyaku Monogatari
(Picture Book of a Hundred Stories) (c. 1841) in which a human ghost is able to give
people suicidal thoughts.
Modern mythographers believe that the "shinigami does not correspond to any
Shinto or Buddhist deity, mythological figure or folklore yokai, but is a Japanese
adaptation of the Grim Reaper, as its concept and iconography was introduced to Japan
during the Meiji period" (Papp 106)—that is, sometime between 1868 and 1912.
Shinigami pervade contemporary manga and anime, but they have appeared only
recently. The earliest contemporary usage of this term is found in a 1971-1972 video
game based on Shigeru Mizuki's manga GeGeGe no Kitarō ("Kitaro of the Graveyard").
The main character of the manga, created in 1960, is a yokai (ghost) or member of the
Ghost Tribe who at times works as a psychopomp leading dead souls to hell, a realm of
comic monsters. The term "shinigami" occurs in episodes 30, 34, 38, 42, 45 of the anime.
The second earliest reference to shinigami is found in Yoshihiro Togashi's YuYu
Hakusho, both the manga (1990) and anime (1992), in which Botan, a friendly girl whose
name means "peony," ferries souls across the river Styx and floats in the air on an oar
when she encounters the protagonist, Yusuke Urameshi, a young thug who has saved the
life of a child and has a second chance at life, albeit as a yokai.
Fig. 17. Botan in YuYu Hakusho
In the manga she is called a "guide to the River Styx" and "guide to the spirit world"; in
the anime she identifies herself as a "shinigami," translated as "grim reaper" in the
subtitles. Curiously, she flies over the Styx as Yusuke holds onto her paddle; they visit
King Enma, Lord of the Underword, who decides "whether mortals go to heaven or to
In Yoko Matsushita's Descendants of Darkness (1994), the main character, Asato
Tsuzuki, is a "guardian of death" (shinigami) who works as an agent of the Summons
Department of the Ministry of Hades.
Fig. 18. Asato in Descendants of Darkness
Asato is a young man who dresses like a government agent, in black suit and tie,
sometimes wearing a black trench coat. He explains to his partner, Asuka, that their
business is rounding up souls of people who are supposed to die but for some reason "got
stuck" so their spirits cannot "cross over" (8). Shinigami use paper talismans, fuda, as
shields to prevent ancestral spirits from keeping Ayako Sugizawa, a seventeen-year-old
girl, from "rolling over" in the first story. Ayako proves compassionate, pitying the girl.
In subsequent stories, Asato and his partners confront vampires and zombies. One of
these villains, a doctor named Muraki, informs us that the King of Hell employs eighteen
shinigami, of whom Asato is the most powerful. Apparently shinigami are capable of
flight, as Asato informs Ayako, but they never do this. Much of this manga contains
Christian iconography and beliefs, evidence of the eclectic nature of Japanese culture.
In the manga/anime Imishi Magical Theater: Risky Safety (1999), a shinigami
named Risky and an angel named Safety inhabit the same body, preventing Risky from
taking the life of a character named Moe.
Fig. 19. Risky in Imishi Magical Theater: Risky Safety
This hybrid shinigami/angel appears as a cute, Goth girl resembling a witch with her
broad brimmed hat and holding a scythe—the first instance of a shinigami using this
In the popular manga and anime Bleach (2001), by Tite Kubo, numerous
shinigami or "soul reapers" belong to the Soul Society, located in the otherworld. The
story begins when one of these shinigami, Rukia Kushiki, gives her supernatural powers
to a mortal, Ichigo Kurosaki, for which act of generosity she is condemned to death,
resulting in warfare between thirteen "courts" or "squads" of shinigami. Rukia dresses in
a black kimono and wears a "zanpakuto" or "soul-cutting sword," the weapon par
excellence of all the reapers. Of the dozens of reapers depicted in this long-running
manga/anime, only one, Yumichika Ayasegawa, wields a weapon that resembles a scythe
or sickle that splits into three or four identical blades. Like the benign figure of Thanatos,
Rukia protects souls as she leads them to the afterlife, but she bears little resemblance to
the iconic Grim Reaper.
Most shinigami in contemporary manga and anime bear no semblance to the
traditional Grim Reaper. In Peach-Pit's Zombie-Loan (2002-2011), the main character, a
girl named Michiru Kita, possesses "shinigami eyes" that allow her to see a ring around
the neck of a person soon to die. In Arina Tanemura's Full Moon o Sagashite (2002-
2004), two shinigami, a girl and a boy, dress fancifully and wear rabbit ears and cat eyes
In Atsushi Ohkubo's Soul Eater (manga: 2004-2013; anime: 2008-2009), a
character named Shinigami runs a school, The Death Weapon Meister Academy, located
in Nevada, and trains humans who have the ability to transform into weapons.
