More Than Deformed Murder-Poppets: A Higurashi When They Cry Retrospective
As a varied art form, anime encompasses a wide range of genres. Prominent on 2020’s screens are shonen action shows like My Hero Academia; slow, relaxing slice-of-life shows like Diary of Our Days at the Breakwater; fantasy/isekai like Re:Zero; Magical High School shows like Irregular; not to mention multitudinous detective, comedy, sci-fi/mecha, and romance shows. Name a genre and it’s likely there’s a recent anime that conforms to the classification, and probably does it well.
What about horror? It’s huge for live action movies, with a recent renaissance spearheaded by entries like Get Out and Midsommar lauded not just by fear-hungry cinema-goers but critics too. Given that it’s late October and the time to indulge in All That Goes Bump In The Night, where are the great horror anime?
This is the problem with animation — although it’s great at inspiring wonder, stimulating laughter, or evoking tears, it’s very difficult to elicit a visceral fear response using colourful moving drawings. Even long-term anime obsessives struggle to produce a list of actually good horror anime.
With the Autumn 2020 season unleashing a new version of vintage horror anime Higurashi, it’s a great time to look back at one of the best examples of an actually unsettling anime. Join battle-scarred veterans Kinksy and DilKokoro, special weapons and tactics (visual novel) expert Ancient0ne, and shivering, shell-shocked newbies Arcane and Doctorkev as we make a case for why you should watch the original 2006 version of this show before embarking on the newest.
SERIOUSLY. WATCH THE OLD SERIES FIRST.
Ancient0ne: Minor Spoilers
As a long time reader of visual novels and viewer of anime, Higurashi was always something that was on my radar but I had never taken the chance to sit down and read or watch it. With the announcement of the 2020 Higurashi ‘remake’, I figured what better time to get into the Higurashi franchise and, by extension, the entire When They Cry series. The first episode of Gou introduced me to a quaint rural town with hints of a dark secret. As episode two aired, however, it was announced that the show’s title was being changed to Higurashi Gou and reports from veterans of the series who had seen the episode indicated that this likely wasn’t a straight remake and could go as far as spoiling part of the later story. Turning back wasn’t an option, as the first episode left enough impact that I would surely enjoy the rest, but going forward with Gou didn’t feel right given the chance of spoiling myself. In the end, I decided to take the long way around and spent around 90 hours over 9 days to read Higurashi Hou, a re-release of the original Higurashi Sound Novel and its sequel Higurashi Kai, followed by watching the anime of both Higurashi and its sequel Kai for a combined 50 episodes.
The Sound Novel splits itself into 8 independently released chapters, each letting us experience the village of Hinamizawa from a different character’s perspective. Chapters 1–4 pose various questions about the mysterious events and brutal tragedies taking place in Hinamizawa, while chapters 5–8 effectively solve those questions and present the larger picture of the narrative. The first four chapters even include short post mortems for each with different characters presenting their theories on the mystery thus far. While the horror elements of Higurashi are one of the main devices it uses to present where things went wrong, as the mystery surrounding the tragedies dissipates the focus shifts to how things could have gone right. The Sound Novel does this through a well-balanced combination of events current and past to explore the motives and perspectives of each main character. Per www.vndb.org, a visual novel database, the estimated play time of chapters 1–4 is a combined 30–50 hours, while chapters 5–8 are estimated at greater than 50 hours combined. While long, very little time feels wasted over the course of the read and many seemingly unimportant scenes prove to be necessary by the end of each chapter. It should be noted that only the Japanese console ports of Higurashi have voiced lines, however these can be patched into the English PC version using a mod along with other assets from the console releases.
