Shiki is a really good vampire story, until suddenly it isn’t.

Japan has made great contributions to the world of vampire lore over the years. They’ve taken up where Western literature was beginning to run out of steam. And for the first half of this series, I was enthralled once again by this foray into this spooky Western legend. Great storylines were adeptly laid out amidst fantastic artwork and some pretty memorable characters, all while drawing on standard vampire lore. It was fantastic, and had me engrossed. I could guess at the handful of outcomes that were possible, and none of them looked promising for the characters. I couldn’t stop watching.

So I kept watching. And watching. And watching. And I became frustrated. Because it wouldn’t end. This show needed to be 12-15 episodes, but it went 22 episodes instead. I don’t like the direction it turned, and I don’t like how it ended. If this show had found a way to wrap up its storylines and finish up around the 12-15 episode mark, I would have been ecstatic, crowning this a top 50 anime all time and certainly a top 10 horror anime. Instead it drug on, took some turns that made it less interesting, and I was underwhelmed when I finished it.

Overall, I think this is a great piece of vampire literature once again from Japan, but I think it was slightly marred at the end. I solidly enjoyed it for the first half, then became frustrated at the end, and this show should’ve been remembered for its powerful first half. 

Some R-rated stuff will follow predictably. Proceed with that caveat.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 6

The characters aren’t the driving force in this anime. The story is. So none of the characters are going to take over any top 10 spots, but also they have some decent depth and are certainly memorable. 

Memorability is one of the most important things in anime characters. Humans are defined, in great part, by our power of memory, thus anime characters are made more human through memorability. In my experience, that memorability is usually accomplished in one of two ways. The first is the one we’re most familiar with: the character simply overwhelms the viewer. Either design, execution, animation, voice acting, dialogue, personality, or appearance usually stands out, and all of that together in the best of characters. The other way is by involving characters in some primary plot device. In Shiki’s case, that’s the vampire attacks, and whether a particular character has been turned yet. It’s no mystery when a character is turned, but we the viewers found ourselves looking at characters and hoping against hope that the bite didn’t chomp down. So it made everybody just a little more memorable.

More on this at the end, but some or all of these characters could be drawn from a different source. This story is very similar to another original Western vampire tale, and may in fact be an homage to it of some sorts. But more on that in the Overall section below. It’s something to keep in mind in regards to the characters.

The central characters are the humans Natsuno Yuuki and Toshio Ozaki-sensei, a high school student (imagine that) and the local town doctor, respectively. Right behind them is Megumi Shimizu, originally a human but quickly turned into a vampire, where she remains for the rest of the show. The studio shelled out the yen for Haruka Tomatsu (Asuna, SAO; Zero Two, Darling in the Franxx) as Megumi’s VA, and she does a good job despite fairly limited screen time. Then among the antagonists there’s the vampire originator Sunako Kirishiki (Aoi Yuuki does this voice, but not her in more recognizable tone), forever stuck as a little girl due to becoming a vampire at that young age. Her dialogue with the local Bhuddist monk Seishin Muroi is kind of interesting, but not super insightful, despite the author’s best efforts. 

Gohan dekita yo.

Tatsumi is one of the most interesting characters. For one thing, he has a distinctly out-of-place lively personality. It glares against the tenor of this story, and is interesting for that. Second, he involves the werewolf legend in a vampire tale once more. He’s basically just a different kind of vampire, but we’ll go with the subtitles’ “werewolf.” He does have dog ears, so that enhances the believability of that translation. Third, his VA is Wataru Takagi. Many of you may not be familiar with him, as his work extends back into the late 1980s. But this is Onizuka-sensei in GTO! I was amazed when I first heard the voice and knew I’d heard that somewhere before, then to find out it was that guy. I thought it was the guy that played Sanji from One Piece initially! It was a fun realization.

The story has the vampires basing their operations out of a large castle-like house that overlooks the small town. For the first half of the story, I love what this does for the vampire characters. We never see them, and although there’s speculation that they’re coming from that house, no one knows for sure if that’s the case. But the viewer realizes it would make perfect sense if that was the case. It’s another homage to vampires holing up in grandiose, old-style houses that have a certain spookiness about them in the first place. This is another iteration of Japan taking the legends of vampires and doing exactly what should be done with them. 

