Anime Review: Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry)

It’s June of the year 1983, and Keiichi Maebara has recently moved from the bustling big city to the quiet mountain village of Hinamizawa. A town so small, it only has a single schoolhouse with a single teacher. Keiichi manages to make fast friends with his new schoolmates, Mion, Rena, Rika, and Satoko, and ends up joining them in their after-school game club. As Keiichi slowly adjusts to his new surroundings, he comes to learn that Hinamizawa may not be the sleepy rural paradise it appears to be. Dark secrets, both ancient and new, shroud the village’s history. Secrets that Keiichi was never meant to discover. As the day of the yearly Cotton Drifting Festival approaches, Keiichi’s paranoia grows and his sanity begins to wane. The deadly curse of local mountain-god Oyashiro bears down upon Hinamizawa, bringing an end to the peaceful everyday lives of Keiichi and his friends. When the cicadas cry in Hinamizawa, death and mayhem surely follows.

Mion and the Higurashi gang

I normally try to keep these things as spoiler-free as possible, speaking in broad strokes and avoiding specific key events in the story, but I’m not sure I can really write about a show like Higurashi without letting a few cats out of the bag. I will endeavor to refrain from spoiling major late-game reveals and twists, but I’m probably going to give away some general story and character-related stuff. In short: here there be spoilers, ye be warned. If you want to know my blanket, spoiler-free thoughts on Higurashi, feel free to skip to the last paragraph.

All that being said, on with the review! Higurashi may very well be my all time favorite Horror anime. Granted that isn’t exactly the most contentious category, but I think Higurashi is a genuinely valiant effort in an incredibly difficult genre. Animated Horror often just doesn’t work, because the inherent disconnect between palpable dread and cartoon characters shatters the illusion before it’s even begun. For the most part, Higurashi tends to fall into this trap as well. There’s really no shaking the feeling that this show should have been a series of live-action movies, or a series on HBO. Higurashi isn’t just a Horror story, though; It’s also a Mystery series. Which is a significantly higher bar to clear, and thankfully the show more than delivers on that front.

Which is something I attribute almost entirely to Higurashi’s clever story structure. The “gimmick” of Higurashi’s story is that it takes place inside of a temporal causality loop(or a repeating time-loop for you non-Star Trek dorks). This conceit allows Higurashi the freedom to go as dark and twisted as it wants, while gleefully shrugging away the blood-soaked aftermath. Each new arc starts off detailing the events of Keiichi’s cheerful everyday life before building to a violent madness-fueled crescendo, allowing Higurashi to add a few much-needed layers to the cast. This also serves as a somewhat meta “reward” for the audience sticking through the mildly redundant slice-of-life bits.

However, it isn’t merely an excuse to maintain the status quo in spite of the story’s myriad shankings, cleavings, and baseball-batterings. Higurashi’s time-looping escapades are divided into two categories: “Question Arcs” and “Answer Arcs”. The Question Arcs will show the events of one time-loop from the perspective of the victim, and then the Answer Arcs will replay the events again in a new loop from the perspective of the assailant. Like any good murder-mystery though, the Question Arcs make up almost the entire first half of the series. The show bombards the viewer with information and bloodshed, leaving the audience to piece together the truth from the chaos.

Rika Furude Nipaaa!

Nipa~

I used to wonder if it were really possible to work out Higurashi’s big mysteries before the Answer Arcs, and after going back through it, I think it’s definitely doable. The clues are subtle, and sometimes obfuscated beyond reasonable levels, but the information is more or less all there. It may require a few leaps of general logic, but I don’t think anything the show reveals ever feels like it was pulled out of thin air or that the writers just needed to dig themselves out of a hole. Every clue and revelation comes just in time to build on what the audience has seen before, and build to what is probably one of the most well-earned and sincerely cheesy climaxes in anime. Some of the major revelations do border on preposterous, but they still feel consistent with the world the story inhabits. Higurashi is a pretty exaggerated, over-the-top story, after all. So the existence of exaggerated, over-the-top plot twists isn’t all that surprising; just the forms that they ultimately take on.

Building a good mystery isn’t the only thing that Higurashi excels at, though. Higurashi was originally a series of Kinetic Novels. A type of Visual Novel that abandons the more common choice-based narratives in favor of a more traditionally linear story. So basically just an E-book with text and sprites overlaying background art, and music and sound effects for atmosphere. And those last two are crucial to Higurashi’s success as a Horror story. Higurashi has fantastic sound design. From the endless droning of cicadas to the squishy thunks of baseball bats against skulls, Higurashi is a show that builds much of its crucial atmosphere through eerie silence and well-placed sound effects. A few upbeat synth and piano pieces accompany the lighthearted segments to rounds out the score for an unobtrusive and workmanlike soundtrack.

