The Irrationality of Rationalism

While Shiki started out as a slow-paced and, in certain respects, predictable horror mystery, it has now developed into an enthralling vampire thriller. Episode 14 was particularly memorable… the number of scenes in anime as terrifying and disturbing as Dr. Ozaki’s “examination” of his vampirised victim (the identity of whom is a major spoiler) would be few. But I think one of the more interesting aspects of Shiki has been the thing that has kept the village from fighting back against the vampire for as long as it has: their incredulousness. (This post contains major spoilers for Shiki up to episode 20.)

It took a long time for Ozaki to accept the possibility that vampires were the cause of Sotoba’s epidemic. In the early episodes, it was clear to anyone familiar with vampire tropes what Ozaki was dealing with, but he refused to accept the possibility at a subconscious level until Natsuno, asking Ozaki questions about Shimizu Megumi’s death with earnest and, from a “rational” perspective, irrational concern, awakened him to the possibility. At this point, Ozaki had two challenges, both of which required him to take some particularly inhumane actions.

The first was to understand vampires. He gleams an understanding of their motives, plans and actions in Sotoba through his few confrontations with Tatsumi, such as during the invasion of the clinic where Ozaki and Seishin attempt to defend Setsuko from her now vampirised daughter-in-law, Nao. A premature raid on the Kirishiki household lead by the less-than-rational Ikumi allows Ozaki to examine the head of the Kirishiki household (as we’re lead to believe at that stage) Seishirou, only to conclude that he’s human. Finally, a visit to the town’s office records show just how organized and clinical Sotoba’s shiki invasion is, and just how trapped and alone Ozaki is in his attempts to keep his town from becoming a vampire haven.

The subtle hints suggest that Ozaki loved Kyouko, right up until just before he 'examined' her. Which makes the examination all the more disturbing.

Ozaki, however, is clinical in his own way, which is a large part of why he’s managed to sow the seeds and lead a fightback against the shiki. The most obvious example of this comes in the show’s most amazing and disturbing scene: Ozaki’s examination of his vampirised wife. The scene itself is extremely well crafted, with the home video adding an affecting realism. The operating theater also feels authentic: the backgrounds are dark and sterile, while the ugly green coloured bed that Kyouko lies on glows eerily due to the intense light above it. The examination also says quite a few things about Ozaki, and his extremely conscious drive to defeat the shiki, but only by completely understanding them first. A few questions have been posed about whether he was in a sound state of mind while conducting experiments on his wife, or whether it was the right thing to do. For the second question, I agree with Unmei Kaihen‘s Shinmaru, in that, it’s a question of lesser importance. The same goes for the first question: the control with which he conducts the experiment indicates utter lucidity, and anything but insanity. I think the most interesting question about the ordeal is just what he did with his emotions during the whole thing. He clearly saw fear and suffering in Kyouko’s reactions, and yet he was able to compartmentalize any response to them. The subtle hints suggest that Ozaki loved Kyouko, right up to the point where she rose. Perhaps the scene would have been even more affecting if they showed a flashback between Ozaki and Kyouko confirming that, making the change in Ozaki and his own dehumanization in his quest to take back Sotoba, all the more stark.

Ozaki’s second challenge was to convince the townfolk of the vampire invasion, all while keeping his plans under wraps from the ever watchful Tatsumi. A poorly timed reveal would see his anti-shiki campaign pan out with even less effectiveness than Ikumi’s. However, his closest allies, the town’s professionals and his own drinking mates, although concerned about the possibility of an epidemic, refused to accept the presence of a supernatural force, despite the fact that it was a fitting explanation for Sotoba’s undoing. In episode 15, Ozaki failed to convince these people, who spoke of their educations as a “baptism of rationalism”… almost as if it were something they had put their unwavering faith into. The irony of this is just amazing: what prevented Ozaki from gathering a team of Sotoba’s most intelligent men to, together, conspire to revolt against the shiki invasion, was an ingrained skepticism that grew into an unshakable rejection of the evidence presented before them, which directly counters the ideas of “rationalism”. In other words, they had no way of coping with, or even contemplating, the existence of something which they had been taught cannot exist.

The idea of irrational rationalism is pretty much personified by Natsuno’s big city, godless, liberal elitist father. As a big city, godless liberal elitist myself, I can sympathize with his reaction (or lack thereof) to Natsuno’s death and demise. If a vampire apocalypse were ever really to take hold, people like me, who prefer to solve their problems through discussion and ideas, rather than indiscriminate action, would probably be the first to die. Natsuno’s father was, indirectly, offered a chance to save Natsuno thanks to Kaori and Akira. He dismissed their plans as childish, their ideas as superstitious nonsense, and doomed his son (and wife too, if what I think happened to her really did) because of it. This is a man who, when faced with supernatural forces that defy rational thought, did go insane… which is why he’s a significantly weaker mind than Ozaki.

This is my face whenever I catch a glimpse of Megumi's ass.

The quickest to act against the vampires have been those who don’t subscribe to any particular form of rationalism. Whether Ozaki anticipated Ikumi’s actions and developed a plan that wouldn’t be threatened by them, I’m not sure. One thing is for certain, Ozaki never understood the force he unleashed when Ookawa got wind of the vampire invasion. I think there’s a very interesting contrast between the shiki invasion and the human resistance. The shiki worked under the cover of shadows and were tactical and calculating (and, in Tatsumi’s case, also sadistic) in how they chose their victims. It was a case of “one at a time” with the shiki, as they collaborated in secret, using deception and mind-control to undermine their opponent’s power base. The humans, on the other hand, have been indiscriminate, tearing down the Kirishiki household in one blunt strike, roaming in mobs and dragging vampires into the street in broad daylight where they can’t fight back to decapitate them. Ookawa’s murder of a human under shiki control (something which was the case for Ozaki not more than a couple of episodes ago) showed quite clearly that Ozaki was not in control, and that he wasn’t going to keep control by appealing to people’s sense of reason.

