Yesterday I mentioned the shinigami or Japanese Grim Reaper. With the few minutes I’ve got to post today, I thought it was worth directing readers to some excellent examples of Grim Reapers and other conveyers of the soul (psychopomps).
Bleach is the Japanese anime that got me started, but there are plenty more in what I listed such as Death Note and Black Butler. Here I am relying (again) on the excellent work at TV Tropes to refresh my memory about the many versions of this trope in anime. As I previously warned, that website is a blackhole where the best plans go to die and browsers survive only long enough to have dozens of tabs opened.
Anyhow. In my own experience, I immediately remembered several American shows that I thought wonderful examples of sustained development of the psychopomp theme:
- Dead Like Me (2003-2004) — This series was excellent. Grim reapers in this show arrive on-scene at the moment of a person’s death and guide them through the transition to the afterlife. Much like in the trailer to this summer’s box office flop R.I.P.D., the reapers remain in our world but look different to everyone else. This means the main character, played by Ellen Muth, gets many chances to avoid her newly bereaved family. As she attempts to console her family, she makes everyone a compelling, sympathetic character. It even got her nominated for a Saturn award.
- Reaper (2007-2009) — Less successful (critically at least) than Dead Like Me, Reaper‘s main character is a human subcontracted reaper for the devil. When souls escape (?) or refuse to depart the world for hell, the Devil sends the main character of this series to hunt them down.
- Pushing Daisies (2007-2009) — This is a much less straightforward example, but the series was totally enjoyable. The main character can bring people back to life, a gift he learned saving his mother from an aneurism. This gift has two caveats: 1) If someone is reanimated for more than a minute then another person nearby must die and 2) if the character ever touches the reanimated person again that person will permanently return to their deceased state. (He learned these lessons the hard way when reviving his mother meant the death of his childhood sweetheart and then his mother dies again when she kisses him goodnight.) Part detective story, part love story, this series begins with him reanimating his murdered sweetheart and marching inexorably to the moment where he accidentally touches her a second time. Ouch.
There have also been a number of excellent short narrative arcs about this in other series. My favorite is the “resurrection gauntlet” from the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood. This glove brings the deceased (preferably a violently murdered one) back to life. Unfortunately, this is something more like a swap than a gift. The person wearing the glove may be in for more than they realized! If you like Doctor Who and you haven’t seen this yet, do yourself a favor and learn all about Cpt. Jack Harkness’ exploits at the Torchwood Institute.
Of course, the whole Doctor Who series is about reanimation, and the reboot of the famous science fiction show has much of the appeal in the reaper genre. After all, the Doctor is very much the harbinger of death. And he so often guides and comforts people during their final moments, much as his companions do for him with his transformations. (The Doctor “regenerates” a new body when he’s on the verge of death. This trick allows the character to be played by many different actors). Expectant fans are already aware that the current Doctor will meet his end in the Christmas special episode. Hopefully he’ll have suitable guides to ease his passing.