In the early days of anime fandom, the UK often got the short end of the stick, especially when it came to what shows were licensed and released here. There were many times when it seemed that US and Japan’s biggest hits and favourites completely bypassed the UK fans, meaning we missed out on a lot of early hype. Some examples include Sailor Moon which has never been released uncut or even in its entirety here, the many Tenchi spin-off series such as Universe and In Tokyo (despite being shown on UK TV way back when) never got a PAL release, and the mystery thriller Monster was a critical darling but still has never seen the light of day here. Thankfully, in recent times this has turned around with many streaming outlets for UK fans to use to watch the latest anime, and we get a healthy release schedule of anime movies straight from Japan (sometimes even before the US!) If we’re lucky, sometimes companies bring older releases that have either gone out of license, or have never been released here before, as a way of making up to UK fans for past errors. Enter Higurashi: When They Cry, a horror anime that was a fan favourite in the US but never had a release in the UK until now. But is it a case of too little too late, or better late than never for an anime horror favourite?
It’s June 1983 and Keiishi Maebara is at school with his four friends: Rena Ryugu, Mion Sonozaki, Rika Furude and Satoko Hojo, and life seems very peaceful. However, their town of Hinamizawa hides a dark secret; on the night of the annual Cotton Drifting Festival, someone dies and another mysteriously disappears. It’s been going on for the past four years, and Keiishi finds himself in the middle of the fifth running year of death and disappearance. But what exactly is causing these crimes to happen? And will Keiishi live long enough to uncover the mystery?
This first series of several is 26 episodes long, which seems a little lengthy for a mystery to drag itself out but When They Cry handles the time in a very clever way. Instead of all 26 episodes being one continuously long story trying to solve one mystery, they are instead broken up into five chapters, each varying in length from two to six episodes, and each chapter is a time reset. So, within the first chapter we follow Keiichi’s and the audience’s first experience with the Cotton Drifting murder and mysteries, which concludes (presumably) with the named murderers by the end of the fourth episode. But the very next episode, and start of the next chapter, actually takes us back to the beginning of the timeline and the players have all been switched around. Whoever was the murderer in the first chapter is now completely innocent, and in future chapters you’ll notice that even side characters are given the switch around as well; the police might be incredibly supportive and helpful in one timeline but then corrupt and out to get Keiichi in the next. It plays somewhat similarly to how Fate/Stay Night handles multiple timelines; the general goal is the same and character motivations remain alike, but in each timeline the spotlight is shone on a different set of characters and we see how they become a victim, or the perpetrator, of the crimes that haunt the town. This constant resetting of time and changing who the anime decides to point the finger at is a mind-screw for the audience, because, like Keiichi, we have no idea which is the ‘true’ timeline or whether what we’re seeing is even remotely close to it. At the end of each preview, the voiceover asks, ‘Can you believe in this?’ over a still of a different character and/or situation each time, and it’s the question of the whole series: can you believe ANYTHING it throws at you? But a good mystery doesn’t just raise questions, it also allows the audience to piece things together and even answers queries as it goes along. Although each chapter is separate, there are a few towards the end that play parallel to earlier arcs, or things you learn in later episodes make actions that happened earlier in the series make more sense. So even though the series is long, the answers it does give you are worth the mind-trip.
The chapter structure overall has its pros and cons though, as each of them is written and structured in different ways, so no two chapters are created equal and as a result some are more effective than others. For example, the opening chapter ‘Spirited Away’ is a fantastic opener that builds the creepy atmosphere throughout and really sets this horror mystery anime apart from the others, and the third chapter ‘Curse Killing’ offers a fresh new perspective into a whole new bunch of characters that weren’t given attention before. However, we also have the second chapter ‘Cotton Drifting’ which almost undoes the good work from the first chapter with too much ‘tell-not-show’ exposition dumps and hammy dialogue, and the fourth chapter ‘Time Wasting’ feels like three-four episodes of story crammed into two episodes, which is a shame. Nevertheless, the weakest chapters still offer something to the overall narrative and mystery, whether it’s contributing new information we were not privy to before, or a new horror experience. Every chapter has gruesome scenes but there’s plenty of subtle, eerie imagery and horrific acts that happen in-between that keep the audience on their toes, and even in the weakest chapters, the anime never pulls the same trick twice, which is a credit to the show.
When They Cry was originally released back in 2006, so the animation by Studio Deen is going to age nevertheless, however even in 2006 we had many TV series that look far better than this. The ‘loli’ look is going to rub some people the wrong way regardless, and the whole aesthetic of mixing ‘cute’ with ‘horror’ is a tried and sometimes overused tactic. In this series, the clashing of looks mostly works well because of the delicate building of its horror and the general intrigue of the mystery. Still, that doesn’t excuse the inconsistent character models – that often make the girls look more like Funko Pops than actual real-sized characters – or the terribly unnatural movement during the more intense scenes where, when a body is kicked or a character jumps from one side to another, it looks as if someone’s throwing a beanie baby across the room. At its worst, it cheapens the horror atmosphere, or adds unintentional comedy, which is not what the show is going for.
Extras are sadly very lacking, as the release comes only with clean opening and closing, and Sentai Filmwork trailers, which can all be found on the first disc. Each series will have its separate DVD release, with a special Collector’s Edition Blu-ray bundling all three series together out in October. This particular series also comes with Japanese and English dubs, but is worth noting that this is the ONLY series with an English dub as the other series were licensed much later in the US and therefore were not dubbed. In regards to this dub however, it’s quite weak overall; there’s some veteran anime voices in here such as Mela Lee (best known as Rin from Fate/Stay Night) and Megan Hollingshead (who’s been in everything from Bleach to Pokémon) but either they feel miscast – such as Grant George in the lead role – or just seem to be phoning it in. The only time when the cast seem to be invested in the roles is when we get to the extreme sides of their character’s personality, such as when they go axe-crazy or completely paranoid, which is understandable as they’re probably very fun to play and this helps make the more drama-filled scenes work, but everything else in-between is dull overall.
When They Cry was a fan favourite back in day, and it’s easy to see why; the unique storytelling that plays games on the characters’ and audience’s mind is a gruesomely fun ride. There are some scenes in here that are certainly not for the faint-hearted, but if you love a good mystery, want a good horror anime, and can look past the dated animation, this is definitely worth a watch.