Shiki is probably my favorite among anime that I'm currently watching. It's probably best described a horror show, a genre I don't normally get much involved in. I don't mind being scared once in a while, though. I'm not sure if I'm jaded, or if it's just the media I tend to involve myself in (horror being especially rare in anime, somewhat outside my normal range of games, and not really common in the novels I read, either) but it feels like it's very hard to genuinely scare me with a work of fiction. I've been following Shiki since episode 1, and I'm utterly impressed, in part because it managed that feat, but also for other reasons I'll elaborate below.
While selling a friend on it early on, I described it as a Japanese twist on Salem's Lot. At this point, the show has grown beyond that. The mystery unravels such that the cat's well out of the bag and by the halfway point, after which it transitions from being scary into being chilling and thought-provoking. A certain 21st Century Digital Boy apparently found enough impact in the show to prompt not one, but two posts more or less spurred by the series. His reaction was distinctly different from mine, so I started to type a reply on his blog, but pretty soon the comment had grown out of proportion and I decided to spin it up into a full blog post of my own instead. As such, the rest of this post contains massive unmarked spoilers through episode 20 of Shiki.
A quick recap in case you're for some reason reading this without having watched Shiki: people in a remote and somewhat old-fashioned Japanese village called Sotoba begin dying one after another under circumstances that are increasingly hard to explain. After the deceased begin to appear walking around in the village, it becomes clear that a group of vampires who take on the name "shiki" or "risen" have secretly begun an all-out invasion in the hopes of converting Sotoba into a village of the dead.
Shiki's favorable qualities include its highly atmospheric music, its bizarre and unique character designs, and its fascinatingly medical take on traditional vampire lore, but the thing that impresses me most is how it manages to constantly balance its portrayal of both sides in each conflict so that one cannot easily make judgments or take sides. The vampires shiki are never too cool to turn down nor too evil to side with. Some of them, like Megumi, are crass and condescending. Some are immature, or petty, pragmatic, or simply tragic. Usually the elderly humans are depicted much more grotesquely than the actual monsters. I find it very difficult to look at any given character and state what his or her role in the series is, but I get the sense that if you took one out, the work would suffer for it. I'm willing to stake that as a potential sign of literary merit.
The most shocking moment for many viewers of Shiki was when Ozaki, head doctor at the local clinic, brutally tortured and murdered his wife without any sign of emotion. It's not like this came out of the blue, though. We watched his energy drain, bit by bit, as his every attempt to counter the shiki and save their victims was thwarted. We saw him maniacally conceal his wife's demise, while stocking her corpse with ice cubes in a locked room of the clinic, waiting days for her to rise from the dead. And we knew that their marriage was not exactly happy before that. So it was a natural, if extreme, progression when he methodically conducted and filmed experiments to test the nature and mortality of the undead. We realized that he was already too far gone by the time he duct-taped his wife's mouth and continued the tests rather than hear her plead for mercy. And it was a matter of course when he finally administered the stake to her heart and callously asked his friend Seishin, who had wandered in, if he would help clean up the mess. Strangely, it was not this scene, but a later one that shocked Digiboy and prompted his blog entry.
That scene is the killing of Chizuru at the hands of an angry mob. Ozaki, having been bitten by her but secretly released from her thrall by another, invites her to wander amongst living humans in their summer festival. He distracts her by encouraging her to enjoy the ordinary joys of interacting with people, pretending to be a normal housewife. Then, when her unease at the shrine sets in, he lets the axe fall, revealing her undead state and culpability in the ongoing deaths in the village to the surrounding humans. The ordinary people are stirred up into a mad frenzy and seize upon her. Following her perforation by wooden stake, they go on a flesh-burning, blood-splattering rampage upon every defenseless, sleeping shiki they can find.
Keep in mind that Chizuru was a vampire who not only killed repeatedly, but taunted and teased her victims. One could certainly say that a brief moment of terror followed by a swift death is no less than what she deserved. The manner in which she was killed, and the bloodbath that followed, is not something that leaves a good taste in my mouth. But it wasn't as tragic as to me as to Digiboy. He had already picked sides, and for his own reasons he was on the side of the shiki.
But let's take a step back for a bit. Long before any of this happened, I shared the show with another friend, who has eagerly watched it and discussed it with me each week. For the sake of discussion, we'll call this person D. And D's viewpoint is completely and strikingly different.
For him, the moment where Ozaki re-kills his wife was a crowning moment to idolize. He sees Ozaki's actions as commendably logical and courageous. To D, Ozaki acted in the interest of the greater good, without making sacrifices or wavering in the face of sentimentality. More thoroughly:
The shiki/risen are killers. Not only in the sense that new shiki are medically dead, but more importantly that the majority of their victims never rise. You can kind of overlook that in Shiki-the-show because basically every important character rises, and then some, but Shiki has made it clear that, even if you count the risen among the "living," letting the shiki survive will always and forever result in a net loss of life. When they control all of Sotoba, that's an achievement, but it can't end there. They'll just be forced to seek outside the village for food, preying on visitors and cityfolk. Humans don't have the ability to live "peacefully" with the shiki; it is kill or be killed. At best, you become an accomplice to killing others; at worst, they toy with your fear and angst before slowly killing you off.
From that perspective, Ozaki's mandate as a doctor to preserve life becomes self-contradictory. Allowing a shiki to live is tantamount to killing several others humans. He has been given a simple way out of this predicament by deciding that the shiki are neither human nor alive, so there's no harm or meaning in killing them. (They are medically dead before rising as shiki, but they rise with their personalities and memories intact.) It's a cheap answer to an impossible question, but the consequence is that he can compartmentalize his conscience and enact horrible measures against the Shiki in the name of the greater human good.
So at this point, Sotoba Village has broken into an all-out war between living and undead. People are picking sides: Digiboy loves ancient-gothlolis and sides with the Shiki; D prizes rational action and hates emotion so he sides with the humans. Where do I fall? I still refuse to pick one or the other, because both are unconsciable to me.
I like Sunako. Unlike most of the other shiki, she's very polite and considerate. Even after hundreds of years, she still questions whether it's right for her to kill in order to live. She's sympathetic; she seeks forgiveness, a place to live, understanding of the nature of the world. She has philosophical conversations with Seishin. I can respect that. But I'm not willing to sacrifice a village and more for her sake. Neither can I say that the humans are any better; the most chilling moment of Shiki for me so far was not any of the aforementioned scenes, but something later, the last scene of episode 20:
Ozaki and the leader of the village festival, Ookawa-san, are informed that there are living, breathing humans who are cooperating with the shiki, either by choice or hypnosis. Ozaki stays true to his beliefs, stating that, "We can't just kill them; that would be murder." But Ookawa disagrees: those who are helping the shiki are, to him, traitors to be executed, and at the very end of the episode, when such a hypnotized person walks into the shrine as an assassin, Ookawa-san does exactly that and murders the hypnotized man with violent force. I disagreed with the genocide-like purging of the shiki, but at least that made sense from a survival standpoint. But the descent to killing a human who only threatened them because of a temporary hypnosis, signifies to me that the humans' counterattack has begun to spiral out of control into a massive tragedy that cannot end well for anyone.
At this point, I like to think I'm prepared for whatever comes next, and with episode 21 of its 22-episode run ready to watch, there's only one way to find out.