Subtitle: Shiki and the Horror of Happy Homes.
Part 1: Driving Out the Darkness:
Shiki is a show I’m reviewing for the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa project, and fittingly, there’s a celebration within the show that makes for a good place to start this piece, a holiday, which also ties in to the winter holidays of two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity.
Let’s begin with Judaism’s holiday for the winter, Channukah, which like Passover is a celebration and remembrance for having triumphed over the enemies of the Judaic people, the Romans in this case. Here’s a translation of a children Channukah song, translated and transliterated roughly by me. It’s titled, quite fittingly, “We’re Here to Banish the Darkness“:
We came to drive away the darkness, (Banu choshech le’garesh,)
In our hands (we carry) light and flame, (Be’yadeinu or va’esh,)
Each of us is a small light, (Kol echad hu or katan,)
And all of us (together) are a great light. (Ve’kulanu or eitan.)
Move aside darkness, onward blackness! (Soora choshech, hal’a sh’chor!)
Flee from the light! (Soora mi’pnei ha’or!)
Channukah comes at the height of Winter, and one of the miracles it celebrates is that a small container of oil held for 8 days. Holidays held at Winter’s darkest which call forth the Spring are not rare, and the Christmas custom of cutting a sprig of mistletoe is believed to be a remnant of such a pagan holiday. Furthermore, the birth of a “God” as Christianity holds Christmas to be, in the Winter, when it seems the year and the world have died, fit into the same sort of pattern. Although it is held during an especially harsh summer in Sotoba village, Shiki’s end-of-series “jubilee” fits quite nicely.
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for the entire show.)
The jubilee culminates in a ritual to “drive away the demons,” but where the participants wear demonic masks. It is a bacchanal, letting loose of wild spirits, where the demons driven out are the ones within us. The ones within us all. We do not drive out some exterior force, but we let ourselves run wild, we let ourselves become the demons, but we remove our accountability by crossing over into the liminal space where we’re not ourselves, where we put on a role, and we become demons. We let out our darker sides for a breath, so we could keep them contained until next year.
But things never work out quite like that, do they? Post World War 2 is a good example of it. If you were to trust the self-testimonials of Germans after the war, then absolutely nobody served in the army as a combatant, or in any concentration camps. Everyone was a desk jockey, and everyone opposed Hitler Youth. It’s a defense mechanism, not just to defend yourself from your peers and their judgment, but also to defend yourself from the need to judge your peers, your neighbours, your friends. If we don’t talk about it, maybe it’d be as if it never even happened. But you can’t ignore the sights of what your neighbours have done, whether they have worn a mask or didn’t.
World War 2 and all that happened in it wasn’t done by humans in spite of Enlightenment, but was made possible through Enlightenment’s research and methods, and so is usually seen as the Death of the age of Enlightenment. We still have science with us, but the myth of progress and greater good were crushed under the weight where we let our demons out, where we banished the demons – supposedly the Jews and the Gypsies and the Slavs and the Liberals, but also the Germans and the Italians and then the Soviets. We set out to banish the demons, but what we have done, just as the people in Shiki have done, is we loosed the demon hounds upon the world, we banished them, from within, upon our neighbours, upon our non-neighbours.
The epilogue of Shiki is pretty clear on it. People may try to act as if nothing happened, but after the demons were allowed out, people can’t unsee the faces underneath the masks of their neighbours, jeering and cruel. They can’t help but see it in the mirror. A secret that will hold the people of the place together, as they hate one another and hate themselves, and absolutely can’t explain any of it to outsiders. They’ve burnt out the corruption, but all that is left is the husk of humanity.
Part 2: The Ties That Keep Us Down:
Shiki begins by introducing a bunch of unlikeable characters. A bunch of teenagers who resent everyone around them, and take it out on them. They keep complaining how they’re being suffocated by the small community with its small-minded people, while not trying to bond with those who reach out for them. They’re sarcastic and vengeful and petty. They’re teenagers who feel they don’t belong, as I said.
