I know I'm not alone in my predicament as a horror fan. I have such devotion to the genre, despite being constantly disappointed by its offerings, always holding out for a gem here and there. Enter Shiki (literally "corpse demon"), the story of a backwoods Japanese village named Sotoba that is plagued by a sudden rash of mysterious deaths that turn out to be part of a sinister plan. Of all your standard horror fare, I have a special place in my heart for vampire stories. I get the sense that Shiki is a show that fell to the wayside and lost in a sea of anime because it's a hard one to pin down. It's a horror story about When Vampires Attack, but it's also a story about traditions, how communities all operate by their own codes, and human nature. This show has its faults, but it's a vampire show that's gotten under my skin. No, that's not supposed to be a lame pun.
It's not afraid to have a bleak outlook
Shiki is seriously one of the most nihilistic anime I've ever seen and I love it for that. It starts out as your very standard spooky mystery, but quickly evolves into a painstaking, slow burning look at the worst parts of our nature and the dissolution of a community. Sure, it's a show about monsters, but it's also about what it takes - perhaps how little it takes - for regular people to become monsters. The show isn't afraid to grab your head and make you stare at the harsh realities of some very tough moral questions. It fucks with your sympathies and makes you think. Who are the real villains? Is killing in cold blood ever justified? If two groups are both acting out of the drive for self-preservation, is either more right or wrong? I won't spoil the story or the ending for you, but I will say that's it's a trip, and it all leads somewhere pretty bleak.
A good mix of characters - and points of view.
It's tough to say who the true main character of Shiki is. Since the story involves a whole village, the cast is pretty big, but it chooses to focus on select individuals. Fortunately, the main players all have different outlooks on life, codes of ethics, and strategies for handling the twists and turns of the narrative. There's the scruffy doctor Toshio, whose dedication to solving the deaths of his friends and family turns into an all-consuming obsession with eradicating the vampires. Playing foil is the village temple's junior monk Seisshin, an introspective and melancholy young man who forges a bond with one of the vampires, Sunako. Sunako herself is an interesting character. She is a tortured soul who alternately hates what she is and finds self-justification for the vampire uh...lifestyle. Her henchman Tatsumi at first seems like a happy go lucky thug, but has some poignant things to say as the story goes on. Rounding out the main cast is Natsuno, a brooding teenager with his own solution to the village's problems, and a whole bevy of townspeople and vampires alike who all have their own personalities and motivations.
For a show about a very traditionally Japanese place, Shiki does beautiful job of weaving Shinto and Buddhist superstitions together with on-point Western vampire lore. The vampires can be killed by beheading, staking, or burning to death in the sunlight, can only subsist on blood, are afraid of religious objects, have to be invited in, you know the drill. The show also adds some cool additions to its supernatural universe without reinventing the wheel. For example, the question of whether or not a bitten individual rises from the dead is a matter of genetics. There is also a rarely occurring subspecies of vampire called Jinrou who can move around in daylight and eat normal food as well as blood.
Being an immortal vampire demon means you don't have to play by everyone else's rules or blend in if you don't feel like it. That includes wearing a wardrobe made entirely of skintight, outlandish jumpsuits. Stay fabulous, Tatsumi.
J. Michael Tatum as Isaac from Baccano! as a vampire groupie dude who dresses like a dandy aristocrat.
Mixed bag of characters
So I said that there are a ton of interesting characters and they're all their own special snowflakes, but some are definitely better than others. Episodes that focus on the "meh" characters can be a real drag. This includes Megumi, an annoyingly vapid teenage girl who has as many whiny things to say as outfits that look like they came from Hot Topic. See also: Masao, a truly disturbing young man, boring girl Kaori, and her little brother Akira who must have made a wrong turn on his way to a long-running shonen. But as with any show, your mileage may vary and you might like characters I didn't care for.
Shiki had some moments where the art was quite striking (see above), and a lot of very puzzling design choices. Some of the character designs are just unpleasant to look at and overly bizarre. This would be fine if the rest of the characters' looks and the setting wasn't played so straight.
Like I said, this show is a slow burn. Personally, I enjoyed the unsettling build up to the VAMPIRES! portion of the show, but Dyram did not. If you have trouble with more languid pacing, you may be bored for the first 1/4-1/3 of the show (Dyram: Also, this portion is fairly repetitive and predictable). It worked for me, though, and I thought it paralleled nicely with the increasingly severe rate of deaths and the village's collapse.
The more I think about Shiki, the more I think it was actually quite a special show. Though it is at times a gore fest, it might be more accurate to call it a psychological horror than a traditional horror. And that psychological element is very well done. It's a darkly beautiful story and Shiki can be almost poetic in its existential dread. If you like horror, vampires, or just kind of hate life and human nature, you owe it to yourself to give this anime a try.
PS. Dyram: due to it's slow pacing at the start, this show isn't for everyone, but if you're looking for a nice change of pace and are feeling patient, then it's definitely worth a watch.