I’m kind of tired of vampires, you guys.
At this point, they seem just generally kind of played out. They suck blood, they sometimes turn into bats, they originally meant “fear of feminine sexuality” and now mean “sexy danger.” Sexy danger is pretty cool I guess, but if you keep using vampires to be dangerously sexy, eventually the spark fades. The current wave of trashy vampire romances certainly hasn’t helped, but vampires have always had a ceiling on their resonance as long as they stuck to the old model of what vampires really are.
Fortunately, Shiki thinks vampires are something very different.
Vampires don’t have to be mysterious figures. They don’t have to be imposing, they don’t have to be icons of dangerous temptation. They could be your neighbor, or your sister, or your son. They could be the new family that moved in down the street, or the kids that stay up all night playing that awful music. You don’t have to fear someone for them to be a vampire – all you have to do is misunderstand them, or hate them. Vampires are everywhere.
Shiki takes place in Sotoba, an old town that’s slowly being taken over by vampires (or as they prefer to call themselves, “Shiki”). People are dying, people are moving away, and the original population is slowly being thinned out into a new community of hungry undead. The local doctor thinks it’s an epidemic, but it’s something both far stranger and far more mundane than that. But to understand Shiki, you have to understand Shiki’s home town. So let’s start there.
Small Town Rumors
“Sitting for lunch in a square in this town, this town that I’m new to.
New fellow from my new town sat me down, and explained it to me.
How when I spin from him I spin from myself,
The center can double the speed of the crust.
Thank you, my treacherous friends.
I’m cringing for myself when I cringe for you.”
– Hello, My Treacherous Friends, OK Go
Sotoba is a small, remote village. The population is aging, the family connections are deeply laid, the customs are traditional and unwavering. The village’s very identity is connected to old customs and death – their main export is grave markers, and the main buildings we become acquainted with are the family clinic and the family shrine. The head of each of those organizations is a product of legacy – the doctor Toshio Ozaki and priest Seishin Muroi are each the sons of the previous doctor and priest. Sotoba is one of those towns where, traditionally, everyone knows everyone else. But as the story begins, we learn that the village’s children don’t see it as a comforting or inviting place. They see it as a tomb.
Megumi Shimizu is the first character we follow in Shiki, and she makes her feelings on the village clear as loudly and often as possible. She hates this place – hates the traditions, hates the remoteness, hates the lack of modern fashion and the constant judging eyes. She dreams of leaving the village, and finds solace only in things that promise novelty or escape – the city boy Natsuno Yuuki, and the strange western-style mansion that’s recently been built on the hill. In her quest to escape her stifling home, she actually stomps up the road to visit the new neighbors, hoping they’ll steal her away to a life of modernity and glamour. And for better or for worse, they pretty much do.
It’s actually somewhat ironic that Megumi, in her very self-obsessed way, ends up being the one who acts as a model neighbor, personally welcoming the new arrivals. The rest of the village certainly doesn’t. Though its citizens seem to idolize it as a model of the classic, “one big family”-style community, the cracks run deep beneath Sotoba. The town no longer exists in an age where everyone knows everyone – though people are often called by their family names, they’re just as often forgotten, and the distance between the village’s assumed nature and its actual shifting one is perfectly exemplified by the Shiki themselves.
Though characters like Yuuki’s father cherish the idea that this is a town where no one locks their doors, we do not truly live in an age where we can all trust each other. Vampire or not, you don’t necessarily know the people living down the street. Vampire or not, saying “come visit any time” requires a degree of trust society may no longer possess, and may truly never have had. The classic rules of vampire engagement – requiring an invitation to your home, forcing you to reconsider your trust of faces you’ve seen all your life – have never been more poignant than here, in a village that’s struggling to pretend it embodies an idyllic, potentially stifling past that might always have been a fantasy. As the old townies trade rumors and mock the fashion of the younger generation, a slow shift starts to take place in the makeup of Sotoba. And clinging to the past becomes even more dangerous when your threat is the future itself.
Sins of the Father
“With regard to my newborn arachnid kids,
There’s something we must discuss.