If I had to pick a theme for Shiki which all the others tie into, it’s “belonging,” though it mostly manifests in the show as “not-belonging” and “trying to create the place where we belong.” The element of choice or free will is also tied inextricably here. Shimizu Megumi was born and raised in this village, and will have to wait until she’s old enough before she can leave it and its people who don’t care how uncool they are, before she could move to the big city and find others who are like her. She doesn’t have a choice, not yet.
Yuuki Natsuno’s parents decided to not marry, as that did not fit their beliefs. He had to live with his mother’s surname rather than his father’s, and the questions and ridicule that followed. Not only did no one ask him about being born (he’s a brooding teenager, don’t forget), but they did not ask him whether them not marrying fits him. Likewise, they decided to move to this pastoral village, once more, because it fits their lives, and he had to tag along, seeing he’s underage.
Murasako Masao is angry that he’s not being comforted. He’s angry that his brother married and had kids. He can’t leave because he can’t take care of himself. He’s tied down by the necessities of survival, by not knowing anyone else, and being incapable of moving elsewhere. All these kids focus on their plight, on their inability to move away from their families, and from the extended suffocating family that is the village. The main thing holding them back isn’t just arbitrary rules, but their own inability to take care of themselves. As the saying goes, it takes a whole village to raise a child, and these children feel it, as everyone knows everyone else, and gossips, and comments on those who stand out. In the village where everyone knows your name, and your parents’, you must wear a mask to let out some steam, but as said previously, you can’t really do that either, because everyone still knows it’s you.
The above focuses on the kids’ point of view, and how others hold them down as they’re not allowed or enabled by external forces from leaving, but there’s also the other side. Masao, Megumi, and Natsuno all have families who also can’t leave, because they have to take care of their children, and likewise the rest of the village. Priest Muroi Seishin and Doctor Ozaki Toshio are the chief examples of this concept within the show, but everyone else who works in either the clinic or the shrine play their part as well as the show goes on. They have a duty to their fellow villagers, and so they can’t leave. And because they don’t leave, those who support them can’t leave either.
And into this web of dependency and forced-trust, maintained by gossip, come the Shiki, the vampires.
Part 3: Fiery Revolutions:
The following paragraph will contain a (minor?) spoiler for the film Interview with the Vampire, if you’d like, skip ahead to the next paragraph. Within Interview with the Vampire, whenever Lestat turns someone into a vampire he tells them he’s giving them the choice he never had, of whether to turn into a vampire or not. Louis, the other protagonist, was turned when he was in deep depression over the loss of his wife, but we could still accept that he had a choice, but the lie of Lestat’s words is made clear when in the final scene he crushes the reporter’s car, and gives him said “choice”, where the other alternative is death.
Just before the series ended, Megumi is seen about to make a dash for the big city, where she could finally be in her element, and live her (un)life as she had wished for all along, and she remarks, “I have no Master now,” meaning that in unlife, she wasn’t freed.
Do you know why revolutions are so named? Whence comes the word? It comes from ‘revolve‘, and in its common form the story goes comes from Galileo and other astronomers of his ilk. Revolutions’ most notable trait, thus, is that you end up right where you begun. This is the other cause for the “Death of Enlightenment,” as it runs counter to Hegel’s theory where history always advances forward, and replaces it with one where we’re doomed to repeat the same cycle, just with losses and minor disruptions along the way.
Masao is freed from morality, freed from his family. He’s been given permission to kill, but he cannot. He’s still held back by who he is, by what he is. He must fall in with the others’ edicts, or they will not clothe him, and shelter him, and he’ll end up dying. Megumi has to remain within the village, and obey others’ orders, who for the most part are still don’t cool, and don’t wish to experience the outside world. All they did was trade one family for another. And again, no one asked them whether they wished to be born, or whether they wished for new “siblings” to be brought forth. No one even asked them if they want to feed on others, it’s just given that they must.