I like to go on about vampire legends in Japanese literature. The biggest reason is because it’s a purely Western legend that they seem to have completely understood, and I find that fascinating. Imagine American writers taking a nine-tailed kitsune legend and using it perfectly in an epic movie. People who are familiar with the kitsune legends would be enthralled. Because it’s unusual for different cultures to understand the intricacies of legends and myths of another culture. Yet Japan has taken the vampire legend and continually added to its stream of literature in wonderful ways. The best example is the enthralling and infamous Kiss-Shot Acerola-Orion Heart-Under-Blade from Monogatari, who catapults the vampire legends in Japan to unseen heights. But I could point to myriad other examples in anime as well that, although they don’t quite rise to the height of that amazing character, are extraordinary vampire characters. 

These new neighbors though…

Because Japan could’ve gotten it very wrong. They could’ve absorbed all the blood-sucking part of the legends and neglected everything else. Yet regularly you see the lesser-known aspects of vampires incorporated into stories and characters, things like swarms of bats or rats as incarnated transformations of vampires, the either permanent or transforming red eyes, and even details like how they are killed and how they can induce hypnosis in their victims. The connection to the sexual and the immoral is a big part of vampires, but is hidden deep within Western culture, where the legends distinctly depict vampires as enemies of the Church. One wouldn’t think, with Japan’s complete misunderstanding about the Church and the Western culture surrounding that, that these subtleties of vampire legends would be apparent to them. Yet they often appear as features in vampire anime, and aren’t just there for the titillation or fear-factor. They’re used to great effect in these stories when featured, and I find that understanding fascinating.

So even more so I disliked how the second half of this anime turned these vampire characters into basically just a different kind of human. We got to know them way too much, and they lost their vampiric qualities a little. I cannot understand why this story trended in that direction, but I wish it hadn’t. The vampire characters became a lot less interesting the more we got to know about them. The thing with Muroi and Sunako, their curious conversations and peculiar relationship, is one thing. Reintroducing an emotional and chatty Megumi is another. Somehow it detracted from her character to see her as she was before and yet not.  Even the episode with the doctor seducing the vampire matriarch and betraying her to her death would’ve been effective if it wasn’t juxtaposed with so many other “humanized” vampires. 

But I stray. I like this set of characters, but I realize that they’re not the driving force in this show either. The story is, and it feels like it. The writers missed a bit with these guys, mostly by taking the vampire legend aspect and doing a great job with it initially then bungling it up in the second half by “humanizing” the vampires. But I’m not displeased with the characters overall. They have their role and play it well.

Artwork

Rating: 7

Horror anime is full of shadows, twisted shapes, and dimly lit scenes. Shiki has all that and does a great job with it. 

Eyes are everything in anime. And Shiki takes horror eyes and runs with it. I love the empty eyes on Sunako and all the other vampires. Tying this into what I was discussing above, when the vampires began to be “humanized” and that appearance disappeared from their eyes, I was disappointed. I thought the blue-black emptiness was amazing. I know why the authors did this—I think the “humanizing” was intentional—but I dislike it as a plot element. But I’ve said enough about that for now. While the dead looking eyes were there, I thought it was a very fine touch.

Like lots of horror anime, the artwork has a certain unmistakable “horror” appearance about it. If you recall Parasyte or Mirai Nikki, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Edges are well defined, colors are very stark, hair is very pointed, and shadowing is painstakingly managed. I love how shadows are almost nonexistent in “normal” sunlit scenes, but are of immense importance in any other kind of scene. 

Skin tone was another thing the artists nailed in this show. You weren’t gonna find any tanned gyarus in this show in the first place, but the paleness of the vampires is noticeable, particularly when compared to the human characters. If you compare Natsuno or the doctor to Sunako or vampire Megumi, you’ll notice the difference right away. But it’s not so obvious that it jumps out at you either. It’s subtle, and I like its subtleness.

Riddles in the dark.