Fig. 20. Maka Albarn and Soul Eater
The main characters are Maka Albarn, who is a Meister at the school, and Soul Eater,
who is Maka's scythe. Shinigami is a tall armless figure dressed all in black and wearing
a stylized skeletal mask; instead of holding a scythe, his "death-scythe" is a young man
(Maka's father) dressed in a black suit and wearing a tie in the form of a crucifix. In the
first volume of the manga, Soul Eater has already consumed 99 evil souls, and he now
needs to eat a witch to become Shinigami's scythe, so Maka, wielding Soul Eater
transformed into a scythe, fights a voluptuous witch named Blair, who turns out to be a
The depictions of shinigami in Soul Reaper suggest an influence of the Western
Grim Reaper and Japanese Shinto. Though the character named Shinigami does not
closely resemble the Western icon, he is dressed completely in black, wears a skeletal
mask, and possesses a scythe. The ability of characters to transform from humans to
scythes echoes the Shinto tsukumogami ("artifact spirit"), which are items or artifacts that
contain a spirit after a length of time, usually one hundred years.
Perhaps the best known shinigami in contemporary manga is Ryuk in Death Note,
by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (2003-2006). The title page picturing Ryuk
standing next to Light, the main human character, is riveting: he is tall, with bulging eyes,
pointed teeth, a clown mouth, and generally Goth dress and appearance, wearing a black
body suit with metal rings circling his neck and a chain belt with a large buckle depicting
a skull. His hair and even his clothing are spikey, and he sports a heart pendant on his left
Fig. 21. Death Note (Title Page)
The manga begins in the Realm of the Shinigami, a dreary afterlife with monstrous
figures, many wearing masks and holding scythes. Because Ryuk has dropped his death
note into the human world, he leaves this otherworldly realm to descend to earth, flying
over a city with feathered wings. When Ryuk discovers that Light has found his death
note, he informs Light that he is not going to do anything to him and that they now share
a "bond." Ryuk explains that there was no reason Light received the death note; it was
pure chance. Both Ryuk and Light are bored, but Ryuk discovers that humans are "fun."
We later learn the possessors of the death note are "possessed by a god of death" (1:130).
After Light begins to kill evil people and becomes the subject of a police investigation,
led by a mysterious sleuth designated as L, Ryuk states that he is neither on Light's side
nor L's, though he does warn Light that he is being followed. Ryuk later explains to Light
that shinigami kill mortals because they "get extra life from humans" (1:141), revealing
that they are mortal. He also describes the power of a shinigami's eyes to see a human's
name and lifespan over his head, adding that a human can obtain these powers by giving
up half his lifespan. Shinigami, then, are not psychopomps, but parasites.
Ryuk is one of several shinigami who appear in this twelve-volume manga. A
female shinigami named Rem gives a death note to a girl named Misa; this shinigami is
entirely white, in stark contrast to Ryuk. Other shinigami include Gelus, small, stitched,
and monstrous, with one eye and one empty socket; Sidoh, who dresses like a clown and
has bird-like features; Gukku, who wears a cattle skull (Obata said that he wanted for
Gukku to "look like a monster to keep it simple"); skull-faced Ghiroza, whom Obata
described as "more of an Orthodox-looking Shinigami"; Midora, obese and resembling
Jabba the Hut; and Zellogi, plumed in a native American head-dress and having a hook
for a left hand. Among the minor shinigami appearing in Death Note, Obata states that
his depictions were influenced by Tibetan art, Balinese bird masks, and Italian antique
accessories featuring "faces covered in jewels."
Obata's comments about his creations indicate an eclectic sensibility, a quality
that informs all of Japanese culture. His shinigami, particularly Ryuk, demonstrate
influences of the Western Grim Reaper and Shinto oni, variously translated as demons,
devils, ogres, or trolls. When he describes Ghiroza as an "orthodox-looking shinigami,"
he may be referring to the traditional Western portrayal of death as a skeleton.
Shinigami pervade contemporary Japanese pop culture, sometimes resembling the
iconic Western Grim Reaper, often depicted as a common mortal dressed in black or
white. In Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura's Mimori Ao's As the Death God
Dictates (2003), the death god is a polite psychopomp in the form of a young man
dressed in white who takes pity upon the dying and the dead. In the twelve-volume light
novel Ballad of a Shinigami (2003-2009), written by K-Ske Hasegawa, the shinigami is a
kind psychopomp appearing as a young girl named Momo dressed in white and
possessing a scythe; she is accompanied by a talking black cat.