In terms of the anime, chapters 1–6 are covered by season 1 of Higurashi while 7–8 are covered in season 2, Kai. Of course, compressing roughly 10 hours of game content into about 1.5 hours of anime for each of the first 6 chapters means that a lot needs to be trimmed. For the most part, this was done by cutting internal monologue from the initial work and adjusting various scenes to be shorter or removing them entirely. Sadly, this is a necessary evil of many adaptations, but in the case of Higurashi it shifts the entire tone of the story from a well-thought-out and foreshadowed mystery into a first season that is a horror and a second that tries to turn it back into a mystery. In less meaningful instances, this means removing all mahjong references over the course of the work (of which there were a fair number), sometimes rewriting them and other times resulting in holes in characters’ motives. At other times, major foreshadowing is cut along with the seemingly innocent scene that housed it, including the removal of certain scenes from the ends of some chapters. This results in the show using the first five episodes of Kai effectively playing catch-up with some scenes that were cut from season one. From episode six on, however, Kai does remain much more faithful to the original work than the first season. Due to the adaptation of a certain mechanic used in chapter 8 of the Sound Novel, many scenes at the mid-point of Kai appear unrelated without any explanation as to why they were grouped in such a way, hurting the overall continuity of the show.
All in all, both the anime and the Sound Novel are respectable works that will be sufficient for you to watch the new Higurashi Gou, but in the end you can really only solve a mystery the first time you read it. If you are able to set aside the time needed, play the Sound Novel Higurashi Hou first and get the full experience of the story rather than the abridged version the translation into anime resulted in.
Arcane: Minimal spoilers
Honestly, until this year, I’d never actually completed a watch of Higurashi. And having started over multiple times, it’s pretty easy to figure out why I kept leaving it behind for other shows. The show is by no means bad — it’s definitely a classic and a deserved cult hit — but everything that comes afterwards has to live up to the shadow cast by the very first arc, Spirited Away By the Demon.
The scariest threat is the one that is totally unknown, and Higurashi’s reputation as a horror show greatly exemplifies this rule. A boy, Keiichi, moves to a town so small that every kid not only goes to the same school, but is in the same class, and naturally befriends two girls close to his own age just by virtue of there not being many others. A few months later, we see his average life: a day of fun club activities after a perfectly ordinary class… oh, but that’s not the first thing we see. That would be Keiichi brutally murdering someone with a baseball bat and repeatedly savaging their corpse before the title card, and then cut to this display of complete normality.
The audience is already asking questions. What on earth was that first part? How do we go from here… to there?
Slowly Keiichi learns a few things about the town — first, that they have an annual Cotton Drifting Festival (the meaning of which will become clear later), and second, that a few years ago, there was supposed to be a dam built nearby that would have flooded the village until the project was called off for a gruesome reason. His friends tell him that the dam was simply defeated by the village council and that’s the whole story, so he goes with his closest friend Rena to look through the local garbage dump for hidden treasure. When he and Rena return to this spot later, he discovers a stack of old newspapers firmly stating that a murder took place at the dam site and someone turned up dismembered. The camera then cuts to Rena standing nearby, perfectly still, holding a giant knife as the cries of cicadas, which had been in the background throughout the episode, grow deafeningly loud.
What follows is an hour of Keiichi losing his grip on reality as his friends lie to his face and repeatedly stalk him, all the while seeming possessed by an unknown force that may be the strange figure worshipped by the town all while he’s preparing for the possibility that he might be next. He’s taken to angrily practicing swings with a baseball bat left behind by a former student for hours a day while his friends watch in confusion. He’s talking to the police behind their backs and reporting on their actions, but they seem genuinely hurt by the notion that they’re intending to harm him, despite his finding clear evidence to the contrary. After several days of back and forth deception and heightening tension, Keiichi’s parents leave town for a night on business.
The fourth episode of Higurashi genuinely kept me up at night. The culmination of the first arc is not especially original just looking at the scene-by-scene plot summary — it’s the end of any post- Scream horror movie — but the tension is mounted by all of the questions that pile higher and higher, not a single one of which is answered, and the viewer is intentionally left just as confused by Rena’s motivations as Keiichi. The simple use of effective horror tropes combined with the fear of the unknown is enough to genuinely terrify, and in the end, even those tropes are flipped on their head with an ending you might not even see coming. It’s worth the time to sit down and take in all at once, because you’ll be fairly glued to the edge of your seat by the end.
