Higurashi: When They Cry Season 1 Collection
6 Discs DVD (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 640 minutes approx.
Also known by its full title of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni this is an anime series that has long eluded a UK release, allowing its reputation as a seminal horror mystery title attain near mythical status. Now MVM brings this classic 2006 show to our shores – but is it worth the wait and does it hold up over a decade later?
Based on a series of a games subsequently adapted into a collection of light novels and a manga by the enigmatically named Ryukishi 07, When They Cry is set in the fictional rural village of Hinamizawa. This 26-episode series is comprises of six individual arcs, each one featuring a different character assuming the lead role but the consequences are the same – someone dies in a brutal fashion.
The central cadre of characters around which these macabre events occur are a group of young school friends – male transfer student Keiichi Maebara, amiable Rena Ryugu, headstrong Mion Sonozaki, and two juniors, meek Satoko Hojo and shrine maiden Rika Furude. They form an after-school club, of which Mion is the leader, thus spend a lot of time together but fate has a horrible way of tearing this close kinship apart.
Whilst the stories seem to be standalone affairs, a number of recurring themes feature throughout which anchors them to a shared timeline but eventually they converge into a singular narrative by the final two arcs. In other words, after each story the timeline “resets” itself and whoever died before returns alive and well for the next story. However, the fate of the supporting characters is set in stone to keep the overall context intact.
Opening with one the boldest first scenes of any anime, we witness someone bludgeoning two people to death with a baseball bat, blood splattering everywhere. After the credits, Keiichi serves as our narrator for the first story, in which as a newcomer to Hinamizawa, learns all about the horrific incident of the past involving a grisly murder related to a project to build a dam which was aborted after the villagers protested.
In trying to acclimatise to his new surroundings, Keiichi is keen to learn more about the customs and history of the village, distressed to discover that many bizarre happenings are linked to Oyashiro’s Curse. Reortedly, the village god Oyashiro was angered and placed a curse where every year at the annual Cotton Drifting festival, someone dies and another person disappears to make up the numbers to appease Oyashiro.
These are the recurring conceits that form the basis of each story, the twist being either the victim or the killer – intentional of otherwise – is different, except for two people, nurse Miyo Takano, who is burned to death, and photographer Jiro Tomitake who claws his own throat to pieces. These constants serve a purpose adding further mystery to the main story regardless of the circumstances, but whilst not immediately obvious, this is a big clue as to how this all plays out in the end.
Across each story, a number of issues are explored, taking in child abuse, superstition, sibling rivalry, jealousy, politics, premonition, and insanity. The latter is the more prevalent, usually the reason why our protagonists turns murderous antagonist and while Oysahiro’s Curse is nominally blamed, it is really the behaviour and machinations of the village folk that shares equal culpability.
Yet each story begins with the goofiest of comedy hijinks, complete with typical anime exaggerations and affectations, a huge tonal clash when juxtaposed with the unbridled horror that is to come. In the first story, it comes as a huge shock to see this change but doesn’t survive being repeated in the subsequent arcs. That said, we are never prepared for the outbursts of gory violence and gleeful torture meted out by the deranged cast in a fit of madness, whether there is moral justification for their heinous actions or not.
The quality of the writing by Toshifumi Kawase in adapting the original work of Ryukishi 07 cannot be praised enough. Each suprebly crafted story brings it own surprises and fresh twists, never ending up as you might imagine it to. The way they cleverly overlap and intertwine by subtly referencing each other without being obvious, outside of the set developments, is genius and demands a repeat viewing to see if the clues can be picked up with hindsight as a guide.
Also, the characters only change in relation to their roles within the story. The only one who remains ambiguous is Shion, Mion’s twin sister whose own story is given time in the fifth arc, a retelling of the second story from her perspective. Their actions are true to their intrinsic nature even when they are tipped over the edge into insanity, though some are designed to be deliberately creepy to suit the narrative.
What will be the biggest hurdle for many fans are the production values. With other shows from 2006, like Death Note, being far superior, anyone would date this show to 1996. Quite often, the animation is economic and scrappy with the characters going off model a lot. Also, the cutesy designs are at complete odds with the shocking content, perhaps intentional, but this doesn’t excuse the awkward head-to-body ratio of the younger girls or their eyes taking up 80% of their faces.
To compensate, the voice acting is in incredible. Each seiyuu has to run the gamut of emotions for their character, often playing out harrowing scenes as either the victim or the perpetrator, sane or mad, and the performances are frighteningly believable. The sound design is also fantastic, the chirping of the cicadas in the background just one of the subtle motifs that help create an ominous atmosphere.
Regardless of how old When They Cry is, its influence on horror and mystery anime is evident in the imagery and its storytelling. Perhaps now it will earn its place as a genuine classic series with this overdue UK release.
English Language 2.0
Japanese Language 2.0 w/ English Subtitles
Disc 1 only:
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black