I’m not one of those morbid people who spends their free time contemplating their own mortality and the futility of life. Honestly, I’m not! If you’ve been following the posts regarding my in-progress novel, Chasing Shadows, I suppose it would be easy to get that impression. But my interest in death really stems from the interesting quirks and personalities that it is given in various cultures, rather than the looming and inescapable abyss… Oh, that sounded a bit morbid too. Sorry.
One depiction of Death that you may have heard of is the Japanese Shinigami, which literally translates to ‘Death God’. For me, these figures are among the least grim depictions of death because, in modern lore especially, they have their own lives and their own motives which are sometimes only vaguely related to the mortal world. In fact, some versions of traditional Japanese religion suggests that they don’t force humans to die at all, they just invite them to do so, when the time is right.
Fans of Japanese media will know that this aspect of the Shinigami has received a lot of focus in recent years. But despite a history spanning centuries, all the way back into the Edo Period, their first recorded appearance in fiction wasn’t until 1979, when they popped up in a manga called GeGeGE no Kitaro. And this leads me on to one of the other aspects of these figures which continues to fascinate me; they are still being developed. As a country with a large Buddhist population, there was limited interest in deities during Japan’s history so, in a very unusual turn, it has been modern media which has transformed the vague concept of the Shinigami into a defined character. Just try googling the word and you will find that most of the results you are given relate to anime, rather than religion. They even have a place in TV Tropes.
I’ve mentioned before that working with already established mythological figures can pose a challenge to authors as they must be recognisable while still being original and engaging. Shinigami have managed to dodge this bullet quite nicely and I’m very excited to see how this modern legend will be developed in the coming years.