On these here pages of ScreenAnarchy we've paid quite some attention to the Australian DVD release of the Japanese anime horror-thriller series When They Cry
, with several reviews for both season one and season two. For good reason: When seen as a whole, this series tells a convoluted, bold story which I urge everyone who has an interest in horror or science fiction to go check out.
Imagine the David Lynch series Twin Peaks
, only a version where everything turns out to have been well-planned from the very beginning and where everything actually makes sense in the end. Storywise, When They Cry
is THAT good. Convoluted and bold indeed.
But the way this series finally was released in English-speaking territories was convoluted as well. For years, only the first half of the story was available outside of Japan, and Australian distributor Siren Visual's decision to FINALLY release the story's second half can certainly be described as bold.
Even though movie collectors arguably have never had it any better than today, what happened with When They Cry
shows how the current market still played a cruel joke on non-Japanese fans of this series.
To expand a bit upon that I will give an overview of the series story and link to the different reviews here at ScreenAnarchy. I will keep things as spoiler-free as possible though, going for mood descriptions rather than the revealing of key plot twists.
The Story (Season One):
It's June 1983 in the rural Japanese village of Hinamizawa, and everyone is happily looking forward to the annual festival. In each of the past festivals though, one person disappeared and another one got killed. The villagers jokingly call this phenomenon "Oyashiro's Curse" after the deity who supposedly looks after the village.
The plot follows a group of children as they prepare for the festivities, but Hinamizawa slowly turns into a horrific place as people start acting increasingly paranoid around them, even to the point of becoming murderous... and not for the first time apparently.
The Series (Season One):
The synopsis above is a general one which could be used for each of the six story-arcs in the first season of When They Cry
. Confusingly, each arc restarts the beginning of the story, just before the festival, but will resolve differently with different people going insane and different people getting killed. Even the source of the madness changes, sometimes coming from a realistic stressful situation, sometimes from a supernatural power, or even influences from space.
But each arc shows the village of Hinamizawa in a slightly different way, and the last one reveals that there actually is a common storyline that links them all, no matter how contradictory the separate iterations are.
Animation-wise the series isn't so hot, but as Kwenton wrote in his review of season one
"The animation is really quite mediocre, employing some tried and true methods and tropes of displaying emotions and little cute expressions, but the quality of the animation is trumped by the intelligently paced mystery."
Truer words have seldom been written. In my own review I stated:
"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."
What impresses is that instead of sabotaging the series, this cutesy style is used to create some truly shocking effects. Few series have managed to unsettle me like this one does and the way it can change its mood on the drop of a hat is fantastic.
When They Cry
is also at times a very violent series, with abuse and torture often taking the center stage in disturbing ways. It never gets as bad as some of this series' detractors claim though, and each beating or stabbing is actually an inherent part of the story.
In the first season's final storyline, just when I was about to dismiss the series as a whole for becoming too outlandish, the different plotlines start coming together. And for the first time you get evidence that there actually IS a puzzle in there, and a glimmer of hope as well...
Waiting For The World To Change:
When the first season of When They Cry
proved to be quite the success in Japan, the international release rights went to Geneon, who proceeded to release it in 2007. Financial difficulties, however, prevented them from ever preparing the second season, leaving this title unreleased outside of Japan, with its rights locked and without an English dub ever been made for it. In Japan, the second season got a lush box set (gruesomely expensive as usual), alas without an English dub, nor were there English subtitles included in that edition.
Anime, no matter how adult, will not be seen by most Western distributors as commercially viable without an English-spoken soundtrack. Many people would rather watch anime in English than listening to the original Japanese soundtrack with English subs. Anime is already a niche-market, and the general consensus is that without an English dub that market becomes too damn small to earn your costs back.
Problem is, English dubs are expensive, far more so than subtitles. It means you must have a market of some size to warrant recording a new dub. Therefore most English-language anime distributors worldwide will wait for the US rights-holder to create the dub and then buy it from them. Because of the lack of an English dub for season two, When They Cry
was never picked up in any of the other territories. Geneon's rights to the license eventually expired sometime in 2010 and by then, When They Cry
was hardly on anyone's radar anymore.
So where did that leave English-speaking fans? It left them stuck halfway in the story. Worse, it left them hung on one hell of a cliffhanger, a mere two episodes removed from the grand reveal which explains what the hell was actually going on in season one. And there was no legal way in the world to watch what happened next...
Cue Australian distributor Siren Visual. They picked up the Australian rights for the first season of When They Cry
and released it on DVD in 2011. Significantly, Siren Visual had one hell of a strong year in 2011 with exclusive releases left and right, many of which were of Fuji TV's "noitaminA" brand: intelligent, adult anime which targeted an audience outside of the teenage thrillseeker crowd.
