[Synopsis]: In the quiet village of Sotoba, what began as a handful of unusual deaths grows into a what appears to be a full on epidemic as the villagers grow sick and die shortly after. Ozaki Toshio (Ookawa, Tooru), the head of the hospital in Sotoba, attempts to save the villagers case-by-case but can’t seem to match their symptoms to any preexisting condition and as he fails repeatedly he begins to suspect that their illnesses may be the product of something other than an epidemic. Yuuki Natsuno (Uchiyama, Kouki), one of many students in Sotoba, discovers that some of his deceased friends and classmates have returned to life and that the deaths and illnesses of the villagers can be attributed to the recently arrived residents of the Kanemasa mansion overlooking the village. Along with their friends and colleagues the two characters work to defeat the Shiki – vampire-like creatures that survive by drinking the blood of humans and resurrect those bitten as allies.
With all things considered, Shiki has a pretty large cast if only because a reasonable amount of detail is given to the individual families and characters of Sotoba to better present the village setting and provide context and impact to the string of deaths caused by the Shiki throughout the show. Normally, with so many background characters the show would pay the greatest amount of attention to a handful of main characters that pull us through the narrative such as Toshio or Natsuno however this isn’t quite the approach Shiki opts for. While there is considerable character development on the part of Toshio it is not the central focus of Shiki and is fairly light elsewhere. The cast of the show can more or less be divided up into two factions – the human villagers and the Shiki along with those who have been resurrected. The Shiki or Vampires themselves are woefully underrepresented for a good deal of the show however once the show gets rolling around the mid point their side of the story becomes far more interesting than one would initially expect however things are fairly slow to get going in this regard. I believe that their side is ultimately an interesting one however to say that they and those they ‘turned’ were interesting from the get go would be a stretch.
One of the refreshing elements present in Shiki was the intelligence of some of its characters, most chiefly that of Toshino. While the show utilizes a fairly classic and sterotypical take on vampires, Toshino’s methods and methodical thinking breathes new life into the premise. Through his scientific approach we explore what is happening to the victims of the Shiki on a biological level; while this doesn’t entirely dismiss the supernatural nature of the Shiki it does help establish a believable place for them within the presented universe. Furthermore the characters are perfectly aware of vampires and vampire lore and much of what Toshino attempts to do is born out of what he knows from fictional vampire tales as he attempts to discern what does and doesn’t work.
While some characters felt right at home within the plot and even developed quite well there were also a decent number of people that felt under-explored and out of place within the story. My chief concern was with the character of Seishin Muroi, a young priest and author as well as a friend of Toshino. He initially felt relevant and purposeful within the story however as things progressed his role is somewhat dimished and his character begins to make less and less sense. Despite him having his own allegorical story alongside Shiki which somewhat investigates his character he never arrives at a place where I can understand him or his actions and so he felt a little awkward within the story despite his actions being important.
One of the biggest stumbling points of Shiki as cited by anyone that has seen the show is its character designs which are problematic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, a good deal of them are absolutely bizarre – their hair styles are unrealistic and needlessly eccentric, their color schemes are often an eyesore, and some of their outfits are pretty outlandish. That being said where the real damage is done is in the juxtaposition of these designs and both their narrative and fictional settings. Shiki is a horror thriller and so such flamboyant designs somewhat damage the atmosphere of the show and cheapen what otherwise might be emotional moments. Furthermore, the setting of Shiki is full of dark tones and so the pinks, blues, and greens present in the characters contrast pretty poorly with their otherwise beautiful backdrop.
Having said that, I found that I got used to the designs after a while and while some of the characters were quite ridiculous, at least the greater part of the main characters were more conservatively designed and weren’t nearly as aesthetically aggressive. Another positive point of the designs is that they occasionally lended themselves well to the horror themes rather than tarnishing them as their otherworldliness worked well in this regard. As the character designs were one of the reasons I had put off watching Shiki until I did I can now say that, while most of them are unsightly, they aren’t enough of a reason to avoid the show in my eyes as the plot and characters make up for whatever the show lacks aesthetically.
