17 February 2011

an ideological shinigami

Does a shinigami actually need to be a god? Does it actually need to be a supernatural creature in general? This might sound like a rhetorical, or even obvious, question. The word “god” is in their name, after all. But what if there exists a shinigami who embodies everything the concept does, does the duty and holds the obligations, while at the same time having not one lick of supernatural ability. Is that person still a shinigami?

This essay explores the character, motivations and actions of one such person. He is not a god, he is human, through and through. He has all the same frailties and weaknesses we do. He does have a powerful weapon at his disposal, and he does introduce his foes to the blackness of death, but he exists wholly in the confines of the physical world. His name is Duo Maxwell, and I argue that he is, in fact, a shinigami.

He Came From The Sky

In “The Gundam Deathscythe,” the second episode of Gundam Wing, the 1996 alternate universe story that introduced many modern anime fans to the Gundam Universe, viewers were greeted by something of a conundrum. It might not have been obvious upon that first watching. In fact, it was downright awesome to see. A giant, hulking black mobile suit, wielding a massive plasma scythe, began to destroy the forces of the Organization of the Zodiac military. It was plainly modeled on the idea of the Grim Reaper, and it’s pilot was a young hotshot named Duo Maxwell. And he referred to himself as “Shinigami.”

For some, this was the first time the word “shinigami” had been heard. While the word had been a part of the Japanese lexicon for over a century, Gundam Wing was one of the first shows to introduce it to the west. While in the modern climate of anime fandom the word is almost commonplace, thanks to shows like Death Note and Bleach, back then it was something new and interesting, which also applied to the character. In a medium that loves ambiguous heroes, Gundam Wing gave its viewers four to choose from, with Duo being possibly the most visible.

We never exactly know Duo’s origins. He acts very American. He laughs as he works, always with a smile on his face. He is cast as a rebel and an “activist” of sorts, though he seems more interested in violence and death more than anything else. Unlike the other three “antiheroes” of the show, Heero, Wufei and Trowa, he is hardly serious and takes a very lighthearted approach to doing his duty. He also manages to cultivate an aura of fear around him, born of the imagery behind his mobile suit and the manner in which he fights. His approach to his actions is one of casual acceptance, not grim determination. He fashions himself the role of “outcast among outcasts” and runs with it.

For these reasons, Duo has emerged as one of the more popular characters in the series. While Heero Yuy might still be the most favored, because of his brooding demeanor, self sacrificial actions and the fact that most of the story revolves around him, Duo grabs hold of viewer’s attention by being the exact opposite. Outgoing, visible and a little selfish, Duo screams “hey look at me,” and we look at him, drawing satisfaction from his alternative behavior. And while the duty he performs is as grim and morbid as the suit he flies, the character is outwardly not, possessing a certain charisma that even the series’ main villains lack. Duo represents the sometimes joyful side of death and duty, the part that enjoys what he does and takes satisfaction despite the often heavy consequences of his actions. While in some respects this might be viewed almost on par with dereliction of duty, for him it is how he copes, rationalizes and ultimately performs.

Clothes Make The Man

We also see him for his chosen dress, both of his body and of his suit. The suit is the most obvious. As I mentioned before, Duo’s “Gundam Deathscythe” is a giant tribute to the western idea of the Grim Reaper. In it’s original form it’s a mass of grey and black gundanium, with sharp angles and a wicked large beam scythe, seemingly tailored to look as scary as possible. While the Wing Gundam is designed to look like a angel descending to save the world, Deathscythe is a demon from beyond sent to destroy it. Later versions of the suit, the Deathyscythe Hell and Hell Custom, take the image of the Grim Reaper and move forward, giving the suit horns, claws, wings, even more black metal and the ability to cloak, truly turning it into the monster from the other side of the grave, evoking primal fear and terror among those unlucky enough to be facing it, or even simply seeing it. Duo isn’t trying to win points with this suit, and he doesn’t care who is afraid of him while flying it. It serves the purpose of sowing terror and dealing death, and for that he is pleased.

Now look at Duo the man. Much like his mobile suit, Duo also chooses to be clad in black, but whereas the black of his suit is to be terrifying, the black of his clothing has a much softer, and more symbolic, approach. Duo Maxwell dresses like a priest. Clerical collar and a simple but ultimately formal uniform allow him to stand out even when out of armor. But the priest’s outfit goes much further than just being a decoration. It ties in with one of the fundamental aspects of Duo’s personality. He sees himself as the judge, the confessor and the agent of justice, or perhaps simply retribution. He sees his cause as an often holy one, ordained by powers beyond the legitimacy of man. He is the voice of the oppressed deep in the vastness of space, who have no voice of their own to protect them from the terrestrial overlords.

