Something strange has been going on in the quaint village of Sotoba… Ever since those wealthy outsiders built their lavish mansion at the top of Kanemasa Hill, there has been a succession of mysterious deaths. People of all ages will become lethargic and anti-social, refuse to go to the doctor, and then die after only a few days. Could it be an epidemic? Some new disease? And are the rumors true that the dead are still walking around?
Those newcomers are certainly strange, and Sotoba does have ancient legends about Okomiyagi, or the dead coming back to life… But those are just stories, right?
Based on a series of novels from 1998, Shiki tells the story of an entire rural Japanese community as it deals with one mysterious death after another, slowly whittling their population down as their efforts to explain it… And hopefully put a stop to it… yield no results, no answers, and an ever diminishing sense of hope. It isn’t until a few open-minded individuals start to consider the supernatural that they finally begin to make some real progress… Unfortunately for them, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
With a cast of hundreds like this show has, it’s essential that you set aside a special handful of characters for the audience to follow, so we can explore the story from several different perspectives. Shiki has this requirement covered, as it gives us three very different pairs of eyes to look through. First, we have Natsuno, a disgruntled teenaged boy who’s been forced to move into this village with his new wave, idealistic parents. He despises the village, and refuses to make any long term connections, believing that doing so will make it difficult when they finally move back out. Of course, despite his best efforts, a close circle of friends do form around him. In fact, Megumi… One of the very first people to be killed by the mysterious epidemic… Had an obsessive one sided crush on him. It seems that even death can’t take her away.
Our second leading role is Toshio Ozaki, the director of the primary hospital in Sotoba. Having taken over the clinic from his deceased father, he’s a driven and tenacious doctor who’s initially baffled by the amount of people inexplicably dying around him, and having come up against a challenge like this, he will stop at nothing to overcome it… And I mean nothing, as his quest for a solution leads to him experiencing and performing some of the cruelest acts imaginable.
And our final lead is Ozaki’s childhood friend, Seishin Muroi, a local priest and a moderately successful author. His novels tend to be on the poignant side, dealing with subjects like loss, betrayal, and abandonment by God. This attracts the attention of Sunako, the little daughter of the newcomers, who’s apparently a huge fan of his work. He forms a connection with her over time, as his pacifist religious beliefs gradually lead him to develop a sense of sympathy for the beings that his best friend Toshio has sworn to destroy.
The rest of the cast is made up of smaller roles, the basic types of people you’d expect to see in a tightly-knit little community… You have business owners, rebellious teenagers, concerned parents, comfortable elders, nurses, teachers, happy go lucky children… All of whom deal with the growing problem in their own unique ways. And for such a large cast, the dub is surprisingly on point. It”s a Funimation effort, but it’s a really odd Funimation effort, where the lead characters are all portrayed by actors that you normally wouldn’t see attached to such high profile roles. Toshio is played by David Wald, a long time actor who’s somehow stayed completely off of my radar until just now. I’m going to have to keep an eye out for him in the future, because he rasps and grumbles his way into the jaded, chain smoking doctor as though he was born to play the part.
Seishin Muroi is played by John Burgmeier, a man who rarely ever steps out from the technical side of a dub for anything other than a bit part. He directs, he writes, but when he acts, his subdued performances are normally outstanding. He plays down-trod, broken men as though it were a second language, and his role in Shiki is probably one of his best voice performances since Gunslinger Girl. Jerry Jewell also does a commendable job on Natsuno Yuuki, and you’ll find pretty much every Funimation voice under the sun sprinkled here and there… Hell, even Anastasia Munoz gets an appearance… but the star of this dub has to be Cherami Leigh, who plays the ominous Sunako, who looks very much like she was taken directly from a Katy Towell cartoon. I wish I could tell you why her performance in this role is so perfect, but to go into detail would mean giving away some serious spoilers.
There’s at least one bad egg in the dub, however, and surprise surprise, it’s Tia Ballard. Tia plays the role of Megumi Shimizu, a sixteen year old girl who dreams of getting out of her quaint, suffocating home town and going to a college in the big city. And she will not shut up about it. I know that in anime, non conformists are often portrayed as loud, disruptive nuisances, and they did a very thorough job of it with this character. But when you combine that archetype with Tia’s shrill, screechy voice, she single-handedly renders the first episode almost completely unbearable. Thankfully, she only really has a strong presence in this episode. Spoiler… She dies in it.
