White Witch, Black Witch – The ‘Magic’ of Umineko no Naku Koro ni

by eternal on May 1, 2010


Ryukishi07’s Umineko no Naku Koro ni has been the talk of the internet for at least a year. With spoilers flying left right and center, there aren’t many anime fans who haven’t at least heard of Battler Ushiromiya’s series of chess games against the witch named Beatrice. I wrote about the first episode when I read it, but having finally completed and digested the first complete game, I think it’s time to revisit my old theories and provide a new assessment of what the story is about and where it’s headed. Brace yourselves; Rokkenjima does not follow the laws of the rest of the world.

(This post contains spoilers from episodes 1-4 of the visual novel)


Two things come to mind when I hear the word “umineko” (amusingly, neither of them are “seagulls”). When I see fanart featuring Beatrice’s golden butterfly motif, when I hear dreamenddischarger and hope, I think of these two things: meta mystery and Maria Ushiromiya’s torn stuffed animal. I’m going to start with the former.

Umineko is very self-aware and it makes specific references to the murder mystery genre, but I no longer believe that its fantasy story propels its mystery elements. I believe the exact opposite. In a way, the mysteries of Umineko are like the battles and power levels of Fate/stay night: they’re certainly there, and they’re relevant enough for the fans to debate and the writer to elaborate on, but they’re not the “point”. Fate’s fantasy combat is a tool to add that extra dramatic punch to the story’s conflicts; Umineko’s duels of logic expose the hidden faces of Rokkenjima and provide opportunities for character interaction. Swords and magic are always fun; so are closed rooms and suspicious butlers. Why not use one of them as a setting for a story?

“Setting” might not be the correct word, but in essence, the mystery elements of Umineko provide context for the story, not the other way around. It took some time for me to wrap my mind around this concept, but it worked wonders once I did. After all, Umineko is not a flawless series – Ryukishi07 can be confusing, and his logic is often hit-or-miss, relying on abstract theories rather than practical evidence. It would take a couple of years of math or logic classes to figure out if the Devil’s Proof and Hempel’s Raven are being used properly and not being abused out of context, but since I’m not the most math-literate blogger in the ‘sphere, I’ll leave my opinion out of it.

Regardless, it’s a fact that Umineko relies on a lot of in-universe fantasy elements like the Red Truth to analyze its mysteries, often throwing off the reader in the process. When you add that to the fact that Beatrice can choose whether to admit defeat even if Battler is wrong and that it’s proven that the characters bear witness to magic during the story, even if there’s an alternate explanation, it’s hard to call it a murder mystery. Mystery requires a set of constant, absolute values to work, and nothing on Rokkenjima is absolute. Umineko doesn’t have a problem with retcon, but the facts are so firmly routed in fantasy rather than reality that countless fan theories can be wiped away at the writer’s whim.

This is why I view Battler’s duels against Beatrice as the combat in a fantasy visual novel rather than the logical deduction of a murder mystery protagonist. As a mystery, Umineko is still exciting, but it’s too whimsical and over-the-top to be effective. Instead, by using the murder mystery setting as a base, the characters’ relationships and conflicts are explored, shedding light on the true nature of magic – and by the end of episode 4, there’s no denying that there’s more to the story than the mystery of the murders.


The topic of magic isn’t truly explored in Umineko until it’s taken out of the context of Rokkenjima and seen in the outside world – specifically, in the lives of Maria and Ange. Both girls learn an unusual type of “white magic” that helps them deal with the stress and pain of their daily lives, like the psychological hallucinations of an abused child. This contrasts with the “black magic” that’s introduced earlier on: Kinzo’s sacrificial ritual, the “witch” that possesses Rosa as she hits her daughter, the evil side of Eva’s sub-conscience. Maria’s and Ange’s experiences in Mariage Sorciere are the polar opposite of the careless Endless Magic that Beatrice and Beatrice Eva are shown to use. In the end, Ange’s battle against Kasumi and Beatrice Eva prove that her magic is indeed different from Beato’s magic.

