Look, the unfortunate truth is that anime isn't a medium well-suited to horror. It feels fundamentally detached from reality and therefore struggles to legitimately frighten/shock its audience in a way that makes them feel like they are right there in the thick of the terror. But, as Halloween came around this year, I was suddenly struck by the desire to watch something creepy, sinister and animated leading up to the day the spirits make mischief. So, on a whim, i heeded the recommendations of several of my trusted peers and ordered a $20 S.A.V.E copy of all twenty-four episodes of Shiki (with OVAs integrated in where they belong) and then watched the whole thing.
Guys, Shiki is a good show. It's also seriously fucking frightening. Not because vampires are scary, or because it figures out how to get the jump on you. In fact, if anything Shiki almost immediately digs itself even further into the anime/horror hole of incompatibility by making all of its character designs reminiscent of flamboyant Pokemon villains. We've all seen this before: shows like Vampire Knight and Rosario + Vampire are infamous for taking the concept of Nosferatu and strangling them into unrecognizable angst-filled cosplaying teens. At first, this kinda seems like what we're getting into again; the first character to turn vampire is pretty much the single most-anime character to ever exist, with her dismissive love-interest set up to be the dark, brooding morally-conflicted young male blah blah blah. cynical as I am, it's possible I would've put this show down after one or two episodes if it weren't for the recommendations and the fact that I had already spent money on it and didn't want to admit to making a bad investment.
I'm very glad I didn't. Today I'm here to tell you that Shiki is a shaky, spastic production with a slow and questionable start, and that in spite of this it is well worth your time to push past those early episodes and finish it, not only because the second half is gold but also because in retrospect those early episodes become a lot better.
This isn't to say that the first half of Shiki is in any way a drag. The show begins by quickly establishing an unusually large cast of characters, trying to capture the essence of the entire village as swiftly as possible. As the episodes go on more and more characters are introduced while the show attempts to keep up with the original cast at the same time. The result can feel a bit unfocused: we're not given much of a reason to care about many of these characters at first, so we're left with an abnormally sized cast and very little emotional connection to it. However, the early iteration of the show is perpetually fun, and what it lacks in individual investment it makes up for in bombast, drama, one-liners, and over-the-top side characters that succeed at holding your attention if not your heart. Shiki is a very entertaining show, but if you're in a hurry to get to the action and bypass all the early stages it will only frustrate you. I feel the show works best when you take each scene as it comes and appreciate it for what it is, then experience the payoff naturally when it comes. To help along the way Shiki is littered with compelling shots and a bizarre array of visual styles ranging from watercolor to shakycam that oftentimes prevent it from becoming stale when it's meddling in otherwise typical horror beats. On top of this, the soundtrack is impeccable, holding the atmosphere together against the odds of the character's increasingly impossible hairstyles.
As the show goes on we come to garner an incredible understanding of the village as a whole, and also of the various philosophies and ideologies that run through its veins. There are long-asserted village values, there are the ways those are actually implemented, there are the ways newcomers and outsiders react to them, there are the ways the younger generations react to them, and there are a variety of different priorities held even by the village's various elders and leaders. Perhaps the most relevant of these splits is the fault line running between the village priest and the village doctor, two well-respected patriarchal heads who become aware of the impending threat of vampires and, while attempting to understand the impact of the night-dwellers, continue to reach different conclusions on the solution/best course of action. More of this can be seen though in the rifts that form between parents and their frustrated and antsy children, causing families to turn in on themselves even as they try to stay together on the same side of the veil of death. This really feels like a whole village reacting to change in lots of little ways that add up to a more significant shift in atmosphere. Shiki takes its damn time laying down the pieces, but once it puts everything into place it certainly knows what to do with it.
But I guess that still doesn't really answer the question of why Shiki is scary.
Well, it's not the vampires, and it's not the psychopath lurking within us all or any of that nonsense: I'm afraid that what a lot of people are going to get out of this show is that "humans are the real monsters" or some other pseudo-intellectual overdone garbage, which is just kind of redundant at this point. What's scary is that humans aren't monsters. They're just humans. They all live complicated lives, they all have different goals and dreams and vested interests and financial and personal situations. They all have different morals, too: different ideas of what's right and wrong, what's good and evil, what the noble choice is and what the damning one is. What's scary is that if you put a bunch of humans in a situation where those differing ideals come into conflict it can bring about unspeakable tragedy without any of them really making choices that they feel are 'wrong'. Shiki isn't a nightmare brought about by a 'kill or be killed' situation, it's a nightmare brought about by people from different generations, backgrounds and lifestyles refusing to cooperate, communicate, or attempt to understand one another. Shiki is modernism versus tradition, science versus superstition, and community versus individuality. Very few of these people or vampires are especially evil, twisted beings. Most of them have just been abandoned by their concepts of God, left to figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is. Shiki's characters try to simplify and simplify to make things easier on themselves, and the result is, in a word, horror. Shiki is the first anime I've seen that manages to do horror, and do it well.
Shiki won't have you covering your eyes or quivering in your seat, but when the ashes have settled it's definitely scary. It's the kind of scary you may have to mull over, to dwell on, think about, question, worry over, and inevitably try to find solutions to. It's the kind of scary that keeps you up at night wracked with anxiety over whether or not you're living your life the right way or not. It's the kind of scary that makes you ask whether or not there is a God watching over us. Shiki is definitely a thinkpiece, meaning I would recommend you watch it with a critical mind, and perhaps a friend or two to argue ideologies with. You might have a pretty adamant interpretation of who's right and who's wrong, but if you watch it with someone else you might find that maybe, scarily enough, that's just your interpretation.