Umineko no Naku Koro ni Chiru and Ryukishi07’s Sly Narrative

by eternal on September 13, 2010


Good old seakitties. It’s been the talk of the internet for years, the reason why half of the English-speaking community patrols Witch Hunt’s site, waiting for the progress counter to increase by one percent. I’ve tackled the story before; to summarize, my initial impression was that the Ushiromiya family had to overcome their hardship in order to break free of Beatrice’s curse, and my theory after the question arcs was that magic was more relevant for its thematic significance as a metaphor than as an opponent to logic. I’m glad to know that some portions of my original line of thinking still hold true: “without love, it cannot be seen”, which has been at the back of my mind since the beginning. Now that the Golden Witch has gone through her End and Dawn, it’s time to put my brain to the test and see if I can make sense of the strokes on this piece of art that only appear to be abstract from up close.

(This post contains spoilers from ep 1-6 of the visual novel)

I should start with this: I am not the type of mystery reader that Ryukishi07 is targeting. In fact, I’m not a mystery reader at all, though this story has piqued my interest in the genre. When I look at a storyline, I instinctively try to figure out the purpose of each action in the writer’s eyes and the overarching themes or significance of each device. In mystery, I don’t actively attempt to solve the puzzles because of the very same concerns that the Knox rules defend (I was unfamiliar with Knox before reading this). This is similar to the reason why I don’t care if Shiki can kill servants. My earlier attempts at decoding Umineko were focused on the story and themes rather than the solutions to the mystery because the themes were becoming apparent while the mysteries only grew less logical; and if there’s a fair chance that the mystery won’t be solvable until the last minute, why bother trying to solve it?

In the defense of my initial judgment, the question arcs are a mess, though intentionally so. They place you in Battler’s shoes: a bizarre series of murders occurs, a witch appears and effectively proves that she’s the culprit, and you somehow have to find a way to deny the facts placed before your own eyes. Just like Battler, the reader has to learn to fight from scratch and master the art of the Red and Blue Truth. The game is simply illogical at first because the rules aren’t explained; if the goal of the game is to win and Beatrice orders one of the Stakes to kill someone, couldn’t she say it in red and checkmate in one move? Isn’t it foolish for a reader in the real world to deny magic when half of the characters are non-humans? The question arcs are basically unsolvable – and by “unsolvable” I mean that they can’t be deciphered by the average reader on their first time through, not by a team of people analyzing the text. When you add that to the unreliable narration – even more disorienting because the narration is third-person – it’s no wonder that Battler was confused.

Thankfully, the mental chaos of the first half is intentional, and the core arcs introduce the key facts that are at the center of the story. Beato’s game is not a battle between fantasy and mystery; it’s a battle between a mystery novelist and her reader. After introducing the facts and painting a dramatic but ultimately confusing conclusion, Ryukishi confronts the players directly and challenges us to solve his story, just like Beato’s last challenge to Battler. Dlanor and the Knox rules prove that Ryukishi is self-aware and that he isn’t going to betray his readers; Battler’s struggle against Beato’s parting mystery in ep 5 show that the mystery is solvable, that the hints were scattered about for a reason. The concept of a human fighting a witch starts to make sense when the concept of the logic error is revealed: the witch is the novelist, and the novel ceases to exist if the mystery becomes unsolvable.


By this point, there’s no point in commenting on the meta: Umineko reaches so far into the real world that I have nothing to compare it to. The story is about a writer and a reader cooperating and competing to find the truth and fulfill their goals – in this case, reuniting whatever relationship Battler and Beatrice shared in the past. From this perspective, the individual murders of the previous games make sense, though they can’t all be explained yet. There doesn’t need to be one mastermind commit the same crimes in every game; instead we have a variety of different truths, different manners in which the murders can occur. There might yet be a single driving force in the background, most likely something related to Beato’s identity, but I don’t think it’s as simple as pointing to a character and accusing them of being the single criminal in every Fragment. Eva could have been the murderer in her arc, and there’s no rule that the Rokkenjima murders have to be carried out by a single person or for a single motive.

The concept of multiple truths goes along with Toya Hachijo’s story: after claiming to understand the truth of the golden witch, she wrote a series of novels, each with different implied culprits, while slowly guiding the reader toward some sort of truth that lies at the center of everything. Each interpretation, on its own, can be correct; Ange’s fragment follows the Eva route, but an alternate story with an alternate culprit, like Natsuhi or one of the servants, can just as easily exist in a different fragment.

Admittedly, the odds of a mastermind existing are fairly high. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if multiple characters and motives are used to tie together the crimes and make it possible for the murders to have occurred in each fragment. In all likelihood, we have multiple split personalities/illegitimate children running around and killing off different members of the cast in different games.

At any rate, the first two core arcs reveal a crucial piece of information: magic is a metaphor that only exists where it can’t be seen and that accomplishes goals that the user can accomplish on their own. It’s a fancy way of dressing up a murder, a placebo for furniture to build up the courage to become human. Magic can be used for good, like a child believing in Santa Claus, but it’s always an illusion. With this, the reader can return to the “unsolvable” question arcs and search for clues that point toward the truth.


