Premature Ramblings on the When They Cry Tradition

by eternal on December 1, 2009

When They Cry

Ryukishi07 is somewhat of a god in today’s anime fandom. Though he’s been writing professionally for less than a decade, his When They Cry series has become one of the most recognized franchises across the subculture, appearing everywhere from spoilerific 4chan threads to bad YouTube AMVs. Though it feels like it’s been a lifetime since then, it was only a few years ago that I first felt the horror and masochistic adoration for the anime adaptation of Higurashi; and since then, the name “Ryukishi07” has been synonymous in my mind with “crazy but awesome.”

Anyway, after finally giving in to the pressure from the internet, I found time to start playing Umineko no Naku Koro ni (which, interestingly, makes seagulls seem almost as dramatic a background motif as cicadas). So far I’ve only finished the first episode, so what follows will be a bit of rambling on my part (and it spoils the two Higurashi seasons as well as the first episode of Umineko, so beware). Since most of you know more about the story than I do at this point, I won’t bother speculating – instead, I’ll try to explore the beginnings of an idea on Ryukishi07’s original structure and recurring themes that make all the difference in an otherwise unoriginal genre.

I’m no expert on murder mystery, but I know enough to say that a lot of once original ideas are now nothing but TV Tropes fodder, common knowledge to readers and writers alike. Umineko’s plot synopsis might sound exciting at first, but as I’m sure most people realize, Agatha Christie did it first. And for all I know, maybe she wasn’t the first; maybe some of the standard tropes implemented in her book were coined a few decades back. At any rate, it’s difficult to write anything in the mystery genre that hasn’t been thought of almost a century ago, and the basic premise of Umineko would be a yawn to an aficionado of the genre.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that Umineko earns bonus points for breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging its status as a latecomer in an overdone genre. Battler’s internal analyses of the situation is intriguing, reminiscent of the kind of thinking that the player makes alongside Phoenix Wright in his video game series. The entire concept of “turning the chess board over” is spectacular in stories like this because it stops the cast from falling into the standard logical fallacies and overlooking facts that an astute observer would never miss. Ryukishi keeps Battler one step ahead of the reader, but guarantees that the mystery won’t be solved in one cycle.

Anyway, this is all tangential, but it’s hard to talk about Umineko without talking about murder mystery. It’s too similar to non-anime fiction to ignore the parallels. However, after finishing a mere fraction of the series, I’m confident that the tropes and clichés do no harm – and at best, they help.

When They Cry (1)Battler spots the clichés before you do

By this point, you’re probably wondering why I mentioned the “When They Cry Tradition” in the post title (or perhaps you started wondering a few paragraphs back). At this early point in the story, I’m far from qualified to go in-depth and figure out precisely what Ryukishi07’s games are about. However, I do have some ideas, and I think they might lead to something after a few more cycles in Rokkenjima.

Let’s talk about Higurashi. My memory of the anime is a little foggy, but there are three things I remember clearly: there was a lot of dying, there was a massive supernatural red herring, and the solution to the mystery was just as much tied to human emotion as it was tied to logic. In fact, looking back on it, I think emotion played a bigger role… but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Dying, as we all know, is extremely important in Higurashi. It seems to be important in Umineko as well. The narrative structure of When They Cry is, as far as I know, completely original. I already said that I’m no expert on the genre, but I have never seen another instance of the repeated “resets” that Ryukishi puts his characters through. The resets were justified in the story of Higurashi, but that’s irrelevant as far as I can see – the resets were there for a reason, justified or not. They’re there because they force the reader to piece together the clues in an unorthodox manner. By witnessing the different ways in which a situation can unfold, the reader has more opportunities to find new variables and test their theories than the characters do, leading to a more thrilling experience than the standard murder mystery fare.

So, the structure is important to the franchise because it’s an original technique that amplifies the suspense and deepens the mystery. But that’s common sense to anyone who watched Higurashi. So how about the other two points?