Perhaps you could sit them down, and explain how not to be saved.
Perhaps you could help me to demonstrate
How the center can keep up its sickening spin.
Thank you, my treacherous friends.
Perhaps for my children your surface will smile.”
It takes a long, long time for the characters of Shiki to realize what is happening to their town. At first, it’s considered a simple consequence of their village’s nature – it is an old town with an aging population, and the summer heat can be treacherous. As the death count rises, townsfolk murmur, but no one raises their hand and rocks the boat. The Shiki’s ability to command those they are preying on is even more powerful in a village where conformity is a virtue – one by one, citizens withdraw from society and are lost, and the old folk simply lament it as a sign of the times. Even when the evidence is insurmountable, the villagers can only parse it in terms of things they understand. Though they claim to be “rational people,” their rationality is really just a rationality of tradition – ultimately, the way they choose to combat the “plague” is with a quaint ceremonial dance. It’s appropriate that their weapon is one more element of their fatigued traditions, because the vampires of Shiki are not an unknowable, utterly foreign aggressor. The vampires of Shiki are the same villain Sotoba’s been fighting all along.
Shiki does not paint its vampires as unusually frightening, or violent, or mysterious. Some of them are all of these things, yes. But some of them are just petulant kids, or flamboyant party-throwers, or even forward-thinking parents. The Shiki aren’t an unknowable evil – they are simply the same unknowable force that frightens every passing population. They are the next generation.
Every child wishes to escape their parents’ influence in some way. Every generation “murders” the ideas, values, and culture of the last. The actual children of Shiki are unhappy – like Megumi, many of them dream of escaping their small town. They do not value its culture, and they see their parents’ world as the stagnant place that it is. But though they must kill to survive, the Shiki themselves are not monsters – they laugh and cry and build families of their own. Just like the new generation they represent, the Shiki’s culture is not simply a denial of what came before – they really do wish to create a comfortable home for themselves. As the show goes on, and the Shiki become numerous enough to actually control the village at night, we see them living out a true version of the communal fantasy the daytime village only aspires to. In the company of their peers, they are just one more community, free to be who they are. This theme has particular poignance in a country with such a sharp generational culture divide as Japan, but I think anyone can relate to the message being illustrated here. What may seem monstrous at first can reveal itself to be the mundane, human custom of someone at a distance from your own culture. And as the show’s winding conclusion reveals, that message works both ways. The “monsters” are truly as human as any of us – and we are monsters all.
As Shiki moves towards its climax, the villagers finally learn the truth of their situation. Toshio, the doctor, ultimately is forced to drag a Shiki out in front of the entire village in order to prove their nature. And when finally confronted with the truth, the village reacts like a kicked nest of hornets, their earlier passivity replaced by a manic rush to destroy the invaders. The last few episodes are a blood-drenched spectacle, with the living villagers dragging out any Shiki they can find and killing them in the streets. Both sides turn violence into routine – though earlier episodes portray the Shiki leaders as forcing new arrivals to become co-conspirators through threat and coercion, the humans end up doing just the same. The penultimate episode even makes a grim joke of this “new normal,” with the human housewives making their usual small talk and sharing tea as they dump bodies into a mass grave. Accusations of traitors lead the humans to kill their own, only drawing further attention to how arbitrary these “sides” always were. When you dehumanize the “other,” terrible things happen. And as Shiki draws to its close, what started as the natural flow of generational shift becomes a vicious war between two distant, unapproachable species.
Born in Blood
“Hello, my treacherous friends.
And thank you for joining me here tonight.
I’ve brought you all here to discuss, as I must
How pleasant it’s been, this demise.”
Shiki does not end with the two species coming to some kind of mutual understanding. It does not end with the village passing quietly into the night, replaced by a new generation of different but perfectly valid people. It ends slowly, it ends purposefully, and it ends horribly. Shiki ends in blood.