His choice of clothing reflects this, for what is a priest if not a judge, an agent of confession and ultimately, absolution. A beacon of light, a servant of the divine, and an advocate for those who cannot advocate themselves, evoking and emulating the same compassion and advocacy attributed to Jesus Christ. Historically, priests have filled all these roles, but do not take this to mean he also embodies the tenets of patience and nonviolence that priests are supposed to adhere to. His actions, after all, completely refute any assertions he can make to that point. The fundamental difference between Duo and a traditional priest come down to the fact that his own method of absolution isn’t repentance, prayer and right action. His form of absolution is freedom through death, which he gladly grants.

Terrorist or Savior

While his fellow pilots all view themselves as agents of change, and a voice for those in the colonies who have been oppressed by OZ over the decades, Duo takes great care to ultimately become more than just a voice for justice, he becomes justice itself. All the Gundam pilots develop strong attachments to their suits over the course of the series (Wufei even names his “Nataku”), but for Duo, the Deatchscythe transforms into a total extension of himself. It is the instrument through which he ultimately will pass judgement over any and all who stand opposed to him. He does not feel, nor does he show, guilt for his actions, only smiling when he delivers his own brand of divine punishment to the enemy.

So this begs the question: is Duo a savior for his colony, or is he simply a terrorist? Does he truly represent justice, or is he simply lost to the madness of death. It first must be noted that while Duo appears to act as if he is justice itself, his actions represent a very twisted form of justice at the end of the day. He acts according to what his own motivations view being just (a not quite uncommon theme when it comes to humans wielding the power of gods. READ: Light Yagami), and we never quite see what exactly those same motivations are in the end. Duo walks a very fine line between extremist and protector, shielding himself behind the idea that he is at war, and war can be used as justification for some of his more extreme views and actions.

Of course, as the series progresses, he does appear to “mellow out” some, learning to work alongside his fellow pilots. He even begins to understand the value of crippling the foe instead of outright slaughter. Somewhere along the way, he understand that the honorable purpose of war is to destroy his opponent’s ability to make war, and begins to entertain depravity less and less. Of course, while his actions may change, his attitude and outlook does not, so he keeps in close touch with the motivations that initially brought him into the conflict itself. He transforms from terrorist into savior gradually, and embraces his new role with the same ferocity and devotion he first displayed when his “star fell to earth” almost a year earlier.

In Name and Action

And so it comes full circle, back to the question I posited originally. Is Duo Maxwell a shinigami? If we only take into account the strictly literal translation of the word, then no, Duo cannot possibly be a shinigami, because he is in fact human and very mortal. He acts and reacts like a human, and his judgement is colored by human perceptions. But when taking into account the characteristics of the shinigami, the picture changes somewhat.

Shinigami are outsiders to the rest of society. Duo is as well. He comes from a land beyond Earth, with different customs and cultures. He places himself outside the rest of the moral landscape, where he practices and implements his own code of justice. He chooses to act of his own accord, regardless of the consequences of his actions, and he acknowledges his decision. In that, he embodies the outsider mentality necessary for being a shinigami.

Shinigami often act as intercessors and mediators between the worlds. At the very base level, is not Duo a mediator, or at least an intercessor? After all, the Gundam project was started as a way for the oppressed of the colonies to have their voices heard down on Earth. And through Duo Maxwell, their voices are heard, and eventually feared.

Shinigami possess unique weapons, skills and abilities. The Gundam Deathscythe is the most unique of them, evoking the imagery and fear associated with the Grim Reaper of old. It’s classic weapon, ability to cloak and monstrous appearance all serve to mark it as the most unique of five unique suits.

Shinigami are, above all, neutral. And in this it becomes more grey. Duo does seem to act indiscriminately most of the time, though his actions are almost always directed towards the forces of Oz. At the same time, in his early appearances, he was shown as being a sort of rival for Heero, and coming very close to antagonizing the other suit pilots. This, of course, changed throughout the progression of the series until he was part of the group. And during this same span of time, so did many of the other suit pilots.

So, if Duo Maxwell embraces these four main characteristics of the shinigami, where does that leave him? Is he a death god? Well, there are ways to view this question. When looking at the traits of the shinigami concept, any, if not all, of the Gundam pilots can be viewed as shinigami, as they embody the same principles. While they might not color their judgement as much as Duo does, and they might hold themselves to a “higher moral standard” than the pilot in black, they do manage to accumulate a good number of “kills” over the course of the series. So what separated Duo Maxwell from his colleagues?

It comes down to two main ideas: first is identification, second is action. Unlike the other pilots in Gundam Wing, Duo openly refers to himself as “Shinigami.” He embraces the title, and does his best to assume the mantle associated with it. He identifies himself as a shinigami, and uses that as a big part of his drive towards his actions. He allows himself to become the shinigami his imagery evokes, and relishes it. This identification is what first separates him from his fellows.

The second is how he chooses to act, which comes directly from his identification with the ideal. He calls himself shinigami, and what does a shinigami do? It introduces its victims to death. It kills people. What does Duo do, and do well? He kills people. Going up against the Deathscythe is in itself a death sentence, dealt out at the edge of its beam scythe.

