Occasionally I'm in the situation where I become very enthusiastic about an anime series that begins in such a way where it would not necessarily seem likely for that to happen. Even as a fervent advocate of the value of criticizing first episodes, I recognize that there are times where a show's very humble beginnings may eventually lead the viewer in very compelling directions (though I maintain that shows which begin in a fundamentally terrible way are unlikely to improve).
We're watching the 2010 anime series Shiki this Fall in the anime club I attend. It was a series I was reluctant to put forward as a voting candidate, not because of its quality (which I think is surprisingly good overall), but because I'm well-aware of the general tastes of the anime club (and by extension, I would even say most groups of anime fans) and how many people tend to prefer light-hearted series rather than ones which are complicated, morally-ambiguous and dark. This makes sense in that comedy is something that seems additive relative to the number of people there are to share it (unsurprisingly to me, Nichijou seems to be doing very well in the same club thus far), whereas suspense and drama are fundamentally more personal experiences and public expressions of anxiety or fear tend to be disruptive (nervous, inappropriate laughter during death scenes, anyone?). Still, I was swayed by a friend and the show garnered many more votes than I expected, so here we are.
Based on first week reactions to the show (and my own memories about how I reacted to the first few episodes), I thought I'd spend a little bit of time talking about the aspects of it that appeal to me. I don't expect for there to be any spoilers here, but if you're planning to watch the show and prefer to remain completely detached from any discussion of general themes or plot devices, it might be best to read this another time.
I've spoken of this before, but just to reiterate, one of the measures that I use of what constitutes a good piece of media is its ability to remain present in my mind for an extended period of time. There are certain anime series that I find to be constructed in ways that lend themselves to re-examination periodically, and their themes, genres and subject matter are as disparate as can be. Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of those series that's seems new and fresh every time I watch it, and I've interpreted many different things from it depending on what sort of issues are present in my life at the time. Mononoke is a similar case, as is Dennou Coil. Even Casshern Sins, which has unfortunately been mocked and reviled by a lot of people I know (including other critics), has fascinated me since I first watched it because of its engaging and creative deconstruction of religious thought, including both Biblically-centered and Goddess-based beliefs. Similarly, Shiki introduces a very unsettling moral dilemma that has, in its own way, haunted me since I first finished watching the series.
Shiki honestly left me cold for the first few episodes. I didn't like the way that the series looked (especially the character designs, though I eventually grew to appreciate their otherworldly qualities), and I didn't really appreciate the pseudo-humorousness with which Megumi, the selfish, cosmopolitan teen character, was introduced. Most of the characters aren't likeable to begin with; many of them never really become likeable. The plot takes a while to get going. Some of these things might seem like deal-breakers in and of themselves, but I ended up really enjoying the series as the plot continued to evolve and unfold. I think that the deciding factor in my eventual investment in the series was its refusal to offer any clean-cut, easy answers to the central moral dilemma of "who is allowed to live or die?"
The series is based on a series of novels by author Fuyumi Ono, who's probably most well-known in anime fandom for her series of fantasy novels (and the anime adapted from it), The Twelve Kingdoms. Having read the English translations of the Twelve Kingdoms novels released by Tokyopop, one thing that I can safely say is that Ono has a knack for character development and presenting characters in ways which don't always delineate a simple dichotomy of "good" and "bad." I have no way of confirming whether the Shiki novels are similar, but I suspect that they are; the Shiki anime series thrives on questioning and re-examining whether what many of the characters are doing is right or wrong, instinctual or consciously-chosen, sympathetic or selfish.
There's a certain repeated element in the series of characters' fundamental natures being revealed as they're faced with the reality of their own deaths (and occasionally their own second lives). This isn't the type of story in which characters are suddenly and completely redeemed by their actions; a selfish, manipulative person remains manipulative and selfish, in spite of how tragically their story may unfold and how we may be trained to react to it. Sometimes, though, subtle hints of ethical behavior are revealed in those whose personalities are otherwise disagreeable. In fact, that's one thing that strikes me as fundamental about this series; beauty and outward kindness aren't always equated with "goodness," manipulation and stalking is seen for what it is rather than mistaken for some sort of cute character affectation, and characters with what I'd simply call "poor attitudes" are often revealed as ethical and able to work for the greater good. People are shown as a combination of several factors and motivations that make them who they are, rather than people who are swayed by the whims of the story or audience expectations. In short, the characters are many times proven more realistic in the complex and sometimes contradictory ways they seem to behave.
I think, though, that the biggest reason this series appeals to me is that doesn't shy away from presenting a central ethical conundrum that doesn't have an easy answer, and I admire that about it. I think that most humans are familiar with the harsh rules of nature and the predator/prey relationships that define each being's place in the food chain, but this series dares to ask whether those rules still apply when both sides of the equation are sentient and intelligent. Does one being's right to survive override another's right to live? Is the predator now committing murder because it requires us as food for survival? While that may seem to some like an easy judgment call, this conundrum has provided me with many an hour of internal reflection and debate. And that, to me, much more than whether or not the show "looks pretty" or makes me "feel good," is the marker of a good series.