Shiki – the many faces of human nature

The village was surrounded by death. Houses and fields spread out from the river, sealed into the tip of a spear by a forest of conifers. This forest wrapped the village in ‘death’. It laid out the village boundary, and also its isolating barrier. Its trees were grown for the dead. The village used them to produce the wooden grave markers and wooden coffins that fed its economy. Right from the start, the village had been born to produce ritual objects for the dead.

And within that forest of firs was a country of the dead, their grave markers the firs themselves. The people of that village still buried their dead. Each villager had a burial plot on a small fragment of land, and there their remains would be interned. There would be no gravestone. To mark the abode of the deceased, a wooden grave marker would be erected. And after the thirty-third anniversary of their memorial service, that grave marker would be taken down and a fir planted in its place. A fir planted, and then forgotten. By then, the dead would already have returned to being a part of the mountain, bereft of connections with the living.

There is a bridge that spans the distance between that world and this one. And the opposite side, the shore of this world, surrounded on three sides by death, was already isolated from the rest of this world.

The people there served death; they prayed for the sake of the dead.

From the time it was born, the village had existed for that purpose.

ーadapted from Seishin’s essay at the start of the novel.

At the start of summer, a strange malaise descended on this village. It’s inhabitants started disappearing, into the ground, and into thin air. The shiki had come…

…it's us…or them.

Shiki is a show that really split the fandom. To anyone familiar with the horror genre, it was obvious early on that we were dealing with what the West knows as ‘vampires’. And viewers quickly lined themselves up on the two sides, throwing themselves behind the humans, or barracking for the shiki, seeing things in black-and-white. Discussions towards the later part of the series, in particular, began to be characterised by viewers on the human side widely condemning the shiki and cursing certain characters for the decisions they’d made.

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to present my argument well enough, but I felt that this tendency was incredibly detrimental to the story and the themes that Ono Fuyumi created. It may have been brought about by misplaced expectations about what Shiki was supposed to be about. I, for one, was incredibly surprised to find out, a few weeks after it ended, that some viewers thought that this was an “otaku” anime purely because it was about vampires. Apparently, all vampire anime can only be for “otaku”…just as all sci-fi is for geeks? And in a vampire story, there’s always a clear dichotomy between good an evil, even if there are vampires on both sides (e.g. Blood+; Trinity Blood).

Humans are amazing…be it in good or bad ways.

In my view, there is no clear dichotomy in Shiki. Rather than just black-and-white, there are numerous shades of grey. There were those who reveled in control, killing or violence, and those that refused to take part. Some succumbed to threats and taunts, whilst others just followed the crowd without thinking for themselves. A few sought ways to coexist, though most succumbed to particularist ideologies and became used to the killing. But each of these actions or reactions had one thing in common: they were, at their heart, human. They were decisions that humans might make under those circumstances, based on their experiences, based on their dreams and desires. That’s what human nature is – something brought about by the mutual constitution of the individual and his/her environment.

Some might argue that the show was not particularly adapt at bringing all these layers out. There were so many characters that I seriously doubt anyone remembered more than a few names (besides the mains) – e.g. how many people can name the Kanemasa doctor? However, the writers provided some guideposts by contrasting characters with each other. The most obvious pair was Tatsumi and Natsuno: one who would use the vilest methods to see how far Sunako could struggle, against another who simply hated those methods. And although some viewers thought Natsuno made a stupid choice, given his options, I can only express respect because he stayed true to his own values.

I just hate the way you do things.

Unfortunately, the focus on the Natsuno-Tatsumi struggle meant that the contrast between Toshio and Seishin, along with the conflict within Seishin himself, which I felt was one of the main ideas in the series, faded too far into the background. As a result, too many viewers were more interested in taking sides (mostly the human side) than in examining the underlying philosophical debates about what kinds of lives are worth living. It was interesting that a number of people claimed that Seishin could simply have ignored his duty and walked away from the position as village monk, whilst also arguing that Sunako and her family should have stayed hidden as vampires should if they wish to avoid persecution. They recognise the constraints that were placed on Sunako, but ignore those that box Seishin in. This probably doesn’t seem like a fair comparison, but my point really is: what presuppositions about society have we applied to these characters, and where have they come from? Most importantly, are they actually the same conclusions about society that these characters have come to? Can they not fight in ways different from those that we would choose if placed in a similar situation? Given that we haven’t experienced what they have, do we have the right to criticise and condemn them? Personally, I’m not so sure of that.

