Creepy. Even if you’ve only seen the opening episodes of Shiki (Autumn, 2010) or Another (Winter, 2012), the chances are that you’ll have noticed the distinctly creepy atmosphere in both series. Clearly, these are horror shows, but I think that both particularly excel (albeit, in differing degrees) at creating and sustaining genuinely unsettling feelings within the viewer. Thus, out of all the horror, mystery and thriller shows to air over the past year or so, just what is it about Shiki and Another that makes them – along with the hairs on the back of our necks – stand out?
I guess it would help if we first clarified what we mean by ‘creepy’, in order to then see how Shiki and Another stand up against such definitions, as well as looking at other ways in which these two shows achieve their effects. Thankfully, Freud has already written an essay, ‘The Uncanny’¹, which explores such feelings in aesthetic works, which may prove useful in providing an initial framework for our exploration. Focussing on contemporary stories and novels as well as referring to myths, fairy tales and some of his psychological case studies, the piece begins by tracing definitions and root meanings of the word ‘unheimlich’ (in the original German, literally ‘unhomely’, but in most English translations ‘uncanny’) and its synonyms in a variety of languages, before moving on to identify common features of works that evoke such feelings of creepiness or ‘unanny-ness’.
These features and related feelings often include or concern: anything that ‘arouses dread and horror [and] fear’; ‘on the one hand… what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed’; ‘doubts [about] whether an apparently animate being is really alive… or whether a lifeless object might not be animate’; ‘epileptic fits and manifestations of insanity’; ‘the fear of damaging or losing one’s eyes’; ‘the “double”’; ‘involuntary repetition [and the] fateful and inescapable’; ‘something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression’; ‘something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light’; ‘death and dead bodies, the return of the dead, spirits and ghosts’; ‘a living person as uncanny… when we ascribe evil intentions [or] special powers’ to him; ‘the idea of being buried alive’; and ‘silence, solitude and darkness’². Freud concludes his essay by comparing the uncanny ‘irl’ with the uncanny in fiction, observing with regards to reality that ‘What is experienced as uncanny is conditioned but comprises far fewer instances… and can be traced back without exception to something familiar that has been repressed’, and saying of the imagined experience that ‘the storyteller has a peculiarly directive power…’³. While the above is not exactly a definitive ‘check-list’, I feel that Shiki and Another seem to use a lot of the features that Freud identifies about works that arouse uncanny emotions, and so the remainder of this post will explore how the two series fit in with the above ideas concerning the uncanny and what is so unique about the creation of an unsettling atmosphere in each show.
Shiki: eyes, small towns, living burials, vampires and Dat Hair
Shiki spent ages setting the scene and building tension in its opening episodes and, while some may have complained about what they perceived as an initial slow pace, I think that this steady creation of a relentlessly unnerving atmosphere is one of the show’s many strengths. Sotoba’s small town, everybody-knows-everybody’s-business and God-forbid-you-should-dress-differently-or-think-you’re-better-than-the-rest-of-us vibe starts off as fairly harmless at best, and mildly irritating at worst, depending on whether or not you’re more of a Toshio or a Megumi. However, the air soon turns distinctly claustrophobic, watchful and utterly creeptastic. The small population of the ever-gazing and gossiping Sotobans alone is a good example of how a ‘familiar’ or homely place can become over-familiar or ‘alienating’, as Freud puts it, to the point of feeling stifling and threatening, and this is long before the vampires turn up.
