One of the classic fears that horror movies play on is dehumanization, where the lucky ones die and the unlucky ones live on as monsters. In classic horror, it's some outside agency — a mummy's curse, a mad scientist's experiment gone horribly wrong — that dehumanizes you. But every now and then you find horror, not always billed as such, where the horror is in how human beings dehumanize themselves, and often willingly at that. Shiki gets its scares — some of the deepest and most memorable in anime in quite a while — by comparing and contrasting both of those concepts. The monsters are bad enough, but the way human beings debase themselves to fight them is the true evil.
What makes Shiki so potent is how it doesn't declare this approach up front. It sneaks up on us, over the course of a show where so many of the plot points seem to be telegraphed in advance, only to have them manifest in ways we aren't remotely prepared for. Then over the entire second half of the show, all of the expectations we've been allowed to build are torn down, and after it's all over it lingers in the mind the way few other shows, horror or not, ever manage. It's a wise horror story that knows making us uneasy is far more effective a way under our skins than just going "Boo!"
Village of the damned
The backwoods town of Sotoboa, surrounded by mountains, hours from any big city, seems like a nice place to get away from it all. Megumi Shimizu, one of the girls living there, chafes at the town's provincialism and narrowness; she wants to get all dolled up, split from Sotoba, and make it big as an idol. Maybe the folks moving into that big Western-style house (castle, more like) up on the hill overlooking the town are more her kind of people? But then one summer day Megumi falls ill and dies, and the whole town is thrown into both mourning and suspicion.
There's good reason to be suspicious. Megumi is only one among many in the town who have been dying recently under mysterious circumstances. The town's scruffy young doctor, Toshio Ozaki, suspects some kind of epidemic is making the rounds. Ozaki's friend Seishin Muroi, the village's handsome junior Buddhist monk (tasked with the unenviable job of sending off so many dead as of late), has his own suspicions as well. Why, for instance, did all the victims who had jobs quit them right before they died?
What's even stranger is when the dead are seen walking around the village again — always under the cover of night, always furtively, and with the intention of breaking into the houses of those they knew in life. These walking dead are given a name, courtesy of a local legend about such a thing: the "okiagari". Among those revenants is Megumi, who haunts the house of a teenaged boy she knew in life — Natsuno, who also harbored ill-defined notions of leaving the village behind, but whom she could never work up the courage to share her dream with. The newcomers in their house on the hill are the ones responsible for turning the dead, of course, but for a time Ozaki and Muroi labor under the same delusions as everyone else.
It's the appearance of Sunako that puts the first rift between the two men. A young girl in elaborate Alice-in-Wonderland clothes — but with large hollowed-out eyes that look like bullet holes in the head — Sunako trapises into town one evening and insinuates herself with Muroi. One of the monk's extracurricular activities is being a novelist, and she claims to be a fan of his work. He's only too happy to welcome the attention, but the blunt and disturbing way she talks to him about the dark places in his soul (and the not-quite-faded scar on his wrists) speak of different motives on her part. She could in theory turn him at any time, but in time we see how she wants to preserve the complexity of the relationship between them: that of a penitent looking for a place to make a confession, although the show deliberately blurs who is in which role.
Ozaki has demons of his own. His wife is petty and flighty, not taking him or his work seriously; his mother is an authoritarian who can't stand being crossed. For succor, he has turned inwards and sought meaning in his work, and he takes it out on himself (and, unfortunately, his long-suffering nurses) when he can't put the pieces together. By the time dozens have died and he has finally realized the problem is not a disease per se, it's too late: his wife has been affected, and his own composure has fissured for keeps. This leads to one of the movie's masterstroke sequences of horror, where Ozaki coldly tests one theory after another on what used to be his wife to test the limits of her new physique, until he determines just what you need to do to kill one of these monsters. By the time Muroi stumbles across Ozaki's Mengele act, it's far too late.
