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Matt Kamen on the horror mystery Shiki

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The small, isolated village of Sotoba is having a very unusual summer. A strange and fatal illness spreads through the population, affecting young and old alike. The only common factors between the patients are anaemic symptoms, a rapid decline and aberrations found in the departed’s blood. Toshio Ozaki, head doctor at the tiny local hospital, suspects a medical epidemic, though every test he conducts and every hypothesis he puts forward is quashed by the next death. Meanwhile, teenager Natsuno Yuuki feels constrained by the sleepy farming community and longs to leave but his dreams turn to nightmares as he finds himself stalked by apparitions and unsettling presences in the woods outside his parents’ home. Could the recently relocated Kirishiki family, having taken up residence in the long-abandoned Kanemasa Mansion that overlooks Sotoba, have something to do with the mysterious occurrences plaguing the town?

Shiki – meaning ‘corpse demon’ – first appeared in novel form in 1998, from the pen of Fuyumi Ono, whose career as a novelist is noted for a strong predilection towards horror. Her earliest work includes Mephisto and Waltz, Green Home Spirits, and the ‘Evil Spirits’ series, which eventually developed into Ghost Hunt. That series focused on a supernatural detective agency, debunking the macabre situations they find themselves in as much as often as they find something truly horrific. Given the investigative nature of that series, it’s perhaps no surprise that Ono is married to detective novelist Yukito Ayatsuji, each author showing signs of their partner’s writing styles in their own works. Spanning five prose volumes, Shiki’s chilling saga was later adapted into manga, with artwork by Hoshin Engi’s Ryu Fujisaki, before veteran director Tetsuro Amino headed up the animated adaptation for studio Daube.

Much like Ono’s work on Ghost Hunt, Shiki’s strength lies in its varied cast. While Ozaki and Yuuki emerge as the lead characters, the inhabitants of Sotoba each get their time in the spotlight, displaying their idiosyncrasies and personal backstories. Fish-out-of-water Megumi, another teenager desperate to move to the big city but worshipping Yuuki from afar; priest Seishin Muroi, a part-time novelist who takes a personal interest in the string of deaths; Sunako Kirishiki, young daughter of the new family in town, with an aversion to sunlight and a fascination with Muroi’s writings – all have an important role to play in the story as it plays out. Amino gives viewers enough time with characters to become engaged in their lives, before putting them through a series of often-ghastly events.

Creating a genuine sense of horror in animation is difficult, and it is a credit to Ono’s dark imagination that so many of her works transition to the small screen in a way that still manages to give viewers chills. The slow-burn approach is key, each episode adding to the creeping darkness of the series’ whole, with flashes of disturbing imagery that linger in the mind long after they’ve left the screen.

Find out what’s haunting Sotoba village for yourself in the first collection of Shiki – although you may want to keep the lights on….

Shiki the Complete Series is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment on 3rd June.

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