Vampires have always been a staple antagonist in horror, from early films such as Nosferatu, through to Bella Lugosi’s notorious Dracula and even Gary Oldman’s incarnation of the blood-sucking count. Recently, with the brooding emo Twilight bunch pissing off half the world and the sexed-up vamps of True Blood shagging their way across our screens, it seems that the infamous creatures of the night are going through yet another heyday. So when faced with a new anime featuring these overused undead creations, you may be tempted to roll your eyes, and tut “not another vampire series”. Luckily, Shiki avoids the cliché trap, instead delivering a compelling narrative on human survival.
In the remote village of Sotoba, a strange and fatal disease sweeps its residents and within a few weeks, the death toll for the small town is suspiciously high for the time of year, and everyone demands answers. To their horror, they soon realise that the cause of the shocking mortality rate is not an epidemic, but rather the work of the undead. The series starts out fairly slowly, though it immediately introduces mysterious deaths and disappearing villagers to set the scene of mystery and intrigue. When the fatalities pile up, however, and panic ensues, the show really picks up the pace. Focus quickly shifts from a sedate pacing as the denizens attempt to solve the mystery to an urgency to discover a way to stop the shiki.
Shiki’s greatest narrative strength is how it shows the villager’s varied reactions to the incidents plaguing the town. Some, such as the elderly foursome that gather each day on a bench to chat, seem to take it all in their stride, as if the excessive mortality rate and strange disappearances are something they saw on television last night. Others take a much more proactive approach and put forth all their efforts into discovering the truth. In particular, Toshio Ozaki – the local doctor – takes it upon himself to find the cause at all costs. Believing that he has a duty to the village, the physician seems to spiral into insanity as he unravels the mystery piece by sinister piece. The contrast in this variation of responses helps to make each individual’s plight all the more poignant, especially when they attempt to convince the rational villagers of the truth. That the more active protagonists come up against a wall of pure denial, yet refuse to give up, makes each episode more gripping to watch than the last as one can’t help but wonder when these pig-headed people will finally see sense.
Shiki intentionally blurs the line between self-preservation and murder. It repeatedly asks the question: when vampires feed on their victims in order to simply survive, are their actions any more murderous or reprehensible than humans feasting on the flesh of cattle? During the show’s final fifth these distinctions become even hazier as events deteriorate into a bloodthirsty Battle Royale, forcing the viewer to question their own beliefs. One can argue that slaughtering the undead is necessary to save the village, but what about the humans who collaborate with them, or those under the shiki’s mind control; should they be considered a threat and disposed of? At what point does panic become madness, or self-defence mindless cold-blooded killing? Who really are the victims? That the series flat out refuses to take a moral stand on these issues allows for the viewer to decide for themselves whether the world is truly black and white or if every action resembles a slightly different shade of grey.
In addition to the steady mystery, intrigue, and moral questioning, Shiki provides the viewer with a reasonable amount of gore. While not always horrifically explicit – most of the action appears just off screen – certain parts can cause your stomach to lurch and send chills down your spine. For example, a sickening “THUNK” accompanies each impaling, and blisters bubble on the surface of dead skin in a manner akin to molten lava. Truly, this anime is not ideal for those with a weak constitution.
Shiki manages to exude an unsettling vibe throughout. Glowing red pupils in sinister antagonists is nothing new, yet seeing two solitary crimson dots emerging out of the darkness still proves nonetheless effective. Meanwhile the gaping void-like eyes of the vampires themselves are more akin to a dark and dead abyss drawing the viewer into their trap, like a fly entranced by a dewdrop on a spider’s web. Shiki then continues this creepy and disturbing theme with close up shots bloodshot eyeballs rolling back in their sockets and skin melting in the light of day to leave the viewer with their fair share of lasting images.
Despite setting an ominous air, the series also features questionable character designs. Screw wooden stakes, simply ram Ozaki’s ridiculously pointy chin through the heart and that pesky vampire will have shuffled off this mortal coil once and for all in a (non-existent) heartbeat! Likewise the stylists in Sotoba must be absolute artists as half the cast sports hair that defies the laws of physics. While Ritsuko’s ponytail looking like a rogue ink splat on a rampage may be fairly amusing, in a show as serious as this, the outlandish character designs simply feel out of place and detract from the unsettling atmosphere that the anime otherwise successfully creates.
