I dove headfirst once again into the terrifying throngs of ‘anime’ on the offhanded mention of an intriguing word: Shiki. I’m definitely going to spoil some things, so just go watch it – I promise you won’t have any regrets.
Vampires are a speciality of mine – the whole “you must die that I might live” dynamic fascinates me to no end, and it’s one that Shiki explores to the fullest. Although never having watched The Walking Dead, I’m aware that the narrative focuses more on the effects the supernatural have on human nature than on pure gore and mindless titillation; imagine this now, with mindless shamblers being replaced by thinking, feeling victims of their own nature. The premise behind this series revolves around a small town being at first visited, then overrun by vampires. Those who die have a chance at rising back up, and will join the ranks of this army who seek total control over a place they can feel truly secure inhabiting. Things soon get out of hand, the humans naturally begin to fight back and chaos consumes both sides of a war neither can really escape from.
I watched the program with english voice actors (I don’t care what you anime aficionados think) who gave so much soul to their lines they sent shivers down the back of my neck. The terror felt first by the mortals, then by the vampires is so vividly expressed that the audience is left stunned, and then confused. After all, vampires are aberrations, surely? Morality is phenomenally blurred, and by the time that final episode comes around it will be difficult to decide where you stand. The main theme behind Shiki is that of the vampire itself: these creatures are still who they were in life, but in order to maintain this new life, they need to kill. Rarely is this ever depicted out of spite, with vampires visiting their family members first in the hopes that they can join in this afterlife, reunited in the hunger and the eternal hunt. Nao’s character is thoroughly autopsied over the course of the series; being one of the first to turn, she kills each member of the loving family she married into, the first family she felt she had, desperately hoping they would join her again. But their genetics did not allow them to rise as she did, leaving her embittered and alone, having killed the thing that was most important to her. Her tragedy ends as she is chained outside at sunrise, burning alive and smiling because her suffering – her guilt – is over.
Toshio, the doctor who first discovers the vampires, has a similarly strong arc. Wanting to help and save people warps him into something hideous – the audience initially roots for his discoveries and his dedication to saving people, leading to a sense of confusion and dejection in the program’s last third. This is especially notable during the autopsy of his wife which essentially amounts to torture – although his deeds are heroic, the ambition which drives his methods is no less than distasteful. When vampires kill, their methods are peaceful, and although the sickness which follows feedings is unpleasant, it is highly contrasted with the bloodshed brought on by human hunters. Slicing, impaling, burning and staking are all used in a frenzy to eradicate every last vampire, and all are shown in a graphic way that belittles the vampires’ monstrosity. In their fear, humans turn on each other despite being told they wouldn’t turn from merely being bitten, again using the same gory means to put down the ‘threat.’ It becomes deeply ironic that humans are now also killing so that they might survive, seemingly taking the same amount of pleasure out of their actions, and so the parallel between human and vampire makes it inherently difficult to know just who is right in all of this.
Megumi, although being set up as a main character and taking very quickly to the vampire lifestyle, has very little impact on the narrative. She’s a bratty girl who hates everyone and everything around her, and takes a great amount of pleasure in hurting the villagers who laughed at her. She’s unsympathetic and vindictive, haunting a girl who considered herself a friend with a glee that the audience is unable to condone. Kaori feels complete dread when she knows Megumi is hunting her, and when no other vampire ever has that effect on a character, it becomes clear that Megumi is the closest thing Shiki has to an antagonist. Like another pseudo-villain Tatsumi though, it’s difficult to ever call her evil. All she ever wanted was a life where her interests and desires would be respected; Megumi never ultimately gains anything she wanted, from a big city life to the affection of Yuuki, and so her story also ends in tragedy. Her death is the first and the last in the series, and despite her personality it’s impossible to say she deserved either one.
Shiki succeeds at making monsters of people, and people of monsters. The lines between good and evil are erased, as is the difference in motivation between both side’s actions. Through graphic violence and characterisation, the personalities behind the faces are expertly explored, with every episode bringing new doses of powerful narrative and moving emotions. It’s a dynamic that has been explored in the past with varying degrees of success; the question as to whether the humans are better than the monsters; the justification behind abhorrent deeds. As deaths pile up the series becomes frenzied to a level unrivalled by anything I’ve seen, a limited use of traditional tropes means that every episode has capacity to shock and excite. Shiki’s expertise is a combination of both powerful narrative and a highly liberal view on the nature of good and evil that I would like to see implemented elsewhere. If you still haven’t watched it, I really suggest you do.