Fig. 22. Ballad of a Shinigami
And in the manga Murder Princess (2005-2007), by Sekihiko Inui, one of a group of
bounty hunters is a shinigami named Dominikov, a small skeleton who gleefully beheads
the grandfather of the protagonist in the opening pages, though somehow the old man
suffers no harm.
Fig. 23. Dominikov in Murder Princess
In Shinigami Lovers (2007), by Ryou Yuuku, a black clad shinigami named Sei attaches
himself to a girl with a chain connected to her wrist, while in Shinigami of the East
(2007), a one-shot manga by Kaori Ozaki, a shinigami wearing black slaughters a group
of thugs with his scythe. Shinigami Alice (2009), by Izumiya Otoha, features a young
schoolgirl shinigami who uses scissors as a weapon. In The Shinigami Infirmary (2009),
by Shou Aimoto, the school nurse is a shinigami whose white lab coat covers his black
garments. Etsuya Mashima's Shinigami Trilogy Manga (alternate title: Death Scythe)
(2009) presents a boy dressed as a traditional grim reaper, wearing a skull mask, who
offers to give some of his life to a dying girl who is meant to go to hell.
Fig.24. Shinigami Trilogy
In Mikoto Yamaguchi's The Final Wishes Granted by a Grim Reaper (2009), a girl
named Hibiki Aida, killed by her brother (who has also killed their parents), returns from
the dead as a shinigami dressed like a school girl in black in order to make sure that her
brother goes to hell; however, since she is a novice, she must grant a "last request" to a
girl who will die in a week; otherwise, the girl will be come an "evil spirit."
In Rin-ne, known as Kyōkai no Rinne (Rinne of the Boundary, subtitled Circle of
Reincarnation) (2009-ongoing), written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi, a red-
headed character who is half human, half shinigami helps spirits "pass on to be
reincarnated" when he is not creating artificial flower arrangements. Rinne, whose "name
is taken from 'Rinne,' the cycle of resurrection present in Buddhism, and Rokudo, the six
paths that comprise it" (1:8), possesses a cloak that enables him to become invisible and
allows ghosts to take on physical form. Pure-blooded shinigami include Rinne's
grandmother, Tamako, who owns a talking black cat, and Agatha, who is accompanied
by a black cat named Oboro. Like other shinigami in Japanese manga, Rinne is a kind
psychopomp who is capable of wielding a skull-bladed scythe (7:5). He also employs the
flaming "wheel of samsara" (Buddhist cycle of rebirth) in order to reincarnate lost souls.
As in the light novel Ballad of a Shinigami, these death spirits are accompanied by black
cats, like medieval witches in Western tradition; the ability of these cats to speak reveals
a fluidity between human and animal found in Shinto tradition, such as that of the fox
In Kana Yamamoto's Shinigami Doggy (2010-ongoing), a boy killed by a truck
"awakes" in the shinigami room, where a monocled shinigami resembles a magician at a
Fig. 25. Shinigami Doggy
The boy is rejected because he is male; this shinigami deals only with females. But a
bargain is reached: if the boy can eliminate the regrets of one girl who has recently died,
the shinigami will agree to help him. If a troubled spirit becomes a poltergeist, the
shinigami's wand transforms into a scythe. The shinigami also possesses an hourglass, a
common item in illustrations of the Western Grim Reaper.
In the recent Grim Reaper and Four Girlfriends (2013-ongoing), by Suyama Shin
(Suyama Shinya), a shinigami in the form of a schoolgirl appears before a loner and stabs
him with a knife because he is a "moocher," a nonproductive member of society, like
other loners; the protagonist, middle schooler Minaguchi Kaoru, decides to find a
girlfriend to avoid death, and the shinigami then uses her scythe to heal him (reminiscent
of the healing powers of DC's Grim Reaper). Kaoru writes letters to four girls, who all
accept his offer. There is nothing extraordinary in the shinigami's appearance except that,
at moments, she takes on a ghostly demeanor, silhouetted in black and having white eyes.
Among these twenty-one manga, shinigami may be grouped into four categories:
female shinigami without scythes (six instances), males without scythes (five instances),
female shinigami with scythes (five instances), males with scythes (seven instances),
revealing equal distribution in the gender of death gods and their usage of the iconic tool.
