In June of 1983, transfer student Keiichi and his new friends, a colorful group of female classmates, hang out together and explore around their tiny village of Hinamizawa. It is time for the town’s annual cotton drifting festival, where the townsfolk pay tribute to their guardian spirit, Oyashiro.
A few years ago, an outside development team had plan to build a dam in the quiet rural village, which outraged the locals into a mass protest and lead to an ultimate cancellation of the project. But ever since that year, people who were in support of the dam have been mysteriously murdered every year during the night of the cotton drifting festival, an occurrence that the townsfolk call the Curse of Oyashiro.
This year is no exception, as a traveling photographer and his companion end up dead by the end of the night. Since Keiichi and his friends had known the victims, they end up in the middle of the investigation themselves. But as Keiichi learns more about the Curse of Oyashiro and the back story of his new pretty girl companions, he starts to spiral into the madness and horror of this quiet town. And by the end of the fourth episode, Keiichi and every one of the main characters are dead, each one of them meeting a gruesome bloody death at their own hands or murdered by one of their friends.
Wait. Did I just give away a spoiler?
Nope, because when the fifth episode begins, everything starts all over again from the beginning. It’s June of 1983, and Keiichi and the girls are all alive, happy, well, and they’re preparing for the upcoming cotton drifting festival. And this time around, they might not all meet the same bloody fate they had in the first four episodes.
I am a sucker for creative nonlinear narrative, so I absolutely loved the way Higurashi – When They Cry goes above and beyond anything I’ve seen before in an anime series.
The core of this series is in this unique method of storytelling. Every 4 to 6 episodes, the show restarts again from the beginning and gives an “alternate take” on the story you have already watched. In general, each group of episodes contain the same characters and the same setting, but sometimes personalities are altered and key events occur differently. Sometimes you are just seeing the same event occur through a different perspective, like one side of a telephone conversation the first time around and than the other side of the same conversation in a later episode.
The point is that you never get the full story each time, and you’re left with a gruesome and shocking ending to each take with many mysteries left unsolved. However, you get little bits and pieces with each alternative take that you can put together to figure out the ultimate story that is going on with in this series.
The problem is that once you look beyond Higurashi’s creative storytelling, there really is not much that is good about this series. The show attempts to merge the moé pretty girl genre of anime with that of a suspense horror story. However, these two components do not mix very well, and while it does a reasonable job on the “moé” aspect, it completely fails to capture any of the “horror” at all.
I cannot really figure out where it goes wrong with the horror. Maybe it is in the art and animation. Every time a character starts to get angry or psychotic, their face turns ugly and the animation turns to bad camera angles and fish eye lenses, which looks ridiculous and silly. Maybe it is in the voice acting, as the over-the-top cartoonish voices of both the Japanese and English cast make the yelling and the laughing seem comical rather than frightening. But in either case, whenever something violent, gruesome, or just plain scary is occurring in the series, I just feel like its supposed to be a parody of a horror show and I can’t take it seriously.
But at least it does get the moé right as each one of the pretty girl characters has a charming and cute personality, and their background stories become more fleshed out as an alternative take or two centers around one in particular. I was going completely fanboy over the girls, and found myself falling in love with the show’s youngest characters, the sweet shrine maiden Rika and the spunky little sister Satoko. I can already see myself buying their action figures at the New York Anime Festival later this month.
* * * *
The Good: Unique narrative that starts over every 4 to 6 episodes to give an alternate take to the main story. Great moé pretty girl characters.
The Bad: Moé and horror don’t mix so well, which makes all the “scary” moments look silly and stupid.
Final Verdict: Despite some very glaring flaws, the unique storytelling technique used in Higurashi – When They Cry makes this series worth checking out. Watch it.