Wait until the rest of the house is asleep, turn off the lights, put a match to the candles, and slip Shiki Volume 1 into your DVD player. Oh, and grab a cushion to hide behind. You'll be needing it later.
I did exactly the above on Halloween night, chuffed to bits that a horror anime had been released just in time for the occasion, and promptly fell down the Shiki rabbit hole. I rarely stay up until 3am because a show is so thrilling I can't pull myself away or sleep (the last thing that did this to me was the season finale of Dexter!) but thrilling Shiki was, and so my bum stayed on the edge of that seat. Having chosen the absurd yet oddly addictive High School of the Dead as my Halloween anime last year, which had almost as many panty shots and gravity-defying breasts as it did zombies, Shiki is a return to the kind of horror that Japan does best: moody, chilling, and more reliant on visuals and music to give you the wiggins than outright gore. Think The Grudge and The Ring instead of Blade.
This beautifully animated, intricately crafted, insidious little masterpiece tells the tale of a sleepy, remote village which is turned upside down with the arrival of the mysterious, aristocratic Kirishiki family. These enigmatic strangers move into the village's only mansion and bring with them a curious exsanguination 'disease' which sweeps through the village population with shocking rapidity, causing young and old alike to drop like flies. But the dead are not lying still in their graves, and as the tide of monsters begins to outnumber the remaining humans, it seems only a doctor, a teenage boy, and the local priest realise what's really happening...and must summon the courage to fight back.
Shiki throws a hook into that stays long after you've turned off the television and walked away. If the blackly surreal animation with its genius use of shadows, negative space and the occasional slow-turn-of-the-head until the character is looking directly into the camera doesn't crawl inside your brain and take root there, then the haunting, tragic, quietly mesmeric music certainly will. There are not only tinkling piano pieces that make you feel as though icy rainwater is dripping on your spine, there are little girls chanting eerie sing-song lullabies and Buck-Tick (Trinity Blood, xxxHolic) rocking the opening theme with their glorious, gothic, velvety vocals. And don't get me started on how downright CREEPY some of the sound effects are - the foley work alone is enough to give you nightmares. Taking inspiration from Boogiepop Phantom, sometimes just a black screen and an obscene, wet, slithering noise is all that Shiki needs to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
This anime knows how and when to shock - you think the cute, bubbly Megumi introduced in episode 1 is going to be our beloved protagonist? Think again - but it prefers to draw out the scares, leaving you uneasy and then hitting you right where it hurts. Despite the ensemble cast actually being huge in this show, it is a safe bet to not get attached to anyone, even the designated heroes. No-one is safe, and that's part of what makes Shiki so horrific and yet so darn watchable. And as the first part draws to a close, it seems even one of the good guys is lost to the darkness...
The extras in the DVD collection are also worth mentioning, as they include some fun commentaries with the superb dub cast, including Jerry Jewel (Natsuno), John Burgmeier (the priest) and the director. The guys mostly use the time to kid around, but they also have some interesting insights into their characters, and voice acting work in general. All in all Shiki is superb - a poignant, well-paced horror/mystery which, when it's not being terrifying, rivetingly beautiful or hauntingly sad, marks a much-appreciated return to tradition for a genre which has been overstuffed with whiny, sparkly emo teens as of late.
If you enjoy it, anime titles in the same vein (sorry) include Boogiepop Phantom, Ghost Hunt (same creator!), and Ghost Hound.