Shinigami (死神, shinigami, lit. "god(s) of death" or "death god(s)") are a type of Japanese death god. They are sometimes referred to by their literal translation "god(s) of death," or by the Western equivalent "Grim Reaper(s)."
In the Death Note series, they are a race of extra-dimensional beings who survive by killing humans to extend their own lives. Shinigami are not responsible for every death that occurs; people will eventually die regardless of whether or not the Shinigami pay attention to them, but a Shinigami can end their lives sooner than intended to extend their own lifespan.
Shinigami vary widely in appearance, and their bodies are built in ways that would seem impossible by Earthly standards.
Although some Shinigami do not appear to have limbs capable of holding objects (such as hands, feet, etc.), all Shinigami are able to hold and write with a pen in order to use their respective notebooks.
Shinigami are capable of flight and use wings as a mode of transportation, especially in the Human World. When their wings are not in use, they retract.
Nature and abilities
The Shinigami each have a unique personality and level of intelligence. Each Shinigami has his or her own written language, with some opting for letters and others for pictures. Takeshi Obata, artist of the series, said that he assumes that all Shinigami can understand the languages of one another. Some Shinigami can also speak, read and write in Earthly languages.
Although Shinigami have jobs, they do not have a required amount of work to do. Their main job is to find humans they can take life from and write their name in their Death Note. Some Shinigami tend to forget to write names down and some may die because of this. Shinigami can save other humans they care about if that person is about to die; however, the purpose of a Shinigami is to end life, not give it—any Shinigami who violates this nature will perish. For the most part, Shinigami live a very vague and meaningless existence. They are unsure of what to even do with their existence. As mentioned by Ryuk, the only reason why Shinigami even prolong their own lives by taking the lives of humans is because even Shinigami are afraid to die. Shinigami who die are reduced to dust, and their remaining lifespan is given to the human they saved. Under normal circumstances, a Shinigami will live forever.
Shinigami may be male or female. Shinigami cannot and are not permitted to have sexual relations with humans nor can they have sexual intercourse with each other. They also cannot reproduce. However, Shinigami may have emotions relating to the opposite sex. For instance, Ryuk feels shy and embarrassed when Misa Amane hugs him. In addition, humans cannot easily tell which Shinigami are male and which Shinigami are female, although Shinigami know each other's gender instinctively.
While Shinigami possess senses of taste similar to those of humans, they do not need to eat food. This is because their organs have rotted—or perhaps evolved—to the point where they can no longer gain nutrition from what they consume. In addition, Shinigami do not need to sleep and will not die from a lack of sleep. Ryuk once says that Shinigami view sleeping as "evidence of laziness."
Shinigami can materialize and de-materialize their bodies at will, and are capable of walking through walls and other objects. The only humans that will see this phenomenon are the ones who have touched a Death Note (i.e. only contact with a Death Note will allow you to see a Shinigami). Physical attacks are useless against a Shinigami, therefore attacking one with something such as a gun will have no effect; the bullets will go right through the Shinigami.
Shinigami Eyes and the Death Note
The main thing all Shinigami have in common is the Death Note. This supernatural notebook allows them to end the lives of humans before their times, adding the human's remaining lifespans to their own. In this manner, a Shinigami can extend their lives indefinitely. To assist in this, their eyes allow them to see the names and remaining lifespans of humans by seeing the faces of their victims. They are able to give Shinigami Eyes to the human they possess, in exchange for half of that human's remaining lifespan (i.e. a human which is supposed to live 40 more years will lose 20 years of their life in order to receive the Shinigami Eyes. The twenty years the human loses are given to the Shinigami that they are making the trade with). Shinigami give this ability to the human by placing their open hand above the humans head.
All Shinigami must possess at least one Death Note, a necessity to extend their lives. Should they manage to come across a second, it should—at least in principle—be returned to the Shinigami King. When a Death Note is dropped in the Human World, humans who pick up the notebook may use that Death Note to kill others. If a notebook ever reaches the human world and is picked up by a human, the Shinigami must accompany the human until they die or the Death Note is willingly given back. Shinigami can explain the purpose of the Death Note to the human, but this is done at their discretion.