Shiki has two episodes left, and it’s at this point that it has become extremely difficult to predict, which is an amazing contrast to how it begun, and also something I approve of in a mystery. It’s an anime that has had some utterly amazing moments, but I’m still not sure whether it’s a “great” anime or merely a “good” one. If I had to list some of this show’s flaws, well, I’d start with the character designs and go from there. On a less superficial level, there are quite a few occasions where the characters make some rather poor (irrational, I daresay) decisions that are very difficult to justify. Kaori and Akira’s respective attempts to deal with the shiki, Ritsuko’s attempt to save Kiyomi and Atsushi’s cowardly reaction to his father when trying to save Chizuru, despite being armed and inside a car, are but a few examples.

Whether Shiki can reach greatness will very much depends on the last two episodes. At the very least, it has been deft enough to avoid portraying the conflict as black-and-white. I watch wanting to see the humans win the war, but, considering the excessive brutality of some of their actions (as I’ve describe above), it’s hard not to sympathize with the shiki at times. There can be no peace at the end of the day. I suspect there aren’t going to be any winners either.

5 Responses to “The Irrationality of Rationalism”

  1. Excellent post. That’s surely one of the reasons why I’ve been enjoying Shiki so much myself. The conflict between rationalism and irrationality, often implicit in many other anime, has been made explicit here as part of an increasingly suspenseful and thrilling story. While the overall progression of the story hasn’t been unpredictable, I do believe that the specific details have turned out to be surprising enough.

    All the same, the complaints that have been made about certain characters acting irrationally or in an unreasonable manner don’t really apply, in my opinion, at least not as long as we remember that human beings are supposed to be both rational and irrational by nature. Fictional characters shouldn’t be any different.

    Far too often, many critics pretend that any given character must make optimal decisions corresponding to perfectly rational deductions, lest they be accused of being poorly written or acting out-of-character, when I would imagine most people do not necessarily demand such absolute devotion to rationalism from their fellow man on a daily basis. Or if they do, then they must live rather tense and impatient lives.

  2. With regard to Akira’s actions, I say the desperation set him off to embark upon his ill-advised journey. He does have the hot-blooded/impatient sort of temperament and it’s totally in character for him to make rash decisions. Oh the follies of youth…

    As for Atsushi, I think Ookawa just beat the fear of god into him when Atsushi was alive. He really holds his old man in high esteem when it comes to asskickery that his natural survival instincts kicked in and fled, regardless of how well-armed he is. Also consider that Atsushi does seem like the impulsive type too.

    So yes, irrational? Certainly. In character? I’d say yes, most definitely!

  3. This isn’t particularly constructive, but… I read “vampire haven” as “vampire harem” at first. What is the Internet doing to my mind.

  4. @AH
    The key is suspension of disbelief. What type of behaviour betrays suspension of disbelief? When Natsuno offers himself to Yuuki or when Kaori goes and digs her own grave, I’m fine with that. It’s not rational behaviour, nor is it expected either, but it fits within the context of the character. Atsushi’s cowardness is much harder to justify, considering the way his character had been built up to that point was that his becoming a shiki empowered and liberated him. I think Chizuru’s death (which was a powerful scene as it was) would have been all the more affecting if it didn’t have the rescue attempt. Or perhaps if Seishirou wasn’t there, since I’d be more willing to believe Atsushi crapping himself in front of his father if he were alone.

    It’s clear that Ookawa is the strongest man in the village. Classic meathead. There’s irrational, and then there’s unbelievable. This, for me, was the latter. I guess it stands out because everything else in that scene was so well written. Shiki’s characters have, at several moments, indulged in behaviour which is difficult to understand. adaywithoutme documented an entire episode filled with it.

    If I were making a vampire harem, Megumi would be my first pick. Although, I’m not sure how I’d go about taming her. Maybe I should be a wuss like Tohru and go for Ritsuko instead.

  5. I love the phrase: “baptism of rationalism”, because it does in a way perfectly define both our world, and the setting of Shiki. There is a really great tug of war going on in Shiki, as people spread legends about the Risen in Sotoba, but they always add on “oh but it’s just a legend haha”. Why do they do it? No idea. Same deal with the temple. Why does it exist if the people of Sotoba don’t really believe in it? Some things and traditions are now just integrated into our modern thought processes.

    The question Shiki asks is: What happens when the irrational does happen in the modern day? And I think Shiki provides a really satisfactory and wonderful answer to that. I think it really is important to note that the children/teenagers were the only ones to act before actually seeing the Risen for themselves. If memory serves, the other “rational” people of Sotoba only acted upon seeing physical evidence. This, I think, is an almost tragic fact that Shiki is trying to point out: this ingrained thought into our heads now that “seeing is believing”. How many people would have been saved if believing came before seeing? We’ll never really know.

    But as for an evaluation of Shiki, it’s already locked into the “good” category for me. The main problem that I see is that some things aren’t really explained well, and are kind of shafted. Natsuno’s been mostly useless after his dramatic reintroduction, I have no idea where the hell Kaori went, Akira is now just gone, etc. Of course, this could all be resolved in the last two episodes, but I get the feeling that there are bigger fish to fry. Also, there was some definitely tension between “artistic”, “seriousness”, and “comedy” for me. My biggest beef is with the Willy Wonka guy, who was just absolutely facepalm. I can tell why he was included, but there must have been better ways to do it.

    On the topic of just how rational the actions of the characters were, I actually thought that their actions made a fair bit of sense given how they were introduced. There were some stretches, but none that really just made me doubt the sanity of the writers.

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