When a series called Higurashi burst onto our screens in 2006, it changed the rules of anime. Instead of telling a linear story, a cycle of extreme violence repeated itself every six episodes and kept viewers on the edge of their seats, making the title an instant fan favorite. Now, three years later, the same animation studio and writers have given us Umineko no Koro ni - but does it live up to the high expectations its predecessor promised?
Set in the year 1986, the remote island of Rokkenjima plays host to a family gathering to decide the new head of the Ushiromiya clan. Eighteen people assemble and that day, a typhoon cuts off all communications from the mansion. Two days later, only one of these people walk away, causing a witch-hunt for the perpetrator. The story plays out like a closed room murder as the truth of the fateful night is revealed. After reading an epitaph in the main hall, it seems that the legendary Golden Witch has a hand in the fortune of the family. She now intends to use them as a sacrifice to facilitate her resurrection and panic ensues as the bodies start to stack up. However, the sorceress' plans are foiled by one of the grandchildren, Battler, who refuses to acknowledge the witches powers. The two go head to head in a game of detective, and the fateful night is relived over and over...
Sounds complicated? That’s because it most definitely is. The viewer needs a clear head and unbroken focus on this show, as the threads of plot are ever so intricately woven together. From a jump between gameplay on the “chessboard” to events in the outerworld, be prepared for the introduction of more devious witches and a complex timeline. Rules in the “game” are also somewhat bewildering: Beatrice will make certain statements about incidents on Rokkenjima in red text that are fact. Battler must in turn use these to disprove the use of magic on the night of bloodshed. If you thought the repetitive arcs of Higurashi were baffling, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
My view of the show after the first arc could be summed up in just three letters: WTF? The barrage of characters, their subsequent murders, the rules of the game, sudden resurrections – it is just too much to take in with no knowledge of the Umineko universe. I found information on a wiki site absolutely invaluable, as it gives an insight into what is happening. Suddenly making sense, the plot rattles by quickly and addictively, with the finale setting up for a second season. Fans of the VN complain that much of the story has been missed, and using the anime as a starting point I would tend to agree. However, I found this glimpse into the elaborate fantasy world irresistible and plan to embark on the original to have some mysteries explained.
Judging their past works, Studio Deen has a firm history in stunning artwork and they lend their penmanship to Umineko with a gorgeous flourish. CG is used sparingly throughout, but adapts well to the furore of onscreen magic. Angular faces with large, expressive eyes are framed beautifully by stylishly drawn outfits and delightfully detailed backgrounds. The characters, Maria in particular, lend themselves to moments of complete insanity, and the wide eyed maniacal look is successfully taken straight from Higurashi. Also borrowed from the sister show is the use of gore and violence, which was unfortunately censored on Japanese television. Perusing the original VN, the characters are dreadful, so it was amazing to see the striking transformation from schoolboy scribblings to professional animation.
Setting the tone for the dark Umineko, the opening track makes use of stirring vocals that blast out evocative Italian lyrics. The ED features a rapid cacophony of choral voices accompanying a twisted visual deluge, successfully giving the feeling of a descent into madness. A host of experienced seiyuu lend their talents to the cast, most noticeably Rie Kugimiya as the softly-spoken Shannon. Sadly, Beatrice doesn’t fare as well; her voice sounds too masculine to my ears and her evil laughter begins to grate from the first chapter. My major audio niggle, however, is the pronunciation of the Golden Witches’ name – to me, Bea-ter-rich just didn’t sound right...
The initial influx of almost twenty characters is extremely daunting; with so many faces and names to remember, most get filed away in the “do not care” part of my brain. As the story progresses, the main protagonists emerge as a headstrong and tenacious pair who are prepared to do anything to win the battle of minds. Initially, Battler is utterly feckless and annoying, making crude comments to each woman about how lovely her mammaries are. Strangely enough, the weird pervert becomes more endearing, and some of his later questionable one-liners are laugh out loud funny. Even if he is quite hot-headed and prone to shouting a lot, he is the perfect match for the resplendent Beatrice.
The Golden Witch is the ultimate player of mind games, and her manipulative tactics are well thought out. As much as you want to hate her, it is this despicable and underhanded side of Beatrice that makes her the perfect adversary you want to see go on. The lolicon’s dream girl, Maria seems extremely over the top at first with her demented demeanour. However as her backstory is unfolds, the viewer can build up a sense of empathy for her situation. Also, watch out for some brilliant parental tips from her mother, Rosa.
Umineko is difficult to score overall. My initial reaction to the first arc may be the same for the majority of viewers who are not prepared to read the manga or delve deeper into the legends of the witches. As a standalone series, therefore, I believe the anime is quite baffling and this will turn a lot of people off. However, after delving deeper into the accompanying material to help understand the mysteries, I would probably go so far as to rate it 8/10.
In the year 1986, eighteen people travel to the remote Rokkenjima island for Kinzo Ushiromiya to pick a new head of the family, as he only has a short time left to live. A portrait of the Golden Witch Beatrice greets them as they arrive at the family mansion, along with an epitaph: she will be resurrected on the ninth twilight after a number of bloody sacrifices. After the first six bodies are found, questions are raised about the fate of those remaining, the woman in the picture and her relation to the family wealth. Will anybody walk away from the ominous island, or are their destinies due to be forever ruled by Beatrice?
As a not-so-closet perv, I love watching anything involving panty-shots, handfuls of cleavage and an innuendo fuelled plot. Although most of my reviews will err on the risque, I also love the obscure, the twisted and things that make you think - drop me a line if you want to discuss any of them!