For all the show’s many thoughts on culture and community, Shiki never forgets that deep down, we are animals – and animals want to survive. When an enemy enters our territory, we fight. When we wish to promote our species, we kill. Sunako, the original Shiki, does not see anything grand or glamorous in her nature or actions – she wants to survive, and so she kills to do so. As she herself says, “Death is impartial. There is no especially terrible death.” Her words see human nature as just one of many possible natures, and her fears are based less in death than in a lack of understanding from others. The Shiki are vicious animals, but we are all vicious animals. Until we see each other as something more, we will always reveal ourselves to be the monsters we see in others.
Ultimately, the Shiki do not take over Sotoba. The old generation “wins,” and wipes out the “contamination.” But you cannot stop history from turning, and in their attempts to turn back the clock, the human villagers of Sotoba end up losing both their humanity and their village. The children of Shiki, the next generation, fare little better. The star-crossed lovers choose not to kill, and are killed just the same. The children who wanted to leave the village die, and those who swore to protect Sunako as an icon of eternal youth and a unified society die as well. Megumi never gets to go to her city. Toshio destroys the town his father loved. There are no true victors in Shiki. There was never anything to be won.
In the end, the character who most fully represents Shiki would have to be the reluctant priest, Seishun Muroi. He’s the one who names them, after all – though he is known as the priest within that stifling village, his true passion is fiction, and it is for that passion that Sunako seeks him out in the first place. Seishun names the Shiki because he understands them. Though he initially dreamed of leaving the village, he ended up ceding to the wishes of the older generation, and hating himself for it. He even attempted to kill himself, and though he failed in that attempt, he ends up living to see the village he hated destroy itself as he survives, carrying Sunako into the future.
The truth of Sunako’s survival isn’t really considered good or bad in Shiki. It just is. The crimes of the old generation repeat themselves in the new – each generation commits violence, each promotes conformity within its ranks, each dehumanizes outsiders. In the end, the commonalities that unite us may be better illustrated through our worst instincts than through our charity – but Shiki presents many good people as well, and Shiki does not moralize. As Seishun drives into the sunset and Sotoba burns in the distance, Toshio’s final question of what he really accomplished seems to adopt more universality than he intended. Some things change, some things stay the same. The new may be stymied, may be hunted, may be scattered and scorned. But time rushes on.
That seems like kind of a fatalistic place to end, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true – Shiki does not have a happy ending. But given the weight of the questions it’s dealing with, a happy ending would probably just be a happy lie for this show. People are often predisposed to distrust each other. People do force others to adopt cultural roles that comfort them. If there is hope to be found in the big picture, Shiki sees it as something far distant, something perhaps unattainable for a species that replaces itself and never settles into a cultural stasis. But there is always hope in individuals.
For all of the terrible things Shiki’s characters do, for all of the ways they misunderstand and villainize each other, we ultimately come to understand each and every one of their actions. To the audience, they are not monsters – to the audience, they are flawed people in difficult circumstances who make good and bad choices just like anyone else. In the end, perhaps the very sadness of Shiki’s ending is the hope it can offer. If it didn’t make us feel, it wouldn’t prove we can feel, can come to understand people who start off so strange and distant. Megumi doesn’t perform one compassionate action in the entire course of Shiki, but she’s still a perfectly reasonable, relatable human being, and it was actually physically painful for me to go back and gather images from her final scene. The punch of Shiki’s ending is proof that we’re better than Shiki might lead us to believe.
We need stories like Shiki. Cautionary tales, stories of past actions gone terribly wrong. The younger generation will always find its own identity, and that’s natural and human. But even though Shiki’s elders twist reverence for tradition into something stifling and corrupt, learning from the mistakes of the past is the only way to take steps forward. The death of Sotoba is a terrible thing, but if Shiki’s survivors can learn from it, then its death will grant it an immortality of its own. It’s no surprise that Sotoba’s residents were proud of their village’s heritage, proud of the grave markers that gave it its identity. Nothing represents the natural passage of human nature quite so poignantly as a marker of those who have passed, made to be honored by those who remain. We must be willing to move forward, to accept death and change and the shift of culture. But we must also be willing to look back, to remember what we’ve learned, and to find meaning and humanity in those left behind.