Contrast this with Seishin, the Priest. “Shiki” is a term he has come up with in his book, to describe Abel who rises and haunts Cain after being slain by him, haunting him. As the series comes to an end, we learn that Seishin resents the ties that held him to his place as a servant of the gods. He was popular, and blessed by the gods, but all he wishes for was to be freed by an external outsider, who would kill him and thus set him free to wander the world, unblessed, without expectations, without ties.
But Megumi, who was held down and then acted as the servant of others, holding Masao down, and Masao, are proof of the lie of that. All the vampires are still who they used to be. They still try to reconstruct their old lives, first by attempting to bring over their family members, then by moving back into their old houses, and picking up jobs again, and creating their social network anew. You aren’t freed by someone coming and freeing you from without, because no matter for how long you’ll wander the land, the one you can’t escape is yourself. The revelation that Cain and Abel are both the same person within Seishin’s story is affirmation of it. You can kill part of yourself, only to be haunted by it.
Seishin does end up changing his ways, once he dies and rises once more. But he’s not really freed by an outsider, but is using that opportunity to make the change he had always desired, truly desired. Unlike the others who are held down by their own hands, and the Other they’ve sublimated, the voice of the “gossip” who kept them in line.
Part 4: On Humanity: Precursor to Horror and Tragedy:
But, did Seishin change, or did he just change his behaviour, once completely torn free of the old web, following the way he’s always been? There’s still some aspect of choice here, but it’s questionable. This is the big question though, was Toshio always ready to kill everyone to save himself, or was he changed by the circumstances? Speaking of World War 2 earlier, how about The Milgram Experiment? Much of how Toshio and the others have acted isn’t surprising, and is so very human.
Toshio and the others had acted to survive. Just as the Shiki have.
This isn’t just about physical survival. Sunako’s actions are the grandest form of “revolution” and most desperate act of “belonging” of all, as she has tried to roll back time, to create for herself a new family, a new place to belong. So she could be safe. Safe from harm, and from loneliness. And yet, in so acting, she has wounded her soul. Toshio, in his effort to ensure his safety, had brought down the humanity of his fellow villagers, so what was left might have been better off gone. The masks have come off, and beneath them were the devil faces of humanity, of a living organism, pushed to survive.
The question of choice comes up, but the answer most often is that we don’t have a choice. That we’re not much better than animals. Or that animals aren’t worse off than we are. Any death is as terrible as any other, including ours versus the ones we inflict. And yet we’ll kill the other, or allow ourselves to die for them. Neither is painted as more noble than the other. Is Natsuno noble for dying instead of Tohru? In the end result, one is left dead, and one is alive.
It’s easy to think Shiki as being a cynical show, saying “Humans are monsters!” as a result, but I don’t think this is what it does, but rather it says, “This is how things are, and this exists beyond morality, before morality. And it’s fine. These are the options, and they are all equal. These are your lives, intertwined with others, and you cannot escape yourself, and the others you carry within you, not ever.”
Part 5: Between Horror and Tragedy – On Pacing and Ending:
Is Shiki a horror show? It seems like the answer should be “obviously yes,” but I’m not so sure myself. Horror is often about atmosphere, and it’s the genre most reminiscent of slice of life in that way. Shiki opens slow, and provided you know what it’s about, the real mystery isn’t asking yourself what’s going on or who it will happen to, but when it’ll start happening. This isn’t Aku no Hana where you constantly feel that the shoe is about to drop and hold your breath in anticipation, but one where daily life goes on.
And then it starts happening, and who and when it’ll happen isn’t really a mystery. It’s not presented as all that awful. It’s not a shocker when it’s happened, and for the most part we don’t really see people walking around at night and then getting jumped on. Instead, the horror comes from the themes discussed in the piece up to now.