Surprisingly, this anime wasn’t a bloodbath. Even the crazed hunt at the end isn’t as visceral as you’d expect. Blood isn’t spattering everywhere in sight. We see far more bloodstains on clothes than actual spewing blood. I find this a little curious, but I don’t mind it either way. All that blood-spewing is usually egregious anyway, and doesn’t enhance any quality of the story at hand. But sometimes I felt like there wasn’t enough of it on the vampires. There’s little more iconic about vampires than the remnants of today’s meal dripping from the corners of their mouths. We get some of that, but not as much as I expected. I presume some of this is because the fact that we were dealing with vampires here was shrouded in mystery for half of the show, and after that we pretty much knew what was happening and didn’t need that element particularly, I guess. Still, it was kind of oddly missing occasionally. But otherwise I’m good with the slightly lower levels of blood spurting madness.

Not every crazy pink-haired girl is Yuno Gasai, but the artists got very close to that a couple of times in this show with Megumi. They saved it with her unnatural hairstyle, and she wasn’t a human for long enough for us to really make too much connection between those two. Besides, human Megumi isn’t a yandere. That kind of becomes the case once she’s a vampire, but she’s not a yandere by definition, just a little crazy with Natsuno and being possessive about him. I think the artists did a good job avoiding that specter of Yuno that hangs over murderous, pink-haired female anime characters.

This artwork isn’t spectacular, but it does everything horror anime artwork should do. As a story-driven tale, the artwork does its job and that’s enough. I’m pleased with it for that reason. It doesn’t have to be exceptional to be good. It does what it’s supposed to do, and does it well.

Story

Rating: 5

The story is a powerful driver in this anime. Until suddenly it becomes about the characters. I was extraordinarily engaged in this series until suddenly the truth was out and there was nowhere for the story to go except to end. It took way too many episodes to do so, and in the midst of it all sidetracked into the personal lives of the vampires. It attempted to “humanize” the vampires, and the story lost all of its steam.

I loved the initial layout of the plot, with the doctor trying to figure out what was happening and the two typical fang marks appearing on the victims. I didn’t even know this was a vampire story until I began seeing that and remembering that these people’s symptoms corresponded with blood loss. I jumped in excitement when not only did it strike me that this was the most likely possibility, but again when the word “kyuuketsuki” was first mentioned. It was extremely subtle and well-played by the writers. The characters fumble with what to call the creatures, eschewing the local myth of the “risen” as an old-wives tale, predictably imagining themselves above such “nonsense.” But as a famous detective once said, if all that remains is the impossible, that must be the truth. The doctor puts two and two together, and realizes the bite marks, the anemia symptoms, and the rumors of the “risen” all point to one thing: kyuuketsuki. 

However, once that curtain was drawn back, and we knew the people of Sotoba had a vampire infestation problem, I was ready for the story to wrap up. But that was episode 8 or so. I had more than half the series to go! What on earth were these guys going to spend their time doing during all those episodes? 

Just a little weird!

It ended up being more vampire attacks, which became more predictable and less spooky as a result, and generally getting to know the vampires more. This was a mistake. I’m not sure how the writers for this anime got the pacing so screwy. I imagine the novel and the manga mixed in more of this vampire perspective throughout the story, whereas the anime basically piled it all on in the second half. On one hand, I liked how the story focused entirely on the townspeople’s perspective initially. The vampires were these empty-eyed monsters that rarely even appeared to our sight. The vampires were the monster, unseen and fearsome. But on the other hand, that left the anime writers with little choice of what to do in the second half. They had to incorporate all the vampire perspective in a bunch of consecutive episodes leading up to the conclusion, and it felt like a big shift in the tenor of the show.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of this was intentional. This story went from a full-blooded (pardon the pun) vampire story during the first half to a “who’s the real monster?” tale by the time it finished. I can imagine a scenario where that latter kind of story could be very interesting. But it’s not after setting up an excellent vampire tale by highlighting the distance between the vampires and the humans. Death was still death for the first half of the series. The living went on living without their departed friends and family. Even when we discovered many of these departed were vampires, it didn’t change anything. The gulf between the living and the undead was as impassable as death itself.

