08 February 2011

better dead and red: reflections on a red shinigami

The Grim Reaper. Shinigami. Death. Few words carry with them such powerful connotations. Or such powerful imagery. Simply saying the word “reaper” can send a chill down your spine. Go ahead, try it right now for yourself. “Reaper.” I know my stomach felt a little cooler. And my mind? Well, it immediately went to the image of a man in dark, wielding a giant scythe in his hands, his skeletal face grinning wickedly as he stared me down, just waiting for that last breath. Terrifying, isn’t it?

Now take the word shinigami, death god, lord of dying, and then attach it to this image:

It sort of loses something, doesn’t it? For one, Grell isn’t wearing black, is s/he? That bright outfit, the goofy smile, the chainsaw, and that hair. It’s a lot of one color, and that color is something a lot brighter than black.

It’s red.

No, this is not a rumination devoted to the imagery Japan has thrown around when characterizing death gods (that comes later), but rather the imagery surrounding one of them, a Mr, or is that Ms, Grell Sutcliffe, transvestite shinigami extraordinaire. And there are a fair amount of things one could say about she/him as a character. And this one-time bit player in a manga full of exotically designed characters has managed, through visual mediums and a lot of fan service, to represent something far more than just another death god. Grell Sutcliffe is a representation of a few things inherent to Japanese culture and history, wrapped up in one hell of a package.

Before I proceed further, I feel the need to clarify a few points I will be using a bit later on in this essay. This is the first in a series of essays that I have decided to write based on my lecture/panel “Dead Like Us: Shinigami, Death Culture and Japanese Media.” The goal of these essays to to record some of the key points I make during the panel, and expand upon other ideas that I must overlook, due to time constraints. This particular essay is then, I suppose, the “test run” for what I hope to be doing later, so please pardon errors, hastily phrased grammar, disjointed ideas and poor spelling. Though I proofread everything I write, this is something new for me, and I am bound to make mistakes.

When I speak of the shinigami, I lay out a number of key characteristics that all shinigami possess. These include concepts like the unique bonded weapon, the outsider nature, the tenet of neutrality (whereby death gods must inherently be unbiased) and the idea of being the “keeper” of something. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be focusing on the idea of the shinigami as outsider. More than many other representation of death gods, Grell Sutcliffe seems to embody this concept in a manner than is “higher than the norm” when looking at the cultural implications of the death god.

Finally, I will admit that I am a fan of the character. Grell is the main reason I actually started reading/watching “Kuroshitsuji” in the first place, as I became enamored with how the character was presented. Grell is more than just fan service, though it is a role s/he embodies extremely well. While the anime itself tends to deplete some of the appeal for she/him by “devolving” the character into a more comical role versus what is presented in the manga, I still found great enjoyment and satisfaction at the end of the first series. So please pardon me if I insert a few fan-friendly remarks about Grell, I assure you they are placed there with only the purest of intentions and merits.

Note: With regards to the massive ambiguity surrounding the character, I will be referring to Grell as “he/him” for the duration of my discussion. After all, it IS a man, no matter how effeminate or “bishy” he acts.

Shinigami as outsider

This is the one trait that is universally found within all shinigami, regardless of series, intention or representation. Shinigami are universally portrayed as outsiders to human society. This is true from the most fantastical of them (The Night Walker of Mononoke-hime) to the most “mundane” (Rinne Rokudo of Rin-ne). Usually this outsider nature is reflected in powers or abilities that render them invisible to human eyes, or a truly outlandish appearance that openly declares the difference of their nature from what humans would consider normal. But the end result stays the same- the shinigami is an outsider, because the shinigami is not human, nor does he belong to human society, much like the quarry he tracks and gathers.

Grell Sutcliffe takes this idea of the shinigami as outcast, and runs with it. More than just being an outsider, Grell often revels in the fact that he is different, flaunts his difference to those around him, and declares he does it because “it’s more fun.” Disdaining what he sees as a “mundane” existence as a death god, Grell instead elects to shirk his duties and set off on his own, seeking out adventure and new experiences at the expense of what he “ought to be doing.”

Grell’s behaviour is a direct dissension from one of the core concepts of Japanese culture- the idea that the personal is often subordinate to the duty. In both Japanese religion and public life, the idea that community should be the utmost one can aspire to is a very widespread and acknowledge truth (“that nail that sticks up must be hammered down”). Drawing from ideas that go back to tribal times, when community cohesion was so important, doing one’s duty is a major tenet of Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism alike, and often is shown as being rewarding. This is what has led the Japanese to become such a dominant force in their own society and the world as a whole.

Grell Sutcliffe ignores this in favor of personal goals. He ties himself to Madame Red because she intrigues him, and supports her own “selfish” agenda, despite her career. He crafts his own weapon because it’s more noticeable than “normal.” He pursues his own agenda based solely in the interest of action and adventure, at the expense of his duties as a death god. Even his appearance shows his apparent love for being “abnormal.” But nothing identifies his love of the outsider quite so much as his affection for the color red.