On the technical side, there were also a few major flaws with the anime. Firstly, that the two BD/DVD only episodes were released months after the end of the series diluted their impact somewhat. I’d have preferred to have watched them along with the rest of the series as it was airing. Then again, I’m not so sure that the contents of 20.5 could have made it past the censors. It should also be noted that they didn’t animate what was probably the most harrowing encounter – yes, even more harrowing that Toshio’s experimentation in episode 14 – Kaori’s encounter with her father.

Nevertheless, Shiki forced me to contemplate several philosophical ideas that I hadn’t really thought about before. It made me seriously consider what prejudices people bring to issues of life and death, and of freedom and persecution. I still don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been in the same situation as any of those characters, but I really appreciated the opportunity of empathising with them.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

10 Responses to Shiki – the many faces of human nature

  1. dekemvrianos says:

    I don’t see this anime as “All black and white”,but i still favored the humans.The reason is simple:

    There was a simple human that tried to help a shiki,but there was no shiki that tried to help a human (quite the contrary actually).I’m talking about the woman who was helping her elderly mother after she rose by giving her a glass of her own blood.

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    • karice says:

      I see your point. I totally agree: what Kanami tried to do was amazing. It would have been a horrible life for both her mother and herself, but it was pretty darned noble. What Natsuno suggested to Tohru actually went along the same lines as well.

      However, I would say that some of the turned Shiki – Kanami’s mother, Ritsuko and a few others – also fought against that hunger and, for at least, against the threat that Tatsumi et al were using to control them. There were also others – and the anime does not do a good job of relating this – who numbed themselves to the horror of needing to kill humans to live…just as some of the humans later numbed themselves to the horror of having to kill those who were once their friends and neighbours.

      On the other hand, I’d also argue that both sides also had prime examples of inhumanity. The shiki side is obvious, but on the human side, Atsushi’s father and even Ozaki behaved in ways that repelled me. My argument is that Shiki isn’t really asking us to take sides – rather, it is asking us to think about human nature, and of the different ways that humans can respond to this kind of extreme situation. After all, all the shiki were once human too…without actually being confronted with the same dilemmas, can you truly say what you would have done if you were in their shoes?

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      • dekemvrianos says:

        TBH i think that Atsushi’s father was just an ass pull by the author of the series to keep balance between the humans that acted like monsters and the shikis that acted like monsters.He had no reason to act like this and he never acted like this before.

        Generally,i don’t think that all shikis were evil,of course many individual cases like Megumi were evil inhuman monsters.
        But the main problem is that Sunako and generally the “ruling” Shikis were completely evil,as they FORCED many Shiki fledglings to kill their loved ones or relatives for apparently no real reason.Also,Sunako has completely ruled out the choice to coexist with humans and forcibly tried to convert the human population to Shiki,while knowing that many of them would never reanimate.
        Especially Sunako tries to act like some thousand years old sage but in the end she shows that she’s no more than a child in mind,as she carelessly killed humans,raised some of them forcibly,destroyed whole families but when the karma meter was about to backfire she said that everything is unfair.

        Personally,i think that Tatsumi is a more sympathetic character than Sunako,because eventhough he knew what he did was wrong (downright evil in the manga),he never complained when the humans retaliated.

        Of course one can say that: power can change whole personalities,and eventhough Shikis had many weaknesses they also had great power,and this power was sufficient to make them disregard their morality.

        And one more thing, would you drag others to share the same fate you did or would rather fight the ones who did that to you?

        Natsuno did that. Rather than join the shikis, he fought them. Ritsuko resisted the urge to kill her best friend.

        Can you have peace knowing that you lived by killing someone who didn’t to you let alone didn’t harm you?

