Monday, February 01, 2010

Death Comes to Japan

The weirdest thing about different cultures is not what makes them different from ours, but what makes them the same - parts of mythology and folklore that arose entirely independently of ours, yet seem eerily familiar.

Take Death, for example.

This is probably how the legend of death began; with a dog.

Not death, the noun, but Death - the mythological figure with the long black robe and shiny scythe. The Grim Reaper, collector of souls, is a classical western figure of folklore - kind of like Santa Claus for goths.

Strangely enough, the exact same figure exists in Japanese mythology - except the so-called Grim Reaper is a girl; Izanami-no-Mikoto. This Japanese goddess was consumed by fire after giving birth to fire-god Kagu-tsuchi, and henceforth her skeletal form roamed the Earth claiming 1,000 souls a night.

In the 15th century, when Western visitors first arrived in the Far East, Izanami's story combined with the legends of Western culture to create the hybrid myth of the Shinigami - 'demons of death' who were basically the Grim Reaper on steroids, with friends.

The spooky parallel gets even cynics like myself wondering about the origins of these legends - pondering how two such similar stories can have developed entirely independently of each other.

As a historian, my first instinct is to wonder if they actually have basis in some kind of shared fact - in the annals of ancient history, did a real-life 'grim reaper' spur the creation of two independent, but parallel myths?

Funnily enough, these parallel tales exist closer to the modern day, too. Take Terry Pratchett's famous story Mort - about a young boy who becomes death's apprentice. A story that mirrors Pratchett's ribald tale exists in Japan, too - the Japanese Anime series Bleach features a young man called Ichigo Kurosaki, who reluctantly takes on the duties of a Shinigami and helps accompany the spirits of the dead to the afterlife.

Bleach is inherently superior to Pratchett's 'Mort' because its hero is ginger.

Admittedly, there are always going to be examples of the same great idea being independently invented in different places - but most stories of this kind must have their basis in some kind of shared experience. I'm not claiming that the Grim Reaper really exists - but something spurred the creation of this myth all those decades ago.

Many other cross-cultural phenomenon, including wacky Japanese import Wipeout, are purely derivative of the original (in fact, Netherlands company Endemol has made a fortune by exploiting the opportunity to sell the same old shitty gameshow to dozens of different countries.)

But things like the Grim Reaper, and his opposite number Izanami-no-Mikoto, seem to pose slightly deeper questions. Cultural phenomena like that serve as a reminder than even the best of us haven't got the answers to everything.


Occasional Professor Tom said...

For a totally different take on Shinigami, take a look at Ballad of a Shinigami.

MoƩ-est death ever!

Occasional Professor Tom said...

Null for comments.