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In the dark of night at a Buddhist temple, a mysterious ritual is performed causing the dead body of a beautiful teenage girl to be brought back to life. This girl is Makina Hoshimura, the latest Shikabane Hime (corpse princess), or killer of restless souls. Caught between here and the afterworld, and bound to the monk who reanimated her, Makina can only gain eternal peace by killing 108 fellow zombies before she is murdered all over again...
Shikabane Hime is a 26-episode series based on the manga by Yoshiichi Akahito, adapted for TV in a collaboration between anime studios Gainax and Feel. The first thirteen episodes make up the opening season 'Aka' ('Red'), with the second half 'Kuro' ('Black') to follow later this year.
As a series, Shikabane Hime is not especially remarkable - the animation, while occasionally impressive, is mostly workmanlike, as are the music and direction. The lead voice actors show their inexperience with indifferent performances, although a terrific turn by laid-back veteran Keiji Fujiwara as the guardian monk Keisei Tagami, together with an able supporting cast, manages to save the show. In story terms the development of Makina's relationship with Keisei and the gradual transferring of her affections to his adoptive brother Ouri is fairly standard, but it's mostly in the secondary thematic elements that the interest value of Shikabane Hime lies.
Shikabane Hime shares with its Western relative Buffy The Vampire Slayer the theme of a sacrificial maiden facing supernatural threats and supported, but also coerced and manipulated by a patriarchal order operating in society's shadows. Where the Watchers of Buffy never really took imaginative flight as an organisation, Shikabane Hime gives the Kougon Sect that controls Makina and her fellow Shikabane Hime - for there are many others throughout Japan, several of whom play important supporting roles in the storyline - additional weight by portraying them as an outwardly respectable Buddhist priesthood, as commonplace and integral in Japanese society as any mainstream religious group. Tapping into the anxieties that feed urban myths for its source material as so many successful horror series do, the grotesque stories presented throughout the first season - a cannibalistic mother and baby, a sentient rental car that forces its occupants to murder one another, undead predators masquerading as a quick-buck religious cult, a zombified idol singer prolonging her career with the backing of a Yakuza cartel - play like a parade of contemporary Japanese unconscious fears.
Makina and her sisters are presented with the fetishistic appeal common to female fighting characters in anime and manga, with the repeatedly wounded and regenerated Makina dependent on her father-figure Keisei for mystical protection as well as the emotional support which, as a walking corpse, she denies needing. The series' use of an actively martial heroine coupled with a more passive, supportive, paternalistic male lead is found in numerous other recent series - Fate/Stay Night, Gunslinger Girl and Highschool Of The Dead have all operated variations on the theme - and while it might be tempting to see this inversion of traditional action series dynamics as progressive, the dependency and objectification of the female characters is still assured. It seems anime heroines who can truly stand on their own two feet are to remain the exception.
For all that, and despite the average nature of the show, I found myself enjoying Shikabane Hime more than I anticipated. The use of urban legend material I referred to earlier is handled quite effectively, and the supporting cast have much to offer, reflecting and foreshadowing Makina and Ouri's relationship while providing their own appeal. With the main plot arc of Makina's revenge against her family's killers still to be fulfilled, I'm looking forwarding to the concluding season.