Interestingly, the true nature of “white magic” is first mentioned at the beginning of the first game: philosophers throughout history have had different views on the elements that make up the world, but the one true unifying element is “love”. The element of love is a part of the Umineko mythos, and its power is literally shown in the barriers that protect some of the characters from magic, the power that George and Jessica fight with in episode 4, and finally in Ange’s battle against Eva. It could be said that love also plays a role in black magic, but there isn’t enough evidence yet. What we do know is that while Beatrice may be the only witch on the island, magic is not limited only to her.

The use of magic by ordinary humans begs the crucial question: how much of the story is absolute truth and how much is diluted, twisted truth? Umineko lacks a distinct, first-person narrator to properly play the unreliable narrator card, but the third-person view may be selectively truthful, leaving all sorts of twists hidden until Beatrice chooses to reveal them. The relationship between white magic and the characters’ lives, like Maria’s spells that beg for her mother’s love, are too explicit to be ignored. However, it’s impossible to know where to draw the line. How much of Maria’s magic is real and how much is only an illusion? Is all of her magic real, acting as a physical symbol of her desires? How do we know where Beatrice’s influence ends and the girl’s own daydreams begin?

In reality, the identity of magic is the crux of Umineko‘s plot, not the identity of Beatrice. The first half of the story ends in a dramatic flair, hammering the reader with at least one earth-shattering question, but the mysteries all skirt around the unifying question: what is magic? Battler has to continue to deny the concept of witches in order for the story to move forward, but even if the reader knows that – to some extent – magic is real, we don’t know what it is. Ryukishi07 has dropped some important points along the way, like the distinction between white and black magic and the use of “love” as the driving force behind magical power, but we still don’t know what magic is.

Meanwhile, the characters explore their own personal pains – the cruel politics of the Ushiromiya family, Ange’s isolation, Maria’s neglect – and in doing so, they shed light on the properties of magic and the role it plays in their lives. The story is tied to magic and vice versa – unlocking the secret behind one would cause the rest to fall into place. Therefore, as the plot thickens through the addition of new characters and factors that influence Battler’s duels of logic, the story also develops thematically. It’s interwoven in such a way that Battler cannot fight without the occurrence of a murder, and the murders always bring to light some distant truth or some memory of love or suffering that relates to that character’s experience with magic. Eva’s desire for revenge and domination separate from her body and become an entity of its own; Maria and Ange learn to use magic to bring happiness rather than destruction, in the face of a desolate future. I can’t even begin to guess how the truth behind Battler’s “sin” will relate to magic, but I’m confident that it’ll be even more significant than the parallels that we’ve already seen.


The most important aspect of Umineko to keep in mind is that Rokkenjima is an alternate universe. Just as it’s literally separated from the rest of the world due to the typhoon, it’s figuratively separated from the logic and laws that govern humanity. Until that logic returns with the cry of the seagulls, magic can exist, and witches can commit supernatural crimes. Utilizing this setting that blurs the line between fact and fiction, Ryukishi07 tells a story about that very concept: about the relationship between magic, a fantasy concept, and love, a human concept, and the role that fantasy plays in the very real and painful tragedies of the Ushiromiya family. Toss in a unique narrative structure that reveals information to the reader through alternate retellings of the same event, spice it up with some meta mystery and dramatic duels of abstract logic, and you get the story that has taken anime fandom by storm – and for good reason.

In the end, Umineko no Naku Koro ni still leaves us with many mysteries to be solved, and the core theme of the story remains ultimately indecipherable. However, with half of the story complete, the threads are starting to come together. The intricate character interactions, the long flashbacks, the romance, the painful backstories behind each family – all of these essential elements are tied together by the plot’s main question. Are murder and courage the result of magic and witches or love and hatred? Or are they two ways of saying the same thing?

But, as always, only one man in the world knows the truth – and we won’t hear that truth until the seagulls cry.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

$tranger May 2, 2010 at 8:26 am

The first things I heard about Umineko were not too interesting to me: Closed space murders on an Island.
I still found myself watching the anime, because I liked Higurashi a lot and expected at least a little resemblance between the two series. In the end Umineko really was worth watching, especially because of the very interesting battle of wits between Beatrice and Battler and also because of the characters, which are getting more and more fleshed out in the course of the series.
Since there is still some time until season2 starts, I am now thinking about playing the game(s) and it seems that I won’t be disappointed by those either.