“You all died. Anyone who sees me has got a date with his maker.”

Gundam Wing itself is utterly devoid of any and all supernatural elements. It’s mecha sentiments and political meta-plot are deeply rooted in science fiction. There are no gods within the show, nor are there ghosts, demons or monsters. But what the show does possess is imagery that ties in with these supernatural themes. Wing Gundam is the avenging angel, and Heero is its grim commander. Altron and Epyon are the dragons of both East and West. Sandrock is a whirling dervish, twin blades cutting through the air. Tallgeese is the mighty warrior, and Zechs the lone knight. And Deathscythe is the Reaper, the bringer of death.

So, in a show without the supernatural, can Duo Maxwell still be a god of death? He certainly thinks of himself as one. He passes his own form of judgement on those he deems unworthy or meriting death. He clothes himself in images chosen to evoke fear and terror. And he acts no different than one should. He is an idealogical shinigami, filling the role in a world without them. And he kills you nonetheless. Which in the end, is what is the most important idea of all. Shinigami are death bringers, and so is Duo.

Which begs the question: does it really matter if he is literally a shinigami when the last thing you see is of his scythe ending your life? You’re still dead either way.


  1. I definitely think "revenge" is an important theme with Duo. For all the goofy friendliness he has on the outside, there's a really dark side to him that, as you said, is enjoying what he's doing as 'shinigami'. I think he has an even darker personality than any of the broody pilots like Heero or Trowa because of how he keeps it sort of bottled up and is almost in denial about it.

    The other thing I always note about him is that he tends to refer to himself as 'becoming' shinigami- "I'll have to become Shinigami again", I believe is what he says in Endless Waltz. Thus, it's treated as a role- an agent of death- that he steps into voluntarily and thus, could remove himself from if he wanted to.

    Concerning the priest frock etc., like I tweeted you, Episode Zero will explain this, as well as the origins of his shinigami obsession (check your DM's c:), but an interesting thing to note as far as the NEW novel that is currently being serialized is... and this is a spoiler, so fair warning:
    After his wife dies (she's assumed to be Hilde), Duo goes on and becomes a priest himself, even using the name Father Maxwell, and peculiarly enough he seems to have 'passed on' the mantle of shinigami to his son, who is a generational xerox- name is the same, as well, and he also pilots an MS with a beam scythe. I think there's something to be said for passing on the role he's created like a family tradition.

    Spoiler aside, if I remember correctly, there was also a guy in 08th MS Team that was referred to by others as Shinigami, because he would always be in a corps where everyone else but him got slaughtered in battle.

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  3. Interesting stuff, but a note on a particular point:

    I think you are on the right track with the priest idea, but may be slightly missing the point do to a confusion of a priests role. A priest, in any religion I have studied, is not really a judge or giver of absolution per se. A Priest is always primarily and in essence the one who offers a sacrifice (in many religions, this sacrifice is, or has been, the ritual slaying of an animal, for instance). Everything else that they are flows from this. Even (or especially) in Christianity (at least the denominations that still have priests, like Catholics, which are familiar in Japan) the Priest is the one that offers the sacrifice, in this case offers the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (the Mass is always to be understood as offering and experiencing the Death of Christ on the Cross, likewise the last supper is understood as Christ offering the same Sacrifice as the Cross before he takes up the Cross in a certain way). All other duties, confessor, comforter, baptizer, organizer, are meant to be seen as only roles filled in order to offer the Sacrifice. The priest hears confession and acts as a representative of absolution in order that his congregation or other faithful may be purified SO THAT they may meet the requirements to come to, participate in, offer, and receive the Sacrifice (Eucharist). His other duties are done, or are meant to be done, with a similar view and focus.

    This, I believe, still adds up with Duo. If we understand that what he is doing is actually acting as one making a Sacrifice of some sort, for instance the lives of the people he is slaying, for some other cause, or to atone for some grave sins (makes the sacrifice as an offering for the freedom of the colonies, perhaps? Or in atonement for the sins of man in their oppression of the colonies? I'll let you handle that aspect).

    Think similarly of the reaper, in link with the literal reaper: He slays many (wheat for instance) in order that others may eat and have life. Thus the wheat is sacrificed so that the man may have bread and health. As well, the wheat (or the human in the case of the other reaper) is slain so that the old wheat shall go away, but so that new wheat can grow and live in its place, so that life may continue through generations rather than remain stagnant.

    The priest and the reaper are thus, in the end, two expressions of the same idea: one who destroys, or you can say offers, life so that other and new life may come to be and prosper.

  4. I was going after the popular idea of the Priest as its found in modern society. Very few still remember the notion that the priest offers sacrifice, especially those not versed in the history of their religion.

    But yeah, Indy. Duo still fits that role perfectly.