Shiki: The Anatomy of a Vampire Type

Vampires who don’t like the sun! What a novel concept!

Wow – so I managed to accidentally delete this while cleaning up my backlog of unfinished posts. Good job, Day! Good thing I save copies to my hard drive of all my posts… And now, your regularly scheduled post:

Seriously. I feel like the last time I saw these kind of vampires was back in those Anne Rice books… and even she violated the whole ‘the sun is trying to kill me’ rule when everyone got mad that she killed one of their favorite vampires.

However, Anne Rice is hardly the beginning of vampire lore, and in fact her vampires are quite modern for all their adherence to such things as being unable to handle sunlight and an often cavalier attitude toward killing their victims. These vampires are very glamorous – they have money, they’re beautiful, they’re sexy… Even as we are more or less told that eternal life is a bad thing, the characters themselves possess so many ‘cool’ attributes that its hard to take the admonition against desiring eternity seriously.

The vampires in Shiki aren’t like that. In fact, the vampires in Shiki essentially take us back to the roots of modern vampiric lore, vampires as conceived of in the minds of Europeans and New Englanders of the 17th through 19th centuries. These aren’t your sparkly vampires, aren’t your sexy vampires. These are your terrors of the night, working their way through a population stealthily while the would-be guardians of the people can do little.

Let’s consider first the way in which the vampire plague of the villages in Shiki is perceived by the main players in the story – as just that, a plague, an epidemic. People get sick, become lethargic, and die of mysterious causes, often with a case of anemia in the mix. The idea of illness as evidence of vampires was incredibly common in New England up until very late in the 1800’s, particularly during the latter part of that century as tuberculosis (or, as they call it, consumption) cut its way through populations. In rural and even suburban areas, the belief that TB was evidence of a vampiric threat was quite persistent. TB was thought to occur when a recently deceased person, generally someone else with TB, came back to life to feed on someone, usually a loved one. The vampire came nightly to feed, hence the worsening condition the victim displayed, and continued on until the victim died. To safeguard against further vampires, the heart of the dead person would be burned to ashes, and the head cut off. Tombs were also opened up to do this when a person became ill with TB in an effort to nip the problem in the bud. Sometimes the ashes from the heart were mixed with water and given to the sick person to drink.

The vampires in Shiki also clearly come across as being inhuman in a manner which is unsettling as opposed to awe-inspiring. Their eyes are empty, lacking the physical set-up of eyes as we know them – in normal circumstances there is no pupil, no iris, no white area (thus, the above picture of Megumi is either inaccurate or supposed to be from before she died). Instead, the eye is fully dark, almost as if there is no eye there at all. The only time pupils and irises appear seems to be in times of anger or in anticipation of a future attack; however, the eyes remain dark in color with no white area. The vampires also display a flexibility of the body which is best described as being like that of a marionette. Witness the scene wherein Megumi crawls out from under Aru’s bed, the manner in which she unfolds herself. She is very obviously no longer human – these are not the movements of a person. It comes across as creepy because people simply aren’t supposed to move that way.

There is very little regard for humans and human life demonstrated by the vampires. When they are friendly with villagers, these villagers often go on to die, making the mistake of inviting their would-be predators to a future visit to their homes. They are literally inviting the vampires to feast on them. (The sole exception to this thus far is the Buddhist priest, Seishin, although he has only interacted with Sunako, the young girl vampire.) These vampires aren’t going to become your boyfriend, they don’t dilly-dally around the woods during sunlight looking pretty, they don’t dilly-dally around the woods at night to drink blood from raccoons, and they sure as hell aren’t interested in developing some blood substitute or buying blood from a blood bank. They’re hungry, and they don’t care about you – you’re just to-morrow’s breakfast burrito.

None of this is particularly revolutionary. It is, however, quite a break from the vampire narrative as we know it now, the one that pop culture has become incredibly enamored with. Look at the anime, TV shows, manga, and movies that have involved vampires over the past five years or so – Vampire Knight, RH+ [1], Karin, Bloodhound: The Vampire Gigolo, Black Blood Brothers, Twilight, Dance in the Vampire Bund… the list goes on. And, in all of them, vampires are fairly human overall, and in most of them, they are also depicted in a manner which is more suited to inspiring admiration and envy rather than terror. These are hardly the TB vectors that New Englanders feared so strenuously, nor are they the monsters which haunted the imaginations of Europeans for centuries. Vampires! They’re just like you and me! But they’re prettier!

Fuyumi Ono is familiar with presenting us with more old-fashioned vampires. She did the same in the Bloodstained Labyrinth arc of Ghost Hunt, the only story arc in that show which actually did leave me feeling unsettled. The evil vampire-ish creature in that is named Vlad, so the connection is pretty obvious (Vlad the Impaler —> Dracula), and it definitely falls under that old school style of the vampire – Vlad the vampiric creature is completely inhuman, and only likes people insofar as he likes to drink their blood. He’s scary. He is, quite simply, a creature, and there’s absolutely no reason any sane person would want to be around him. He will kill you, just like a hungry grizzly bear would kill you.

While Shiki still fails to leave that creepy feeling in me which I so enjoy, I still myself drawn into it somehow. I think it is largely the atypical (for our times) nature of these vampires, something which is fairly intriguing to me because of the inundation of increasingly innocuous and/or human portraits of vampires.

It should be noted that the vampire as it appears in Japanese pop culture originates in European folklore and isn’t drawn from Japanese traditions. Vampires first appeared in the 1950’s in Japanese movies, and while they were generally fairly mediocre movies, the vampires took their cues from the likes of Dracula.

[1] As a total aside, why has this manga never been licensed? It’s got BL and vampires, and it’s only four volumes long – one would think it’d be a fairly wise investment.

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2 Responses to Shiki: The Anatomy of a Vampire Type

  1. Sorrow-kun says:

    Vampire Megumi is hot.

    One of the problems with Shiki is that the presentation of the mystery hasn’t been all that convincing. You can understand from Ozaki’s point of view that the idea that he’s dealing with vampires would be the furthest thing from his mind, so it makes sense that his attempts to deal with the endemic by using a strictly scientific process would lead to him becoming frustrated. But, from the audience’s point of view, it’s been obvious for ages that they’re dealing with vampires. We’re so used to the tropes of vampire stories, so it’s hard to share Ozaki’s sense of surprise when he figures out what we’ve known for several episodes.

    Then again, there is a possibility that the Kirishiki family and the Western house on the hill is a huge red herring, considering the occasional hints that something like this has happened in the village before… well, before the Kirishiki family appeared on the scene. I do find Sunako creepy. Her scenes with Muroi have been the highlight of this show for mine… especially the way she messes with his head.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Y’know, I think you’ve put your finger on it. I’ve been puzzling over it, but that really does make sense – we all know its not a disease, its vampires! I do think that things are probably more complicated than they appear upon first glance, but I don’t think the Kirishimas are red herrings.

      I actually don’t find Sunako creepy, honestly. To me she is a very sincere portrait of a lonely young girl who is accustomed to being around adults most of the time. I’m really enjoying her character – so nice to have a young female character who isn’t just lolicon bait! Or who isn’t just a flat rendering of the young, creepy child trope so common in horror.

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