The Meaning of Shiki!

Life, the universe, and Shiki.

Ok, so the title may be a touch misleading.

I recently watched Shiki 20.5, and almost had massive heart failure, which wasn’t exactly unexpected. My regular Shiki-loving readers are pretty familiar with the fact that I basically was a nervous wreck by the end of watching the damn show, with my heartrate spiking every time I queued up each episode and heard the creepy soundtrack start curling into my ears. Moral of the story? Day is a total fucking freak. But I suppose we knew that.

I’ll get around to writing a review of 20.5, but what really caught my attention is how, in not showing the main cast, 20.5 demonstrated a particular potential interpretation of Shiki I’ve had for a while. That being, specifically, that Shiki is really about the breakdown and deterioration of a relationship between two men.

Now, before you start getting all “aww, man, not more BL!” on me, I do not mean it in a romantic sense. I just prefer to use “relationship” over “friendship” in this case because within the English language “friendship” doesn’t generally carry the potential implications of complications as does “relationship”. In less obnoxious terms, “relationship” when used to describe two friends implies that this isn’t about football buddies or the folks you were in Asian Culture Club with. (Fun fact: I was the only baakgwai in ACC who didn’t have yellow fever! Woo! Go me!)

At its core, Shiki is about two friends, Ozaki and Muroi, and the destruction of their relationship. This is especially so when you recall that, in the original novels, Natsuno does not rise up. If you chart the narrative flux of Shiki, there is a direct correlation between the worsening of their own relations and the degrading situation in Sotoba. Although they come to represent the two different sides on some level, it may be more accurate to argue that the two different sides come to represent the two different men. Misunderstandings and miscommunications plague both stories, and crossover from one another, ending with an untenable situation for both the villagers and the shiki and for Muroi and Ozaki. They cannot coexist together any longer. Something must give.

By the end of Shiki, Muroi must become a shiki, because Ozaki will not. It makes their falling out complete, casting them onto completely different teams, so to speak. It allows Muroi to finally have his own real sense of agency, and, in doing so, suggests that he could not have agency so long as he persisted as human and as a friend to Ozaki. Ozaki’s a fairly strong personality, even if he is not a particularly good leader in some ways (ex. his determination to do it alone for much of the show, his surrendering of the control of the mob’s fury); Muroi didn’t have a prayer of fully asserting himself as long as he maintained contact with him.

Perhaps Shiki is actually Revolutionary Girl Utena by more violent means! Muroi becomes an “adult”, which is to say he finally grasps his own agency instead of masochistically sacrificing himself on the altar of duty. It isn’t the prettiest picture of adulthood, but it beats the sadsack passivity he displayed throughout most of the show. There is something very satisfying about watching the resident sad boy in the shrine hack someone down with a cleaver.

To go back slightly, it seems that the friendship between Muroi and Ozaki started its downward trend long before Shiki starts up. We only got to watch it get even worse and totally fall apart. I say this because there is never any indication whatsoever that Ozaki is aware of Muroi’s suicide attempt. If he had been, I think we would’ve seen it referenced at some point. Ozaki may take a long time to react, and he may do a bad job of communicating most of the time, but we would’ve at least witnessed something if he knew of it. All the while that he’s aware of the shiki we continually watch him think about it, try to plan how to solve it, etc. Knowing that a friend tried to kill himself is not a trivial thing, especially in a show where it ends up being such a huge piece of said friend’s story. If Ozaki knew, Shiki would’ve shown us that fact in some fashion.

And, now I’m about to get into the part of this post that makes me a bit uneasy. I would like to argue that Muroi can be canonically read as having a thing for Ozaki.

Yes, yes, I know – I’m a BL fangirl, of course I’d think so! But, BL fangirl or no, there is a decent amount of evidence for this interpretation. And, more broadly, I think it also requires admitting that there is a decent amount of evidence for reading Muroi as gay as well.

I’m very uncomfortable with this. I’m very uncomfortable with this because Muroi is a weak character, and it bothers me to argue in favor of interpreting a weak character as gay because over the past three centuries or so weak male characters were often insinuated to be gay as a means of further establishing their weakness. Interpreting him as such, too, also plays into the sad homosexual trope. So I don’t like to lay out the argument even as I do believe it is true.

First off, consider this: Muroi, Ozaki, and Mikiyasu were friends as kids. Mikiyasu grew up, got married, and had a kid, and Ozaki got married (even if the marriage wasn’t so hot). Muroi is a thirty-two year old Japanese man who also happens to be of a family that maintains the local temple and so requires heirs. He’s also in a tiny, conservative village. Thirty-two is very old for someone in his position to not be married. Nor does Muroi ever express an interest in women, period. Sunako is his would-be psychologist, not a potential romantic partner. In the first part of the story, the only person Muroi truly seems to care at all about is Ozaki (admittedly, this is a lot clearer in the manga).