With the mysteries of magic cleared, only one true mystery remains: who is Beatrice? She could be a metaphor, and she could very well be more than one person. The existence of Beato and her “sister” seems to imply that Kinzo’s Beatrice – the one mixed with the legend of the shrine – is different from Battler’s Beatrice. I did some reading on the theories; TV Tropes has a nice Wild Mass Guessing section, and I personally think The Pony is close to the truth since it makes sense thematically. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the implied truths are nothing but red herrings since Ryukishi seems intent on coming up with a mystery that even a mystery buff can’t solve. Wouldn’t it be something if Shkanontrice was the planned culprit and he ends up revising his logic and writing a new scenario before the final game is released?

The unreliable narration is perhaps the most interesting reveal of the core arcs, alongside the confirmation that magic is a metaphor. Amusingly, from the perspective of plot rather than theme, magic is actually a red herring, not a metaphor, since magic plays no role in the crimes to begin with. Either way, unreliable narration is one of the greatest mindscrew storytelling tactics, and it won’t leave a bitter aftertaste if it’s pulled of properly. The concept of doubting your own eyes and digging into each line of text in search of truth fits well with the mystery genre, and it fits perfectly with the initial premise of fighting against magic. The story equips the reader for combat because the only people we can trust are the combatants in the meta world – everything that exists in the game board is liable to be false. I believe that this is why Ryukishi chose to reveal the true nature of magic before the end of the game: now that we can confirm how the game works and what to look out for, we can fight alongside Ange as she pursues the truth.

[Suzushiro Kurumi]

Just like the latter parts of Unlimited Blade Works when I realized that F/SN is an impossibly good story, regardless of Nasuverse infodumps and silly parodies, any skepticism I might have held toward Umineko is gone without a trace. The game is not overrated, and it is in fact deep, structurally if not thematically. The concept of reading a series of mystery novels based on a true story to find the truth of said story is so unique, so refreshing, that I’d believe you if you told me that it didn’t exist before now. Instead of reading about a series of crimes, the reader of Umineko is effectively reading a book about a character reading a book about two people playing a game about a series of crimes. When Erika enters the picture and kicks things up a notch in the detective’s role, there’s no doubt that even the battles are incredibly well thought out, despite the reliance on wordplay. In fact, Ryukishi has made a conscious effort to avoid recycling tricks, though it’s in the nature of the Red Truth for the solution to be a mere sleight of hand words.

At any rate, I haven’t been this impressed with a visual novel since Fate/stay night, which shocked me by being thematically deep and emotionally moving as well as simply entertaining. Umineko no Naku Koro ni makes the same first impression as Higurashi: it’s really cool and really creative, but no one really knows what’s going on. Thankfully, the first two episodes of the core arcs clear up the inconsistencies, and they double as a gentle reminder that Ryukishi07 is a mystery writer and we can have faith that the final solution will not only be technically logical, but that it won’t disobey the unwritten laws of the mystery genre and become third-rate.

“Without love, it cannot be see” – in the meantime, I’ll let those words settle. I like the thought of Umineko concluding itself as an elaborate, drawn-out love story, especially if Ryukishi can pull a clever Angel Beats-esque plot twist at the end with a metaphor or symbol that was in front of us the whole time. The best part of this story, though, is that the mystery goes above and beyond what’s expected of the genre. I realized a while ago that there was thematic significance behind the pretense of mystery, but by this point it’s clear that the mystery is much more than a pretense.

I look forward to seeing the conclusion of this twisted tale. Maybe Shannon and Kanon are half-ghosts like Youmu and Beatrice is secretly the Astral Projection of Ayu in an alternate universe in which Yuuichi never rescues her? I wouldn’t put it past Kinzo Ryukishi.


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Aspie Sincerity September 14, 2010 at 1:25 am

Bahaha, that final paragraph had me in stiches. I wouldn’t put anything past Ryukishi.

But damn, this is an excellent read. During my reading of the Question arcs, I was loving the experience (in a strangely massochistic way), but I was so scared that everything I was reading was just an incoherent mess that would have an unsatisfying conclusion. It took me til EP5 to realize that I really was a pawn on Ryukishi’s chessboard, and that just about everything he’s written so far has an intended impact on the reader. This incredibly intricate web he’s spun isn’t just for looks; it really does have depth. And I love that, that sense of security in the knowledge that Ryukishi’s got perfect control of things. To think that the entirety of the internet has to work together to try and solve the mysteries (which we’re now truly aware each have a logical solution). It really hit home with Dlanor’s conversation with Battler about how it’s foolish to give up on a mystery (or anything in life) just because you’re not certain you can beat it. It was almost enlightening. I swear, Ryukishi has truly ascended above and beyond the realm of humans; he has proven himself as a creator class witch with his writing prowess. I’m not one to easily declare my love, but Ryukishi deserves all my future babies.
Thanks for the awesome read. It must be difficult to get your head around the text sometimes, but it’s good to know some people can voice their thoughts on this amazing text with clarity.