Also, many of Siren Visual's releases only featured English subtitles and no English dub, gambling that with adult anime most of the niche-market would be content with subtitles-only. In fact the adherence to the original soundtrack is so strongly ingrained in Siren Visual's strategy, their discs default to Japanese even if there IS an English dub.
It was through this 2011 release that I became acquainted with the first season of When They Cry
. And it was with a great amount of dismay that I reached the last episode, which so clearly wasn't the end.
Thankfully, I didn't have to wait years like many other fans. A few months later Siren Visual managed to be the first company outside of Japan to secure the rights of the second season -- without an English dub, though, and this is reflected in the title of their DVD release. Siren Visual released season one under its English name When They Cry
(itself an abbreviation of the full Japanese title, which means "When the Cicadas Cry") but the second season got the Japanese title Higurashi no Nako Koro ni Kai
, without a "When They Cry" in sight on the packaging.
Whatever its name: with the second season released this summer, I could finally watch the conclusion.
The Story (Season Two):
It's STILL June 1983 in the rural Japanese village of Hinamizawa. Someone has been watching the goings-on around the local festival and its annual murders in all its different baffling iterations. Stories come together and finally seem to form a single explainable picture.
But the murders caused by "Oyashiro's Curse" are not the end of the story. Something far, FAR worse is brewing and time may be running out too fast to prevent this fate from happening over and over again...
The Series (Season Two):
Within the first few episodes of the second series, the whole conceit is revealed and most of the mystery is replaced by an urgency for a goal to be achieved. Suddenly the series shifts from being a total mystery to being a puzzle-based race. No longer is the story about the horror which comes from the unknown, but instead it becomes about actions and their consequences. That doesn't mean the tension lets up or that punches are pulled, though. Once you finally discover what actually is plaguing the village of Hinamizawa it completely changes all the rules of the game, and both sides in the conflict are allowed to take their gloves off for an extended but consistently nail-biting finale, as Kwenton non-spoilery described in his reviews for season two
Slight changes in design make the characters less annoyingly cute and allow for more facial expression this time around. The art still isn't the high point of this series but it doesn't draw as much attention to itself either, and as such becomes less of a hindrance in enjoying this season.
What IS a high point of this series is the way the big "reveal" is handled, and how the series as a whole doesn't lose steam when it happens. The story is changed but not deflated, and the final two arcs neatly make most (maybe even all) earlier inconsistencies fall into place. Yes, the weird times on the death certificates are explained. Yes, the deaths of the previous years suddenly make sense. It's amazing how well everything fits together in the end, no doubt a result of the story being based on a series of adventure video games which were each already meticulously planned to begin with. Once you know what's happened, you KNOW. There is remarkably little cheating going on and the story ends with a real ending. It's entertaining, it's exciting and it's impressive.
All's Well That Ends Well?
So now we're happy, right? The fans can dry their tears. Well... not quite.
For starters, copyright laws forbid the Australian release to be exported out of that continent. It's even specifically region-coded to that end. The Japanese rightsholders have asked Siren Visual to be diligent in preventing the parallel exporting of these discs, and therefore you can no longer buy them directly from their site if you're in Europe or the US.
Meaning you need to know someone on that continent or go there on holiday to get these, if you don't happen to be local.
Also, as stated before, this second half doesn't feature an English dub, and while that doesn't concern me personally, I know many people watch their anime in English. If you know and love these characters in English, tough luck.
Then there is the matter of the "third season" or rather season two-and-a-half: nine extra episodes featuring the surviving characters from the main storyline, made especially for the hardcore fans. Siren Visual wasn't able to procure them as these are kept as exclusives for the Japanese discs, to prevent Japanese fans from buying the far cheaper Australian discs.
Still, while I regret not being able to see those episodes, they are not part of the one big story told in the 50 episodes of seasons one and two combined, so their absence does not impact the brilliance of the main storyline.
Siren Visual is to be praised for at least releasing those 50 episodes and allowing an English-spea... eh, reading public to savor the whole, terrifying tale of When They Cry
And in Japan? Those first two seasons turned out to be so successful that they made another two, with new characters in a new location. That story is called "When the Seagulls Cry" and, ironically, it has already been picked up without any trouble by distributor NIS America for an English language Bluray release in the US later this year.
Ah well... it doesn't always have to be quite THIS difficult.
You can order the whole first storyline of When They Cry, both seasons, at the Siren Visual website (provided you're from Australia or New Zealand).