Friday, July 06, 2007

When the Cicadas Cry

June, 1983. At night in a small town in rural Japan, a teenage boy murders two girls, bludgeoning them repeatedly with a steel baseball bat until they stop living. Realizing what he's done, the boy drops the bat and stares in wild-eyed disbelief at the two corpses before him. Cue title card.

So begins Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: When the Cicadas Cry*. A Japanese animated series that aired in the summer of '06, Higurashi is a 26-episode thrill ride of pulse-pounding suspense, gripping mystery, and gruesome horror. A mild-to-moderate anime buff, I'd heard a fair amount of buzz about this show last year. My interest in anime had waned a bit over the last several months, so to get myself back into the medium, I thought, why not give it a shot?

*Released in English as When They Cry -- Higurashi, "higurashi" being a particular species of cicadas with a distinctive mournful call. And the red "na" is, oddly enough, an official component of the title.

The premise of Higurashi is unusual. The series consists of multiple "chapters" telling the same story over and over again, each time from different perspectives or with significant divergences from previous chapters. Many storylines are mutually exclusive: A character who dies one way in the first chapter may die differently in the next, and not at all in the chapter after that. Practically every character gets to play the hero, villain, or victim over the course of the series.

There are, however, certain elements that run throughout each chapter without changing. At its core, Higurashi is about an average teenager named Keiichi Maebara who moves to the tiny village of Hinamizawa, where he falls in with four girls: Easygoing Rena, tomboyish Mion, would-be tough girl Satoko, and Cute (with a capital "C") Rika. The five spend lazy summer days hanging out and playing games; if it weren't for the gory opening scene described above, I'd have immediately assumed that this was just another fluffy, superficial harem comedy and passed the show over completely.

By the end of the first episode, however, we begin to see that there's much more going on here. Keichii learns that his friends are keeping something from him, a tragedy that struck Hinamizawa five years ago: In retaliation for a proposed dam that would have flooded their homes, a government employee was lynched and dismembered by the villagers; each year for the next four years, one more person has been mysteriously murdered and another disappeared completely, all on the night of the annual Watanagashi festival to the local deity (or demon?), Oyashiro-sama. The prefectural police refuse to look into the murders, chalking it up to "Oyashiro-sama's Curse." What's worse is that some or all of Keichii's friends are connected to the incident, either as blood relatives of the victims or as possible conspirators. And the eve of Watanagashi is fast approaching...

I reacted negatively to some of the show's elements. What really took me out of it first was the sheer level of moe, that hard-to-define anime aesthetic that aims to attract male fans to female characters through the use of stock quirky character traits, over-idealized physical appearance, a glut of cuteness, and worst of all, vulnerability. I managed to get past it once the show got rolling, and it actually worked to the series's advantage juxtaposing the deliberately "cute" imagery with the increasingly dark subject matter, but it was a pretty big turn off for the first fifteen minutes or so.

And then there was the violence. Really, for the most part, Higurashi sticks to the old horror adage that it's better to keep the most horrible parts off-screen and in the viewer's imagination, but when it does show violence, it shows a lot. In fact, there was one point late in the series in which one character repeatedly stabs another that was so gory that for a split second I had to stop myself from chuckling at just how over-the-top it all was. I just couldn't suspend my disbelief any further. So, yeah, this is not a series for the faint of heart (or the faint of stomach).

Yet there is much to recommend the series. Higurashi very skillfully weaves a shroud of suspicion, paranoia, and doubt over all its characters. The most fascinating aspect of the series is that we are never quite sure just who or what is behind the grisly events of the series. Is there really a supernatural entity visiting its vengeance upon transgressors, or is it the mundane but very real evil of human spite that is driving the characters to their dooms? We are provided with leads that suggest one or the other, and by the penultimate episode we think we see the whole picture. Or do we?

The soundtrack, too, was enjoyable. The ending theme wasn't to my taste -- a sappy ballad sung completely in ungrammatical, heavily-accented English -- but the opening theme really stood out to me. A rather intense elegy with slightly disturbing lyrics (for frame of reference, it reminded me a bit of Evanescence), the song was a welcome change from the typical bouncy, saccharine J-pop anime theme songs to which I'd grown accustomed. I didn't pay a great deal of attention to the in-show music, but the sound crew did a commendable job at crafting sound effects that enhance the constant feeling of wrongness that pervades Hinamizawa, particularly the haunting, ubiquitous chirping of cicadas that punctuates every episode.

In closing, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni is an intense experience of gripping psychological drama and bone-chilling horror. If you're a fan of anime and/or horror, you could do worse than to give it a try.

No comments: