So my big vampire-related surprise this year came from an unusual place. A co-worker of mine off-handedly asked if I’d seen this anime, Shiki, about vampires. As usual, my response was along the lines of “Vampires?! Did you say vampires?! I LOVE vampires!” And so began my quest. It wasn’t on Netflix, Amazon had the first season split into two exorbitantly-priced box sets that were too rich for my tasty mortal blood, and I just don’t really like watching TV and films on my laptop. Malaysian import? Malaysian import.
One thing I love about said imports is the superior packaging they often have. From behind the clear plastic sleeve, I was greeted by glossy artwork featuring a vamp with shiny metallic red eyes staring out at me. I can already tell this is going to be sweet. Since I’d stopped reviewing regularly, I’ve really fallen off of the cutting edge. I used to buy more imports than domestic DVD’s, but now it’s become a rarity for me. This felt just like old times except I was behind the curve instead of ahead of it. But since I had no intention of reviewing the show and was just watching it for my own enjoyment, I didn’t care about that. 22 episodes of a promising-looking new vampire series. Let’s effing do this.
Anime has a long history of creative and generally excellent vampire television shows and films. In fact, I’d say Japanese animation leads the world in that department. From the 80’s classic Vampire Hunter D to the more modern Hellsing, the goofy romantic comedy of Karin and Rosario + Vampire, the killer animation of Blood: The Last Vampire, the noir-esque Nightwalker, and the controversy of Dance in the Vampire Bund -to name a few- there is almost always something for every taste to sink your fangs into.
Anime Twilight equivalent? You know it.
But one thing vampire anime typically is not? Scary. Not really. Creepy, twisted, and violent, yes; but not actually scary. You’d think it’d be easy. Japan’s run of horror films in the late 90’s and 00’s was so legendary that American horror milked the scene for years with remakes and even most moviegoers who typically shun foreign films have seen at least one or two of the originals. But their interpretation of vampire mythology tends to swerve away from traditional horror and more towards action/adventure or unexpected genres like comedy.
Well, that ends here. Shiki is a non-traditional look at traditional vampiric horror that draws direct inspiration from some of the most classic scary stories ever written. Picture Stephen King writing a new version of Salem’s Lot with Richard Matheson’s ironic twist in I Am Legend firmly in mind after months spent pondering the nature of death itself. Now picture it as an anime. The result would be pretty much be Shiki.
The small isolated village of Sotoba in the middle of a forest whose wood provides the village’s primary export: grave markers. So it is symbolically surrounded by death. Sotoba is full of small-minded country folk who keep to themselves and are distrustful of outsiders so while everybody notices the mysterious new family who moves into the Western-style mansion on top of the hill overnight, most of them pay no mind. That is until people start dying and disappearing, reappearing some nights later somehow…different.
Naturally, it’s the kids who react first while the adults turn away, unwilling to break their personal routines or openly express belief in such a silly notion. Meanwhile the head priest of the village’s shrine, Seishin Muroi, makes a new friend. An empty-eyed little girl named Sunako who happens to be a fan of his novels -which deal heavily with death and protagonists who have been “abandoned by God”- begins patronizing his shrine during midnight hours.
The relationship between the deathless Sunako and the faithless priest is what sets Shiki apart from the Western stories it draws inspiration from. While the little vampire girl peruses a draft of his latest work, she questions the motives of the protagonist, who is haunted by a vision of the brother he killed (which he calls a “Shiki”, or “corpse demon”). When Muroi admits he has no reason why the man killed his brother, Sunako leaves him a note that sums up the overarching philosophy of the series. It reads “Where there is an intent to kill, there is a reason.”
So what we are faced with is a new look at the classic nosferatu; a race facing extinction who have to feed on the blood of the living both to survive and to propagate their existence. In our eyes, they are the most terrifying (im)possible creature, as any animal would be foolish to not fear their natural predator.
Unless, of course, they happen to be a fan of your work.
But flip that view around for a minute. As scary as vampires would be to us, what would humans look like from their point of view? They are few, we are many, and they are comatose during daylight hours. In order to survive, they need to find a way to kill us in the night, but without being detected because they have almost no defense against us during the day and humans are every bit the dangerous, crafty, and determined predators they are. And unlike a vampire who takes a victim for their own survival, humans will kill for fun and profit. And when they are threatened? Fuhgeddaboudit. And when a human kills, the victim stays dead. In short: we are a vampire’s worst nightmare.
So after being exposed to the supernatural creepiness of a village’s residents being stalked and slain by a plague of their undead loved ones (new vampires target those they loved the most in life, possibly in tribute to the classic tale The Family of the Vourdalak), the story flips and the viewer is subjected to a different kind of horror; the kind epitomized by human cruelty.
When the sun comes up, it’s your ass.
This duplicity and dedication to philosophical horror made Shiki one of the entertainment highlights of my year, so it seems fitting that I dedicate one of my October vampire columns to singing its praises. It doesn’t quite have the juice to make it an all-time favorite since it suffers from some pacing problems among other issues, including an unnecessary subspecies of daywalking vampires (referred to as werewolves) that just kind of serve to confuse the issue. It also happens to be the only anime where the characters’ hair was so outlandish it was actually distracting to me. And that’s in a genre of entertainment known for outlandish hairstyles.
Flaws aside, I couldn’t help but feel that I was seeing a resurgence of the groove that had Japan leading the world in quality horror exports for a decade while watching this show. While the traditional J-horror film scene has largely devolved into a tired farce, anime series like Shiki and the uniquely brilliant Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry) are proving that Japan can still bring the creepy in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, even though it’s been around as long as the film medium itself much of the rest of the world has yet to catch on to the anime scene so these kind of shows tend to get ignored.
So if you’re in the market for a fresh take on an old concept, and your idea of adult animation does not include Pixar and Dreamworks’ hip-hop animals and talking vehicles, I’m recommending Shiki for some good old-fashioned horror with a philosophical twist.
For the record, it’s better to watch it in it’s original Japanese with subtitles.