Shiki (屍鬼) is a shōnen, horror mystery anime that is the adaptation of the novel series authored by Fuyumi Ono (brilliant spouse of the brilliant Yukito Ayatsuji, author of Another). The show was produced by studio Daume, directed by Tetsurō Amino, and aired with 22 episodes during the 2010 Summer simulcast season. I initially picked this up because I wanted something psychological and scary to watch earlier this year. What I wasn’t expecting was a roller coaster of mindfuckery, let me tell you. What a series, to say the least.
Shiki tells the story of a small town that falls victim to an unusual pandemic where residents die and then come back to life as “living corpses” (hence the name, Shiki). The mystery of trying to uncover the root causes for this pandemic and how to treat it, if it’s treatable, form the backbone of the anime’s narrative. (My first impressions)
Please note that this review will contains spoilers for the anime. Please read at your own discretion, thank you.
This is not going to be an anime for everyone, even if you’re a fan of psychological horror anime serials and other fucked up shit. It is extremely slow, has some outrageously comical character designs, and leaves the watcher with a decent amount of questions even after the end credits roll on the finale (the 2 OVAs notwithstanding, as I haven’t seen those yet). Even so, if there is anything that Shiki does right, it’s using symbolism and a pandemic as a metaphor to critique mob mentalities and the narrowmindedness in conservative communities, which I fucking loved even while my mind was blowing up like a motherfucker in those last five to six episodes. Holy hell.
One of the first things that the watcher shall encounter with Shiki is building blocks. We are introduced to a small town that is incredibly boring and lifeless (ha ha, get it?). There are two teens who epitomise the desire to get out and get free. One of them wants to move to the city and become a flashy, glamourous lady, while the other is waiting to finish high school so he can use college as an escape to go back to a bustling city like Tokyo. These two and their despicable loathing for small town culture works to portray the banalness of residing in an area where the most exciting thing to happen is someone driving through the main road in a flashy car. The anime takes its time sort of formulating this atmosphere of being suffocated by isolation and monotony, which play key roles in the unfolding themes I mentioned earlier. However, getting through the initial trudge is exactly that: a motherfucking trudge.
I’m going to be honest. My desire to drop Shiki was quite powerful around the seventh or eight episode. It wasn’t a series that I could sit down and binge for extended periods of time, which at the time was what I wanted. Once I accepted that this isn’t that type of show and started watching it in very small doses, it became much more palatable and helped me appreciate the slow-building tension. So, this is something else to keep in mind, especially if you’re a binge-watcher. The episodes themselves unfold in a slow manner as well, which prolongs that feeling of it taking forever to get to the point. Since Shiki is a story-centric anime, it is important to pay attention to the details and dialogue being exchanged, and that’s where the true beauty of this title lies: in the details.
There are a lot of characters in Shiki and each one encapsulates a different part of small-town culture. Even their crazy designs (mostly restricted to hairstyles) is a form of symbolism. The only “normal” character is the town doctor, Toshio Ozaki, who is trying to figure out the causes of the pandemic, and he’s the central figure in the anime to pay attention to with regard to the themes I want to focus on.
Ozaki figures out that the town is suffering from some sort of epidemic, but just doesn’t know if it’s a mutated strain of a pre-existing illness or a whole new one. While he runs his tests and works his arse off to save the residents, he confides in a few people. But no one wants to believe that it’s a pandemic. Most of them write it off as a weird summer flu or cold thing and overall just ignore that their town is going to be wiped off the map, population-wise, if they don’t start taking it seriously. When Ozaki realises exactly what is going on and tries to warn some of the villagers, again they think he’s bloody mad. There is only so much ostracization and disbelief that a person can face before they start to lose confidence in themselves, and that’s exactly what happens to Ozaki, particularly when the disease hits very close to home.
The psychological horror aspect can be attributed to so many elements in Shiki, but it’s brilliance stems from the mental unravelling that takes place when a sole individual is singled out and essentially shunned (to various degrees) when all they’re trying to do is help and they know they are right. But no one wants to believe it because it will cause too much of an uproar in this perfect fucking little bubble of blandness that the small town has nurtured into existence.
