Higurashi; When They Cry is a unique property. A series of interconnected horror stories of murder and mayhem in a small Japanese town but set over the same time span so that, like the film Groundhog Day, the story is told and retold as variations on a theme. A group of middle school friends uncover evil spirits in their town and then turn on one another to murder and mutilate. Over and over.
This series began as “sound novels,” a name coined to describe illustrated novels that were distributed on media for a game console. The series consisted of eight stories with a structure of retelling the first four from a different character’s perspective in the second set. The property was a success in this format and spun off into manga (comic books) and an animated tv series of 26 episodes which I review here.
The story begins with Keiichi, a city boy who has recently arrived in the tiny rural town of Hinamizawa. He is quickly befriended by four of the local girls and is press-ganged into their card and board game club. The characters and overall tone are extremely cutesy, with much humor revolving around the girls embarrassing each other in front of the only boy in their group and the style of art shifting as well to a more wacky cartoon style to emphasize these scenes. Though this setup is similar to the “harem” style of anime shows in which a single male is surrounded by a group of attractive girls competing for his affections, When They Cry’s cast are young and innocent so that the romantic tensions are more about infatuations or crushes rather than the sexual tensions of other shows in the sub-genre.
The friendly fun and games only last so long and soon Keiichi stumbles onto a mystery. Years ago a murder and disappearance occurred during a local festival honoring Oyashiro, the patron spirit of the town. A government plan to redirect a river would have required that the entire town relocate but the town was spared as support for the project dropped when the strongest proponents went missing and one was found murdered. Keiichi becomes fascinated by the killing and starts asking questions until even a local police detective is interested in what he has uncovered.
As he digs deeper we find that each of the girls has lost family to strange disappearances or even murder in the past and always around the time of the annual festival. This “cotton drifting festival” pays tribute to ancient times when those who had offended the demonic entities were tortured and sacrificed and the more Keiichi probes into the past the more violence and vanishings are found to surround the festival. At the same time the girls become more angry and aggressive. They constantly remind him about Satoshi, the boy who used to be their friend who was “transferred” a year ago after he startled asking questions about the disappearances. Their comments become more and more threatening and after Keiichi finds a needle in a rice ball given to him by Rena, he fears for his life.
A strange van almost runs him off the road, Rena faces off against him with the beaked hatchet that became the signature implement of the first season, the girl’s eyes twist into cat-like pupils, the police detective has gone missing, and finally two of the girls corner him when his parents are out, stab him with a syringe and he awakes to find he has beaten all his friends to death with a baseball bat. Despondent, he flees from the scene and calls the police. He is immediately connected with the detective who now has no recollection of him. Feeling himself hounded by the demon, Keiichi tears his own throat open and bleeds out in the phone booth. The cotton drifting festival has again exacted its terrible toll on the village.
And then . . . The story “resets” itself. The murdered characters are alive and well. It’s a few days before the festival and a new story plays out over the same span. This is the most bizarre feature of When They Cry; each 4 episodes is a complete story arc featuring the same characters but leading toward another violent end. In a few scenes a character will seem somehow aware of the deja vu of the situation or recognize a character from another timeline but each story diverges into a new series of strange disappearances and brutal killings.
Iterations may shed some light on the background of the town and history of events, such as the nature of the town’s patron spirit or the relationships of major characters to the victims lost in the previous year’s slayings. At the same time some “facts” are obscured or altered, such as the appearance of an unknown twin sister, a missing brother, or the involvement of a shady criminal or government organization. Each new story however leads to a more gruesome end than the last. Characters will be brutalized with baseball bats, stabbed with ceremonial tools, have nails driven through all the joints of their fingers and commit suicide with a butcher knife in an unexpected and novel way. The demon of Oyashiro demands sacrifice and one way or another, he will have it.When They Cry is currently out of print and the DVD rights have passed to a new distributor so it may be some time until the series is easily available again. (There is some hope now as the original sound novels have been rereleased for the iPad this past year.) The cartoony appearance, simpering voices and embarrassing situations of the character’s pre-disaster lives will probably not be to the taste of gore hounds but the levels of depraved violence and horrific suicide perpetrated by pre-teen cartoon characters demands a viewer who can enjoy such madness. Like most anime, the imbalance of budget shows through and the first episodes are more well crafted than the last few of the season as time and budget wore thin. The translated voice acting is good with a few dud lines, mostly in the inner narration of Keiichi as he rehashes the obvious. It’s a hard sell for many who are not already fans of the genre but I would recommend giving When They Crya view if you have the option. Just be aware that this is a series that will challenge you intellectually with its winding plot threads just as it forces you to make a gut check again and again as the dearest, sweetest, most angelic little girls in the world eviscerate one another in an unending loop.