Vampires have been enjoying quite a renaissance in Western media lately, mainly because of the advent of Twilight. In anime however, tales of bloodsuckers have been pretty constant over the years, but like the West there has been an increase in the number of stories involving the children of the night. The only problem is, they all seem to romanticise vampires by giving them kind, gentle personalities, good looks, a reluctance to drink human blood, or some other hook to make the viewer believe that creatures who look on humans as food can be considered friendly.
And then Shiki comes along and blows that whole idea out of the water.
Originally a two part horror novel published in 1998 by Ono Fuyumi (which was later reprinted in five parts), Shiki was adapted for manga in 2007 by Fujisaki Ryu. Set during a summertime in the mid 1990s, several people in the small town of Sotoba in rural Japan are afflicted with a strange and incurable wasting disease, and the local doctor fears an epidemic may be starting.
Around the same time a new family moves into the newly built Kanemasa mansion .
Shiki may not look the part at first glance, especially because of the colour scheme, but don’t be fooled as there is actually quite a deep plot to this series, and while there is a degree of predictability about the storyline, this is balanced some good scripting and a more reasoned narrative approach. One of the things that separates this anime from more recent offerings is that it harks back to older vampire tales, so unlike Fortune Arterial, Rosario + Vampire, and other titles of that ilk, the undead in Shiki are unable to venture out into sunlight, nor are they able to enter a home unless invited, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to this there’s an intelligence about the story that materialises in some interesting ways, from the doctor’s logical approach to the town’s crisis, to the strangely normal reactions of the local women at the beginning of the penultimate episode. Shiki could readily be compared to Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni as it explores certain aspects of human psychosis over the course of the series, and it’s pleasing to watch an anime that doesn’t assume that the audience are blithering idiots.
The thing that may put people off though, is how everything looks. The town and rural scenery are nicely detailed and varied, but viewers may initially wonder at the incongruity of the bright colours, or even the European styled mansion sitting on a hill overlooking the town. Rather than a whimsical approach to the design, this is a purposeful nod at the stereotypical hilltop “castle” that is prominent in a number of European horror stories.
This slightly methodical approach to design also manifests itself with the characters as it seems as though there has been an attempt to include just about every body shape into the series. Now while this adds a nice touch of diversity, there are some rather ludicrous additions which seem a bit out of place in a rural setting (one example is Ookawa Tomio, the owner of the liquor store, who looks like he was built in a shipyard). That said, the one glaring issue is that the vampires are easily recognisable because of their eyes, which is a bit of a shame as there are several scenes where the effect would have been heightened if there was less of a difference between the undead and humans.
As for the animation, the production company Daume isn’t really well known in the West, but the work they’ve put into Shiki bodes well for the future of the studio. The characters generally move well, and while there are some slightly ridiculous body positions and actions at times, there’s also a bit more realism about the series since none of the undead can leap over buildings or fly through the air. The action sequences also benefit from this more realistic approach, but there are still a small number of scenes that “bend” the laws of physics at the very least.
One thing that does bear mentioning is the quality and impact of the visual effects, especially the colour scheme, partly because of the variety, but mainly because they provide a number of scenes with some much needed emphasis.
Speaking of which, Shiki features some pretty decent acting, and a number of seiyuu really do put effort into their roles, even if they only have a minor speaking part. Now one could argue that this is to be expected from professionals, but sadly this isn’t always the case as there are many anime out there that simply haven’t understood that a poorly executed supporting role can spoil the performance of the leads.
The downside is that there are times towards the end of the series where the actors and actresses seem … a bit too enthusiastic. Fortunately the seiyuu playing the main roles are there to steady things, and their performances are very good indeed.
Shiki is well served by a variety of incidental music, ranging from quiet yet slightly ominous music box pieces to haunting choral anthems, all with some slow techno beats thrown into the mix to round everything out. The series has two opening and ending sequences that, in all honesty, are a bit of a mixed bag. The first OP, Kuchizuke by Buck-Tick, is a pretty angry piece that actually fits well with the theme of the show, but sadly the second OP, Calendula Requiem by Kanon x Kanon, doesn’t really work as it’s a bit too J-pop for its own good. As for the EDs, the first one, Walk no Yakusoku by Nangi, is a slightly bittersweet track that echoes of triumph, and in all honesty it’s difficult to judge how fitting the song is with this anime. On the other hand the second ED, Gekka Reijin by Buck-Tick (again), really does work well with Shiki, and the track is reminiscent of the music produced by some of the “darker” European rock/pop bands of the 1990s.
As for the effects, they’re suitably gory when the occasion demands, but even poor effects would be raised by the quality of the choreography throughout this series. Everything from the music, including the OPs and EDs, to the pitch and cadence of the speaking roles, is timed very well, and it’s clear a great deal of effort has gone into making this anime an aural experience as well as a visual one.
Now one of the things that is clear from the opening sequence is that Shiki has quite a large number of characters. Normally this would mean that much of the developmental aspect of the storyline would focus on the leads, with the supporting characters reinforcing this growth, but Shiki takes a different line, and it’s one that will hopefully be seen a lot more in the future. The main strength of this series is characterisation, and from the bit parts on up, every single role is clearly defined. The advantage to this method is that it’s not always necessary to develop a well defined character, and Shiki follows this path almost religiously. While some growth does occur over the course of the series, what’s most interesting is how each character adjusts and adapts to the events in the town. Probably the best example of this ethos in action is in the latter half of episode 14, and the methodical approach taken by the local doctor Ozaki Toshio is reflective of the fact that there is a degree of logic and intelligence in the plot.
In all honesty Shiki managed to surprise me. After the recent run of poor horror anime it’s pretty obvious that I ventured into the series half expecting more of the same, so when I encountered actual intelligence in the plot, it came as something of a shock. That doesn’t mean this anime is perfect though, as aside from the more obvious audio and visual flaws (like not washing off blood), there are several elements in the story that could have been resolved. That said, it’s nice to watch a show that sets out to tell a story without assuming that the viewer is afflicted with the moe bug.
The main reason I like Shiki though, is because it doesn’t fall foul of the drivel produced by authors of “dark romance”, but instead postulates some moral and ethical dilemmas for the viewer to ponder. In addition to this it also highlights the human capacity for adaptation, something which is often overlooked in anime. If you’re looking for an intelligent horror, then this series is right up there with the likes of Ghost Hound, Ghost Hunt, and other equally worthy shows.
Given that this is effectively a throwback to the type of horror that epitomises Bram Stoker’s Dracula (without certain supernatural shenanigans), Shiki is something of an oddity in anime as the general trend leans heavily into romanticism and moe, and in all honesty I haven’t seen a vampire tale this good since Kurozuka, which says a lot more about the anime industry than I can put into words.