Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 8th 2011
Episodes 12-22 Streaming
The "Shiki" that have besieged Sotoba Village are no mindless beasts. They have a plan, and they'll brook no human interference with it. Systematically they seek to destroy each of the villagers who have the knowledge and means to resist. Natsuno is slowly succumbing to the feeding of his once-living friend Toru. Daywalking bloodsucker Tatsumi has a diabolical plan for demoralizing the too-spunky Tanaka kids. And village doctor Ozaki finds that his family can be made to suffer for his curiosity. The purge goes badly, however. Rather than break the resistance, it makes human monsters of its leaders. As Sunako, the undead girl whose plan is destroying the town, opens up to troubled monk Muroi, the humans begin to stir and the town moves ever closer towards a purge of its own.
Sh>iki Part II: Revenge of the Humans. If you wanted to be descriptive, that's what you'd call Shiki's second half. The Sh>iki were the monsters in the show's first half; the humans are the monsters in its second. It's a clever—if not exactly original—little role reversal that allows the series to transform itself from deeply creepy to genuinely horrifying, and not inconsequentially, to end with an apocalyptic climax worthy of its slow, slow boil.
The boil continues well into the second half. The population of Sotoba Village continues to be whittled down as the feeding Sh>iki edge ever closer to the main handful of townspeople. The undead grow bolder and the scope of their plan emerges little by little. The stupidity, stubbornness and selfishness of the locals gets ever more damaging and downright suicidal. By the time Megumi is tormenting poor, plain Kaori (by killing her family off one at a time) and the last of the truly likeable villagers has become vampire chow, the pressure is unbearable. Something has to happen. The townspeople have to stand up. Megumi, Tatsumi and their cheerfully sadistic ilk must die...or at the very least suffer mightily. And that's exactly what happens. But there's nothing satisfying about it.
Shiki, you see, has something far more ambiguous in mind than a mere climactic bloodbath. Make no mistake, the unleashing of the series' pent-up pressures is as cathartic and gory as anyone could desire. But it's also harrowing and highly queasy-making—in more ways than one. The more we learn about the Shiki, the more human they become. Their grand plan is little more than a ploy to create a safe haven, a place to live and feed in peace—a modest ambition worthy of the humblest of humans. And they gradually prove to be anything but the uniform supernatural plague the series' first leg implied they were. Each has their own history—none became undead of their own will—and their own quirks, and not all of them have adjusted to their new lifestyle the same way. When Toru's tortured hunger meets the Buddhist fatalism of a recent arrival who simply starves rather than feed, the Sh>iki become not only nuanced, but dangerously sympathetic.
The humans, in the meantime, are on an opposite trajectory. Driven past his limits by the deaths he has had to witness, Ozaki commits an act of gut-wrenching cruelty in order to study the Sh>iki. He then allies with Natsuno to execute a sadistically manipulative plan to expose the Sh>iki. Finally privy to the truth, the villagers respond the way humanity has always responded to existential threats: with bloody ferocity and unmitigated viciousness. Just as the once faceless threat of the Sh>iki resolves itself into a collection of all-too human individuals, so too the once individualized mass of townspeople resolves itself into an undifferentiated force of bloody vengeance and mindless destruction.
And so we find ourselves amidst the long-anticipated catharsis of the climax with our allegiances neatly flipped. Which leaves us in the uncomfortable position of witnessing a fervently desired bloodbath while our sympathies lie with those whose blood we're being bathed in. It's as neat a bit of narrative trickery as ever devised, a sneaky little ploy that leaves you smack dab in the middle of the carnage just when you thought you were safely on the outside. The result is a smorgasbord of serious unpleasantness. Ozaki's "experiment" and Natsuno's plan to expose the Sh>iki supply some of it, as does the strangely sweet yet brutally ruthless fate of Toru and his Buddha-ish companion. Also memorably nasty are Sunako's flight from an implacable gang of vigilantes and a scene involving Megumi and a group of villagers armed with tractors. Horror masters of eras past would surely approve.
Visually Shiki can seem a little messy. Its character designs and costumes are frankly bizarre, its animation is less than clean, and its final episodes mix surreal visual touches with chillingly matter-of-fact violence in ways that really shouldn't work. And yet they do. The x-ray walls and explosions of hallucinogenic imagery communicate with vivid subjectivity terror and despair while Shinji Ochi's character designs register them, and other less easily defined extremes of emotion, with unpleasant realism. Careful attention to telling detail—the casual way one villager wipes the blood from her hands before enjoying a mid-slaughter onigiri for instance—communicate discomfiting nuances of actions and events while grand flourishes such as the bird's eye surveys of evolving carnage communicate their scope and scale. Yasuharu Takanashi's spookily beautiful score in the meantime takes on distinctly different meanings in different contexts, complementing events or providing eerie counterpoint as required. There's no denying that the result can seem stylistically unbalanced, but the series' perfectly calibrated manipulations of sympathy and empathy and heartsick impact prove that there's a definite, and sometimes diabolical, method to its stylistic madness.
At times there was good reason to doubt whether Shiki was really worthy of being aired in a programming block aimed at adults (that would be Fuji TV's Noitamina programming block). While certainly too cold and slow for the young'uns, it occasionally felt too simplistic and reliant on insulting rural stereotypes for (critical) adults. That ends here. The stereotypes don't go away, but any sense that it is simplistic does. Shiki is one of a very few horror series that works both as horror and as a cinematic commentary on our voyeuristic enjoyment of the genre. In making us party to the villager's bloodlust and then forcing us to confront the reality of it, the series forces us, as horror fans, to reexamine our own vicarious bloodlust. And what we see ain't pretty.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Well-written transition from atmospheric creepfest to heavy-hitting horror; has some mighty uncomfortable things to say about violence, and our consumption of it.
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