How to define Shiki? That’s the question that faces me for this review and it’s a tough one because it doesn’t really fall into any existing genre alone, instead spreading itself across several; a risky move as it leaves you much more open to criticism. But does Shiki deserve it?
The plot (of part one at least) follows the story of a variety of characters living in an isolated mountain village famous for providing the wood used to make grave markers. However, after a decidedly odd family moves into a newly built mansion on the village outskirts, everything starts to go wrong as the villagers start dropping dead in large numbers, leaving the remaining few to try and figure out what’s going wrong. It’s part mystery, part horror and part thriller, and it's certainly intriguing on a conceptual level.
First off, Shiki is beautiful to watch. The animation is really good and the character designs are inventive and well thought out. In particular, the designs of the "vampires", who often utilise a different animation style (in a similar manner to Madoka Magica’s environments) are really very striking. The music is excellent as well - in particular the first opening theme is really, really good and is pretty disturbing in some ways.
The series is also very slow and meticulous in its build-up, which is a pleasant surprise in these modern times where it seems that if something hasn’t blown up for two minutes or been revealed in short order then something’s gone wrong.... It truly is nice to see a show that wants to spend time building up its characters and sense of tension.
Unfortunately, this is also where it all starts to go wrong, and after about two episodes the mystique of the plot vanishes. As the audience, we already know this is a vampire show just from the box if nothing else, and it won’t take you long to work out who the vampires are - thus, what you spend most of the show doing is sitting around waiting (and waiting) for the characters to work out things that we already know. There are none of the twists and revelations that there need to be here, because the plot is more or less spelled out right from the get-go.
Then there’s the characters. The series introduces you to what must be around thirty to forty characters over the course of the first five episodes alone, carefully bringing up subtitles of the full name and occupation of each; to follow the plot along you kind of need to know who everyone is and have some idea of where they live in the village and what they do, but there are simply far too many of them to keep track of and the 'main' characters end up being pretty thinly spread and uninteresting as a result - only the pink-haired Megumi really shows any notably distinctive personality, and her character is massively under-used at this point.
The end result is like reading a mystery novel where they accidentally print the final chapter at the beginning of the book. I really, truly wanted to like Shiki and to applaud it for doing something a bit different, but it’s really a trial to get through and the ending point of this half-way mark in the series doesn’t really even manage to leave you with a hook to watch part two (which I’ve heard may improve matters). It resembles nothing so much as a first draft; desperately in need of the editors big black pen to whip it into shape.