Shiki is most definitely a slow burn as it starts out at a near snail’s pace as it opts to first establish the village setting and methodically introduce the mysterious string of deaths that gives rise to the ultimate plot of the show. The show picks up the pace around the half-way point however not excessively so and not to the point where the show could be called anything but ‘slow to unfold’. I think this worked well enough for Shiki and while it dragged on near the beginning I think the pacing worked well for the methodical approach the show exhibited. The time it took to establish a few characters and more importantly the dynamic of the villagers was important to the story because it relied so heavily on killing off characters and bringing some back. Without the prior time investment put towards defining each family and individual character at a shallow level the deaths would have had no impact whatsoever and so the ultimate drama of the show and horror implications would be lost within the plot.
While one might not immediately think this upon viewing the show’s aesthetic or hearing its premise, Shiki is a fairly intelligent horror story for a number of reasons. A few of its more central characters act quite rationally and in a logistical fashion which can sometimes be rare in horror settings however I think it was done well here. Furthermore, while it may have been more interesting to create an original monster for the sake of the story, Shiki’s usage of a rather classic depiction of Vampires worked well for what the show wanted to do. By having the Shiki grounded in this depiction as well as making the characters aware of the old stories associated with vampires it makes the setting more relatable to the viewer as it depicts a case where the obviously supernatural intrudes upon an otherwise normal setting.
Lastly, on this point, the story eventually gets around to raising an interesting moral question pertaining to the humans of the village and the Shiki. Due to their underrepresentation early on and lack of nearly any compelling traits for half the show its hard to see how any moral question regarding the Shiki could be interesting while only looking at the first half of the show however the latter half does a good job setting up context in order to better understand the Shiki and their situation. While one’s enjoyment doesn’t necessarily hinge on whether or not they identify or care about the moral themes brought up towards the end of the show, I would say that a great deal of my own enjoyment is derived from this element as this is the area where Shiki takes a step beyond being a traditional vampire horror story and postulates something engaging. Though the messages and events that surround this moral question can be a bit hamfisted in execution at times, I think the show is quite compelling because the presence of these themes as they push Shiki beyond what might otherwise be regarded as a more typical story.
The music of Shiki was effective in some ways and ineffective in others. The soundtrack and the most often recurring songs struck a tone somewhere between being haunting and being sentimental which worked really well for the show because of its horror themes as well as its focus on characters. Only a choice few songs really stood out to me and there were a small number that felt out of place because of their techno influence or chorus elements however I grew used to these as the show progressed. I would say that the soundtrack succeeded for the most part in creating a haunting and ominous atmosphere despite the occasional odd song.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Shiki has its pros and cons however I think it was net good while still falling short of being something great. It was certainly worth the watch and despite its methodical narrative style I found myself interested in each following episode up until the end though this may not be the case with everyone. As a side note, I think watching the show along with its specials in the intended order is beneficial as they retroactively provide direct character insight to some background characters that flush out some of the themes of the show as well as create opportunities for better characterization overall. At the same time, they occur fairly late in the show around episodes 20 and 21 and so they may arrive a bit later than they are needed however are valuable additions to the show nonetheless.
Despite having problematic character designs and a few odd characters, Shiki pulls through with a good story, interesting themes, and decent music that capitalizes on the tone of the show. I gave the show a 7 because the good outweighed the bad and while the unpleasant elements of the show keep it from going any higher, Shiki was still one of the better horror thrillers I have seen in some time and its intelligent characters and story kept it interesting throughout.
Shiki is most primarily a horror / thriller story and so I would recommend it to fans of that genre however, to push this, I would also say that this show was a case of ‘Vampires done right’ as the additional implications surrounding the Shiki were quite compelling and any fan of vampire lore or fiction would likely enjoy the show. While Shiki does have some mystery elements they are never many in number or all that lengthy in nature and so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to fans of mystery however it does exhibit some elements of the genre while providing next to no dramatic irony. Lastly, Shiki, as I’ve mentioned above, is a slow burn and so viewers who desire something more immediate might want to either watch the show over a long period of time or stay away from it entirely.