The scythe-wielding figures bear obvious kinship with the Western Grim Reaper, though
significantly, there are nearly as many females in this group of males, whereas in Western
tradition the Grim Reaper is almost always male. But it is significant to note that these
characters, with the exception of the minor character Dominikov in Murder Princess, are
not skeletal or hooded; only their scythe indicates a connection with the Grim Reaper.
The preponderance of female shinigami may reflect the Shinto belief in a goddess of
death—that is, Izanami.
On the other hand, the shinigami who lack scythes do not seem to bear a
relationship with the Western figure. Among the female shinigami, one, Buton, rides an
oar, an echo of the Greek Charon; another, Rukia in Bleach, resembles a female samurai;
three (Kita in Zombie-Loan, Aida in Final Wish, and Alice in Shinigami Alice) dress as
school girls; and one (in Full Moon) possesses rabbit ears. These variations reveal a great
diversity in origins of the figure.
Male shinigami lacking scythes lack this diversity, as they are the stereotypical
slim young men of manga and dress conservatively in contemporary business suits (Asato
in Descendants resembles a government agent; the shinigami in As the Death God
Dictates is a young man in white; while Sei in Shinigami Lovers is a young man in black;
in Shinigami Nurse the figure is a young man in white; the shinigami in Full Moon is a
cartoonish figure with cat eyes).
This study is a pioneering effort to establish a body of criticism about the Grim
Reaper and shinigami. I hope that other scholars will delve more deeply into the origins
and history of each of these personifications, particularly their appearances in art and
literature between the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.
We may conclude that both figures belong to relatively recent mythological
history, the Grim Reaper appearing in 14th century Europe, though not being given his
name until the 20th century, and the shinigami appearing in 18th century Japan. It is clear
that the depiction of shinigami in late 20th, early 21st century Japanese manga is
influenced by Western iconography, but it is important to note the differences in
American and Japanese concepts of death.
The Grim Reaper rarely appears in the American comic book tradition of the 20th
century. There are only two characters so named, and neither works as a psychopomp.
The earlier Grim Reaper of Nedor Comics is simply another generic superhero fighting
the Nazis during the 1940's, and the DC figure is just another among the multitude of
supervillains making life difficult for the Avengers.
In stark contrast, the shinigami pervade contemporary manga and often play the
role of psychopomps, thus bearing greater similarity to the 14th century Western
personification than the superhero/supervillain of American comics. While these
shinigami often resemble the Western figure, many of them resemble ordinary human
beings. The Japanese concept of the otherworld, the Kingdom of Yama, obviously
informs modern depictions, sometimes portraying shinigami as officials working in
Yama's ministry. This concept reflects a more benign vision of the otherworld than the
Western afterlife, which threatens damnation in hell. The realm of the shinigami, like the
Palace of King Yama, is not necessarily an afterlife for humans, but rather a realm of
spirits, be they oni or kami. The Western concept of the afterlife, of course, includes
humans, and the Grim Reaper appears to be an indifferent leader of the dead whose
agency, as all beings in the Christian ethos, ultimately depends upon God.
The Grim Reaper icon that pervades contemporary culture does not enter the DC
and Marvel universes to the same extent that shinigami appear in manga. In American
comic books, the terrifying name is invoked by rather generic characters, whereas in
Japanese manga, the theme of death is much more central, and hence shinigami are much
"I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one 'like
a son of man' with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle [falcem acutam] in his
hand. Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who
was sitting on the cloud, 'Take your sickle and reap [mete], because the time to reap has
come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.' So he who was seated on the cloud swung his
sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Another angel came out of the temple
in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire,
came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, 'Take
your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth's vine, because its
grapes are ripe.' The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw
them into the great winepress of God's wrath. They were trampled in the winepress
outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses' bridles for
a distance of 1,600 stadia."
Another early Italian print, The Triumph of Death, found in Bernard Quarich's edition of
Works of The Italian Engravers of the Fifteenth Century, depicts a female figure, fully
robed and emaciated, mounted upon the familiar cart, drawn by four bulls and trampling
corpses. As in the illustrations of Savanarola's book, devils fly to the left, angels to the
right. This type scene is found in artwork outside Italy. A fifteenth century Flemish oil
painting, Triumph of Death, closely resembles the early triptych associated with the circle
of Mantegna, particularly in the depiction of death, a scantily clad skeleton with scythe.
Black bulls trample corpses and, in the foreground, well-dressed men lie strewn on the
ground, some appearing to sleep peacefully. A later Dutch print by Philip Galle (1537-
1612), based on an earlier work by Maerten van Heemskerk (1498–1574), presents
vigorous bulls trampling bodies and an emaciated Death holding his scythe back, poised
to swing. A figurehead of a skull projects from the chariot, and the background contains
scenes of heaven and hell.
