Classically, visual novels are tough to adapt into anime, for a number of reasons, but first and foremost would be the branching nature inherent to so many of them. Series like Steins;Gate can turn out great because you just have the one main storyline, with some offshoot alternate endings, but what about the many visual novels that lack that? What about those that have numerous, equally valid storylines, none of which are exclusively “canon”?
Typically there will be one of two responses to this for the adaptation: either a somewhat-original plot will be written that tries to amalgamate all the routes into a cohesive whole, a la Clannad, or each route will just get its own dedicated series, a la Fate/stay night. But rare is the anime that embraces the alternate paths of that narrative, sequentially adapting one after the other, chronology be damned. Even rarer is the story that itself incorporates the existence of those multiple routes into its overarching meta-narrative, and such is the story we have today. Ladies and gentlemen, a review of Studio Deen’s 2006-2007 adaptation of the visual novel series Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, or When They Cry, a single story that at first appears to be anything but.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Hinamizawa is a nice quiet little town, when Keiichi Maebara (along with his family) moves in. Keiichi becomes fast friends with a group of girls at the local school, who spend their days playing games and having fun. In fact, the annual Watanagashi (or Cotton Drifting) festival is right around the corner, a celebration to commemorate the local god, and sure to be a good time of laughs and merriment for all involved. That is, until someone shows up dead. And someone else goes missing.
Detained and questioned by the police, Keiichi comes to discover that murders and mystery are somewhat old hat to this isolated little village. Understandably perturbed, Keiichi brings this up to his friends, but receives no straight answer. When he pushes, they push back. Afraid for his life, paranoia takes hold, and he has to question if he can trust anyone at all, or if he has unwittingly walked into the middle of an inescapable deathtrap.
Technically that’s all true, and indicative of the tone of the series, but not necessarily its exact nature. The way Higurashi is told (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s just the structure of the show) is that it’s split into several seemingly unrelated timelines. Some of these timelines may feed into or bear resemblance to each other, but by and large there’s no direct connection of events. There will be a few constants to start off (Keiichi always moves to Hinamizawa, the Watanagashi festival is always involved), but each timeline takes that starting point and runs off in entirely different directions; unsurprisingly, focusing on a different character each time. Keiichi is always the “main” character (in the first season, at least), but the principal cast beyond that is a rotating door of four or five people, and once a timeline reaches its endpoint, in whatever that form may be, things will reset between between episodes and start all over again.
Make no mistake, this aspect of the show is probably what I found most interesting about it, and there are a multitude of reasons why it actually works very well, both in how it’s handled and what it means for the viewer.
- Firstly, it incites massive levels of dramatic irony. If you need the dictionary definition, dramatic irony in particular is “a literary technique by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience but unknown to the character.” In other words, the characters aren’t able to put all the pieces together, as their memories don’t carry over from timeline to timeline, but yours do, so you certainly can. It’s kind of ballsy because, to an extent, you can’t directly relate things to the viewer. There’s no audience proxy for exposition to dumped on, because no one character could possibly know as much as you do. The onus is upon you to actively try and click everything together, to a point. When the second season comes around and the nature of the narrative is fully revealed there is some opportunity for straight answers, but this only comes about after a couple dozen episodes.
- Secondly, the spin on the alternate worlds, in how they are depicted as their own realities, is a fairly unique one. Without giving too much away, there is a reason for the constant timeline resets, a reason that means the timelines that are left behind may as well no longer matter, as the current one is all that really “exists”. But they don’t do that, they don’t go for the Steins;Gate version of alternate realities, where once the world line changes, the previous one is nonexistent. In Higurashi, they make it very clear that all of these timelines are their own histories and exist in perpetuity. You’ll see scenes, for instance, that take place anywhere from a few minutes to several years after a doomed timeline, one in which the whole cast died, to show you that there is a world where that happened. It didn’t cease to exist just because it was no longer the focus of our attention, and that adds a very nice tinge of melancholy to the whole proceeding; that lingering realization that no matter what happens going forward, those worlds that fell apart can never be fixed.
- Thirdly, the alternate worlds allow you to see different and sometimes dramatically different sides of the characters. In a normal linear narrative, it’s naturally very difficult to write the story such that you can see all facets of every member of the cast, at their highest and at their lowest, but Higurashi doesn’t have this problem. It can show you these characters from all sorts of different angles, illustrating who they are, what’s important to them, and what would push them over the edge. Interestingly enough, this also allows certain characters to take on fundamentally different roles in different timelines. A psychotic maniac in one could be a warm pillar of support in another. It really tries to show that (to quote, uh, The Joker), “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy”. It is equally commendable that the voice actors were able to keep up with these tonal extremes, in the Japanese at least (I have heard especially poor things about the dub). Special shoutout to Mai Nakahara, who was perfect in her role as Rena. She can do cute, she can do deadpan, and she can do crazy serial killer, in that way that seemingly only Japanese voice actors can.
- Fourthly, and lastly, this is more apt than you realize if you haven’t seen the show, but the alternate worlds kind of give you a taste of the experience for all the side characters that would inevitably get caught up in a time loop story, the ones that have no real knowledge of what’s happening or how to fix it, so they just keep living and keep dying again and again (somewhat like how Endless Eight lets you place yourself into the mindset of Yuki Nagato, although much more entertaining to watch).