Having had revisited Higurashi because of the buzz around the new season, I found myself with more mixed feelings than on my initial go. Giving credit where it is due first, it is undeniable that this serves as one of the staples of horror anime. Even as I watch the new season, it cannot seem to capture the charm of the first. My initial thoughts the first time I saw the second and third seasons of the original anime were lukewarm at best. Watching the series again,, I find these seasons to detract from the experience of the first season significantly.
A good chunk of Higurashi ‘s creepy atmosphere, especially in the first season, depends on a dreadful lack of understanding of what is going on in the small rural town.. Even as the season ends, the lack of answers feels appropriate because the ambiguity makes its world feel creepier. The following seasons “answer” why the characters act the way they do, explaining the “behind the scenes” to how the bonkers events of the first season happen. I found those “answers” underwhelming and cliché, which took away from the first season’s unsettling mood. On my second time through, I felt disappointed remembering the answers to all of the questions the characters have as disturbing things occur in their lives.
What is worse is that the first season loses a lot of its charm when considering the circumstances outlined by the second one. Effective writing should make revisiting earlier stories feel more clever or creative by knowing character arcs or developments to come. Instead, the quality of the first season suffers as there is the looming knowledge that these mysteries will not reach the heights that the early episodes attempt to make viewers believe. Does this completely ruin the first season? Of course not — I’m not delusional. It would be an overreaction to say the first season is destroyed from its disappointing second and third seasons. The first arc still holds as one of the essential horror stories and a Halloween classic ( open the door, Keiiiichi), and Studio DEEN’s art for facial expressions for all of the characters are evergreen entertainment. If you can live with it, I would recommend just watching the first season of this one and nothing more - it will be a much better experience for it.
Kinksy: Mild spoilers
To most people, Higurashi would be their beginning steps into madness; for myself, it was just another stepping stone in my descent. Over a decade ago, I had made a new group of friends after leaving high school and entering college. These were people that I actually shared interests with including, of course, anime. Among several recommendations they gave to me, two shows, in particular, remain in my personal top 10 all these years later: Code Geass and Higurashi.
Higurashi is a show that’s practically designed for me, combining some of my favourite things in media: Groundhog’s Day loops, psychological horror, and an engaging mystery. Watching each arc play out is thrilling and seeing the “what if?” when a different character jumps off the slippery slope they seem cursed to repeat is a journey full of suffering. Rena and Shion’s stories are my personal standouts, not only for the characters themselves but for the burning questions they answer from the first half of the show.
The series is made of four “Question” and four “Answer” story arcs that are reflections of each other. The first four episodes follow Keiichi Maebara who, just like the viewer, is an outsider to the rural village of Hinamizawa. It’s there we meet his new classmates, who are all sweet and cheerful and are happy to spend their days playing games in their club and definitely not plotting his demise. Throughout season one, Higurashi keeps you guessing, but these four episodes genuinely fool you into thinking the town is out to get Keiichi until he himself snaps and murders half of the remaining cast. Then episode five happens and we start the cycle again as if nothing had ever happened — the cast doesn’t even acknowledge the previous events. This is the point where I was hooked and ended up marathoning the show over the course of a few days.
But just as the initial run of the show sets up several supernatural plot threads and leads you to believe that the curse befalling this town is absolutely real, Higurashi Kai dismantles these assumptions. It shows that the supernatural elements are not the real threat, but that there is a much more sinister human origin behind the murders and insanity. After watching and enduring through each character’s trauma, the hard-fought conclusion where they finally break through the loops together is extremely satisfying for me.
Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to bring attention to this show’s soundtrack, especially both of its opening themes. The creeping bassline and haunting vocals of the first OP suit the show perfectly (so perfectly they brought it back as the ending theme for the first episode of Higurashi Gou this season). The second OP is a much more subtle affair… well, as subtle as it can be when it literally includes several jump scares written right into the music. The larger soundtrack uses the contrast between generic visual novel-type fluff and more intense, creepy tracks to punctuate the creepy and disturbing scenes to make them land that much harder.
