Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 3rd 2012
Blu-Ray + DVD - Part 1 [Limited Edition]
A mysterious disease has struck the rural village of Sotoba. People young and old are falling ill, then dying just days after the symptoms appear. At the same time, a new family has moved into a conspicuous mansion on a nearby hill. Could these newcomers, the Kirishiki family, have anything to do with the deaths sweeping across town? The village doctor, Ozaki, is busy trying to solve the problem from a scientific perspective. Meanwhile, the local priest Seishin investigates the victims' circumstances ... while having some morbid late-night conversations with the Kirishiki family's daughter. Natsuno Yuuki, a high-schooler, has also become suspicious after a classmate's death. Are the dead coming back to life and feeding on the living? Faced with an idea straight out of fiction, the people of Sotoba must stop the crisis before they become a village of death.
Shiki isn't going to win any awards for originality ... and that may be a good thing. In an era where the vampire genre has been cross-pollinated with everything from romance to comedy to sci-fi, this one stays true to its roots—with plot points that even echo Stoker's Dracula. The result is a show that, in its first 12 episodes, homes in on the essence of the vampire legend: humankind's universal, primal fear of death. So forget high school melodrama, forget superpowered Vatican clergy, forget post-apocalyptic shootouts. Shiki is pure, classic horror, and that's all it needs to be.
Waiting for the horror to kick in can be a test of patience, however, as the first half of the series proceeds at a leisurely pace. Oddly enough, it doesn't feel slow: the multiple characters and storylines give the impression of constant development. But when it takes a full six episodes just for the main characters to realize, "Oh wait! Vampires!", it can be frustrating for those who expect a major revelation every 22 minutes exactly.
Look at it this way, though: Shiki is simply taking the time to look at a textbook vampire infestation from every angle. Through Dr. Ozaki's eyes we get a medical analysis, which provides some vital clues—but also reveals science's rigid limitations. From the resident monk comes a spiritual perspective, plus a reminder of Japan's own tradition of undead superstitions. Meanwhile, Natsuno provides an everyman view as a moody teenager struggling to understand the deaths (and horrific undeaths) of his peers. There's more to the vampire genre than just sensationalism and gore, as these different viewpoints show—even minor characters like an annoying classmate, or a hysterical fortune-teller, have something to say.
Although the focus of these episodes shifts constantly from one character to another, there's one common thread that ties them all together: an ever-growing sense of dread. Ultimately, this is the force that keeps the story running, so that even when the plot is developing too slowly, and the characters are dragging things out by acting unusually dense, there's still an atmosphere of unease to keep viewers on their toes. The next nasty surprise is often waiting just around the corner: another death, a new attacker, or a major clue. Patience does go rewarded in this series.
While Shiki's storyline hews close to old vampire traditions, its visual style is anything but traditional. Adapted from novel to manga to anime, the show takes its cue from manga-ka Ryu Fujisaki, whose character designs are both unique and unintentionally hilarious. Angular features and piercing eyes give the characters their distinctive look, but it's the bizarre, gravity-defying hairstyles that will stick in everyone's minds. Thankfully, the environs of Sotoba are rendered more subtly, with quaint village houses and deep-green forests that capture the backwoods feel of the area. But the series proves it can also use the other end of the color palette with dark, gloomy backgrounds as the action shifts toward nighttime in the later episodes. However, the animation itself is hampered by limitations: still frames and slow pans often come up as a cheap labor-saving trick, and the characters tend to move stiffly—or not at all. Even the psychedelic special effects, striking as they may be, are really just grainy filters or splashes of color thrown on top of the animation, which doesn't take very much artistic skill.
Just as the shifting range of colors sets the series' dark mood, so does the music, adding to the unease. The gothic-rock opening theme by Buck-Tick is perhaps too theatrical, but the rest of the soundtrack hits just the right level of drama—sparse instrumental scoring and dissonant sounds that add up to an unsettling feeling. Yet the music is also capable of expressing loss and heartbreak, with string melodies that play whenever friends or relatives face their dead loved ones (in physical form or otherwise).
Restrained, serious acting is the key to a convincing horror tale, and in that respect, the English dub gets it almost right. There are moments when the voice actors (particularly minor characters) deliver their lines too excitedly, as if playing a comedy spoof rather than a vampire saga. But the rest of the time, the dub cast brings the right level of earnestness to the performance—especially in the episodes where Ozaki and company begin to realize what's going on, and emotions start to run high. In addition to dual audio tracks, the DVD/Blu-Ray combo package also includes audio commentary for Episodes 1 and 12, where viewers can hear the English-speaking cast offer their own thoughts on the series. Other extras include a series of clips summarizing the story from the monk's point of view, as well as the usual trailers and textless credit sequences.
Although it's based on a popular genre, Shiki is an unlikely entry in today's high-concept, gimmick-driven pop culture. After all, who's got the patience to sit through a conventional vampire series where the plot unfolds gradually, characters are slow on the uptake, and the plot is as simple as "Kill the vampires before they kill everyone else"? Yet that's exactly what makes it work: it returns to the essence of the genre, looks at it from different viewpoints, and weaves together a tale filled with subtle details. The distinctive visual style also makes it hard to forget, both in good and bad ways (it'd be much easier to get creeped out if not for all the ridiculous hair). Shiki may not be perfect, but it executes well enough that these twelve episodes are worth it for horror fans—and it'll be worth sticking around for the rest of the series, too.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : B
+ This modern take on classic vampire lore offers multiple interwoven plotlines, richly colored visuals, and of course, an impending sense of dread.
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