(Come visit Hinamizawa, a lovely rural place! Better skip the local festival though...)
Given the debates we've had here at ScreenAnarchy in the last few months concerning torture-porn and censorship, writing a review for the notorious "Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni Chiaki Kon"
(aka. "When They Cry"
) was hard to resist even though I did not exactly feel enthusiastic about this series in advance.
An anime where cutely drawn children perform horrific acts of extreme sadism on each other? Nah, not my kind of hype.
But boy, was I surprised when I forced myself in front of the screen. For instead of an empty gorefest with children added just for controversy's sake, "When They Cry"
turned out to be a hugely intelligent and competently made thriller with an intriguing mystery at its core. A bit TOO intriguing even, as the first season stops just shy of the story's Grand Reveal.
This year Siren Visual released the first season "When They Cry"
on DVD in Australia and I keep my fingers crossed till they hurt, hoping they'll release the second season as well. Why? Well... read on!
It's June 1983 and Keiichi Maebara is making friends at his school in Hinamizawa, the new village he and his parents have just moved to. Everything seems idyllic especially as the villagers are preparing for the cotton-drifting festival, a big annual local event.
But Keiichi discovers that for the past few years, several people got murdered every time the festival was held. And all of his new friends and classmates are either keeping secrets from him or are blatantly lying about past events. In the days that follow Hinamizawa quickly becomes an ever more terrifying place where everyone, Keiichi himself included, can start acting insanely violent at the drop of a hat.
Legends tell of a force protecting the village and its inhabitants, but something may have turned it malevolent...
Many anime series are based on manga or light novels and can be seen as straight adaptations. "When They Cry"
is a bit of an odd one out in this regard as it is based on a series of old-style adventure videogames. You never get the impression you're watching a videogame though, as the series is primarily story- and character-driven, not action-driven.
As for that story: prepare to get confused. The first season of "When They Cry"
consists of six story-arcs, each mostly covering the events of June 1983. But while all these arcs share a similar past, what happens in the present differs wildly, with the separate storylines often contradicting each other. Different people end up getting killed and different people are going insane. Some arcs point to a clearly supernatural cause, some are more reality-based and one even briefly toys with science fiction.
Each of the story-arcs in itself is a decently made self-contained horror story and moves from nice to nasty by way of a few expertly timed creepy moments. The creators of this series have obviously taken a good look at the Hitchcock thriller handbook here, and some of the tensionbeats are goosebump-inducing. Yet seeing the story-arcs together reveals something that is even bigger than the sum of its parts.
It is very disconcerting to watch a story-arc end in utter horror and bloodshed just after the cotton-drifting festival, only to have the next episode start a few days earlier with everyone all cuddly again, happily preparing the upcoming cotton-drifting festival. There is a sense of dread which only grows stronger and stronger after each arc, and the happy moments at the start of each storyline grow more poignant as you wonder how it will all possibly go wrong again.
This approach of course also leads to a certain amount of repetition, but the series cleverly sidesteps this by showing Keiichi and his friends doing different things from early on in each new storyline, embellishing on what you already know. The effect is akin to being made to traverse the same room several times while blindfolded: even though stuff is moved sometimes, after a while you get a pretty good idea of where all the furniture is located. In the series it means that when someone is suddenly walking around with a syringe, you may not know how that person got the syringe or why, but you WILL know what is in the syringe. Brrrr...
All of this contrasts with the animation style used. The village of Hinamizawa is lovingly drawn in a realistic fashion, but the character design is not. It's even safe to say that the character design almost made me skip this series entirely, as I kept being reminded of that episode of "The Powerpuff Girls"
where a villain yells at the heroes that they look like bug-eyed creeps. Seriously, I don't think I own any anime with characters having doe eyes this freakishly large. Super-deformed is a good way to describe this and everyone looks like they belong in a doll advert, presumably one with lots of unicorns and rainbows. Nevertheless the marketing materials surrounding "When They Cry"
often show the girls prancing around in revealing cosplay uniforms, pantsu-shots and everything. Yegh! Thankfully the series itself hardly contains any such lolicon nonsense.
Thing is, even this off-putting artstyle is used to the series advantage after a while. Facial expressions are so dominated by the eyes that a sudden manic glare or possessed stare hits harder than expected, even when signposted far in advance. It gives the series an extra creepy veneer.
All in all "When They Cry"
surprised me by being way better than I ever expected. Most of the criticism leveled against it for being ultraviolent is not justified as the torture is almost never gratuitous and actually supports the story. One sequence involving a device which removes fingernails is excruciating to watch (it sure left me drenched in sweat) but remarkably bloodless, and hardly inappropriate when seen in context of what is told with that scene or what follows it.
So, is there anything I'm not happy about? Unfortunately, yes. The original series of eight story-arcs used in the videogames consisted of four called the "questions" and four called the "answers". But season one of "When They Cry"
only has six of these arcs: all four "question" stories and the first two "answer" stories. The remaining two "answer" stories are covered in season two along with a new story-arc which contains bits and pieces scrapped (or scraped) out of the other eight.
Why does this annoy me? Well, the next "answer" story apparently is the one revealing what exactly is taking place in Hinamizawa, and the last "answer" story has the protagonists finally trying to actively solve the mystery instead of being pushed around by it. These two arcs are said to tie all of season one's storylines together into one cohesive whole, contradictions and all. Meaning that at the end of season one, you still only have a glimmer of a clue about what is truly happening.
Thankfully, you DO get a few hints during the final chapter. Story-arcs start overlapping and characters see visions of what happened in the other arcs. It gives you the sense that you have not just watched six separate scary stories, but six parts of one bigger one. Ii's just that I hate having to wait for season two without even knowing if there are plans for its release yet. Season two aired years ago in japan already (so it EXISTS) but as far as I know there was never an English-friendly version released.
Provided you have a strong stomach and are not afraid of having to connect a few dots, "When They Cry"
comes highly recommended. It is one of the biggest surprises I've had all year but I love this series despite its sugary character design, and cannot wait to see what happens next.
On to the DVDs:
This five years old series has had a somewhat troubled past on DVD. Rights for the US versions shifted a few times and what was released is now out of print and, apparently, out of publishing rights as well.
People in Australia have nothing to worry about though, as Siren Visual (yes, them again) have recently released the complete first season of "When They Cry"
as two boxsets comprised of six DVDs in total, and this is the version reviewed here. As far as I know they haven't revealed any plans for releasing season two, but with their track record this year I would not be surprised if they turn out to be the first English-friendly distributor in the world to do so. I said it before and I'll say it again: Siren Visual kicks major ass so far in 2011. May they continue on this path...
Visually their release of "When They Cry"
is adequate if not as spectacular as their recent Noitamina releases. Colors are good but the transfer seemed to be a bit on the soft side when I started to freeze images on my PC. It is of no great concern though as the artwork is hardly intricate and the series looks fine when running on my television.
On the audio-front we have a Japanese soundtrack and an English one. Both tracks are 2.0 and sound good. Interestingly, as usual Siren visual has rigged their menus to set the Japanese track as the default one with English subs. It's one of the things that gives me hope for a season two release by them as they never seem too concerned about the availability of English dubs.
Extras are limited to textless opening- and closing credits, and a bunch of trailers for other Siren visual releases.
All in all another fine release by Siren Visual. Do note that these discs are PAL-encoded and locked for use in region 4 only (Australia and New Zealand), so make sure your hardware can cope with that.
"When They Cry: Season 1" can be ordered worldwide through Siren Visual's website.