        Blame the victims and reward the killer. I don’t agree with that because the shiki started the killing first.

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      • karice says:

        He had no reason to act like this and he never acted like this before.

        I’ll have to disagree. Ookawa being unable to control his rage (whatever the situation) is part of his characterization.

        I also do not agree with the contention that Sunako and co. forced the others to kill “for apparently no reason”. Her aim – the creation of a shiki village where they could live without fear – was pretty clear, and it required that despicable plan involving threats and blackmail. Ultimately, it was naive, even stupid, but it was also something that resulted from all the experiences she had gone through. Have you ever read or seen “Interview with the Vampire”? Being turned into a vampire as a child adds a few other issues on top of the need to kill to live. Basically, I found Sunako’s desires quite logical, and, to be frank, quite human.

        Looking at the focus of your comments, I’m not sure if you understand what I’m driving at. It doesn’t matter which side they were on – each of the characters behaved in a way that humans might behave in the situations they found themselves in. Thus, I contend that Shiki is more valuable as a study about human nature, and that focusing on the shiki vs. humans aspect of the text tends to mask that.

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  2. dekemvrianos says:

    “I also do not agree with the contention that Sunako and co. forced the others to kill “for apparently no reason”. Her aim – the creation of a shiki village where they could live without fear – was pretty clear, and it required that despicable plan involving threats and blackmail.”

    There’s the main problem.If we are observing this anime’s plot by human standards this sole fact is the only point needed to damn Sunako.If she tried to coexist and was hunted for it,that’s another point.

    But forcibly converting humans without their will (apart from Seishin…kinda) and killing many o them in the process…well, it doesn’t get any more inhuman than this.

    And yes i’ve seen “Interview with the Vampire”,and i still think that her actions are not justified.All shikis were once humans,that applies to Sunako as well.

    Becoming a shiki,doesn’t mean one must abandon his/her humanity,and that’s entirely possible as there are examples of Shikis that didn’t abandon their standards and morality after their conversion.

    “It doesn’t matter which side they were on – each of the characters behaved in a way that humans might behave in the situations they found themselves in. Thus, I contend that Shiki is more valuable as a study about human nature, and that focusing on the shiki vs. humans aspect of the text tends to mask that.”

    Undoubtedly,the Shiki vs Humans is a theme of these series,you can’t ignore it.
    Also,i’d agree with your point in a sense that these series can be an example of how a human would react in certain circumstances…IF Sunako didn’t force many Shikis to commit atrocious things (like killing their families/loved ones).

    I understand your point,you are generally saying that once humans are given great power they might disregard things like morality and compassion.
    Though,still i don’t think that these series are the best example for this discussion as many Shikis that became completely inhuman after their *vampirization* had the tendecy even as humans (*cough* Megumi *cough*).

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    • karice says:

      I’m not sure if you understand my stance. I certainly don’t condone what Sunako did. But I try to understand why she did it, i.e. by looking at how her past experiences shaped her.

      If you’d like to focus on the ‘now’, as in just on her actions in that little mountain village, then I’ll leave you to it.

      ——-

      Though,still i don’t think that these series are the best example for this discussion as many Shikis that became completely inhuman after their *vampirization* had the tendecy even as humans (*cough* Megumi *cough*).

      Er…that’s precisely why I’m saying it’s a series about ‘human nature’. Because, whether they end the series as shiki or as humans, each individual’s behaviour was within human bounds. Those that will abuse power will abuse it when they get it. Those that won’t try to understand will never try. Those that will choose to protect their closest loved ones will continue doing that, and that manifests in different ways depending on whether one is ‘changed’ or not. But, every single one of these possible paths is possible (and does happen) with real humans. Look at the various conflicts around the world, even over the last 20 years: the Rwanda genocide, Somalia, the Bosnian war…people can aim for segregational outcomes, and behave in atrocious ways in order to achieve that. And there are also peace-loving people who try to find a solution that enables everyone to live together. Shiki may be fictional, but it’s a text that offers readers (viewers for the anime) a chance to reflect on what humans are like in real life.

