It would appear that out of the 294 anime I’ve completed as of this writing, I’ve rated 98 with a score of 8 (very good) or higher (note: I dropped 104 anime). My rating isn’t as relevant to my point as is the the reason I will explain in this post. Shiki is a sterling example of why I watch anime, and perhaps why I love anime as much as I do.
In Shiki, shit really happened.
In the late ‘80s I didn’t have any access to anime, not even reruns of the super robot shows I grew up with. Instead I had to make do with M.A.S.K., Sky Commanders, Transformers G1 reruns, Thundercats, Silverhawks, etc. etc. and of course mostly G. I. Joe. All of these are rather violent shows where gunfights occur without fail in every episode.
However, shit never happens. Sure, Cobra Commander wants to control the world with his Weather Dominator (LOL I can’t stop smiling just typing that out I am seriously losing my shit) but his evil plot backed by an army of mercenary soldiers will be vanquished in a grand battle wherein he will lose battalions of armor and aircraft but without a single soldier getting not so much as a flesh wound. AND THEY FOUGHT WITH LASERS – which meant they NEVER RAN OUT OF AMMO so they just shot away indefinitely. But shit never happened, the battlefield in American cartoons is the safest place in animation. Wile E. Coyote never dies, but that’s because he is an immortal God. He gets shot and blown up and flattened by giant anvils. Shit sort of happens in Looney Tunes.
I loved all these American cartoons and wasted piles of my parents’ money buying a fuckton of toys, despite the stupidity of nobody ever dying. 1988 is more than half my then lifetime away from the years when a Scientific Ninja from Gatchaman would throw a single ninja star and kill 8 mooks with it. I already knew Japanese cartoons kill people. Shit sure happened there.
And thus, Shiki. Shit happened to perfection: in terms of relative scale, intensity, and inevitability. It made me remember love for what I enjoyed in Japanese cartoons as a kid: violence – violent consequences.
There are three moments in the corresponding episodes that I will note here (but will not spoil): from episodes 14, 20.5, and 22 respectively. Let me just say that Shiki exceeded my expectations in how far it went to depict its violent consequences. First in terms of individual choice for the sake of purpose, then the will and power of the mob, and lastly the punishment of the wicked. Those who’ve seen the series will know what I refer to here and may discuss these with me in the comments section (just tag spoilers).
Was there gore? There definitely was. Am I a fan of gore? No. That said, I didn’t feel at any point that the show was playing up the gore for its own sake (which would definitely displeased me). It felt more like a demonstration of Shiki’s commitment to tell its story. If there was anything truly gratuitous (controlling for the fact that this is anime), it would be with the bizarre character designs particularly regarding the hairstyles. I don’t even know where to begin:
So I won’t. Instead I’d compare Shiki to two other shows that depicted what I’ve grown fond of calling “Descents into Hell:” School Days, and Infinite Ryvius. In all three cases, I watched the show as part of my backlog (I missed them during their respective broadcast dates). In all cases, I ended up doing a marathon viewing. I really could not stop watching until there were no more episodes left to watch.
There is truly something about tragedy, or perhaps something beyond tragedy in these shows. Something about a general, pervasive, and consuming feeling of things are falling apart in a terrible, terrible way. The difference between the three shows lie in their respective endings (again, no spoilers):
- In School Days, I experienced a release from hell by witnessing a humorous, if dark end.
- In Infinite Ryvius, I experienced a rescue from hell, and a view of heaven.
- In Shiki, I felt despair from both ends of the pendulum’s path. Things turn for the “better” at some point, but the net despair quotient is just as high if not more than before the imaginary “turning point.”
In many ways, Shiki is as grim and dark as anything I’ve ever seen, including Grave of the Fireflies and wholly without a science fiction setting such as one would find in shows like Armored Trooper VOTOMS, or Mobile Suit Z Gundam. If I’m to borrow a categorical construct from robot anime, I’d say it’s “real” horror anime as opposed to “super” – where I imagine more fantastical representation of traditional horror monsters would be present e.g. Vampire Hunter D; If Shiki is to Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, then Vampire Hunter D is to Toppu o Nerae! Gunbuster.
I don’t know if this is a very useful distinction, but regular readers of this blog may perhaps be more familiar with these robot anime conventions, and it it would be such a shame if they miss out on this truly remarkable anime. If you like anime that fully commits to the consequences of violence – whether intent or malice; or cold, impersonal acts of survival, then you should not miss out on Shiki.
SPOILERS (proceed with caution, highlight with cursor to see text in white font)
What I find interesting here is how aside from the the systematic farming/livestock operation set up by Sunako and her circle, and the malice of Megumi, there isn’t really much evil demonstrated by the Shiki themselves. Let us control for behaviors manifested during a hunt, wherein they are in a certain zone of effectiveness which I argue also covers the behaviors of many of the villagers in the throes of hunting Shiki during their counteroffensive.
The evil in the show also is starkly manifested in the villagers. Take away the the behaviors I mentioned concerning the hunt, there is definite cruelty, retribution, pettiness, betrayal, conspiracy, and malice among the humans. It is from the ranks of the humans where the evil in the show is portrayed in high contrast. See Seishin’s betrayal of the village in his care. See the disposal of the Shiki when they ran out of stakes. Look at the body language of the humans. It reminds me of Breughel the Elder’s Icarus and W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
I can remember a dozen or so scenes from Schindler’s List and Escape from Sobibor, where you see a bunch of indifferent-to-mocking Nazi soldiers stand around laughing, joking, smoking cigarettes while dead or dying Jews are piled up around them in the concentration camps.
Shiki the anime isn’t without humanism, in fact I think it’s rather humanist (as opposed to nihilist) in that the best and heroic behaviors also come from the humans. Acts of self-sacrifice, compassion, and love abound and it came from the humans (The nurse who chose not to feed after rising exemplifies a rejection of her new “evil” nature and a choice of death, a human death). The cruelty of destroying the shiki is played off from how the humans can’t help but see the risen dead as their former selves. One may argue that there is also love, and self-sacrifice in Seishin and Sunako’s circle, but I won’t.
Consequences include death, something in the Western tradition of cartoons is a constrained fictional element. The limitation of marketing animation for children involves conservative-to-prudish sensibilities that prevent animated narratives from portraying a wider spectrum of human possibility. I didn’t come here to hate on the cartoons I too, grew up with, but rather to celebrate one of the reasons I like Japanese cartoons so much: life sucks, shit happens, live on anyway.
If you want to enjoy a piece of hell, make a trip to Sotoba for 2 cours (and 2 extra episodes) and watch Shiki.
The Meaning of Shiki (read: slashing the characters; also, Revolutionary Girl Utena reading — I love it).
The Shiki finale, and series wrap-up you want to read after finishing the show.