The King of Death rules the realm, and controls the "distribution" of each and every Death Note given to all Shinigami upon their "creation." Apart from this, it is unknown what, if any, other tasks he performs. Shinigami have rankings, with the Shinigami King as having the highest ranking. Death Note: How to Read 13 states that the rankings do not seem to affect the Shinigami's day-to-day activities very much. They also have an unknown number of laws that they follow. It is unknown who creates these laws, as well as who enforces them. If a Shinigami breaks a law, the Shinigami will face one of nine punishment levels. The severity is least at Level Eight and most at Level One, and a Shinigami will die if anything above Level Three is applied to him or her. Another level more severe than the rest, called the "Extreme Level" also exists. Shinigami may not kill a human in any manner outside of using a Death Note, and doing so merits "Extreme Level" punishment. However, neither the anime nor the manga goes into detail about this.
Shinigami are ranked from highest to lowest, with the lowest being the more superior. It appears that higher stats contribute to a Shinigami's rank. The only Shinigami who does not have a rank is the King of Death himself.
While the system consists of numbers and all Shinigami have a different number, in the pilot series there appears to be a different ranking system, as one Shinigami says that because Ryuk is always losing his Death Note, he is "still a C-Rank Shinigami," suggesting that there is some alternative ranking system in which multiple Shinigami can be of the same rank.
Despite ranks being mentioned, it appears that ranks have no overall effect on anything in the Shinigami Realm. However, higher-ranking Shinigami tend to be closer to the King of Death.
The Shinigami Realm is a barren, dry, and desolate land that is similar to the Purgatory. The realm includes different landscapes and does not have human-like buildings. Shinigami tend to congregate in areas with bone and/or stone structures. There is at least one mountain or cave structure where Ryuk lives alone which is shown in the one-shot special of the anime.
The realm also includes deserts with various holes. The holes, which are shaped like concentric orbs, are littered about the surface. The artifacts have openings which let them see anywhere in the human world from a birds-eye view. These strange objects are what allow Shinigami to take human lives without traveling to Earth. The date that the holes were created is not known.
Conception and development
Takeshi Obata, the artist for Death Note, said that he had "a lot of fun" during the creation of the Shinigami. He also felt that the process was "very difficult" since he started "with nothing." He cited the difficulty in his creation of Ryuk as an example. Obata said that at first Shinigami appeared like "beasts" and that with later Shinigami such as Sidoh he designed them to look like crustaceans and insects because "it was easier." Obata said that he felt difficulty in basing characters on animal designs and keeping "the same feeling of the series." Obata said that he considered basing Shinigami on wizards but decided against the idea, and that the rags on some Shinigami serves as a remnant of that concept. When designing the Shinigami Realm, Obata said that he used "no real design motif" and that he never settled on any concrete appearance. He described the Shinigami Realm as changing appearance in each instance in Death Note, with it sometimes appearing to be a dry field and sometimes appearing to be a room full of bones. Obata says that he likes to think of it as "an abandoned building with chunks of steel sitting around."
Excluding the King, all the below mentioned have either made an appearance or been mentioned at some point in the series. Those included here are listed alphabetically.
Armonia is the right-hand man of the Shinigami King and sits on a throne. He informs Sidoh that his Death Note was stolen by Ryuk, and provides Sidoh with several scrolls describing the various rules that Shinigami have for interacting with humans.
Calikarcha is considered strange-looking even by Shinigami standards, having eight eyes lined up two rows on each side of his head. He has a penchant for blueberries but dislikes direct sunlight.
Daril Ghiroza is a female Shinigami who passes time by stacking human skeletons. She likes metal accessories but dislikes bright places.
Deridovely is a Shinigami who typically spends his time gambling with Guuku and Ryuk.
