Synopsis: Sotoba is a small village stepped in tradition and cut-off from the outside world. One day a mysterious group of new residents arrive in the village and around the same time, a large rash of sudden deaths begin to plague the village. What is the connection between these new people and the deaths of the villagers, and can anything be done to prevent them?
I’ve never been much of a horror movie person, and even less into stories about vampires. Due to my upbringing I was never really allowed to be around much of the former growing up, and the latter tends to be targeted more towards women these days so as a straight dude they don’t hold a whole ton of appeal for me without an interesting hook. All that alongside the problems horror anime tend to have with actually being well…scary and I had plenty of reason to continually put off watching Shiki. I’d heard various degrees of praise for it over the years, and I recalled liking the first episode of it that I had actually watched way back when Funimation had done their initial simulcast of it, but my general aversion to the genre made me wary of whether or not it would be worth my time. However thanks to Aniplex’s shenanigans, Funimation’s rights to the show ended up expiring this year, so faced with the possibility of never being able to see this show again and the fact that the S.A.V.E. edition was going for dirt cheap on RightStuf, I was finally faced with no choice but to tackle my procrastination, Twenty-four episodes later, I can safely that the show was definitely one of the most memorable viewing experiences I’ve ever had for both better and worse.
For the first half of the show the show follows a pretty straightforward formula. A series of sudden deaths occurs in the small town of Sotoba, and a few of the residents including our three primary human characters, Natsuno, Dr. Ozaki and Seishin, notice that something else seems to be happening beneath the surface. Eventually these deaths are connected to existence of a race of vampires known as Shiki who drain victims of their blood until they either die permanently, or come back as a Shiki themselves. This combined with the arrival of a group of outsiders including a strange little girl named Sunako, leads to a gigantic ,mystery to discover who and who isn’t a Shiki, with a few episodes focusing on a “victim-of-the-week” before leading up to their eventual demise.
Compared to a lot of other horror anime I’ve seen there are two things that Shiki does particularly well in it’s earliest episodes. The first is creating a genuinely unsettling sense of atmosphere as we’re introduced to the setting of Sotoba. Horror anime often tends to suffer from a need to feel “spooky” at all times, and trying to maintain a constant level of dread often just ends up coming off as incredibly goofy instead. This show certainly isn’t immune to that effect either, but compared to similar works, it starts off a lot more grounded, and that largely works to it’s benefit. The “isolated village” is an old enough horror concept that even someone as unversed in the genre as I am knows how it works, but the show manages to make it feel real by giving Sotoba a strong enough sense of culture to feel unique while also providing it with enough modern conveniences that it doesn’t feel as though it’s completely cut off from reality. That gives the overall tone of a bit of a timeless feel, which makes the gradual appearance of the Shiki all the more disturbing as they actually do feel like an unnatural part of the show’s world, and the subsequent murders they dish out are much scarier for it.
The second key to it’s success in the first half lies in how it utilizes its massive cast of characters. Sotoba is town populated with a variety of both relateable and strange individuals and the show takes the time to make sure that the audience gets to be familiar with as many of them as possible. From Megumi who despises the town and desperately wants to escape to the city, to the overly-friendly Toru who also harbors a crush on an older woman, each of these characters have their own motivations, and for the most part, feel pretty believable. While many of these characters vary in their degree of likability, the amount of personalities on display gives the series a sense of humanity that other horror anime I’ve come across have kind of lacked, and more importantly, spending so much time with them makes their inevitable “deaths” at the hands of the Shiki hit that much harder. This naturally causes the audience to lean towards the side of humanity in this struggle, and to want to see the Shiki driven out before they fully infest the village.
However as the show heads into its second half, the story begins to undergo a gradual but significant dramatically shift. As Ozaki begins going to more extreme lengths in order to combat the threat of the Shiki, and more of the villagers become aware of what’s going on, the human characters start fighting back, and fighting in earnest. At the same time, as several of the characters we met while they were human are now Shiki, and the show takes the time to explore the motivations of Sunako, who just wants a place where she won’t be persecuted, we begin to sympathize with the Shiki and their plight to live peacefully. It all builds up to a massive reversal in which the humans become the hunters and many of the townsfolk who were kind or at least sympathetic, become vicious and cruel in the wake of exterminating the Shiki, all while convincing themselves that they’re doing this to protect themselves.
It’s a powerful allegory for the way in which we can “other” those we deem a threat and it’s one I honestly can’t say I was expecting. The use of supernatural creatures as a metaphor for those who fit out of societal norms is certainly nothing new, but it’s rare to see that subject tackled in such a violent way (Devilman is the closest comparison that comes to mind here) and it’s honestly pretty haunting. While society as a whole isn’t always quick to turn to extremism against those who threaten the status quo, dehumanizing those people creates situations where any degree of excessive force can be justified as something “for the greater good” and, much as in the case with this show’s conclusion, ultimately results in tragedy. It’s definitely not a very uplifting message, (and it broke me to such an extent that I didn’t even want to look another person in the eye for a good few hours after the finale) but it’s certainly a powerful one, and in light of some of the recent headlines in the news, it’s also one that sadly hasn’t lost any of its relevance.
As should be no real surprise to anyone by this point, I went through this one watching the dub and said dub turned out to be really spectacular. I have a real fondness for dubs that manage to tackle the challenge of dealing with a large ensemble cast as opposed to following a specific group of characters and ADR Director, Mike McFarland, manages to step up to the plate and then some. There’s a ton of really stellar performances in this dub from the actors in the main cast like John Burgmeier as Seishin and David Wald as Dr. Ozaki who do an excellent job of portraying the individual moral struggles plaguing them, to R. Bruce Elliot whose work as the shopkeeper Tomio manages to make the character sound downright bone-chilling during the Shiki hunts, and made him extremely memorable for an otherwise minor character. Every performance in the show is rock solid and a lot of the acting here did a lot to sell me on the story’s eventual descent into tragedy.
Production wise on the other hand, there isn’t a whole ton that stands out here, but there also isn’t anything I’d actually complain about on that front. The animation by studio Daume is relatively consistent, if not particularly flashy, and the music is generally just serviceable with the second ending theme “Gekka Reijin” by BUCK-TICK being the only one that caught my attention. Similarly, the character designs are pretty par the course for an early 2010’s show with the only exception on that end being the excessive amount of 80’s hair that a good fifty percent of the cast seems to have, and that generally came off as more hilarious than creepy. Fortunately Tetsuro Amino’s direction on the series manages to work around these shortcomings pretty effectively and successfully combines with the sound production by Junichi Inaba to create a chilling sense of atmosphere that manages to make even the goofier bits genuinely unsettling, and actually managed to creep me out even when the vampires weren’t on screen.
So having now sat through all of Shiki, I’m now of two minds on my purchase of it. It made good use of its horror elements to tell a darker tale about human nature than would expected at first glance, and it managed to grip me ways that I really couldn’t see coming based on how the first batch of episodes went. At the same time though, while I acknowledge the material is strong, it also managed to repulse me in a way I’ve rarely experienced while watching something, and I’ve never felt quite as awful walking away after finishing a show as I did watching this. I’m glad I watched Shiki and I’ll stand by it as an excellent work of fiction but truth be told, I don’t think I’ll be be taking it off my shelf to give it another run through anytime soon.