So, what is a struggling do-gooder supposed to do? Lose his goddamn mind, that’s what.
As someone who has undergone something a little similar to this in the past few years, I understand very well what it’s like, psychologically, to have no one believe you when you’re screaming loudly about something serious that you know to be true. In Ozaki’s place specifically, bruh has facts and evidence to back up his conjectures.
The mental and emotional strain from no one having faith in him, even his own family, to the significant trauma of having a loved one fall victim to the pandemic, to him using said loved one as fucking lab rat with inhumane experiments out the wazoo out of sheer shock and having lost all ability to empathise with the “cause,” leads to a downward spiral of epic proportions.
Mob mentalities are fuelled by irrational and illogical beliefs. They can’t be reasoned with and are usually incapable of having open and positive discourse. They have a very singular and narrowminded focus, usually in the form of eradicating or brutalising the thing they don’t agree with or feel are impending on their rights. For this small town, it’s the death of their loved ones as much as it is their town going extinct and their inherent lack of understanding as well as their lack of interactions with anyone outside of said town. Living in such isolation can definitely screw with a person’s mental health and ability to think rationally and logically, particularly in high-stress situations. The brain isn’t able to develop beyond a certain point, so the instinct is to react on a more feral nature rather than one of critical thinking and basic sound judgements. These mobs are driven onwards by Ozaki out of sheer desperation because once they witness for themselves what is happening in their homes, they become virtually unstoppable. The vindication from finally being taken seriously, and to also being viewed as a leader for guidance, turns Ozaki into a completely insane person. All that he knows is savage slaughter, which everyone in town gladly accepts and then inflicts in horrifying spades.
My favourite parts of the anime, which can also be construed as the most disturbing, are the ones where you have families of people that are wearing aprons, swathed from head to toe in blood of their victims, as they share meals together. Whether it’s ice cold watermelon, like a typical summer day, or breaking bread and sharing other dishes across the table in camaraderie. The visual is jaw-dropping yet also so intensely familiar (Second World War with Germany and then again with Internment Camps, both the ones in the US against Japanese people and the ones the Japanese Army formed for Chinese people in Malaysia, for example; also think about the Black Lives Matter movements and police brutality). This scene depicts humanity at it’s most primal and authentic: as barbaric motherfuckers who will beat and slaughter anything they don’t understand because it’s easier to crush what we fear than it is to garner empathy, compassion, and basic understanding. We would rather accept and relish in ignorance than take a peaceful approach to solving an issue.
The laughable hairstyles are a portrayal of how we dress ourselves up and scream about individuality and being unique to ourselves and being good, decent people, yet underneath all that hair gel and audacious makeup, we’re all one in the same for the most part: monsters. Vicious fucking villains. This is further accentuated by the characters who die and then come back to life. Their after life, so speak, ends up dramatizing those characters’ strongest traits, which is usually their worst shortcoming. For example, Megumi Shimizu becomes far more superficial and self-entitled in her belief that she’s better than everyone else in this podunk town. Masao Murasako becomes even more judgmental and hateful of the world around him, mostly because they all think he’s a weirdo freak, which he is. Then another character, whom I won’t name to avoid big spoilers, becomes quite a bit self-righteous in their death and desire to defeat the thing causing this epidemic.
Overall, Shiki was one hell of an experience. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to like it at all, particularly after being faced with the sluggish progression, but I’m so glad that I stuck by it until the end because it left me with an abundance of thoughts and feelings. The show is much deeper than I initially expected, and I love uncovering the different layers of it the more that I chat with it about other chums. My goal is to re-watch this again in the future as I feel a re-visit shall be more revealing than the first. This just seems like one of those anime that has something new and fresh to offer upon a re-watching.
If you’re thinking about picking up Shiki, just keep in mind that it is slow and methodical, and it also gets pretty fucking gruesome in the last one-fourth. So, if you’re not a fan of gory or graphic shows, you may want to proceed cautiously or avoid the last few episodes. I do recommend this to fans of horror mystery anime who like narratives that are marvellously contemplative.
7 prayers outta 10!