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This is a review of the material contained in this DVD, and not any episodes after it, nor the specials.
Vampire stories are anything but new. Originally a European invention, this is my first time sampling something on the subject with an Eastern twist.
The last 15 years have been tough for our light-sensitive friends, as de-fanged vampire adaptions - Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, Buffy, Vampire Knight - continue to be received well overall, spawning countless imitations that further defile the original ferocious nature of the vampire.
Another example of this craze, Shiki (lit. corpse demon) is a 2010 anime that aired on the "noitaminA: dedicated to anime that doesn't suck" on FujiTV, and has been enthused as something to reverse that trend - if you'll excuse the awful pun - and be a vampire series with bite.
This DVD, released in October 2012, contains the first 12 episodes of the 22 episode series. The episodes have their corresponding number in the title (which rather reminds me of The Twelve Days of Christmas, oh well). Each episode is around 25 minutes long. The episode list, for those interested:
1. First Blood
2. Second Decay
3. Third Tragedy
4. Fourth Death
5. Fifth Deceit
6. Sixth Skull
7. Seventh Killing Spirit
8. Eighth Night
9. Ninth Coffin
10. Tenth Mourning
11. Eleventh Slaughter
12. Twelfth Decay
The story of Shiki is based off of a manga (comic), itself based off of a horror novel by Fuyumi Ono. The animation production is by Daume, a studio involved in many collaborations but not many of their own productions: the only other anime they have produced that I have watched is Minami-ke, a cutesy slice-of-life show about three sisters, perhaps not the most auspicious credentials for a horror/supernatural anime to have.
The distributor of the DVD is Manga Entertainment, and the DVD contains dual-audio, including both English dub by Funimation and the original Japanese. Special features include an audio commentary by the dub cast. The DVD has a certificate of 18 for violence, grotesque imagery, and tobacco use. Bodes well for a horror, no? Let's find out.
In the sleepy, remote mountain town of Sotoba, a new family move into town: a man, woman and daughter, who just seem a bit "off" (they also could not dress more obviously if they wore capes and said "bleh"). Shortly after they move in, the population of Sotoba dramatically reduces - Doctor Ozaki at the local clinic initiually suspects some kind of infectious disease, but the only illness or injuries on the bodies of the deceased are "insect bites on the neck". Along with the doctor, the local teenagers, annoying and fussy Megumi, and the object of her affections, sullen Natsuno, are the focus for the first part of this DVD, as they react to the encroaching clasp of death around Sotoba.
And of course, there is the requisite gothic lolita character and her creepily fabulous dress-sense!
At first glance, nothing in Shiki is particularly new or exciting. The plot is sprinkled with cliches: a rural town in the middle of nowhere; a (rather out-of-place) castle.
Similarly, character designs are nothing unusual for anime; eyes like saucers and noses sharp enough to cut cake. However, the use of colour in Shiki is surprising, the brightness, contrast and colours are closer to something you'd expect in a happier show, rather than something as supposedly dark and edgy as Shiki. The hairstyles of pretty much all characters reach new heights of hilarious and distracting anime ridiculousness.
Something else to note is that the eyes of the shiki characters give away their condition; there are certain scenes where the tension would have benefited if we didn't know who or who wasn't a vampire - but I can understand the decision to have all vampires with eyes like black holes and admit it does enhance the general creepy atmosphere.
As for the vocal performances, in both Japanese and English all seemed adequate, but none really stood out for me. Apparently Japanese celebrity and self-coined vampire Gackt debuted as a voice artist, but I am not a fan and nor am I one after hearing his performance.
Likewise, the music used in this series is so-so - the opening and ending song I enjoyed, but it simply got replaced with another generic jpop song. The OST throughout was adequate, adding tension where tension was needed, but forgettable and not one I'd go out of my way to procure.
As for the plot itself, what is often lamented by many an anime-blogger is the fact that anime comes from Japan, and thus, has culture and customs implicit to Japanese viewers that foreigners simply don't know. The mythology of Shiki is confusing, with vampires being referred to as "okiagari" for the first half of the series, and non-vampire "jinrou" (equated to werewolves) coinciding with the vampires and who basically develop the same way. A very small but important detail Western audiences should keep in mind is how very unusual burials are in Japan - most people choose to be cremated, as Japan is a series of small islands with a high population, and there simply is not enough room to bury everyone. This is an important facet of the plot, as Sotoba is a village so ancient and remote that ancient customs... like the burial of the deceased... still occur.
One thing distinct to this series that I have never seen in another format is that every new day is subtitled with "'X Day" and either "Very Lucky Day" or "Very Unlucky Day", rather like something out of a game. Though this is intriguing, it quickly became boring or irritating, occasionally giving out spoilers that ruin anticipation for the episode.
As opposed to other vampire anime, to give Hellsing as an example, Shiki is not focused on gore or shoot-'em-up - rather it builds on a sense of suspense and mystery. Subtle hints are given from the get-go. A stray piece of conversation within the first ten minutes of episode one informs us that some Buddhist statues have been destroyed at the town's temple, and later we learn why, how, and who did it. Though not a massive plot point, this is one of several pieces of tactful foreshadowing that anyone re-watching the show would doubtlessly nod and smile at. However... for people watching Shiki, and, indeed, reading this review, we pretty much know the creepy new folks are not your average neighbourhood-watch-type - rendering these hints fun, but useless in terms of foreshadowing.
In my opinion, a vampire anime set in modern-day Japan could have been an excellent medium to convey some of Japan's problems using vampirism as a framing device - overpopulation, epidemics, urban ennui, connectivity vs apathy - but instead the writers choose to set a classic vampire story, castle and all, into the Japanese countryside. Unfortunately, this only reminds me of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
It's this, combined with the pre-knowledge of the viewer, that makes the episodes contained on this DVD feel almost endlessly long: we know already who the new neighbours are, what they stand for, why the residents of Sotoba are dying. Instead of biting the bullet (or the necks of Sotoba residents), what Shiki could do with is cutting to the chase.
This DVD is currently on sale at the price of £14.97 on Amazon. However, as it is just part 1 (of 2) I would recommend waiting for the boxset to be out, as it will be cheaper overall.
Currently the dooyoo catalogue does not contain further parts to the Shiki saga. If they are added I will review them.
EXTRA: This is an example of some of the hairstyles in Shiki, for, um, academic reference. http://i.imgur.com/5dciSJW.jpg
Some sentences were lifted from a previous review of mine over at MyAnimeList, under the username marusamarento.