ETERNAL May 8, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I haven’t seen the anime, but the general consensus seems to be that the games are better so I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.


Krozam May 16, 2010 at 12:05 pm

As far as plot development goes, I’m sure the visual novels are better. However, I’ve seen some of their art, and I’m having a hard time believing that the novels could ever match the powerful atmosphere created by the beautiful art and skilled voice acting of the anime – even if the game soundtrack is actually better, in my opinion. Sure, the anime doesn’t really work as a mystery, I’ve heard it skips too many important clues, but it works as a story, and I must stress that the atmosphere is really something else. It’s definitely worth watching.


Joojoobees May 2, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Interesting thoughts. As appropriate to the series, coming to one definitive answer is resisted. I agree with you that for all the appearance of a “mystery” genre show, Umineko uses that as a setting for its real mystery, which operates at a higher order. Personally I found the series horrifyingly intriguing. By messing with the “rules” so much, I wonder if Battler, or the viewer, can ever credibly be expected to solve the puzzles presented. Normally that might bother me, but I think such creative license was taken with the plot, and even the mechanics of the plot, that I finished with more braincells than I began. I would highly recommend the show to anyone not afraid of being messed with.


ETERNAL May 8, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Well said. Despite the fact that this is the theory that I’m going with for now, it’s impossible to come to any conclusions at this stage of the game. Still, things have started coming together in my mind ever since finishing episode 4. Perhaps I’m wrong. I can’t wait to find out either way~


Veldril May 5, 2010 at 4:57 am

I’m waiting for your analysis after you play Umineko Chiru (EP5). It would be really fun to analyze that one too.


Hisui May 13, 2010 at 11:02 pm

I had promised when you first posted this that I would respond. I hope I sure did not promise when. :)

As I said on twitter everything I see gives me a sense that Ryukishi07 really wants you to try and solve the mystery. He is a huge mystery buff and always throws in little nods to the mystery genre into anything he writes. Just like in Higurashi with the horribly unreliable narrators and magic there was a solvable mystery that at the core that Ryukishi07 kept prodding you to solve. What is a red herring and what is a clue is just harder to figure out now. But I think by seeing how the red truths seemly contradict each other but are all pointing (hopefully) the way to what is actually going on.

But part of my obsession about solving the mystery aspect might also come from the fact that I love mysteries myself.

That being said you are absolutely correct in the fact that the magical elements cannot be ignored and are essential. They are not just window dressing to solve the mystery they are just an importnat a layer and only when both parts are somewhat understood can the path to finding all the answers be found. It has been stated that only with love can the true answers be seen and that magic is what is needed for answers to be uncovered.

But your article made me really think in new ways bout how to tackle the magical aspects of the story. The answers in the magical portions and why charaters do the things they do in the meta world are still a bit foggy for me even in an insane theory sense. My theories to the mundane mysteries maybe utterly wrong but at least I have them. The reasons behinds some of the magical on goings just leaves me scratching my head.

I have my own crazy theories on how everything works but some of it hinges on things in episode 5. Or at least I think they are a bit clearer after events in episode 5. I might post my musing at some time in the future if I think it’s solid enough. So I am curious if you are any closer to answer at the end of episode 5.


ETERNAL May 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm

As we both discussed on Twitter, you’re probably right that there is a logical explanation behind the story. The biggest question I have is whether or not it’s practical for a viewer to solve the mystery. Everything seems chaotic right now, but more facts are revealed with every installment, so it may be possible for people to put together enough clues to understand the ending before it happens, even if they can’t predict everything that happens. Your point about the references to the mystery genre is interesting; the self-awareness might actually be prodding the viewer to figure things out rather than to let things slide. It’s ironic, but the meta world might be the viewer’s one anchor to reality.

Anyway, I’m sure that ep 5 will be illuminating, especially if it’s the beginning of the answer arcs. I might not play it until the ep 6 patch is done, though, so I’ll sit tight for now.


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