Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
When a few outlying citizens start dying in the isolated backwater of Sotoba no one really pays it much mind. Sotoba's population is pretty elderly, and it is summer, so a few deaths are to be expected. A more interesting topic of conversation is the odd family that has moved into the European-styled castle on the hill above town. But when a local teen is struck down in her prime, the town begins to take note. Especially local doctor Toshio Ozaki, who sees a pattern—light anemia followed by sudden and inexplicable death—in the rash of local deaths and suspects an epidemic. And like an epidemic, it spreads, killing young and old alike in ever-increasing numbers. But something doesn't add up. Why, prior to dying, do the victims quit their jobs? And what of the other villagers who simply disappear—ferried off in the night by moving vans? And what about the sightings of the dead, stalking the village at night?
Just when you think there's nowhere new for anime to take the vampire tale, along comes this alternately calculating and hallucinogenic adaptation of Fuyumi Ono and Ryu Fujisaki's horror manga. Viewing the undead through the eyes of a besieged village, Shiki manages the impossible: to give vampires back the menace and mystery they lost somewhere in the transition from Nosferatu to Twilight. Screw humanized vampires, Shiki is here to reclaim them for the monsters.
Of course if you want humanized vampires—or action-hero vampires, or glittery romantic vampires—then Shiki will be a bitter disappointment. No one actually sees a vampire until episode four, much less fights one or bears its babies. Shiki's vampires are a silent plague: deadly and indiscriminate but also invisible. For the show's first leg there's nothing more than a series of unexplained deaths and a mounting sense of unease to suggest their existence—well, that and an empty-eyed family that lives in a medieval castle. Only as the villagers stumble, one cryptic clue at a time, towards the truth do the undead reveal something of themselves, and then only in fleeting and incomplete flashes. It's an old tactic (think of it as the narrative equivalent of Ridley Scott's fractured shooting of the Alien) but an effective one. By the time the first vampire reveals herself, she's already eerily alien...and hair-raisingly creepy.
As you'd expect of a series intent on evoking hidden horrors and ratcheting up incremental suspense, Shiki is heavily atmosphere-focused. It moves in a haze of curdled bucolic peace, never hurrying and rarely breaching the unnatural stillness that envelops the doomed village. When the stillness is breached, however, it is with hallucinatory ferocity. A girl's deathbed remembrance of her assault passes in a disorienting smear of distorted imagery, the castle-dwellers arrive in a moving truck that seems to glower and scream, and that first unequivocal vampire haunts her intended victim in a series of intrusive and increasingly disturbing nightmares. These bursts of extreme stylization can seem a little messy and pointless at first, but their cumulative effect—in putting viewers on edge and heightening the vampires' indefinable menace—reveals them to be anything but.
While on the subject of atmosphere, Yasuharu Takanashi's score warrants a special mention. Takanashi is the guy who laced Hell Girl with delicate audio damnation, and he does Shiki a similar service. His music doesn't support the show so much as haunt it, fomenting disquiet in the night and drifting eerily through sunny fields, the wordless dissonance of its beautiful vocals bubbling to the surface whenever the supernatural brushes against the everyday. A better fit for the series is hard to imagine.
Shiki's approach to horror isn't without its unfavorable repercussions. It has little fondness for its cast—most of whom die anyway—and its glacial pace can be infuriating, particularly when the villagers slooooowly fumble through their investigation. When people are dying of blood loss and there's a medieval castle full of hollow-eyed nocturnals on your hill, some of whom trawl the streets at night trying to get invited into your homes, maybe—and I'm going out on a limb here—maybe you have a vampire problem. The series' unconcern for its characters also bleeds into its visuals, where beautiful backgrounds stand cheek to jowl with hideous caricatures and elaborately awful hairdos.
Once the series casts its unsettling spell, however, such quibbles cease to matter. Not everyone will succumb to its chilly magic, and some adjustment of expectations may be necessary (flee hopes of excitement! flee far, far away), but adjust and succumb and you will find a series that owes far more to Val Lewton's horror of suggestion than to the apocalyptic action of Hellsing or the gothic melodrama of Vampire Knight and can stand tall in their company for that very reason. Maybe not too tall, but still.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A
+ Atmospheric, inventive and deeply creepy; manages to make vampires frightening again.
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