Now, when I tell you that this story is about a small group of protagonists struggling to put a stop to the mysterious deaths happening all around them, with ticking clock being their worst enemy, you may think that concept sounds suspiciously familiar. Well, that’s because you’ve seen this same plot before, as Another and Hell Girl: Two Mirrors have both tried… And failed miserably… at making you care about it. But where those two regrettable shows failed, Shiki succeeds with flying colors.
Unlike Another, Shiki doesn’t make over-the-top, ridiculous spectacles of it’s death scenes, choosing instead to focus on word of mouth and the sad faces of relatives, so that it can liberally float between tragedy and statistic depending on the tone that any given death calls for. And unlike the climactic arc from Hell Girl: Two Mirrors, Shiki paces itself, putting just enough time between each death so that it can drain the hope of the viewer, little by little, as it spirals down towards one hell of a catastrophic ending.
And with that manipulation of hope, Shiki is one of the most well executed horror anime titles that I have seen in a long time. There’s almost no filler in it’s entire 24 episode run, as every single event that occurs has a distinct purpose, and is placed exactly where it needs to be in the narrative. The first ten or so episodes are admittedly slow, building up the tension in the village to an almost OCD-like degree. Very few answers are found here, as tragic death after tragic death drives the residents to either blind paranoia or complacent acceptance of fate. By the second half, the nature of this menace has been all but revealed to the audience, even as our three main characters slowly come to terms with a truth they know they shouldn’t accept, and with a terrifying threat that comes to face them almost immediately after they come to face it.
It’s a brilliant, gripping story that will have you skipping through the otherwise beautiful openings and closings just so you can catch the next development as quickly as you possibly can. While you may find yourself hard-pressed to experience any emotional reactions through the majority of the show, as death will inevitably become commonplace in this kind of story, there’s enough disturbing, unsettling material in the final act that will not only horrify you, but will also completely subvert your expectations of a horror series.
As much as I would love to continue to praise this series, and call it one of the most excellent horror titles I’ve ever seen, I can’t. It’s time to talk about the artwork and animation, and I can already feel my hand reaching out to grab hold of my bottle of Haterade. Why? Because this is one butt ugly show.
Okay,. maybe that’s not fair of me… It’s not the artwork itself that’s bad, as it doesn’t look sloppy or anything. If anything, the backgrounds and environments are easily on the high end of the scale. No, what I really have problems with is the art design. The characters look ridiculous, with angular faces and giant, cartoony eyes, and so many bizarre, gravity defying hairstyles that even a Pokemon animator would say “Hey, dial it back a bit!” No, you know what? Forget Pokemon. Looking at Shiki’s character designs is like watching someone from Clamp come up with their own Yugioh Spin-off. It would be okay if this were some wacky comedy, but it’s not… Shiki is a mature, dead-serious show that asks you several profound questions and dares you to come up with your own satisfactory answers.
And if you really want to see this show go from ridiculous to horrifying in the blink of an eye, just wait until one of the characters starts to cry. These characters don’t cry the way normal anime characters cry… They cry thick, opaque marbles of liquid that could make a serious claim at being one of the scariest elements of the show. If you were to take a frame of it out of context, you’d think you were looking at an image from some ill advised Eiken sequel… And no, I am not even remotely joking about that. The art design of this show is distracting as hell, and took me out of the story more times than I can count. And the animation quality is no prize either… It’s one of the cheapest looking shows that Bones has ever produced, and if you know Bones, you know how big a claim that is.
In spite of this, Shiki is a very strong anime title that has a lot to offer you… It’s bold, thought provoking, and very intense. It succeeds at exploring ideas and concepts that cause other shows to flop face down onto the floor, and if you’re looking for a very broad hint at what these ideas are, one of those floppers is my old arch-nemesis Blood C. Unfortunately, with an irritating first episode and a constant assault of distracting and sometimes even inappropriate eyesores, you have to put up with a lot of abuse to appreciate this show, so I really can’t see it reaching the level of quality that it deserves to. It’s still a great show, and I strongly recommend checking it out, but I can’t give it any higher than a 7/10.