Cute girl with a cleaver; that carries a nice little ring to it, does it not? While not fully accurate, it rather clearly depicts Higurashi no Naku Koro ni's brooding mixture of drama and horror. As I generally make a point to avoid anything that possesses senseless slaughter with a ten-foot poll, I was quite surprised when I found myself drawn in to a show that appeared to have such elements. To my elation, however, Higurashi quickly turned out to be anything but senseless, and actually relies on an intellectually involving storyline rather than flying limbs for its appeal. While there is an undeniable plethora of violence and gore, it tends to be a product of the story and not so much a focus, perhaps shifting its appeal to an older, more mature demographic who doesn't usually find gore to be a favorite pastime.
That said, it's important to know that the anime follows an unusual pattern of storytelling and doesn't really make such information privy to the viewer at first glance. Higurashi is adapted from a novel/game series in which the presentation starts with four "question" arcs and concludes for four "answer arcs;" the first season here covers the first four "question" arcs and two "answer" arcs. While the individual arcs have related back story, characters, and the like, they are not chronologically sequential, which tends to throw viewers for a loop if they are not previously familiar with the franchise. In fact, this happens to be one of the most interesting aspects of Higurashi, as, while still coherent, it makes the plot very hard to piece together in a logical fashion. While trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle proves a rather daunting task, the series ends rather abruptly to lead into the second season; it was quite clear by that time, though, that the series was fully intended to be continued and concluded in additional season, so it was not much of a surprise.
As for story specifics, the fact that not much is really clear by the end of the first season and that the story follows a cumulative rather than a linear plot makes it difficult to really talk about the details of what happens. The basic idea, though, is that a string of serial murders start occurring in a rural Japanese village every year on the night of the Watanagashi festival. A boy by the name of Keiichi moves to the village a few weeks prior but knows nothing about the killings, but once he learns of the history he finds himself involved in the killing cycle as well. From there the stories diverge, with each of the arcs having the characters react slightly differently to certain events which result in drastic differences to the overall plot.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Higurashi, though, is that the story is presented from a supposedly objective, narrative point of view, but never comes across that way. I found it very difficult to trust what I was watching as the truth, which certainly provides for a very intellectually tantalizing experience. In fact, this pans out to be the case for quite a few scenarios, as paranoia and fear run rampant throughout, and sometimes one character's delusions can twist the story to appear one way when it in fact is quite different. This surreal, twisted atmosphere really plays tricks with the mind, and I definitely found it to be Higurashi's greatest appeal.
Unlike most anime that aim for a combination of a scary/dramatic mood, Higurashi doesn't use many special lighting effects. Instead, a coupling of voice acting along with character facial expressions tends to do the trick, and quite well at that. Rena is especially disturbing in that one moment she's cute as a button, friendly, and open, yet the next, based almost exclusively on her face, she becomes a believable, cleaver-wielding sadist with a thirst for blood. It's fairly obvious that the animation budget for Higurashi was rather poor, but this adaptation works quite well in conveying the moods so I can't really complain.
Though I haven't (and refuse to, for that matter) watched Elfen Lied, I get the feeling Higurashi carries much of the same graphic intensity. There's an extraordinary amount of violence and gore, ranging from bludgeoning death to torture, so this is most definitely not appropriate for younger children or those who have a weak stomach. A bit of dismemberment is also present, but none is shown physically onscreen, and that's generally where I draw my line when it comes to watching such things.
I loved the opening theme, especially since it so dauntingly fits the series. The subtle, demi-human nature of the singer's voice, along with the phantasmal echoes behind it, really capitalize on the essence of the series, and provides for a very fitting introduction for each episode. More importantly, where the series lacks in visual quality the voice actors pick up the slack, as it's certainly no easy feat to able to make your character sound both empathetic and terrifying at the same time. Expectedly, there's an abundance of screaming and yelling, but it's kept to specific scenes and only where it's fitting, which showed a level of professionalism in the scriptwriting that is not often found in anime. For a series that relies so heavily on the duplicitous personalities of its characters, the seiyuu did a fantastic job, and I'm nothing but pleased.
The insert music, unfortunately, left a bit to be desired, as it didn't really do much at all. While it wasn't detrimental to any of the dramatic scenes, it was neither helpful, and for such a mood-oriented anime I would have preferred otherwise. With such stupendous voice acting, a stronger emphasis on the musical score would have done wonders for heightening the emotional vibes within the series' many dramatic environments.
Remember the old saying, "Never judge a book by its cover?" It had to be written in preparation for this series. Depending on the circumstances, all of the characters, at one point or another, shift between sanity and insanity, and it provides for a rather chaotic environment that continues to grow in complexity as the series progresses.
Take Rena, for instance. She's the typical warm-hearted, compassionate, friendly girl with a love for all things cute; simultaneously, however, she's a cleaver-wielding fanatic with a penchant for violence and bloodshed. All the characters take on similar roles in some respect at one point or another, but it's important to note that it tends not to be random in nature - i.e. Rena just doesn't go around pointlessly hacking people up with an axe. Each of the four "question" arcs takes on a "what if" role where the characters make different decisions at different points in time, and this generally results in one character being pushed beyond his/her mental breaking point in some fashion.
As the series progresses, the characters are continually expanded upon, which makes it refreshing from the typical horror flick. Many of the characters, Rika especially, carry very strange and mysterious auras, and carry an uneasy sense about them throughout the different arcs. Characters initially appearing innocent and naïve pan out to be anything but, and I found the series continually playing tricks with my brain when portraying them. Perspective plays a huge role in influencing the viewer's feelings toward any given character, and as such I found myself continually surprised from scene to scene. There's much more to each character than meets the eye, and the constant, consistent layering of their personalities over the progression of the series is nothing to scoff at; I can only imagine how much more warped my perceptions of each will be after I get through the second season.
Because Higurashi is an adaptation from a set of games and novels, it should be noted that the first season does not provide any sort of conclusion to its events. While the first and second seasons must be watched in concurrence, I made a point to write this review before delving too far into the second installment. Because the first season presents four "question" arcs and only two "answer" arcs, it's hard to pass final judgement on the series based on a matter of completeness. Even so, by itself Higurashi certainly stands as an above-average horror anime that is backed by tangible, substantive drama, and should not be characterized as some sort of mindless gore-fest; nobody dies "just because." Keeping in mind that I'm not really a fan of the genre, I might have scored this a bit low, but if you're into a somewhat intellectual mystery piece coupled with a lot of violence, I'd definitely say give it a shot.
Maebara Keiichi, an ordinary high-school boy, has transferred to a new school in Hinamizawa, a small rural village. At the outset everything seems peaceful and Keiichi becomes friends with a nice group of schoolgirls with whom he spends many idle summer afternoons. Suddenly violence encroaches upon the blissful peace of the village and Keiichi becomes entangled in an endless cycle of fear and death. The inconsistent, but inevitable horrors of Hinamizawa are told and retold becoming an endless and inescapable nightmare of insanity. Will it end even if the mystery of Hinamizawa is solved?
Though I'm a big fan of slice of life and romance, I'll watch just about anything that catches my interest. My opinions tend to be pretty level-headed, but I have been known to be controversial from time to time! Feel free to lay into me if you so desire, as I always appreciate feedback - positive or negative. I hope you enjoy reading!