Hey all, and welcome back to Why It Works. Though there are plenty of summer shows to talk about, Crunchyroll just acquired one of my favorite, criminally underwatched classics, and so today I thought I’d dig into why that works. So today let’s talk about what I consider one of the few truly successful anime horror stories, and one of my favorite vampire stories in any medium. Today, let’s explore the winding roads and long shadows of Shiki.
Horror is an inherently difficult thing to pull off in animation. While it’s easy to feel sympathy for animated characters, or excitement for thrilling animated theatrics, it’s a great deal harder to feel legitimately scared by animation. The degree of emotional distance animation provides means you’ll rarely be scared by what’s hiding around the corner. Anime that do succeed as horror stories tend to emphasize a sense of creeping unease and rising dread, rather than straight-out jump scares. The Flowers of Evil succeeds in this way, as do standout sequences within the terrific Shinsekai Yori. And so it is with Shiki, a slow-burn that eventually builds into a genocidal horror story.
Shiki takes place in the remote mountain village of Sotoba, a quiet and aging community known primarily for its production of traditional grave markers. In the midst of a summer heat wave, the elderly residents of Sotoba begin succumbing to some strange illness, followed by a rash of children suffering the same. There’s no clear pattern to these illnesses, and so the county doctor is forced into unlikely detective work, tracking the source of these deaths while strange rumors begin to spread. Perhaps it’s the new outsiders who brought this sickness to the people, or perhaps a village like this was always destined to fade away. With the young leaving for the city and the sweltering heat beating down, it can feel like this world is dying without any help at all.
Shiki is an ensemble narrative that starts off as an atmospheric potboiler, a creepy mystery whose horror elements very slowly overwhelm the narrative. The village of Sotoba itself is one of the principal characters – shadowed by looming forests and peopled by suspicious locals, the show’s slow burn makes the desperation of life in this nowhere town absolutely palpable. All the while, key players like the village doctor Toshio, local priest Seishin, and suspicious new boy in town Natsuno investigate the dark shadows of this place, whether it’s because they’re attempting to stop an epidemic or simply because they know there’s something waiting outside their window. Horror can take many forms in a town this remote.
Shiki’s most enduring strengths are its strong grasp of atmosphere, terrific manipulation of setting, and thoroughly well-observed and fully articulated cast. It moves slowly, but there’s always a sense of consequence, and deaths come frequently enough that it feels clear this village itself is under siege. Long sequences of walking Sotoba’s streets and wooded pathways, along with the village doctor’s methodical investigation of the overall community, make the town feel both real and vividly fragile. The nature of vampires marries itself naturally to a fear of both outsiders and your own neighbors, amplifying and reflecting on the inherent distrust of rural life. Ultimately, Shiki’s narrative expands to encompass our universal will to live, examining our nature on a societal sense while individual leads make heroes and villains of themselves.
While all that reflects Shiki’s bulletproof understanding of effective horror storytelling, Shiki also acknowledges something else – the fact that, in spite of all our efforts to dress it up, there is an element of camp inherent in horror that shouldn’t be denied. If you’ve seen anything about Shiki, you’ve likely seen the show’s absurdly over-the-top dress and hairdos, choices that shift from irksome to endearing to pretty much indispensable as you come to understand the show’s ultimate tone. The silliness of the visual design reflects not a lack of respect for the story’s own seriousness, but a full embracing of all that makes horror what it is. There’s something inherently exploitative in a slasher narrative, and Shiki’s larger-than-life character designs reflect a knowing embrace of that ugly soul.
Perhaps more than anything else, the show’s first opening song sums up its glam-rock horror sensibilities. A song that would fit comfortably in the middle tracks of a Misfits compilation accompanies melodramatic images of the cast fading to dust, desperately seeking and falling short as the night sets in. There is power and even beauty in a horror story told well, from the genre’s camp edge to its fundamentally existential heart, finding humanity’s soul in the chalk outline of our collective fears. Shiki is a terrific piece of horror storytelling, and I hope you give it a shot.