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      • dekemvrianos says:

        “Er…that’s precisely why I’m saying it’s a series about ‘human nature’. Because, whether they end the series as shiki or as humans, each individual’s behaviour was within human bounds. Those that will abuse power will abuse it when they get it. Those that won’t try to understand will never try. Those that will choose to protect their closest loved ones will continue doing that, and that manifests in different ways depending on whether one is ‘changed’ or not. But, every single one of these possible paths is possible (and does happen) with real humans. Look at the various conflicts around the world, even over the last 20 years: the Rwanda genocide, Somalia, the Bosnian war…people can aim for segregational outcomes, and behave in atrocious ways in order to achieve that. And there are also peace-loving people who try to find a solution that enables everyone to live together. Shiki may be fictional, but it’s a text that offers readers (viewers for the anime) a chance to reflect on what humans are like in real life.”

        -My point stands still,no human example of “power-abuse” comes in mind,all humans that were violent in the ending were mostly acting like this due to rage (like Megumi’s father) or due to instict (fear of inhumans).
        Of course some humans in that specific situation would try to abuse their powers after rising as Shikis ,but i’m talking specifically about the characters of the story.
        You can’t relate this point to the “human nature”,as human nature varies greatly from person to person.
        Also,bear in mind that these series were concerned about fictional beings with rules and circumstances that don’t apply in the real life.

        -For example,Ookawa did enjoy killing his undead son ( = somewhat inhuman,even if his son was a shiki) but in the end,what he said to Sunako (before he tried to kill her) was true (short story: Sunako ruined the lives of many people due to her tyrannical dream,so she deserved what was coming to her [and i agree with it] ) .

        -The reason i still favor the humans is because eventhough many human characters had the potential of being “evil” within them before becoming Shikis, several Shikis like Sunako (her family,and somewhat Seishin after rising as a werewolf) had adopted some sort of “consequentialistic” attitude (short story: the end justifies the means),while knowing that it’d only benefit the Shikis and also knew the consequences of it,if something went wrong.
        Yet,when their plan backfired they acted like spoiled children,only caring about themselves.That simple fact is outrageous for me and removes any chance of redemption for those specific Shikis.

        -Choosing the lesser evil,you might call it,but i think it’s safe to assume that it’s better than choosing the greater evil (Shikis).
        Especially,considering that the lesser evil has more redeeming capabilities than the greater evil.

        -Sorry,but i don’t see anything beyond that,i think these series are about the consequences of “consequentialism” (CONception,lol),when it involves unlawful means.

        -PS :I never assumed that humans are saints (not in these series and of course not in real life).The section ” Choosing the lesser evil … greater evil. ” explains my opinion.

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      • karice says:

        no human example of “power-abuse” comes in mind….

        Could the reason for this possibly be the simple fact that remaining as a human means that you don’t have power? Well, except as part of a mob, which is a different kind of power.

        What if Ookawa had been turned? What if Toshio had been turned? How would they have reacted, depending on whether they became a mere shiki, or a jinrou? What if Ritsuko hadn’t been turned – would she have joined in with the wanton slaughtering? I think these what ifs are important to consider.

        You can’t relate this point to the “human nature”,as human nature varies greatly from person to person.

        Why does it not apply? I have never said or implied that human nature is one thing: all the characters react in very different ways, and they do that because they have different beliefs, different values, different experiences, different upbringings. But each and every one of these different aspects is still, fundamentally human. If what they do seems inhumane to you (or me), that’s one of my points: what some people do in certain situations is completely inhumane. But that is what some people in the real world are like, and the only difference is whether they receive or obtain the power to be inhumane or not.

        -Sorry,but i don’t see anything beyond that,i think these series are about the consequences of “consequentialism”

        If this is how you look at Shiki, that is fine with me. We are all entitled to our own foci and interests. My focus, however, isn’t the same as yours. I’ve already said that I do not condone what Sunako and co. did, but I don’t want to focus on the question of whether its unfair or not that she got away, or feel annoyed at the shiki for complaining as they were killed. Mostly because that’s not the most important aspect of the series to me, but also because its just tiring to be upset or annoyed about a story/ending I can’t change. If that is what you want to do, I will leave you to it.