The Dance of Death continues to be a popular motif in late 15th century block books and
art. The Lübeck Des Dodes Dantz, printed in 1489, presents a clad skeletal figure holding
his scythe to the ground before a stone wall, and in Pierre le Rouge's color illustrated
Danse macabre (1491-1492), an emaciated half human-half skeletal figure, partially
clothed and holding a scythe, appears several times. An early fresco depicting the Dance
of Death is located in the church of St. Mary at Škrilinah in Beram, Istria, created in 1474.
In this dance scene, humans alternate with skeletons, one of which, unclothed, is holding
a jointed scythe above his head. Scholars mistakenly date a Dance of Death painting from
Kingenthal, Little Basel, as 1312 (Spinrad 1987, 5), but as Clark explains (1950, 64), this
error was made by a German art historian named Büchel, who later corrected his
misreading of the date, which is actually 1512.
In The Faerie Queene (3, 6, 39), Spenser describes Time in the Garden of Adonis:
"Great enemy to it, and to all the rest, / That in the Gardin of Adonis springs, / Is wicked
Time, who with his scythe addrest, / Does mow the flowring heres and goodly things, /
And all their glory to the ground downe flings, / Where they do wither, and are fowly
mared: / He flyes about, and with his flaggy wings / Beates down both leaues and buds
without regard, / Ne euer pittie may relent his malice hard"; and in Mutabilie 7, 46, he
describes "Death with most grim and grisly visage…/ Yet is nought but parting of the
breath; / Ne ought to see, but like a shade to weene, / Vnbodied, vnsoul'd, vnheard,
vnseen"; see Spinrad 1987, 24-25.
The Grim Reaper's first death occurs by falling off a cliff in Vision and the Scarlet
Witch 2(2) (Englehart November 1985); his second after Magneto pokes him in the eye
with his own scythe in Vision and the Scarlet Witch 2(12) (Englehart September 1986);
his third death results from a broken neck in Avengers West Coast 61 (Thomas December
1990); his fourth death as a result of stabbing in Dark Reign: Lethal Legion 2 (Tieri
2009); his fifth death after Vision self destructs in Chaos War: Dead Avengers 3 (Van
Lente 2011); his sixth death occurs in Uncanny Avengers 19 (Remender and Acuna 2014).
The figure of the Grim Reaper in Nedor and Marvel comics should be distinguished
from the character Death and other morbid entities who figure frequently in modern
comic books but do not carry scythes. In the Marvel Universe, Death is the brother of
Galactus and Eternity, a cosmic trinity who represent equity, necessity, and vengeance.
Other such figures include Marvel's Thanos (his name obviously drawn from the Greek
psychopomp Thanatos; he first appears in Iron Man 55, by Jim Starlin Feb. 1973); the
Spectre (an early DC comic book superhero whose hooded cape resembles the Grim
Reaper's; this character figures prominently in Kingdom Come, a 1997 graphic novel
created by Mark Waid and Alex Ross); Black Flash (Flash 2, 138; Grant Morrison and
Mark Millar, June 1998, DC); Deadman (a ghost whose head is a skull in Strange
Adventures 205, by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino October 1967, DC); Ghostrider
(a Marvel supervillain who rides a motorcycle, first appearing in Marvel Spotlight 5, by
Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, and Mike Ploog August 1972); and Dead Girl (a mutant in
the X-men saga; X-Force 125, Peter Milligan 2002, Marvel). DC Comics' Nekron is a
scythe-wielding supervillain in the DC canon (Tales of the Green Lantern Corps 1, by
Mike W. Barr, Len Wein and Joe Staton June 1981).
Also in the nineteenth century, Miyoshi Shozan wrote an essay entitled "upon
possession by a death god, it becomes difficult to speak, or easier to tell lies" in his
"Shōzan Chomon Kishū" in Kaei 3 (1850), recounting the story of a prostitute possessed
by a death god who invites a man to commit double suicide, and in the kabuki
Mekuranagaya Umega Kagatobi by Kawatake Mokuami in Meiji 19 (1886), a death god
enters people's thoughts, making them think about bad things they have done and giving
them suicidal desires. These spirits, rather than being gods, are more like yūki (ghosts)
and yūrei (evil spirits). Another nineteenth reference to shinigami is made by Sanyutei
Encho I (1839-1900), an author and performer of rakugo (puppet theatre), who offered a
program entitled Shinigami.
I. Primary Sources: Grim Reaper
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Van Lente, Fred. 2011. Chaos War: Dead Avengers 1 and 3. New York: Marvel.
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