Ryugu Rena Cleaver Higurashi

Rena enjoying a night out with Cleaver-chan

That’s not to say that Higurashi is immaculate, of course. It seems that in every way Higurashi succeeds, it’s held back by a comparable failing. While the show’s sound design is excellent, the art and animation is a bit of a disaster. Studio DEEN is somewhat infamous for lackluster productions, and Higurashi is sadly no exception to this trend. The character models are overly simple, and detailed shading is often non-existent outside of the show’s trademark facial expressions. This may have been done as an intentional contrast, but it ultimately leaves the bulk of the series looking bland and halfhearted.

The actual animation is generally just as minimalist, with much of the series motion achieved through crafty editing choices rather than any actual movement. The only saving grace in this regard is that Higurashi’s darker moments aren’t nearly as self-indulgently violent as they could have been. It’s easy for shows in this vein to put the emphasis on blood and guts in order to eek out scares, but this is often a shallow tactic that ends up more childish than horrifying. The key to good horror is often what you don’t see, and Higurashi’s simple artwork and cut corners actually achieves this paradigm seemingly by accident. The art does tend to improve significantly from the second season onward, but it’s a bit too late to undo the damage at that point. The visual upgrades are certainly appreciated, but mostly just succeed in highlighting how cheap and lifeless the first season looks.

On a script level, while the show’s narrative is often gripping and clever, the characterization and dialogue leave a lot to be desired. The characters are certainly likable and easy to get invested in, but their simplified archetypal personalities undercut a lot of the drama that Higurashi attempts to evoke. It’s often said that you can only understand someone’s true character when the world is coming down around their ears, and in Higurashi that largely just means “the same, but crazier.” Pushing the characters to their emotional breaking-points only to bring them right back again is an admittedly brilliant idea, but probably required a little more actual complexity for maximum effect. However, the juxtaposition of doe-eyed moeblobs spouting cute catchphrases against the visceral psychological horror does give Higurashi a unique combination of flavors without ever feeling like either one is fighting for dominance. This allows the characters to seamlessly transition from lovable protagonist to depraved villain, and still feel like they are two halves of the same character.

Unfortunately, this binary does somewhat hamstring Higurashi’s dramatic incilinations. There’s just not enough real nuance to the characters to make them feel like real people as opposed anime stereotypes thrown into a slasher flick. It’s somewhat ironic that the show’s best character work may actually be its True Villain, who ends up being one of the most sympathetic and nuanced members of the cast thanks to a graceful and hard-hitting flashback late in the game. The story’s often monotonous and utilitarian dialogue doesn’t exactly smooth out the character issues, either. The often matter-of-fact exposition is a pretty clear vestige of the show’s Visual Novel routes, as is a lot of the all too on-the-nose characterization. Lines like “Satoko is always setting traps, that’s why we call her Trap Master Satoko!” always feels like a strained and alien attempt to force in necessary character details.

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You can’t spell slaughter without “laughter”

Higurashi is ultimately a show that wears many masks, a labyrinth of false-starts and dead-ends, but it’s also a show that knows exactly what it wants to be and how to be it. With a careful mastery of atmosphere and tone, it builds a cast of likable characters that are easy to root for and care about. By the end of the story, I felt almost as desperate to see the story earn its happy ending as the characters themselves. Despite its dark and ominous nature, Higurashi is a show that’s always wearing its childishly endearing heart on its sleeve. That tangible emotional core is undoubtedly what drives Higurashi and enshrines it in the anime Horror pantheon. Early on, Higurashi is dependent on sensational narrative stunts to reel in viewers, but evolves far beyond the sum of its parts in the end. What the show lacks in visual flair or script-level finesse, it more than makes up for with a sharply-constructed, mind-bending story that is both terrifying to behold, and utterly enthralling to unravel.

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One thought on “Anime Review: Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry)

  1. nondescript idolm@ster fan says:

    Maybe I’m just missing something here, because in your paragraph on sound design you mention how great it was but in your clincher sentence you say the soundtrack was unremarkable? I’ll admit I’m not too familiar with technical terminology so these could be entirely different things, but it felt a bit jarring to end a section of praise like that.

    Regardless, a fascinating read! I remember watching this show like three years ago so I’ve practically forgotten everything about it, but your bit on the seemingly unintentional visual acuity makes me pretty curious to give it another shot.

    Also, what do you plan on reviewing next?

    Like

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