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        • dekemvrianos says:

          “If this is how you look at Shiki, that is fine with me. We are all entitled to our own foci and interests. My focus, however, isn’t the same as yours. I’ve already said that I do not condone what Sunako and co. did, but I don’t want to focus on the question of whether its unfair or not that she got away, or feel annoyed at the shiki for complaining as they were killed. Mostly because that’s not the most important aspect of the series to me, but also because its just tiring to be upset or annoyed about a story/ending I can’t change. If that is what you want to do, I will leave you to it.”

          I never said that i’m upset at the ending and/or want to change it,this is probably the most stupid assumption you have made in this whole conversation.
          I just can’t see anything past the corrupted mentality of the ruling Shikis because …of their corrupted mentality.If the Shikis had better behaviour than humans,they could even create a society that is better than humans.
          But their actions,decisions and intentions is what removes any chance of redemption and alternative interpretation (at least for me).

          In short words:These series is not an appropriate example of “human nature”,because the ruling Shikis had corrupted/inhuman mentalities (and they weren’t even human),therefore the “human nature” does not apply into these aspects.

          “Could the reason for this possibly be the simple fact that remaining as a human means that you don’t have power? Well, except as part of a mob, which is a different kind of power.”

          A mob is not a form of power.
          A mob is a “mass” of humans which is ruled primarily from human insticts,not desires.A mob
          HAS great power but it is not a form of power,because:
          a)Power is distributed among the people who belong to the mob.
          b)It isn’t ruled by human will,it is just a simple pack of (mostly) mindless humans,no more than animals.Power does not apply in this case.

          “Why does it not apply? I have never said or implied that human nature is one thing: all the characters react in very different ways, and they do that because they have different beliefs, different values, different experiences, different upbringings. But each and every one of these different aspects is still, fundamentally human. If what they do seems inhumane to you (or me), that’s one of my points: what some people do in certain situations is completely inhumane. But that is what some people in the real world are like, and the only difference is whether they receive or obtain the power to be inhumane or not. ”

          TBH i didn’t really get what you said.
          Is power able to transform people into inhuman monsters?Yes,i said that already.
          Are humans saint?No,actually in our majority we are far behind from being saints.
          But as i said before is that you can’t relate the “Human nature” on a setting where mythical creatures exist,with different laws of nature and of course leading to different circumstances and plots.

          “What if Ookawa had been turned? What if Toshio had been turned? How would they have reacted, depending on whether they became a mere shiki, or a jinrou? What if Ritsuko hadn’t been turned – would she have joined in with the wanton slaughtering? I think these what ifs are important to consider.”

          I suggest you not to drop the level of this conversation on “What if” questions.
          I could tell you a thousand possible scenarios via the “What if” question.

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      • karice says:

        I’m sorry. The focus that you keep trying to push on me suggests that you either remain annoyed at how Sunako got away, or that you are fixated on what you call the shiki’s “corrupted mentality”.

        Personally, I’m not interested in that, because I find other questions about the series more interesting. To me, these are questions that are not bonded by the notion that this is a supernatural series. Take Buffy, for example, or even Batman, Spiderman, or anything that places humans in a fantastical situation. Although they have supernatural/superhuman powers or characteristics, do we not view them as human (or human-like) individuals whose experiences have influenced who they are? How about the Hunger Games? Or Battle Royale? Place humans in an unusual situation, and they will react in a variety of ways, ways that demonstrate many facets of human nature. To me, that’s what Ono Fuyumi has done in Shiki. And that’s why the “what if” questions I posed previously interest me.

        The questions that interest me, however, don’t seem to interest you. Maybe we simply don’t look at fictional characters such as those I’ve mentioned above in similar ways. Or perhaps, the fact that you “just can’t see anything past the corrupted mentality of the ruling Shikis” is the more important factor.

        Either way, I think that we’re both wasting our time here.

        —–

        A mob is not a form of power.

        Let me rephrase: being part of a mob can be empowering. Power can take many forms – it depends on how one defines it, and it looks like our definitions differ too.

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