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?
StoryVampires 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.AnimationShiki 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.SoundYasuharu 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.CharactersShiki’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.OverallIn 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.
Story: There is certain difficulty in working with cliché stories and themes that may not be readily apparent to those without a bit of a literary background. One might think “aha, that’s easy!” when it comes to formulating a story around a cliché topic, as the underlying content and framework are already prepackaged and easy for an audience to absorb. Yet, there is an important flaw in this assessment: where an author might otherwise rely on a unique premise to offset some poor execution in an original work, the inclusion of the cliché requires a story’s execution to be running on all cylinders at all times or risk flopping into the trash bin. Shiki happens to be one of those few twists on the vampirism cliché that succeeds in executing a coherent story without deviating from common themes. The story engages in a well-honed exposition covering a host of powerful philosophical explorations into the human experience, and yet is not a preachy pseudo-intellectual work in the vein of Texhnolyze, Ergo Proxy, or Serial Experiments Lain. No, Shiki cleverly masks much of its depth behind a mundane, generic setting that has been done a hundred times over: a string of mysterious deaths come to a small community in a middle-of-nowhere village and vampires are to blame. Following the formula, one might expect to watch a few people die, wait for the deus-ex-machina to save the day (Higurashi Kai, anyone?) and then yawn at the predictable and banal climax of some cheap horror flick as the vampires get their due, right? Wrong. Sotoba, the village in the show, is populated by doctors, elders, monks, farmers, the young, the old, and a legion of other ordinary townsfolk who share various backstories that might accuractely mimic any large social exchange in the real world. Among all these various characters are a wide array of different perspectives on what first appear to be a handful of unusual deaths, and serious tensions between people begin to emerge as the oddity turns into a pattern. While the story takes a few episodes to start rolling at full speed, the village soon begins to tear itself apart over a serious existential threat that nobody knows how to contend with. Some of the townsfolk acknowledge the the string of deaths as beyond random chance, but no consensus can be reached as others constantly cry for proof to substantiate the problem as more than just a string of bad luck while handwaving away the desire to look into the deaths as superstition. Further on the fringes, others identify the threat straight away as an otherworldly assailment, only to find that their harbinger proclamations to the town square have made them the target of an enemy who wishes to remain secret and holds no reservation about killing to make that so. What unfolds from there is a truly gripping story of the nature of power, propaganda, deceit, virtue, and social stratification in human society. While a more popular mainstream western series like “The Walking Dead” rather brashly flaunts its central motif of “in the apocalypse, other humans are more dangerous than the zombies” at the forefront of its story, Shiki is far more subdued and nuanced in how the vampiric threat manifests tragedy within the village. There are no over-the-top scenes of spiked baseball bats flattening faces as man fights man for supremacy – quite the contrary, there is surprisingly little shock-value drama for the sake of shock. One’s own belligerent self-denial, for example, is as potent a weapon toward one’s own demise as a blood-sucking assailant. Other topics, such as a willingness to forsake one’s culture for the sake of a greater social narrative, also plays heavily into the misfortunes of the village much as it does in the present day. Without social cohesion, the villagers are but naive individual lambs against a pack of wolves. Due to the roller-coaster nature of the how events in the story unfold, I find it best to remain intentionally obtuse in the level of detail offered regarding individual events. Observing Shiki without preconception of what is to come allows one to experience a powerful whirlwind of emotions as one reacts to Sotoba's growing tragedy, and a huge cast of characters makes it nigh-impossible to predict what is going to happen to each as the story moves forward. From beginning to end, Shiki's tale is a masterwork commentary on the nature of evil within the human soul and the tenuous lines that those of virtue must walk in order to combat it, and carried within this is an elegant weave of melancholy, anger, sorrow, and hope that define man when pushed to the brink. The subject of vampirism in the show is simply a catalyst to tell this greater narrative and, for those willing to look for the wizard behind the curtain, offers a chilling parallel to events which transpire in our own world in much the same way. Animation: Despite being a series from the turn of the 2010 decade, where the artistic brushes of Kyoto Animation and ufotable were redefining what the anime community would come to expect as quality in the years to come, Shiki’s animation is decidedly unimpressive. While I give it credit for the fact that it does not show unnecessary restraint and makes the visuals every bit as horrific as they need to be to parallel the actions happening on screen, too many character designs are intentionally disproportioned or downright comical. The vampires are given a distinct and ghoulish empty-eyed aesthetic, sure, but the general quality could easily be mistaken to be from the timeframe of similar dark-themed animation styles like Noir or Gungrave. That said, the animation does not really detract from the intended pace of the show even if