One step beyond good and evil
It's through moves like this that Shiki tests our sympathies for either side. As more of the village succumbs to vampirism, the family in the house on the hill, the Kirishikis, eventually emerge and begin to mingle with the people below. The lady of the house, Chizuru Kirishiki, zeroes in on Ozaki much as Sunako (the child of the household, despite easily being decades old) focused on Muroi. She, like Sunako, has only been looking for a place where she could walk freely among others and feel welcome, and like the other vampires, she's seen enough evidence to convince her the human race won't let her have such a thing unless she takes it by force. But then she miscalculates how much influence she has over Ozaki, allowing him to turn the tables and out herself in front of the families of some of the victims, and her death at their hands touches off a full-blown war between human and vampire.
But by that point the show has demonstrated the war might as well be between human and human, that the "vampires" or "okiagari" — the term Shiki is also applied courtesy of one of Muroi's novels — are not as inhuman as we're initially tempted to think of them. Those affected, from Megumi forward, still have many of their worldly attachments and desires; they're just now expressing them in a different form.Some of them use their hunger for blood as an excuse for a will to power, as a way to take revenge on the limitations of their old life. But others — such as one of Ozaki's nurses — can't bring themselves to fully inhabit their new role. They would prefer to still see themselves as humans, albeit dead ones. Still others who see their loved ones fall into that role, as with one woman whose mother is turned, try in vain to keep them alive without having to let them resort to murder.
Natsuno, Megumi's would-be cohort, has to make choices of his own that set even further apart from the others. He's bitten and turned, but he doesn't become a vampire — instead, he becomes something halfway, a quasi-normal human who can drink blood to become all the more powerful. He refuses the role, but not because he thinks the human race is all the better — it's more out of a sense of compulsive defiance of authority, a trait his parents have unwittingly provided him with. Megumi, too, suffers about as pitiably. She chafes at being told what to do by her new masters; despite enjoying a whole new kind of freedom, she's still denied the freedom of movement she originally sought in her previous life, except now she may be even more confined. And, worst of all, she's still an "other", still a freak, still something to be rejected — although now hunted down and destroyed rather than laughed at.
By the climax of the show, then, it's no longer man against monster — it's one kind of man against another, each bringing their own weaknesses and failings to the fight. Or, maybe better to say, many kinds of monster against many other kinds of monster, where everyone's motives lead them into a metaphorical, and sometimes physical, pit of squalor.
Monster, human, victim
One of the advantages of horror as a genre is that of those who do choose to walk in, they walk in knowing there doesn't have to be a happy ending. That allows the work to entertain a kind of open-ended moral speculation that might not otherwise be entertained (I'm using that word specifically) by an audience. You can get as bleak as you like thanks to the label, which in turn allows an audience to give itself the freedom to examine situations they might not otherwise choose to stomach. The real test of such a story is whether, after it's all over, the audience is still able to distance themselves from what happened as "only horror" or "only a fantasy".
Shiki does this exceptionally well, in big part by faking out its genre-savvy audience on a few different levels. The biggest way is in how it subtly tricks its audience into thinking it'll deal with its material in a straightforwardly procedural way — as a kind of Michal Crichton horror story, where human intelligence and problem-solving are put to use against an apparently implacable problem. That's what we're allowed to believe as Ozaki and Muroi team up and compare notes; if the two of them run into difficulties, we think, it'll only be because they can't agree on methodologies, or because one worries the other is pushing himself too far, etc. We're on safe ground.
But as the mystery deepens, so does the moral complexity of what we're faced with. The problem no longer becomes "Will Ozaki and Muroi win out against the monsters?" but "Is there anything in them that stops them from becoming monsters themselves?" The same goes, as we see, for most everyone else in the village, since the show makes lavish use of its twenty-two episodes to stretch out and show backstories, motivations, and interstitial behaviors — all the things that happened between and behind other scenes — for just about every character with a speaking role, of which there are easily dozens.