“Lady in Red”

Red is a very conflicted color in Japan. While many Japanese adore the color, and there are wide ideas tied to it as a color of love, luck and success, there are also a good number of connotations that red evokes. Some of them are tied to specific points in Japanese history, and others are superstitious in origin, but all are seemingly shown in the design and execution of Grell as a character.

Let’s start with what might be the most obvious- Grell’s red hair. How is red hair a signifier of his status as an outsider shinigami? One must look deeper into the implications of red hair in general throughout history. As it is a biologically recessive trait, red hair has often been linked to, as well as ascribed to, certain types of people ethnically and socially. The ancient Egyptians viewed red hair as a sign of the outsider, and one of their principle gods, Set, was seen as having red hair, and also being the god of outsiders. In many cases, outsider was synonymous with “invader” as well. In Japan, during the late 19th century, the term ang mo appeared, used as a derogatory insult directed at Dutch traders who were viewed as untrustworthy, and also who possessed red hair. While this prejudice has subsided in the modern world, historically red hair was shown as a mark of some kind of outsider, and a hostile one at that. Pay close attention also to the fact that the only characters in all of Kuroshitsuji with red hair are Grell and Madame Red, almost all of the others having either brown or black hair in Victorian England. Grell and his mistress both stand out visibly and ethically, and both wear red with pride.

Consider also the following: within a good deal of anime, red hair also has been significant of certain personality traits, which is where it starts to get interesting. Take a look at some of the most significant characters with red hair and you will see some patterns emerge. On females, red hair often is indicative of a girl with a fiery or domineering personality (Asuka Sohryu comes to mind, with Yoko Lidner close behind). On males, red hair often falls on those people with a less...visible personality, but who have strong martial skills (Ichigo Kurosaki loosely falls into this, he has red-ish hair, his name translates to “Strawberry” and comes off, at least initially, as a serious boy with a very determined streak bordering on obstinacy, but is fully capable of taking on all comers skillfully and effectively). Now take a look at Grell: Fire-engine red hair, insane fighting abilities, aggressive and overbearing demeanor- Grell is a type of “best of both worlds” character, possessing the skill of the male redhead with the emotion and expression of the female. Which is very fitting considering Grell is both male AND female simultaneously.

The Black, er...Red Sheep

Now compare Grell’s rather outlandish attire with that of his superior, William Spears. (And here I refer to the anime version of Grell. In the manga, Grell never actually takes off his black butler’s uniform, only grows his hair out.) William is seen as all business, clad in a formal black suit and carrying his death scythe, depicted as a lance. He also states that he wears the uniform of the shinigami at a later point. William is indistinguishable from other formally attired characters. Now look at Grell.

Grell tries his best to be as androgynous as possible. Not content with merely acting different, Grell takes it upon himself to look the part, right down to the notion that his very gender can be mistaken. He tired to hide who he is by drawing extreme notice to what he wants the world to see, and that visibility in turn masks the truth behind his nature. Hiding in plain sight. And that is taking his appearance into account without looking at his garishly out of place weapon, of all things a modern chainsaw in what is supposed to be turn of the century London.

His actions further separate him from his bretheren Reapers as well. I mentioned earlier how Grell acts of his own accord, and he does. Unfortunately for him, his actions fly in the face of exactly what a shinigami “ought to do.” Acting selfish is one matter; assisting in murder and sowing death, when the entire idea of the shinigami is to remain neutral and record death as it happens, essentially hastening along the process to where death becomes unnatural itself, is a complete and total violation of the very principles that the shinigami uphold and conform to. And Grell’s reaction to this? He laughs, pleads, and thinks it’s all some big joke. And when the joke is over, he kills his “mistress,” and then looks for something more interesting to do, which is, of course, killing others people.

Masque of the Red Death

Grell inserts something into a continuum of life and death which sometimes is sorely lacking- chaos. Many instances of shinigami in anime and manga tend to show them as providing some semblance of order over the act of death and dying, bringing some grounding to what would otherwise be a very terrifying or mysterious act. With few exceptions, these other death gods cling to their codes and morals, and do their best to maintain order among the dead/dying, and overseeing the transition so things may proceed according to plan.

Grell laughs in the face of that order, and sets about having fun, sowing chaos where he can. He isn’t some maniacal monster doing pure evil for the sake of social collapse, and perhaps that makes him a better character for it. His motivations are smaller, more focused, more centralized, and more concerned with what he sees as boring, routine work (something that will also provide the motivation for another chaos-loving death god with a book fetish), and he wants nothing more than to “spice it up,” adding flavor to what is ultimately dull, at least in his eyes. He is representative of that little voice in your head that tells you to be impulsive, go against the grain, take chances and just plain have fun (albeit his version of fun ends with someone dead on the floor). Is it unhealthy? Possibly, as all indulgences run that risk. Is it understandable? Yes. Because while he acts out as he wants, in blatant disregard for the rules, that appeals to the naughty in us all. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why he is such a popular character- he speaks a language we all understand, but are unwilling to indulge most of the time.

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