This is evident in the way that several characters who have grown up or spent a large chunk of their lives in Sotoba feel about the place, such as the aforementioned Megumi, and also Natsuno and Kaori, who respectively mention feeling unable to express themselves (pink-haired Megumi, the big fashionista in a small pond), a longing to return to city life with all its superior tech and mod-cons (blue-haired Natsuno, the resentful Tokyoite, also Megumi’s stalkee), and as if they are being buried alive (normal-haired Kaori, poor self-appointed BFF to Megumi). Though arguably not as dynamic a character as some of the others, Kaori’s feelings and fears of being emotionally buried alive (following Megumi’s funeral, episode 2) are accompanied by one of the most striking motifs in Shiki, that of eyes, which of course gains greater significance once a certain group of red-orbed nocturnal beasties attack. Thus, despite the more obviously gruesome goings on later in the show, these early episodes with their references to feeling alienated, repressed, watched, stalked and buried alive do well to (begin to) convey that there is something highly uncanny about the world of Shiki, or, at the very least, the feeling that there’s something not quite right…
In addition to the quiet intensity of its unsettling opening, Shiki maintains the tension and creepy moments in a number of other ways, namely through its death and transformation scenes, but also through the way it depicts deceptively quiet scenes that seem just as horrific. For example: when Tohru is attacked and Natsuno wonders if it was just a dream (when Megumi comes after Tohru in his bedroom while Natsuno is staying over in episode 4); to the way that other characters suffer more violent attacks, but often the camera cuts away and leaves you to imagine the worst (such as when the former librarian vampire whose name I can’t recall jumps from the tree to (understandably) attack the horrible Masao at the end of episode 5); to the way that some of the townsfolk laugh, chatter and eat together, while covered in blood and handling twitching vampire bodies (episode 21). Clearly, the show’s descent into a habitual bloodbath in the final arc is unnerving enough to witness with its abundance of blood, vampires, half-crazed townsfolk and mounting bodies, but it’s this juxtaposition of the monsters’ behaviour with the humans’ capacity for their own monstrous deeds that also strikes a jarring chord, which may be uncomfortable because it highlights just how easily a sleepy, homely place and its inhabitants can become so desperate, violent and grotesque.
Another: eye-patches, crap weather, dolls, destiny and DEATH
Another, from the current season, was swift to establish its horror themes through the use of background and character designs and references to curses and unexplained deaths. And by ‘establish’, I mean, ‘bash us over the head with’. Yes, even though you might not think that creepy dolls are that creepy after you’ve seen them being flashed at you for the Nth time, the animation and palette is detailed and stunning and, especially when coupled with some very nifty camera angles, often incredibly effective at creating feelings of dread and isolation. Freud would be pleased indeed with how efficiently familiar and ‘safe’ places such as schools and hospitals come to feel so sinister, as is evident in those scenes featuring the gloomily-lit elevators and corridors of the hospital and the vast empty space of the school rooftop with that glowering grey and mauve-tinted sky overhead. I mentioned dolls above, and this brings me to the doll-like Misaki, who is the main focus of the first few episodes. Indeed, the show takes ages (and I mean ages) to confirm what the mystery is regarding Miss Eye-Patch, and it’s this ambiguity surrounding whether or not she’s even alive that is the hook that draws us in to the story and makes you stick around and want to find out just what the hell is going on in Class 3 and in this town.
Unfortunately, despite her vaguely sinister monologuing (or perhaps because of it), I just don’t find Misaki’s deadpan pretention that interesting or alluring. However, that doesn’t mean our generic bland male lead can’t fall head over heels for her! To be fair though, I might also be tempted to stalk Misaki to find out whether she’s actually alive or not if she was in my class, and her resemblance to those disconcertingly life-like dolls is pretty unsettling, and that’s probably to do with what Freud mentions regarding doubt about how alive or not an object or person may be as a feature of the uncanny factor.
Finally, regarding that curse: we have, in more recent episodes of course, learned a lot more about The Curse of Class 3, and this raises the idea of repetition, the inescapable, repression and the directive power of the storyteller as other factors in evoking uncanny elements. So far, the deaths in Another appear to be as random as they have been grisly (with the exception of the school teacher, whose actions were premeditated). Thus, coupled with the threat of them continuing unless the curse is somehow broken, the series of gruesome events that are now in full swing in the latter part of the series is clearly accompanied by feelings of anxiety and dread. So, unless that pesky amnesia that’s also afflicting Misaki and co. clears up, it looks like the curse will probably claim a few more victims before the season is over, which would naturally raise the creep factor even higher until the show’s climax and denouement.
To conclude, Shiki and Another each do very well to create a unique atmosphere and convey an intriguing narrative with satisfying horror elements, though I believe that Shiki does it much better. Aside from the connections with Freud’s theories, let’s not forget that both shows also succeed for the most part in sustaining the audience’s interest and desire to know what happens next (or should that be, who dies next), as well as habitually creeping us out. Given the number of shows out there that are bursting with supernatural elements such as death, ghosts, vampires, youkai, gods and demons, I thus feel that Shiki and Another are noteworthy additions to the horror genre that have the added impact of making their audiences feel genuinely and habitually on edge throughout the process of watching and otherwise enjoying the ride. Or, in other words…
…Tl; dr? Watch Shiki. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
¹ S. Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, pp. 217-256. Also available online here.
² ‘The Uncanny’, pp. 219-246.
³ ‘The Uncanny’, pp. 248 and 251.