Out of that mosaic it becomes clear that the real problem the villagers face isn't a technical puzzle, but a moral quagmire. Just as those turned to vampirism now have license to take revenge on all those they once perceived as an obstacle or an enemy (whether justifiably so or not), the humans' struggle against the vampires gives the humans license to goad each other on to also take revenge for their former cohorts' failings in life. The most upsetting moment during that whole part of the story, though, is not any of the vampire-massacre sequences (which are by themselves plentiful and horrific) — rather, it's a moment where several of the women of the village sit around, eat lunch, and cheerfully pour each other tea while surrounded by the bodies of their own former friends and neighbors. The real horror is not in the situation, but in the way people acclimatize themselves to it — little by little, unthinkingly. The vampires pride themselves on not ever being deluded about their status as predators; the humans have a harder time making the same claim.
In most shows with a large cast of characters I always resent it when some of the most interesting and lively are relegated to second banana status. Given how much screen time and pivotal importance Seishin Muroi has, though, he must have been as fascinating to the show's creators as he is to us. He embodies a whole passel of contradictions: his job is rooted in the past, but he's very much a man of the present — not just in that he's a stylish looker, or even because he's also the author of several successful spiritually-tinged novels. It's also in the way faith and despair both contest within him for spiritual supremacy.
Mainstream Buddhism in Japan is mostly a matter of seeing off the dead, and so Muroi's presumed duty is to give comfort to those who have lost loved ones, but he can't grant himself any of the same spiritual support. Sunako professes to be a fan of his work, seeing his own real-world despair reflected in them; at one point she tells him, flat-out, "You only write about people who have been forsaken by God." Seishin's worry is not merely that he too is one of the forsaken, but that so is everyone else at this point. What spiritual comfort is there to be found in a world where the dead rise again, only to feed on the living they left behind? And if someone like him can be tempted to turn his back on humanity, what hope does humanity as a whole have?
Small wonder, as Ozaki and his band fight back, they do as much as they can to avoid re-humanizing their victims. But the show won't let us off the hook there, either. Those who are dragged off to their deaths have names, faces, histories, desires. Entire episodes, or portions of episodes, are devoted to reminding us of how they once lived, and how the hell they fell into was by and large not something they chose. Even the progenitors, the Kirishikis, are themselves victims if you go back far enough. That may not absolve them of responsibility -- the spectrum of choices made by those who are bitten attests to that — but all those who array against them and insist they are right only do so out of the luxury of not having been in their position. They have it easy.
The darkness under the skin
The style of a piece of work is a message to us about how to take it in, and part of how Shiki is so effective at faking out its audience lies in the way it looks. Its style seems wrong for the material at first — a little too cartoony in its designs, too jokey and easy with its anime-gag tropes. All of that appears to be taken more or less directly from the manga that inspired the story (drawn by Ryu Fujisaki, of Hoshin Engi fame), but in time it ends up becoming another sly strategy on the part of the story. The more we let our guard down because of those things, the easier it becomes to be ambushed when the story turns not only deadly serious but morally troubling. It's a trick I've seen used before -- Madoka Magica, in particular, comes to mind — but rarely to such horrific effect.
Shiki was originally written by Fuyumi Ono, she who created the Twelve Kingdoms and Ghost Hunt novels, each in turn adapted into anime of their own. I liked Twelve Kingdoms for how it, too, took a fantastic conceit and grounded it in real-world moral and psychological concerns. Shiki, though, is as closed-ended and focused as Twelve Kingdoms is open-ended and expansive, which makes sense given how the former is nominally horror and the latter is nominally high-adventure fantasy.
One possible argument against Shiki is that it leaves us with no one and nothing to root for — and indeed, it has one of the bleakest endings of any show in recent memory, save maybe for stuff like Saikano or Evangelion. I've used the no-one-to-root-for argument against any number of other productions in the past, but I'm not positive it applies here. Some of the innocent are spared (I won't say who); some good people do make it into the light. But there are many more who do not, and the reason the show does not make this feel like a waste is because of how thoroughly it realizes them. We may not have liked them, we may not have approved of them, but we have known them in some measure, and we despair at the way everything they have built up is burned down. Some of them may not have been human, but all of them had humanity. In, I should add, both the best and worst senses of the term.