The show’s animation isn’t particularly breath-taking for a work of this era, and more often than not, jerky movement makes the bizarre character designs stand out even further. Hair motion in particular is lacking, or just plain awkward. The frenzied facial topiary of liquor store owner Tomio often doesn’t swish about, despite the humongous mass of it. Likewise, the Ozaki women’s sculptured stylings never move an inch and look more like lumps of polystyrene glued to the top of their scalps – either that or they use an entire case of industrial strength hairspray every day to keep it that rigid.
Yasuharu Takanashi’s soundtrack perfectly complements the show’s atmosphere. With understated tunes, lonely and uneasy violin melodies, and haunting choral tracks echoing throughout the village, Shiki’s score works spectacularly to set the scene and heighten the tension.
The other aural aspect that truly makes this series is the plethora of sound effects. From the sickening cracks of breaking bones, dull thuds as hammers hit stakes, or the simple noise of cicadas chirping in the sultry summer heat, each carefully placed effect builds on the atmosphere and may even nauseate on occasion.
Shiki’s voice acting cast occasionally flings in the odd peculiarity. Why anyone thought that giving the crazy peg-toothed redhead from episode eleven a younger woman’s voice when she looks more like a sixty year old transvestite is a good idea, I do not know. That being said, on the whole the Japanese seiyuu manage to convey the ideal tone of voice for their characters, be it Kouji Ishii’s loud and brash Tomio, Shinya Takahashi’s simpering Masao, or Haruka Nagashima’s impressive vocal range for depicting the delicate Kaori’s swings between grief, worry and outright terror.
Shiki’s immense cast serves as a double-edged sword. As so many are introduced simply to die shortly after, it’s easier to feel the gravity of the rising death toll. However, with so many personalities in the fray, the amount of name-dropping – particularly in the early episodes – becomes excessive and confusing. Outside of the main players, the viewer doesn’t get enough time to take in who is who so as everyone rattles on about the latest folks to be sent to the funeral home, you begin to struggle to remember which villager has expired.
Shiki’s most interesting characterisation revolves around the villagers who rise from their graves. Seeing what happens to them as they become undead, enter their new hierarchical society, and how their relationships with those left behind affects their behaviour, makes for compelling viewing. While some individuals use their newfound status to exact warped ideas of revenge upon those they believed have wronged them, others struggle to overcome the guilt of killing a human being. With the series exploring the new recruits’ varying reactions, they become more than mindless killing machines and figures of hate. Although those who enjoy their new life still invoke the urge to carve a makeshift wooden stake and plunge it through the screen to finish them off yourself, others solicit pity as they find themselves controlled by “the hunger” rather than embracing it. Certainly, seeing tears of lonely regret streaming down the shiki’s faces as they plunge their fangs into their loved ones’ necks adds depth of character by injecting the inhuman with humanity.
In the final episode one of the protagonists utters: “There is a sense of good and evil.” Except in Shiki’s case, there isn’t. Though the shiki are established as the antagonists fairly quickly, this show isn’t about vampires or the undead, but more about the nature of humanity and the lengths people will go to in order to survive. The series promises mystery, intrigue and the undead, but in truth it delivers so much more.
Encased by trees that are used to make grave markers, Sotoba is a village thought to be surrounded by death - a fact that soon literally becomes the case. One summer, a series of mysterious and untimely fatalities begins to plague the small rural town. With a higher than normal mortality rate for the time of year and each cause of passing remaining unknown, Toshio, the local doctor, and Seishin the temple’s vice chief monk become suspicious and take it upon themselves to investigate. However, as the deaths begin to pile up, more people begin to wonder just what is behind this sudden epidemic; could it have anything to do with the bizarre Kirishiki family that recently moved to the village?
While I like a variety of different genres, if you give me comedy or slice of life, I'm bound to be happy – and if it's dark humour, all the better! I'll review whatever takes my fancy at the time, and whether you agree or disagree with my opinions, feel free to drop me a line.