That last point also somewhat plays into the structure of the narrative as a whole. Higurashi’s two seasons, despite taking place essentially one after the other, are very distinctly different (visual style aside). The first season is all about giving you questions, mountains of questions. The first season is exactly what I’ve described to you thus far: disconnected time loops endlessly repeating, with no grander purpose or indeed even much of a unifying factor. The second season is all about giving you answers. It’s where all the dissonant plot fragments of the first coalesce into a single satisfying storyline. Of course, I can’t explain the specifics, since I keep my reviews spoiler-free, but it shines a whole new light on the altogether events of the series and, importantly, does not feel forced.
For this reason, in giving answers, the main character spotlight slowly moves away from Keiichi, and onto, well, someone else, by the end, as he was never in fact the main character at all. Also by that token, the second season is nowhere near as gruesome as the first, as while the first is where everything goes wrong, the second is where everything more or less goes right and resolves. I don’t fault it for that; that’s the nature of storytelling. At some point, you’re going to get to the denouement, and it probably won’t be as action-packed as the climax.
This unique plot structure is not the series’ sole strength, though it is a major one. Just as importantly, Higurashi has a real knack for simply being unsettling. It doesn’t want you to be comfortable. It wants you kind of leaning back, half-grimacing, and this manifest in all sorts of techniques: fisheye-lens camera angles, grossly disproportioned character designs, blatantly creepy and explicit murder scenarios, stark shading in especially ominous scenes, cat eyes when people go really nuts.
Even just the opening, I mean, just watch it. This is not an opening for a happy-go-lucky, cute girls doing cute things show. This is intentionally disturbing, with its chants, color composition, foreboding imagery, etc.
The first season, from a technical perspective, is visually sub-par in almost every way imaginable. Although it sometimes adds to the horror, the drawings of the characters frequently fall apart, and the animation itself is outright bad, either doing that thing where a moving object is just an image, or trying to do actual movement but apparently lacking either the budget or talent for it to look good.
Strangely enough, Season 2 looks way better, with a drastic change in art design and much more frequent and compelling use of digital effects. Although I vaguely missed the distorted character proportions, since if nothing else they did give the show a strong sense of identity, the change is so severe, in a good way, that I cannot bring myself to complain, but I am curious as to what exactly prompted this shift in the first place. I mean, the first season sold fine but not great, so... I dunno, maybe the staff was just more passionate about this second half. It’s certainly possible.
After all, the first half, for all its strengths, is not without some notable flaws. Chiefly, it’s somewhat predictable. Every time history resets, you’ll get an episode or two of “normal” cutesy anime-style life, then s**t hits the fan hard, people die, and repeat. On top of that, the everyday life episodes themselves are not especially great, because they’re kind of generic. Higurashi’s characters in their own right are not a particular strength of the series. Moreso, it’s in what they go through when they are pushed to the breaking point that is so interesting, so just watching them live their lives normally is, frankly, barely entertaining. You’re checking your watch waiting for the facade to crack and everything to collapse in on itself.
Speaking of collapsing in on itself, the second season has its own share of that. Remember, it provides answers to all these questions that its predecessor established, but not all of those answers are good answers. Aside from supposedly serious characters acting hilariously overblown, some of the developments are just so cheesy or over-the-top that it strains your suspension of disbelief to take them seriously.
Um, an example would be difficult because it would intrinsically spoil the nature of the series as a whole, but I’ll be vague about it. At one point there’s a scientist, an actual scientist, not a mad scientist or anything; he’s presented as a guy doing fairly grounded research in a fairly grounded environment. This research is summarily rejected in a way that I can only describe as laughable, with other scientists literally stomping all over his papers and decrying how much of a fool he is. And I mean, that’s not to say that the show hadn’t been exaggerated up to that point (especially during violent scenes), but this sort of routine rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like too much, that they could’ve made their point and it would’ve been a lot easier to swallow if they just dialed it back a little bit.
One more thing before we get to the verdict: Season 3. You’re probably cocking your head right now, “Season 3? There’s a Season 3? Why haven’t you mentioned that up until now?” Well, for one, it’s not really a third season, it’s a handful of 5 OVAs set after the series, 2 of which are non-canon (as well as unfunny parodies). Of the three episodes that actually matter, they’re… inoffensive. They’re comparable to, say, the Steins;Gate movie. It’s an obvious add-on to an already completed story, but it doesn’t screw up the original ending and has just enough okay scenes to be overall fine. Neither something to recommend nor condemn; it’s just a cash-grab sequel. Though, to be fair, it is the best looking Higurashi series of the bunch, but I’d have to hope so, considering it is a 5 episode OVA and not a 25 episode TV show.
I know those sounded like somewhat significant flaws, and I’m not gonna say that they’re completely inconsequential, but they don’t feel as important to the Higurashi experience compared to what it does right. Higurashi is a winding, twisting, supernatural, conspiracy-laden tale, and the combination of intrigue and mystery plus good old fashioned bloody murder, sprinkled with time shenanigans on top, makes for a relatively entrancing package.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… There’s definitely an argument to be made for a B, but me, I’m giving Higurashi no Naku Koro ni an A, the third season notwithstanding, since it really is an unnecessary add-on that you can skip with no strings attached.
So if you would like your fix of loli murder, the first season of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (under its English title When They Cry) is currently available on Hulu and The Anime Network. To the best of my knowledge, the second season is sadly not available anywhere, which I find very odd, because it’s not as if the first season alone is its own self-contained series; it’s very much the first half of a whole larger thing. But for whatever reason it hasn’t been licensed, so you’re on your own when it comes to Season 2 (and Season 3 if you choose to pursue it).
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