Shiki originally came out during a time which vampire related media was on somewhat of an upswing content as a result of a certain novel/film series that was maligned by pretty much everyone who wasn’t a female aged 13 or under. It received much praise for going against the trend set by the accursed franchise by presenting a more classic take on vampire lore with an attempt to weave in some questions regarding the ethics of taking lives. That means premise-wise you can safely rest assured knowing at least what Shiki has to offer is more Salem’s Lot with Higurashi vibes and less Vampire Knight or Twilight.
The first half of the series makes for a very, very, slow burn as an “epidemic” begins sweeping through the small village of Sotoba located in the middle of bumfuck nowhere Japam. The answer to said epidemic is made very obvious by the 2nd episode, or even before the series if you already know the premise and it takes a long time before the characters pick up on it. As a result the 1st few episodes focus on clinic owner Dr. Toshio Ozaki and local priest Seishin Muroi’s attempt to get to the root cause of the “epidemic” by going off on red herring trails that audience should already know are completely off. Meanwhile, characters on the side continue to die from anemia, while all sharing the same two slight punctures wounds next to each other. It takes about a third of the series for anyone to have the slightest idea as to what might really be going on.
Much of the time early on is spent introducing characters. A lot of characters. Far too many characters. The enormous cast wasn’t something struck me as a huge issue early on since I was hoping that this would lead to some interesting character arcs from at least some of them. Towards the end, it became extremely obvious just how much the show was overburdening itself. A lot of the individuals that become shiki (the term used to describe vampires in this series) end up being rather disappointing as characters as they cling to maybe one or two character traits from beginning to end. Characters that ought that seemed like they would contribute more only end up providing simple side stories and nothing the central story. If that wasn’t enough a problem, for some of the human characters there are times in which a suspension of disbelief is necessary to make sense of what they do. Would anyone, for example, attempt to hunt vampires at night with only a couple of companions without telling anyone? Or better yet would anyone lightly bury an unconscious vampire with a few teaspoons of dirt and hope that someone else will find and deal with it before it can wake up? Dr. Ozaki is the easiest character to get behind, probably for being neither useless nor moronic. It honestly wouldn’t be much a stretch to say that if Ozaki was removed from the series that the majority of the plot progression would leave with him. His method of dealing with the threat is as cold as it is pragmatic, but with no alternatives presented, I found him to be hard to disagree with.
Ironically, the thing I take issue with in Shiki was what I was most looking forward to seeing handled, that being it’s themes. The way in which the script-writers attempted to shoe-horn the black and white conflict of the story into some moral quandary regarding “who the true monster is” is inherently problematic. For any conflict to wrap me into a moral grey area it has to convince of what good will come from either side coming out on top, and this is where Shiki fails miserably. From the beginning of the series to the end there was never any question from me that the shiki are a collective menace that ought to be curbed with one quick stake through the chest at a time. As much as the series tries to make you sympathize with the shiki, the simple fact they must prey on and kill humans just to survive puts them in the wrong. This could have worked if the whole idea of coexistence between the two sides was looked into properly, yet the series never really explains why they have to kill. Shouldn’t sucking non-lethal amounts of blood be enough? It gets even worse when you consider what would happen should the shiki be allowed to continue to do as they do. More and more shiki would arise and eventually and the death toll would rise until there aren’t any more people to kill. Then what would they sustain themselves with? It kind of makes the plan to make the village a den of bloodsuckers seem ridiculous once you consider how that might actually play out. The attempts to humanize the shiki in the last 3rd feel a bit some of them easy feel sympathy for (particularly the Goth loli Sunako and one of the side characters featured in the 1st of the 2 episode specials) but at no point was I convinced that the retaliation at the hands of people was wrong. All the shiki do for the majority of the story is attack people so they can selfishly continue their crappy lives. That said the massive pity party thrown for them in the final episodes does not at all ring true. There’s also unnecessary references to the tale of Cain and Abel to demonstrate the show’s central idea regarding the loss of humanity or something that came off as rather heavy-handed. To the show’s credit I will say that it was nice that cliched PETA logic was never invoked to take the humans off of their moral high ground as if to say the lives of people are equal to those of livestock. Now that would have sucked.
When it comes to the audio/visual merits there’s one aspect that screams to be addressed, which of course means this is the part where I address frilly haired elephant in the room, the silly character designs. One can only assume that a good deal of the characters must have had their hair done by lobotomized hairstylists as the end result is rather…well you’ve seen the above screen shot. Hair motion is noticeably absent as well so the wacky hairdos of the characters just seem to hang in place as if they are wearing strangely sculpted papier-mâché hats. Not only that but their bodies kind of have CLAMP’s signature slim and gangling look, with chins about that look sharp enough to jab vampires through the heart. Designs aside the rest of the production soundly nails the kind of eerie vibe needed for this type of series. The visuals do what they can to convey dread and uncertainty with fantastically drawn night time background shots and visual effects. Glimmering red eyes being used to denote mysterious evil is not a novel idea by any stretch of the imagination, but tiny dots of red light to signify a nocturnal predator is nearby works nonetheless. This is an anime that knows how to imprint lasting images into the minds of its audience with rather disgusting imagery, like burning flesh, bubbling and spurting blood from being impaled with a stake. Shiki can be a rather messy title, so be prepared to wince at least a couple of times once the violence begins to pile on. The OST isn’t likely the type one would seek to listen to on its own (besides maybe the openers, between which I happen to vastly prefer the 1st). Music selection overall runs the full gamut of “spooky sounds” from the dissonant sounds and ensemble chants, and even some downer melodies to convey the heartbreak of losing loved ones. The seiyuu work for Shiki can be notably over the top, which works in well considering how extreme emotions often run high throughout the story. The more simplistic characters tend to have more exaggerated voices like the wimpy Masao, or the shrill and vain Megumi. Mood swings are deftly handled with the stand out being Haruka Nagashima as Kaori who exhibits the perfect range of fear/sadness to rage/terror needed for the role.
As nicely as it was directed, to me the series overall came off as overly bloated with unimportant characters either doing nothing of interest or killing each other. I understand the point of the enormous cast was to show the effects of mass hysteria and culturally based delusions on a universal level, but it came at the high cost of having interesting individuals. All whilst being tied together with some weak rhetorical argument that assumes moral equivalence between two sides when there isn’t any. It might work a bit better if for those willing to let appeals to emotion overtake logic. A series like this ought to leave its viewers emotionally eviscerated by the end, so it’s a shame that I came out the experience as cold as I did.
And hey even if you don’t agree with me, we can at least both recognize the awesomeness that is that Buck-Tick opening amirite?