First, there’s the atmosphere, the atmosphere of being weighed down, of constantly watched, of being gossiped upon, of being misunderstood and lonely. It’s daily life going on, it’s the horror of being lonely. It’s the horror of being closed in by those who don’t understand you and have expectations for you, even as they ignore and even go against your expectations for them. It’s the existential horror of feeling insignificant, but not next to some unknown Elder God, but next to your peers and family. It’s very Japanese, it’s very western culture, where the individual is grounded against society.
The other horror comes later, when we see just how far the humans would go, the humans who are no different than the Shiki, so seeing how far the Shiki will go is horrific as well. It’s not horror because “No, they can’t do that, they just can’t!” as some might want to argue, but because it’s horror at how far we might go, would go, were we in their place. Megumi exemplifies this, as she preaches the “fun” of doing what she’s doing, but she’s only acting out the reality of vampirism, of initiation hazing rights, where she wants others to suffer alongside her, as it might make her loneliness less, to see others forced to make the same decisions as she were, and thus she’d be freed from her guilt over her “choices” that were anything but.
It’s the horror of inevitability. It’s not really horror per se, perhaps, but rather if I were to cast my mind back to Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks, it’d be a tragedy. The only difference between them is where we stand on the twin questions of Free Will and Enlightenment. Should we believe people possess free will and that we’re on the road to enlightenment, then seeing how far people can sink, will sink, is horrific indeed. But if we believe that given a set situation, how it’d play out is a given, then it’s a tragedy. It’s not scary, and it’s not necessarily even sad, because one way or the other, the village was doomed. One way or the other, the villagers, all of them, are dead. I don’t mean just old age, but whether physically or morally dead. And likewise the Shiki – one way or the other, every single one of them lost their family, and lost who they used to be, even as they could never escape it.
Horror, or tragedy.
Horror and tragedy.
Part Final: A Few Words on Xenophobia and Production Values:
I also want to discuss one other point that doesn’t fit as well above, except maybe under “horror”. This show is not only about exploring the Japanese xenophobia, but is xenophobic itself. Japan is like Sotoba Village itself, in being an island, where outsiders aren’t common, and so depictions of other races and cultures aren’t the most easily found, or the most accurate. Japan has its own history of colonialism and conquest it “struggles” with, mostly as those Post World War 2 people who’d rather not look it in the eye directly.
So, it’s easy to look at this show, go, “Here is what happens when you let outsiders in, this is how you turn into animals. Xenophobia is bad,” but there’s also the other part of it, that while we see how in the end people turn to “purity” and the smallest nick is enough for summary execution, how if you’re suspected of being with “them” then your life is forfeit, how you must prove you belong to the village, small and tight-knit, gossipy, and thus keeps you down, or keeps you dead, there’s the other part. In the end, these are not false accusations, in the end outsiders did bring about the catastrophe. And that’s so fascinating and horrifying about the exploration of xenophobia in Japanese anime – even if the end result and the message is that the natives have gone too far, they’re still right in the end about the cause not being imagined, but being real, being outsiders.
The show sounds great, and I love the OST. I didn’t like the characters in the show as it started, but it was working pretty darn hard to make them unlikeable. Even as it progressed and the characters became more well-rounded and interesting, and likeable as characters, some of the original characters still remained relatively flat, and unlikeable as either characters or people, but it’s fine.
This is a very good show, with good voice acting, good music, and good use of atmosphere. What does it use all of these for? Not really a horror series, and not exactly a drama, but a tragedy about the human condition, as all great tragedies are. I give this show 8/10 tragic werewolves, the only ones who actually had a choice, but as everyone else, obeyed their own inherent natures.
People often recommend episodes 20.5 and 21.5, to be watched after the show, but I can’t join those recommendations myself. Episode 20.5 screams at you what the show during its entire run is saying much more subtly. Episode 21.5 gives you a tragic vignette, which is nice, but far from essential. I’ll give those two episodes 5.5/10 and 7/10, respectively.