The magic – and black magic – of Higurashi was undoubtedly one of the scariest parts of the story. However, while there were a few supernatural twists and turns, the majority of the plot revolved around something plausible – the masterminds work their “magic” from right under your nose while you wrack your brain in search of the truth behind the dreaded Oyashiro-sama, red herring of the decade. The supernatural elements are there to throw you off, to make you question the reality placed in front of you. After all, in Umineko, Beatrice is a fraction; she’s a number between 18 and 19. The fear and suspense that the story creates relies on the possibility of an inhuman monster being the criminal.

So, what about the solution to this impossible crime? The story messes with your head by blurring the line between physical and metaphysical, but while the answer might be impossible for you to find, the characters can only find it by changing themselves. I’m hesitant to talk about the themes of Higurashi since it’s been so long since I saw it, but I remember paranoia and distrust being mentioned at the end of the first season. The final “question arc” didn’t end in tragedy because Keiichi never lost faith in his friends. I’m not sure how this relates to the rest of the story, but it was definitely an internal change of heart that eventually allowed the characters to break free of the eternal summer. Realistically, it was impossible – they were fighting against trained bodyguards, for god’s sake – but it made sense thematically. When they managed to trust in each other and unite, they were able to break free of the psychological maze than had trapped them for so long.

When They Cry (2)[rairateru]

Finally, this is where Umineko comes in. It’s clear when the first episode makes its turning point: right after Natsuhi forces Maria and the servants to leave. I hardly need to finish this paragraph for you to know where I’m going with this. Natsuhi’s distrust was what caused half of their party to die; without relying on one another, they would never be able to escape the Golden Witch’s cruel game.

To expand on my theory on Umineko – and this part is speculation, so bear with me – I’m sure the family inheritance is one of the key points of the story. There wouldn’t have been so much exposition for it otherwise. The people gathered on Rokkenjima are, in fact, rational and good-hearted human beings – none of them appear to be “evil” in the truest sense of the word. However, when money enters the picture, things turn sour. The same goes for Rosa’s bad relationship with Maria; there’s no way that won’t be brought up in the upcoming episodes, what with Maria’s important role in the story.

The bottom line is that the Ushiromiya family is fractured for a variety of reasons, and until they learn to overcome their differences and become the family that they should be, they won’t escape Beatrice’s curse. Much like Higurashi, Umineko uses a unique narrative structure and questionable supernatural elements to distort the reader’s logic and give us red herrings to chase, but the final answer lies in the hearts of the characters. Only by defeating their inner demons can they vanquish the “witch” that threatens their outer selves.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lenny December 2, 2009 at 7:23 pm

So now the question is, do you believe in the witch?


Jinx December 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

In essence both Higurashi and Umineko is based upon the same idea. Trust and the lack of there of. It is actually quite corny in that sense, but also heart warming. While I haven’t indulged on Umineko, I remember when I watched the final episode of Higurashi’s first season, I thought to myself, “Oh my god, this was all just paranoia playing a part.” and then “I might’ve done the same myself.” The thought scared the **** out of me. That’s why, at the ending of Kai, I didn’t mind the “bunch of little kids beat a fully trained army unit” ending, because I really wanted them to be ok, not for their sake, but for my sake.


ETERNAL December 8, 2009 at 10:21 pm

@ Lenny: Indeed, that is the question. I suppose only Ryukishi himself knows the answer :P

@ Jinx: I think that’s part of why the presentation of the When They Cry series is so important. You’re right: the story is corny when you really think about it, but when you’re in the middle of it, none of that matters. The unique (and cruel) structure forces you into the characters’ shoes, which leads to a totally different reaction than you’d get from most works of fiction, especially mystery. Long story short, I guess it’s just a unique way of looking at an overused theme, but it works.


Ren May 21, 2013 at 11:04 pm

The Higurashi anime is in no way representative of the original work.

It may be enjoyable, but as an adaptation it’s even worse than Umineko’s.


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