Gelus is a small, doll-like Shinigami whose appearance suggests that he was poorly sewn together from mismatched fabric. He only has one eye, despite having two eye sockets. Rem recalls Gelus watching over a younger Misa Amane in the human world. Knowing that it was Misa's final day, she watches with him. Having fallen in love with Misa, Gelus uses his Death Note to kill Misa's destined murderer, against Rem's protests. Gelus is reduced to a pile of dust as punishment for extending a human life, leaving behind only his Death Note. Rem delivers his Death Note to Misa because it was her that he saved.
Gook is a lazy Shinigami that enjoys gambling. Although he gambles with Deridovely rather often, he is very poor at it.
Kinddara Guivelostain is a female Shinigami with a fierce appearance, having a huge fissure on her head and sharp teeth. She enjoys violence but hates excessive thinking. She does not appear in the actual Death Note story, but does appear on the spine of volume twelve. Obata said that, since the final volume release pended, he wanted to create a new Shinigami to appear in the volume.
While she is a background character in the main series, a one-shot chapter set three years after Light's death focuses on her. Midora drops an extra Death Note into the Human world, which is picked up by C-Kira.
Nu is well regarded as the second most powerful Shinigami, with only the King's powers eclipsing hers. She is very intelligent and likes the feeling of others' regret. Nu's body is covered from head to toe with eyes.
Rem is the Shinigami who gives Misa her Death Note. Like Ryuk, Rem possesses two Death Notes; however, Rem did not get hers through trickery. The Shinigami Gelus, who had fallen in love with Misa, sacrificed himself to kill her destined murderer. In doing so he was reduced to dust, leaving only his Death Note. Touched by this act, Rem delivered Gelus's Death Note to Misa, since it was her life he saved.
Ryuk is the most prominently featured Shinigami of the series as well as one of the main characters. Bored with the activities (or lack thereof) of the Shinigami realm, Ryuk steals Sidoh's Death Note and drops it in the human realm for someone to find, hoping to amuse himself, because the Shinigami Realm "bores him." He deliberately writes the instructions on the first page so that people would understand it's purpose. The Death Note is discovered by Light, and Ryuk follows him around for much of the series to see how Light uses it. Ryuk has a fairly humanoid appearance.
Sidoh is the original owner of the Death Note that Ryuk drops in the Human World. He comes to the Human World to obtain his notebook again from Ryuk. Ryuk explains that he doesn't have it, or know where it is. Sidoh finally locates it in the possession of the Mafia, and later receives it from Light Yagami after the Task Force obtain it. After getting his Death Note, he returns to the Shinigami Realm.
Zellogi takes an interest in Ryuk's activities in the human world, and humans in particular, after learning that Ryuk's Death Note is in a human's possession. His interests are in furry items and he dislikes humidity.
In other media
Shinigami exist in every adaptation of the Death Note series.
Relight anime films
Interested in Ryuk's visit to the Human World, he seeks Ryuk out and offers a Shinigami Apple in exchange for information. Ryuk tells him the story of Light Yagami in regards to the Death Note.
In the first three films of the Death Note film series, Shinigami are essentially the same as in the original story. Ryuk, Rem, and Gelus are the only Shinigami to make appearances.
In the fourth film, Death Note: Light Up the NEW World, two new Shinigami are introduced:
Arma is a white Shinigami whose appearance is somewhat based on Sidoh's original appearance. She brings one of the new six Death Notes to the human world and possesses L's successor Ryuzaki. Arma dies when she sacrifices her life to save Tsukuru Mishima's life, which she does for Ryuzaki's sake.
The Death Note: Light Up the NEW World Film Novelization also introduces some of the other Shinigami who bring the six Death Notes to Earth. Sidoh possesses Roger Irving and later Yuki Shien. A new Shinigami named Eve possesses Kenichi Mikuriya and later also possesses Shien. An unnamed Shinigami possesses Roger Irving and later also possesses Shien.
2017 Netflix film
In Netflix's 2017 Death Note film, Shinigami work differently. Unlike the original story, a Shinigami is always present when a human dies. Ryuk directly carries out the deaths that are written in the Death Note.