8.5 stars out of 10
(Plot - 10, Characters - 7, Art - 8, Sound - 8.5 )
One genre that never goes out of style is the vampires/werewolves/zombies story. From time immemorial, pop culture and mythical creatures have walked hand in hand. Zombies that used to rise from the ground due to voodoo traditions and nuclear waste are now byproducts of bio weapons. Vampires and werewolves are engaged in a war to see who can twinkle the strongest in the sunlight (yes, I'm talking to those Twilight fans out there). I don't care much for any of them, and I generally think these occult pop icons should be laid to rest. Once in a while, however, I'm reminded of the fact that all it takes to rekindle a genre is bold originality. Shiki did this for me.
On the surface, Shiki is an anime about vampire-like creatures (who are also called 'shiki' ). The story is simple, following a village shrouded by trees used to make grave markers - the village is literally surrounded by death. When citizens begin dying off from what is regarded as a severe 'summer cold,' Dr. Ozaki wonders whether or not he's dealing with an epidemic. The townspeople are too ignorant to understand what's going on, and Dr. Ozaki's medical peers dismiss his ramblings about revived corpses as superstition that has no place in contemporary society. Shiki takes note of the agonizing entropy that unfolds and presents it to us in documentary-like fashion. The story is cold and impersonal. Rather than try and scare us with ineffectual surprises and typical vampire gimmicks, Shiki lets its story bleed out slowly episode by episode through its superb pacing. This anime isn't scary, but it is haunting, and often chilling to the bone.
The largest contributor to Shiki's emotional sterility is the lack of a protagonist, whose job is to show us the world through his unique perspective. The first characters we are introduced to become canon fodder for the eventual shiki takeover. They weren't interesting people at all. Megumi is the first to go; a whiny lolita-type that cries about everyone being so “uncool.” She has a crush on Natsuno, who whines about his desire to return to the city; his family moved to Sotoba village about a year ago. Natsuno is enemies with Masao, a hideous Michael Jackson lookalike who whines about everything humanly possible. I actually wanted Masao to get turned into a shiki, he was so obnoxious.
Dr. Ozaki is the closest we get to a lead character - the Dr. Gregory House of monster apocalypses, but without House's epic theme song. He struggles to uncover the cause for the rampant village deaths, which appear to be heart failures induced by anemia and inexplicable blood loss. It's during a conversation with Natsuno that he has his obligatory House, M.D. epiphany and concludes that the most logical cause for the deaths is also the most implausible one: everyone is being turned into vampires! He furiously begins an anti-shiki campaign, experimenting on a corpse and recording the experience, and eventually getting the human villagers to rally against the secret menace before they are all transformed. I bet Dr. Ozaki wakes up every morning, turns on his stereo and listens to Kanye West's “Swagger Like Us” before checking up on his patients, because he's that cool. Anyone who wants to make an AMV of that should send it to us at GoBoiano, because I'd love to see it.
Now we get down to Shiki's technical prowess. The character designs are... something else. Yu-Gi-Oh! used to monopolize the market on absurd hairstyles but that show's been dethroned. I'm sure the hidden joke in Shiki is that the village has been invaded not by vampires, but reanimated hair stylist demons who use gel with inhuman finesse. There's also a bizarre tendency to draw teardrops as marble-sized water drops, and when people cry, their eyes run like untended faucets. Not to worry; the shiki steal the show when discussing animation. They're mostly human-like, save for their exceptionally large black eyes, expressive of their animalistic bloodthirst. How the villagers missed seeing those black eyes is beyond me. It's probably a problem akin to how Clark Kent manages to become Superman by taking his glasses off, except even more nonsensical than that.
The music was limited, but powerful. The best analogy is Hans Zimmer, who recently developed the habit of rendering the same melodic tune with varying levels of intensity (Batman Trilogy; Inception). Shiki doesn't offer a variety of themes. What it does offer is a lush, warm mix of eerie pipe organ, xylophones and chimes, chanting choir and gasping children, and this doesn't get old. The music is powerful accompaniment to the show's very dark themes. Commendable job, really.
What helps solidify Shiki's distinct feel is that audiences are intruding upon a world where views on right and wrong are irreversibly eschew, non-factors in this story. Dr. Ozaki's childhood friend, Junior Monk Seishin Muroi, isn't willing to take sides in the shiki-human conflict, understanding that both have a right to live. Seishin comes to befriend the shiki queen, a small girl named Sunako, who fancies Seishin's many published novels and has taken a liking to him. Like our two characters, the anime doesn't choose sides; Seishin and Sunako are emblematic of last-ditch efforts to remain civil when all else is burning into ashes. The most poignant conversation they have occurs near the end of the series, when Sunako begs to understand why she's been cursed to living as a monster who sins (i.e. kills people for blood) in order to survive. Seishin tells her this: “God's silence has nothing to do with life or death... When you became isolated from the world, you were excluded from God's jurisdiction at the same time. There's nothing that protects you. You're not even eligible to be punished for or accused of sins.”
Sunako replies, “That's terrible.” And it truly is terrible. I can only hope there are many more shows that approach occult horror with the same level of maturity.
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