Then the story tried to humanize the vampires, and suddenly they weren’t so dead anymore. They interacted with the living, debated with them, agonized about their choices and way of life, sympathized with each other, protected each other in some cases. Suddenly they weren’t so different. This culminated in the hunt and massacre of the vampires at the end of the series, where the writers overtly portrayed the human characters as monsters. The liquor store owner became a hulking maniac, lusting for the blood of the vampires. The doctor himself abandoned his reason and directed the hunt like a crazed general on a battlefield, aiming to exterminate every last vampire and let none escape. The women of the town paused during their cleanup once to have tea, blood stains covering their faces, hands, and clothing, as they chatted lightly and laughed in good humor next to the seething piles of vampires with severed heads and stakes through their chests. It was pretty clear the writers wanted us to question what real difference there was between the vampires and the humans, as Megumi was run down and run over by a truck, her face smashed beneath its tires.

If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.

It was almost like two different stories. The first half was a vampire story, really well done as I mentioned before, another great addition to vampire lore from Japan. Then the second half was all “we’re no better than the monsters.” If it had stayed one or the other consistently, I would’ve thought better of this show. Instead it was engrossing until suddenly it wasn’t. The characters were spooky until suddenly they were ordinary. The plot was intriguing until suddenly it was predictable. 

I would have loved to have evaluated this series purely on why it was a great vampire tale. Apart from the character aspects mentioned above, the thing with humanizing some of the vampires, particularly Sunako (who never lost her dead eyes by the way) could have been used in a positive way. Her exploration of being “abandoned by God” and trying to understand Muroi’s dark stories and his appellation of “shiki” to them was all very intriguing. This is how the writers connected the humans to the vampires initially, and if that’s as far as it had gone it would have been much more interesting. As in “here we are [Sunako and Muroi] discussing life and finding common ground, while out there our two species can’t even make contact with each other without trying to kill the other.” Because that’s how the story ultimately ended up, just with a lot of ordinary contact in between, both between the humans and the vampires and for us the viewer getting to see things from the vampires’ perspectives. It detracted from the very intriguing vampire lore threads that hung all over this story. And when I say detracted in this case, I mean that in the strongest sense. After a while, I was so bored by the ordinariness that had come over the story that I completely lost sight of those intricacies. Even the abandonment of the traditional “kyuuketsuki” in favor of “shiki,” as intriguing as this aspect was, became meaningless to me in the light of how the story was playing out.

So I was disappointed in the end. My desire to see the vampires crushed was successfully diminished by the time we got to the end, where the vampires were indeed crushed. The whole story seemed wasteful. Nothing good came out of it. The town ended up burning down, so the humans saved very little in the end. Sunako even got away, like maybe this could happen again elsewhere. It was dumb. Whatever the writers were trying to do in this story, they set up very well then destroyed it with their own hands before it got a chance to become great.

Overall: 7

One thing I did not know going in: this story is extremely similar a Stephen King story titled ‘Salem’s Lot. You can look up that synopsis for yourself. It seems to share some very similar storylines and some correlate characters. I’m not completely sure if Shiki was meant to mirror this story, for whatever reason, but I find it hard to believe there’s no connection between the two. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, copying Stephen King in the horror realm is hardly a bad idea. That might explain the intricate and engaging plot. But on the other, copying is copying. I start to imaging words like “plagiarism,” and I start to look upon the copy very negatively. On top of that, while I don’t know what themes are in play in ‘Salem’s Lot, I can imagine this probably had an effect on the mix of themes present in Shiki, and my aforementioned frustration with that lack of consistency.

Well, that aside. It’s a little frustrating to find this might be a copy. Still, it’s a good vampire piece as I mentioned, and whether it’s a copy of the King story or not, a Japanese writer is still adapting a bit of Western mythology successfully into Eastern literature. I can’t take that away from it no matter whether it’s a complete copy or not.

I would have liked this show a lot better if it didn’t cause the aforementioned frustrations in me. But I still liked it. It had everything a horror story should have, everything a vampire story should have. Unfortunately it just a had a little more that detracted from all that. But if you overlook that, this is really good horror piece. If a writer attaches all those nice vampire lore pieces to a story, he or she can hardly go completely wrong. Such is the case with Shiki. As a vampire horror anime, it will satisfy every taste in that realm.

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