Doctorkev: Contains major spoilers in final two paragraphs - read at your peril
Before this season’s Higurashi: When They Cry: Gou, I was a complete newbie to the franchise — virginal, sane, uncorrupted — until my AniTAY “friends” advised me to watch the original show, to witness those cute little anime girls cackle and stab one another. Surely no other form of visual media boasts such profound tonal dissonance as conjured by this anime? Back in 2006–2007, anime was caught in the cute yet deformed vice-like grip of the Moe movement. Shows like Azumanga Daioh, Lucky Star, and anything based on Key Visual Novels ( Clannad, Kanon) were popular — filled with huge-eyed female characters, all innocent and childlike, begging to be protected. Higurashi inverted the trope of the helpless, bug-eyed anime waif by making them the aggressors.
Studio Deen outdid themselves in the creepy factor regarding character design. Even during non-spooky moments, I was unsettled by these hideous, inhumanly-proportioned monster-children. In any other production, I’d accuse the artists of poor, off-model artistry… But perhaps such horror was deliberate? Little blue-haired poppet Rika looked particularly unsettling. Surely with eyes so gargantuan, there’d be no room in that skull for her brain…
Season one, which contains mostly setup, is the source of most of the online gifs and pics of crazed anime girls wielding oversized weapons while covered in blood. I’ve never watched an anime so effective at generating such a pervasive sense of dread as Higurashi. Even if I didn’t find it scary, per se, it was at the very least unsettling. With unpredictable plotting and mystery piled upon mystery, I found it compulsive viewing — even if I clearly had no clue what was happening and why.
This is where I disagree with my illustrious colleagues DilKokoro and Arcane above: I enjoyed Season two ( Kai) far more than the original. As much as I enjoyed the novelty of murderous toddlers eviscerating teenagers, I worried that none of the randomness would be adequately explained, or that everything would be blamed on nebulous occult occurrences. The show itself even added plenty of red herrings about aliens and supernatural curses. Kai replaces bonkers horror with detailed plot exposition and greatly deepens the characters.
Kai succeeded at building on characters and situations established in the previous season. We learned what made those characters tick, witnessed their struggles and winced at their emotional pain. Little deformed-faced Rika became the main character when her Sisyphean existence (not unlike Re:Zero’s Natsuki Subaru) was revealed. She endured a hundred years of time loops — being repeatedly murdered and resurrected while powerless to affect her fate. Kai becomes the story of her struggle against fate, inspired by her friend Keiichi (a more stereotypical anime protagonist, as the first season magnificently fakes him out to be) and her other friends.
I particularly enjoyed the arc where Keiichi pushes hard to save little yellow-haired Satoko from her uncle’s abuse. From my time working as a Child Protection paediatrician, this storyline hit me hard. Kids really are trapped, neglected and abused by shitty adults like Teppei, and they learn to internalise their suffering, make excuses for it and even try to protect their abusers from harm. To see everyone unite to save her was truly heart-warming and emotional, not something I expected from a show about murderous kiddies. Even the 5-episode OVA series Rei was emotional, in that by becoming complacent, Rika almost destroys her hard-fought-for happy ending and has to make an absolutely brutal choice. It’s an unnecessary epilogue, with two completely idiotic comedy episodes, but I’m still glad I watched them.
Thanks for joining us for our Higurashi retrospective, and we hope that it has inspired you to check out an anime classic for the spooky season. The 2006 original is available to stream on HIDIVE in the US but unfortunately not in the UK. DVDs and Blu-Rays are available from the usual sources.
The new Fall 2020 season’s Higurashi When They Cry: Gou is currently available to stream on Funimation NOW in NA, the UK, and elsewhere.
The sound novel Higurashi — When They Cry: Hou is also available both on Steam and in DRM-free form from the English publisher MangaGamer, with Chapter 1 available for free until a vaccine is discovered for Covid-19 and the rest on sale for up to 50% off through Nov. 2nd.
Finally, thanks to all of our contributors (in alphabetical order): Ancient0ne, Arcane, DilKokoro, Doctorkev, Kinksy.
Thanks to Stanlick for help with the header image and to Arcane for making it extra-creepy. Thanks as always to our resident Editor-tyrannosaur TheMamaLuigi for the repeated use of his eternally sharp, viscera-dripping editor-fangs.
You’re reading AniTAY, an anime-focused community-run blog. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page.
Originally published at https://anitay.kinja.com on October 31, 2020.