Rumiko Takahashi was the first woman to succeed in the hotly competitive world of shounen manga without using a male pseudonym. She was responsible for 4 previous popular long-running anime series: Urusei Yatsura (1981-86), Maison Ikkoku (1986-88), Ranma ½ (1989-92) and Inuyasha (2000-04, 2009-10).
If you’re familiar with Rumiko Takahashi’s earlier work, the main point I want to emphasize is that this is not like Inuyasha. Rin-ne is closer in spirit to her earlier farces Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½.
Inuyasha was superficially whimsical but fundamentally dark and tragic–the sort of story where a pair of star-crossed lovers could only find happiness after multiple lifetimes of bitter disappointment. I’m not condemning Inuyasha (it had some thrilling moments) but this is something different.
Rin-ne might seem superficially dark–it’s about death after all–but it turns out that death is pretty funny. The afterlife is an offbeat place filled with quirky characters, officious bureaucrats and wicked crooks who usually end up being foiled by their own incompetence.
The viewpoint character is Sakura Mamiya, an ordinary high school girl, except for the fact that she can see the spirits of the dead. She’s cool and reserved, somewhat naive but with a dry sense of humor. Unlike most Takahashi heroines she is not a tsundere. In fact she’s fairly sensible. However like most Takahashi heroines she’s utterly fearless, which can get her into trouble.
Sakura’s life changes when a mysterious student named Rinne Rokudo shows up in her class. The first thing she notices is that her other classmates can’t see him when he wears a colorful robe called the Yomi no Haori (Haori of the Underworld.) While wearing the robe he confronts ghosts and evil spirits.
It turns out that Rinne is part human and part shinigami (death god.) Shinigami are not part of traditional Japanese folklore. They were created by manga artists based on Western images of the Grim Reaper. However instead of a single personification of Death there are always lots of shinigami, perhaps because too many creatures die each day for one god to handle them all.
Depending on the manga shinigami may be depicted as evil spirits who cause people to die before their time. Or they may be helpful spirits who appear to those who are dying for other reasons and guide them to the next world.
Rinne is a shinigami of the good sort. He spends a lot of time finding ghosts who are trapped in this world by some lingering obsession and helping them pass on to the next life.
However this story also includes damashingami, bad shinigami who lure people to a premature death in order to make their quotas. In fact there’s a whole organization of them: the Damashinigami Limited Legality Company.
Rinne’s grandmother Tamako is a full-blooded shinigami (of the good sort.) She’s a fairly nice lady as long as you don’t call her “Grandma.” She wants to be called “onee-san” (Big Sister), a title commonly used for teenaged girls.
A little more than half a century ago Tamako appeared to a handsome dying human man, and fell in love with him.
Being the sort of shinigami who usually gets what she wants, she pulled some strings and arranged to extend his life by 50 years. Then she married him.
They lived happily together in the human world and young Rinne was raised by them.
However when his grandfather died Tamako moved back to the spirit world. Rinne, determined to continue to live as a human, was left homeless. Now he lives secretly in an abandoned building on the school grounds and tries to eke out a living as a part-time shinigami.
(The spirit world has a Yen-based economy, though prices and wages seem unreasonably low by modern Japanese standards.)
Rinne may be poor and unlucky but unlike many Takahashi heroes he isn’t stupid–just extremely principled and honorable even when it’s to his own disadvantage.
(This is why Sakura isn’t a tsundere. Takahashi pioneered the tsundere trope, but her version of a tsundere is a basically nice girl who has the misfortune of being in love with a man who is so stupid and insensitive that she really has no choice but to zap him with a spell or whack him with a large mallet. Rinne isn’t stupid or insensitive enough to make that necessary.)
Shinigami often work with animal familiars, if only for comic relief purposes. Rokumon is a black cat who makes a contract with Rinne. He used to work for Tamako but she fired him (maybe because he did something wrong, or maybe because she wanted him to go help Rinne.)
He’s not what Rinne would consider an ideal assistant. He’s a rather unscrupulous scrounger, though that may be the sort of assistant that Rinne actually needs.
A mysterious transfer student named Tsubasa Jumonji presents a challenge to both Sakura and Rinne. He comes from a family of exorcists and knew Sakura briefly in elementary school. (His family moved around a lot.)
He’s been carrying a torch for her ever since. He fell for her because she was the only other child he knew who could see spirits. As far as she’s concerned he’s strictly friend material, though of course, being Japanese, she won’t tell him that directly. (That’s probably a good thing since if she fell for him he seems the sort of guy who would soon have her reaching for a mallet.)
Tsubasa is accustomed to exorcising ghosts using harsh punitive methods that Rinne disapproves of. Rinne hopes to convince him to use a more humane approach and may be making some slow progress.
Masato is a devil with a long standing grudge against Rinne. This dates back to when he was in Devil Elementary School and young Rinne stopped him from carrying out his school assignment to lure a rabbit to Hell. Masato is wicked and devious but not especially bright.
Sabato Rokudo is Rinne’s estranged father and the bane of his existence. When Rinne was a little boy Sabato used to steal his pocket money. Now Sabato takes out large loans in Rinne’s name. Not only is Sabato a damashinigami, he’s the founder and president of Damashinigami LLC. This guy is never going to get a Father’s Day card.
Ageha is a young shinigami from a wealthy family. She represents a possible rival for Rinne’s affections.
The anime is supposed to have 25 episodes which does not nearly seem enough to cover even the volumes of the manga that have been published so far. Given the past record of Takahashi series this could go on for a long time.