Then, sadly, we hit up against other items that often code for “gay” in many works. Muroi fits the sad homos in the snow trope; he’s introverted, he’s miserable, he tried to kill himself. Combine it with unmarried and only cares about his male childhood friend, and there’s more than enough reason to think that this is what Ono intended us to see.

(We could also speculate that this works in conjunction with the story as Muroi “growing up”; homosexual attraction has been considered as a sign of immaturity, and Muroi “leaves” Ozaki in the end for a woman, Sunako. I don’t agree with this reading, though, since its very clear at the end that Muroi isn’t asking Sunako to come along with him because he cares about her but because he is selfish and doesn’t care about anyone other than himself any more. It isn’t a transferal of affections but a cessation of them.)

So why not just come right out and say it? Why just leave it so up in there?

Well, does anyone really expect a thirty-two year old Japanese priest in a conservative village to come a-glazing out with glitter flying and rainbows exploding? No. Especially not if its a pile of angst like Muroi. And do we really want everything spelled out precisely, anyway?

I acknowledge that this post ended up being more about Muroi than about Ozaki. I’m a Muroi fan, so, well, what else could you expect? I’m sure if Caraniel had done this post, you would’ve gotten more about Ozaki. (Maybe she could write a post about this topic when she feels better? That’d be cool.) Regardless, my initial argument stands, and it hardly needs much explanation for one to see that Shiki can be interpreted as being about the end of a relationship. I just happened to bundle a few other things along with it, too. But, hey, you guys are used to that from me, right?

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5 Responses to The Meaning of Shiki!

  1. E Minor says:

    Muroi becomes an “adult”, which is to say he finally grasps his own agency instead of masochistically sacrificing himself on the altar of duty.

    But is this agency really something to praise when he only grasps it to protect monsters and his own self-interest.

    There is something very satisfying about watching the resident sad boy in the shrine hack someone down with a cleaver.

    It just seemed to me that he defined himself against Ozaki by proclaiming how it’s wrong to kill a living thing even if they are shikis. So to turn around and kill someone who’s attacking something he loves… strikes me as hypocritical.

    I think your uneasiness in pegging Muroi as a homosexual is understandable, but I would just say that only humans try to define love into such strict categorical terms. Muroi clearly loves his friend. Is this a homosexual thing or not? Does it matter? Love is pretty indeterminate. It reminds me of Madhouse’s adaptation of “Run, Melos.” The two main characters obviously love each other. To define further whether or not they’re homosexuals seems unnecessary.

    • E Minor says:

      Oh, no pun intended with the ‘pegging.’ ;v

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Well, I’m a Muroi fan, so of course it was satisfying =P And with Megumi as my second favorite character in the show, people behaving sociopathically is apparently my cup of tea.

      And I never said that his use of agency was good or not, just that he possessed it. In my own worldview, it is better to possess agency than not to. This probably derives very simply from my belief in the phrase “it is better to regret having done something than having done nothing at all”. Does this mean whatever the something is will be a good something? No, but I think it beats the alternative of passivity. I’ll also grant, though, that there are certainly cases where this is not a good stance, but that I find that my rule of thumb is better than the reverse.

      As for hypocritical… well, who said being an adult meant attaining perfection? Its satisfying to see Muroi finally act, but its also clear he’s become something awful, i.e. a being concerned only with himself. I don’t think he loves Sunako; he just would prefer to not be alone. If he did love Sunako, he would’ve let her burn – I think Tatsumi in the same situation would’ve done so, and probably joined her as well.

      • E Minor says:

        “it is better to regret having done something than having done nothing at all”

        I don’t think I necessarily disagree with such a worldview, but if it results in immoral gains, then obviously a line is crossed somewhere.

        well, who said being an adult meant attaining perfection?

        Now it just seems like he’s given into primal urges rather than gaining agency. Like to me, the dichotomy between the shiki and the duty-bound Ozaki was the battle of the id and superego. The shiki kill to sate their hunger; Ozaki, on the other hand, will do what “needs” to be done, even if it means literally torturing his wife on the operating room table. So I wouldn’t agree at all that Muroi gained agency — maybe independence. I don’t quite buy the idea that he didn’t have agency before the act, and I don’t think the act distinguished his agency on a newer level. Like you said, he saves her because he didn’t want to be lonely. That’s a rather animalistic need. He gives into it like most shiki.

        I never read the book, but you said Natsuno didn’t revive in it as opposed to the anime adaptation. I think it was probably necessary. As much as I hated his character, he strikes a balance between Muroi’s fall and Ozaki. Of course, that’s just my take on Shiki, and since I didn’t really enjoy it, this will be my last word on this topic.

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