Shiki: A Review

The 22 episode anime series Shikiis set in the quiet Japanese village of Sotoba, nestled within a valley of pine groves. Megumi Shimizu, whose perspective is the first of many shown to us, regards with disdain how old fashioned and uncool this small town is, and how different life in it is from the vibrant urban lifestyle she dreams of. Her only consolations come in the form of a boy who just moved in whom she likes,  Yuuki Natsuno, and the promise of worthwhile company in the new residents of Kanemasa, a hill on which a rather out of place European style mansion was built. But the moving in of the new residents would herald the beginning of a series of unexplainable and sudden deaths in the village (beginning with Megumi). Local doctor Ozaki Toshio, and independently Natsuno discovers that more than heralding, the Kirishikis (the new residents of Kanemasa) are causing the deaths: they have  begun an infestation of blood-sucking undead who have risen after falling victim to blood sucking themselves. But the tables are eventually turned, and by the end of the series the remaining human villagers engage in a bloody extermination of their Risen relatives.

I will not deny that the synopsis is perfectly dull, it is impossible to capture the horror of the series. From the onset, it is clear that the creative minds behind the title had the crafty unveiling of horror as the project. And the series pulls it off brilliantly, for Shiki is a formalist masterpiece.

The excruciatingly gradual unfolding of events is the first way the creators evoke horror. The true cause of the deaths is not revealed until several episodes into the series, and the creators successfully make use of the device of uncertainty in causing dread. While we see Toshio giving detailed medical accounts of the dead bodies, we cannot help but imagine what the true cause may be, and in the absence of confirmation it seems as if for a brief while all the possibilities are simultaneously happening.

It is thus unsurprising that when the cause of the deaths is revealed, there is a let down of emotion. But the creators take advantage of this and continue building up the  characterization. And on that note, they have pulled off another success, for each of the characters is perfectly well developed. Every character has a strength and a weakness, and it is difficult to purely love or hate any of them. Seishin is calm, empathic and has convictions, but he is frustrated with how defined his life has been. Toshio is duty-bound and dedicated, but he has lost his humanity in pursuit of duty. Natsuno is cynical and critical of his parents’ opinions, but he is patient, a true friend and shows courage. The characters also fulfill Kurt Vonnegut’s rule on characters wanting something, and to a great extent the things they want, and their pursuit of it drive the story. Sunako and the Kirishikis want a safe haven, but Toshio wants to preserve the village. Even the minor characters show it: Masao wants to be recognized and valued, while Megumi wants to move to the big city. This aspect makes Natsuno an interesting character: while he has a strong dislike for the village, he also ends up wanting to be happy with his best friend Tohru, who loves the village.The characters are very human, and with the revelation of the Shiki, this humanity is further extended to the okiagari.

And the creators take full advantage of that by enforcing the horror and catharsis. The first episode shows how they make use of the classic technique of the Christ figure, typical in many Greek tragedies,  to pull it off. Megumi’s character is highlighted, and despite her flaws (or probably because of them), the viewer ends up liking her. But the episode ends with her death. The same happens to different characters in the story, both on a scale of one episode, or across many episodes.

Villagers discover Chizuru is a Shiki in episode 18. Taken from http://btnsubs.blogspot.com/2011/06/shiki-corpse-demon-18.html?zx=ab3b53efca39a9c1

One particularly significant case of this is in episode 18, Chizuru’s death. Undoubtedly the best episode in the series, it humanizes Chizuru, who at first is just portrayed as a femme fatale. From her death, we are lead to realize that indeed, the okiagari are merely sucking blood for survival, and henceforth their monstrous image is replaced by sympathy.

Ohkawa strangling Sunako in the last episode. Taken from http://www.mania.com/shiki-episode-22_article_127392.html

The mark of the genius behind the creation of the series is on how the horror continues even after the monsters have been humanized: the humans are in turn made monsters. The latter half of the series is the gradual transformation of the villagers to di-sensitized perpetrators of massacre. There are deliberate highlights of this: the villagers chanting as they systematically drag, impale and dispose of okiagari; a woman eating onigiri nonchalantly after finishing off a struggling okiagari with her hands all bloody. The scene of a mother holding her son’s decaying body hints how the humans’ fear of the Shiki will lead them to do even more horrible things. The height of the human horror is when the villagers end up killing the Head Monk’s wife, Seishin’s mother, on mere suspicion (a scene that caused personal catharsis).  By the end of the series, Ohkawa, a muscular old man, strangles Sunako, a little girl, in the middle of a burning church. The story begins with dread for the Shiki and sympathy for the humans, and it end with dread for the humans and pity for the Shiki.

Pity for the would-be predators is one of the many carnivalizations that are developed in the series. There is a deliberate desecration of the holy, and the sanctification of the banal. Seishin, a monk who is tasked with overseeing the burial of the dead, sympathizes with the living dead and ends up rescuing Sunako. Toshio, a doctor tasked with saving lives, dissects his resurrected wife until she dies, and instigates and leads a massacre of okiagari. Even the envy of Toshio’s mother over the Muroi family is a subtle carnivalesque of modern medicine envying antiquated religion.

If anything, Shiki can be described as a chronicle of misery. It is about characters not getting what they want, trying to get it, and failing miserably. In the end, nobody wins. Natsuno wants to leave the village, ends up finding a friend in Tohru and learns to love the village, but Tohru dies,  and  Natsuno ends up dying in a hole in the village he has come to hate again. Megumi wants to leave the village but ends up dying on one of its rice fields.  Even Toshio loses when the village is burned by the forest fire, and though Seishin escapes with Sunako, one is led to wonder if the two are not doomed to suffer the same fate again. In the face of all the suffering, it isn’t difficult to think that Sunako’s term “those abandoned by God” applies to all humans.

Sunako, Seishin and Toshio. Taken from http://gallery.minitokyo.net/view/470954

But like all good stories, the show leaves its questions unanswered, its ideological conflicts unresolved. The dichotomy between the inhumanity of duty and the lack of principle in sympathy as demonstrated by Toshio and Seishin. The conflict between happiness in normal living and self determination that may lead to eccentricity, as is seen in Natsuno’s quiet struggle with his parents. And the irreconcilability of human empathy with the frequent need to kill to survive, the overarching theme of the series. None of these conflicts are resolved, and the series compels the viewer to resolve them on their own.

Shiki is based on a light novel by Fuyumi Ono, who also wrote the Twelve Kingdoms. It was directed by Macross 7 director Tetsuro Amino. The series’ music, eerie in its simplicity, is by Yasuharu Takanashi, noted for his work on Naruto Shippuuden and the Hell Girl series. The Japanese cast is a veritable ensemble of accomplished character seiyuu (Tohru Ohkawa in the helm as Toshio Ozaki), with upstarts Kouki Uchiyama and Aoi Yuki as Natsuno and Sunako respectively and Jpop superstar Gackt making his debut as Kirishiki Seishiro. Except for the first closing theme, the OPs and EDs are attractive songs, with established J-Goth band BUCK-TICK performing the first OP and second ED while Kanon Wakeshima collaborates with visual kei bassist Kanon for the second OP. Character design is by Yu Yu Hakusho animation director Shinji Ochi. Carl Kimlinger and Carlo Santos both agree that the character design is bizarre, but I think this contributes to the series’ stylistic uniqueness.

Shiki gets everything right. It successfully makes use of classic formal techniques in dealing with timeless themes, but in the process it manages to make of itself a unique and unforgettable unfolding of horror.

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