it has many questionable elements. My sense is that the series was likely budgeted for a standard 13 episode run, yet was later was drug out to 24 in order to allow it to properly deliver its story. Corners would obviously have to be cut to make this work, but having a properly-paced and phenomenal story is far more important to my appraisal than a perfect animation board. Sound: Haunting choral chants and tension-laced strings define Shiki’s soundtrack and work diligently to set the mood for each episode. While the total count of tracks is fairly low and the same pieces are liberally recycled, the delivery feels similar to Your Lie in April in that the tracks it does possess are employed with a deft hand and sound musical judgment. The silence as an episode comes to a close inspires the ever-desired “just one more” feeling to motivate the viewer to continue on, and creates the desired dark, eerie vibe befitting of a show best watched a few hours past sundown. Voice acting from the Japanese casting is quite good, and the seiyuu deliver a broad mixture of different emotions required over a wide range of individual talent. Catatonic muttering, murderous screaming, wailing despair, and unwavering resolve are all met with poignant delivery – points which the English talent expectedly falls short on. Stick with subs on this title for full effect. Characters: Of the many reviews I have written and the host of anime I have watched, Shiki is distinctly unique in how its characters are used both in the plot and as foci of the narrative. With exception to the village doctor Toshio, who one might ascribe as the true “main character”, characters are more abstract than a random individual with a random name. The story takes place in a village of 1300 people, and the scope and feel certainly make this number seem believable. For example, one family in the show of particular emphasis is that of a young contractor newly married with a young child. His two parents and sister round out the family, and while individual members are highlighted at different times “the contractor and his family” acts a sort of meta-character that makes amalgamizing such a massive set of characters into one’s head much more palatable. The scoping of the story in this manner creates an ensemble cast that feels of a scale similar to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, yet one does not feel burdened by having to try to remember any great number of individuals. Faces are easily pieced together into the character groups in which they belong, and retaining names is far more a bonus than a necessity to the experience. This hierarchy of characterization is essential to how all the characters develop, as the plague of vampirism tears through each individual family in different ways. Some families go unscathed, others are obliterated, and within each family are drawn out emotive stories of what had been before and what has been bereft after. While I still have my reservations about several character additions who feel like out-of-place comic relief ala Infinite Ryvius, these hiccups are minimal and are included sparingly such that they do not impact the larger drama. Not a perfect category, certainly, but the characterization is definitively noteworthy and is executed very well. Overall: Were it not obvious at this point of the review, Shiki really took me by storm. This show has been on my “recommended by friends” list since it aired around ten years ago, and I never gave it the time of day due to my general disinterest in the horror genre. Horror or not, however, the presentation is first and foremost a dark drama of a similar color as one might find in The Promised Neverland, where the underlying shock-value elements are a targeted subset of the plot and not a major selling point. For those looking for a tense mystery drama written for a mature audience, Shiki should be toward the top of the list. Not to be missed by any serious connoisseur of top-tier anime drama.
I was sceptical about Shiki at first. Vampire anime made after vampires had been turned into useless sparkling sex-symbols? But Shiki brings back all the myths about vampires that have been lost in recent culture. They burn in sunlight, they can't enter holy ground, and they need permission to enter a house. The setting is a little rural town who's only real export is the wood needed to make funeral poles. Foreshadowing has never been so obvious. Story: Shiki is what happens when a horror movie is stretched over 22 episodes. The suspense builds over the first 3 or 4 episodes, allowing only glimpses of the storm brewing beneath the surface. While Shiki does play on a few cliches, the action and creepy-factor are enough to make you question those new neighbors who just moved in down the street. A lot of the anime reminds me of Bram Stoker's Dracula (the novel, not any movie adaptation) in the way the plot develops. Animation: What makes the animation so different is how it swings between cult-classic horror film with dark settings and thick contrast and almost slice-of-life (if your life happened to occur in a horror film). One of the more interesting points of animation is clothing styles. While the villagers tend to dress in drab, farm-working clothes, the vampires often wear intricate and gaudy styles. Sound: The voice acting was chosen well, which I've found is common amongst noitaminA selections. The characters were brought to life by the voice actors, instead of contrasting them, as I have seen in other anime. The musical score was subtle, giving just enough sound that the storyline had a backbone. Characters: One of the most interesting points is how well both sides, vampire and human, are portrayed. It is done in such a way that sympathy can be given to either side. But, since much of the story is about human survival, the characters aren't given much development beyond how they react to the threat. While this keeps the plot flowing, it hinders the characters ability to connect with the audience.
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