ETERNAL September 19, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Yep, you pretty much summed up my own thoughts too. It’s funny because we’re all going into this with knowledge of Higurashi so we know what to expect from the Question and Answer (or Core) arcs, but it still came as a surprise. I played ep 5-6 over the course of a week or so, and it was one of the most impressive experiences I’ve had with visual novels since the ending of Heavens Feel.

On another note, I was actually serious about becoming more interested in the mystery genre; Erika’s brain puzzles and the overall structure of the story really got me thinking about the responsibility of the reader in this type of fiction. I’ll try to work through some classic mystery throughout the school year and see if I can gain some more experience before ep 7 gets translated.


Aspie Sincerity September 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Ahahaha, again I wonder if you’re my doppelganger. I’m in the same boat; I had no real interest in the mystery genre until Umineko came along. But they’re definitely much more of a mind game than they are a story. Well, Umineko likes to do it both ways, and that’s just one of the reasons I love it =D


Hisui September 19, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I can ask Narutaki what books you should read. His area of expertise is undoubtedly the mystery genre. I know that Agatha Christie will be on the list. I can also tell you “And Then There Were None” will surely be on the list. Plus it has a tremendous amount of relevance to Umineko. If nothing else it was surely a part of the inspiration for the series.


ETERNAL September 25, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Yes, that would be helpful, though I find it hard to read during the school year since all of my courses involve reading (and in terms of doing non-anime stuff to build my background knowledge, it’s less time consuming for me to watch old movies than to read old books).

Although, I ended up reading And Then There Were None last year and I absolutely loved it. Haven’t had time to continue to her other books though.


Hisui September 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm

I will be super disappointed if the mastermind is anything supernatural. If say the ghost of Shkanon is behind everything it will not taint my joy from the earlier chapters it will utterly ruing my feelings on the ending. In a meta-mystery about mysteries I feel Ryukishi has built up the idea that the author and the reader must trust each other enough to come to a solution that a supernatural answer would seem like a cheat.

But I am glad to see you have found the appeal in trying to play with the mystery side of the game. IMHO the goal is not necessarily for the reader to solve the crime. It is nice if you can. The goal is try to to play along while you bask in the rest of the story as well.


keikakudoori September 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

I acknowledge everything that has been said here. Furudo Erika is awesome.

How can I not like her? With her appearance everything started to make a lot more sense for the reader. She provided plenty theories and arguments for the mystery side. She got more things done in a single EP than Battler did on all four another reason to like her. Not to mention she has some great lines. In a nutshell, in an aggressive way she proved that this mystery was not impossible for the readers which is as used as it could get. Erika made Chiru even better. No doubt. Definitely up to my top fav character in the When they Cry series.

As for classics, I’ve finished and I’m still going through some of them thanks to R07. A couple of books Umineko makes reference to are: “The Oriental Express” (EP5), a short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Battler makes a theory in EP3 I had no idea about referring to this book), “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (EP5) and obviously “and Then There were none”. I’m sure there are many others I haven’t caught yet but I’m working on that. I even went through one of “S.S. Van Dine” books to get better acquainted with the character just in case. What I found most interesting is that in the Higurashi games R07 had already made references to some mystery titles. I had no idea about this until I played Higurashi.

I’d highly recommend them. I’m positive you’ll see the similarities right away and have that “When they cry feeling” making the reading even more enjoyable.


ETERNAL September 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm

I must admit, I felt a little silly in having to wait for Erika to spell everything out for the mystery side before I realized that the story wasn’t just exciting nonsense, but I’m sure that was intentional. I’m finding it hard to explore new forms of fiction at the moment since school is occupying any reading time I might have had (on the plus side, I’m studying stuff that’s relevant to anime blogging), but I’m definitely going to indulge in some mystery whenever I get the chance. It’ll be especially interesting to see if I can apply some of the meta analyses in Umineko to the older stories that were written before those cliches were frowned upon.


A September 21, 2010 at 4:57 am

Well one of the major reasons Erika got more work done is basically because she had Bern and the detective’s authority… Nevertheless she made just about any- and everyone that read the core arcs wonder and take their own role in the game personally i loved the cheese quiz was amazed how the logic spun around the answer. I didn’t like nor did i dislike Erika she was an awesome piece but a very sad excuse of a witch i personally expected more of the Beato vs. Erika fight during the wedding. But i love the fact that alot of members from the Siesta sisters imperial corps were present. Bunny Awesomeness :D Way to go for high level witches with contracts to the Siestas. I expect alot of the 7th episode and can’t wait to see how the “Twenty rules for writing detective stories” will be used.


ETERNAL September 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Well one of the major reasons Erika got more work done is basically because she had Bern and the detective’s authority

That’s true, but if you want to look at her ability as a detective, you have to remember that she effectively won episode 6 by herself. I talked about that more in my post about her character, but she effectively challenged Battler head-on, risked getting cornered, and ended up defeating him. She was eventually defeated by Beato, not Battler. It’s still a legitimate loss but it seems that she (and possibly Ryukishi) realized that she needed to fight fairly at least once before the end.


A September 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Well all by herself i disagree with a bit, Bern and Erika staged a show so Battler would give Erika the seals. But yea besides that it was a fair fight.


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