Shiki is one of those shows that few people have seen, but that almost everyone who has loves. Unlike a lot of anime horror (and horror in general, really), which often caters solely in schlockly gore and cheap shock tactics, Shiki thrives on actual substance and atmosphere. Which isn’t to say it skips out on the gore or shock. The difference is that Shiki earns its gore and brutality. It takes a while to get there, but Shiki’s last few episodes are shocking, bloody, and brutally cynical, and also one of the most memorable things I watched in 2014.
Warning: Spoilers for Shiki to follow
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, it won’t take long for you to pick up on the particular set of emotions that 2010’s vampire horror anime Shiki taps into. Peaceful Small Towns are some of the most idealized places in many cultures, often portrayed as oases of serenity, simplicity, and moral superiority away from crushing life in the corrupt big city. You don’t just find this attitude in fiction, either; talk to any Proud Small Town Resident, and they’re likely to have that exact attitude about their perfect little home town. Some of them say it so convincingly and so politely that it’s easy to miss the arrogant superiority and reactionary distrust toward anything from Outside, if you haven’t lived through it yourself.
Shiki understands small towns, from their simplistic concerns to their conservative distrust of anything new to the resentment hiding behind the smiles of neighbors who know too much about each other but are too polite to speak their minds. As the residents of the show’s fictional Japanese town, the isolated mountain village of Sotoba, fall sick with a mysterious illness and die one by one (spoilers: the strange new family that’s moved to town are a coven of vampires), all of those simmering tensions start to rise, until the town’s idilic facade collapses under the strain.
Shiki starts slow, wallowing in an atmosphere of uncertainty and dread as townspeople are picked off one by one. As the nature of the threat becomes clearer, the boundaries between monsters and regular folks start to blur. Panic and fear show Sotoba’s residents to be callous beasts ready to turn on each other at the slightest suspicion once their passive existence is threatened. Meanwhile, the family of ghouls are revealed to be complex, relatable people who just want what most people want: a family and a home. This inversion of sympathies is complete by the story’s final act, an orgy of brutality that sees the townspeople devolve into the monsters they’ve been threatening to reveal themselves as since episode one, and that only ends with the town in flames and the entire population with blood on its hands (and also on their lawnmowers).
The bloodbath that is Shiki‘s final episodes is inevitable. It’s slow pace and reliance on atmosphere over forward momentum, especially in its first half, all call for an eventual crescendo into a final explosion. But unlike many other horror stories, the climax isn’t a cathartic purge, or a return to normalcy through the driving out of the corrupting, foreign Other that upsets the perfect balance of the world. It’s an explosion of savagery that marks the final collapse of all the pretenses that once held a community together. The horror that Shiki deals in isn’t the horror of outside corruption invading a small, peaceful town. It’s the horror of that small, peaceful town revealing the corruption inside itself at the smell of blood.