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.
The premise sounded great, with 18 people trapped in an island and being picked off one by one by a witch claiming “interest” for services rendered to the incredibly rich head of the family that’s supposed to pass his heritance to his greedy offspring.
*SPOILER OF 2ND EPISODE*
By the second episode, there were already six people dead, and what made it cool was not knowing if it was really because of the witch and her supernatural abilities or if it was through normal human means.
Animation and character designs are very well done. Deaths are usually graphic and stick with you.
Opening and ending songs are awesome.
*SPOILER OF LIKE 5 EPISODES*
However, once the first story ends, the witch reveals herself, showing that it was indeed magic, but is stuck in Purgatory because a member of the family (Battler, a young man) refuses to believe that it was magic and challenges her that he can prove everything was done by a human or humans. The problem with that is, that he is being teleported to places and through time and talking to the witch and watching her summon demons and other witches pop up and he witnesses the deaths of his relatives over and over (4 different stories where they all meet their demise, for the most part) and he still refuses to acknowledge the witch’s power…what?!?!?!...How else would you explain it, dimwit!!
The PC game this is based on has the player constantly analyzing what’s shown and considering the facts in order to come up with the answer of how everything could have been done realistically without all the mystical cover-ups (however the game ended badly too). In the anime, they show it’s magic, without explaining things (like the demons, or some characters suddenly having magical powers, etc.) so the point is moot, because it’s too hard then to think of everything not being magical. Also, the story repeating itself in 4 different ways does the anime not good, because I know being 26 episodes in total, that I’m not going to have the resolution to the story until the very last damn episode and I will have to sit through more gory kills of the same characters, which are very disturbing by the way.
I liked the relationships between the family members, and the conversations were usually well thought-out, but the standoff between the witch and Battler is illogical and nonsensical and since it is the core of the story, it successfully saps away the interest of the viewer.
See, I was very interested in continuing this anime because I thought it would be like an Agatha Christie novel where everybody is getting killed and somebody is using the excuse of a supernatural presence and then at the end, it is revealed that everything was smoke and mirrors and the real evildoer is...Colonel Mustard or something. But no, they don't do that.
Everything is magic, and yes, there's a witch, and no, the main character refuses to admit it is magic and says he'll explain everything and never does and more magical stuff happens and people die, and die, and die, and die, and so on and so forth.
It also doesn't help that the computer game ended in a depressing way, so the source of this anime was also found lacking. Something like either it was really magic or it was all a dream, or hallucinations. That's the biggest of cop-outs and I can't believe anybody nowadays wants to end a story in such a way. What a waste of time.
In conclusion, this series had the animation, the premise, the characters, and the dialogue but the story went nowhere really fast and got stuck in a dumb cycle while pretending it was really smart.
I hate this show. I have watched 18 episodes of it before dropping it, and I still don't understand what is trying to be accomplished. At first, it felt like this family was competing to obtain their father's gold. That alone would have made a neat story. Everyone trapped on an island, in a big ol' mansion with people you can and can't trust, killing eachother as to leave a mystery and a feeling of tension for the audience. That plot has been done time and time again, but it still would have worked a lot better than what this show is.
Now, usually in a setup like this, the exciting part is "whodunnit?". Nope. This show kills everybody in the first few episodes and the annoying Maria girl lets everyone know it was Beatrice. And guess what? It was. She killed them all to open the gates to the golden land or some crap, they never really explained why she's killing all of them other than some old legend bullcrap.
So wouldn't this just be the end of the show? Nope! Right after everyone dies, they're all back alive, just like in Higurashi. The weird part is that they're all aware that they were killed. And they all REMEMBER being killed by Beatrice, and they thought it was pretty cool. Why are they alive? They don't tell ya, but Battler's upset. He's not upset over the fact that what just happened made no sense, he's upset because they thought MAGIC did it.
Dude your dumb ass just got RESSURECTED and you think it didn't happen? The only explaination for all this stuff otherwise is a bad acid trip and he denies that too. So Beatrice actually shows up and takes him to alternate timelines to prove she exists. Then you get to watch practically the same damn series of events happen multiple times while Battler argues with Beatrice every now and then. It plays out like he just got a checkmate on her every now and then, as if it was a reasonable arguement, but they never get anywhere with this crap.
What is this show? Are they fighting for money? Are they trying to perform a ritual? Is this a battle of wits between Battler and Beatrice over something that the answer is obvious to? I don't know, but the show keeps trying to be SPOOKY SCARY and deep, but it's not. It's pulled off so poorly it feels fake. It feels like the show is blatantly trying to say THIS IS A SCARY PART BE SCARED by slapping poorly done scary faces on people, and then put a bunch of blood and gore all over. It's honestly like a laugh track.
People die so often in this show that you just stop caring. I personally feel that if you want your audience to CARE when a person is murdered, you have to DEVELOP the character or establish their importance. Considering everyone but Beatrice and her gang dies every other episode, there's no character development (because they spend most of the time being dead) and there's no importance to their death (because they'll be alive again in a few episodes).
Seriously, I do not understand the appeal of this show. I LOVED the Higurashi series, that was done really well! So I was hoping this show would be of a similar caliber, but to my disappointment, was not. If I'm missing something or if this show really is just garbage, let me know, because I'd like to feel like watching 18 episodes of this wasn't an absolute waste of my time.
Opening Remarks - If you haven't seen Higurashi in its entirety, I strongly recommend that you do so before attempting Umineko. It will help put things in perspective.
Story - Back when Higurashi burst onto the scene, it brutally massacred not only its own cast, but the accepted norms of storytelling in anime. And with its spiritual successor Umineko, we're all justified in expecting more of the same.
Well, yes and no. Umineko is confusing on so many levels, not just its recursive story arcs. Unlike in Higurashi, the cyclical nature of the reality in Umineko is made abundantly clear immediately after the first arc, but instead of clarifying things, it just makes the entire understanding even murkier. One is left wondering if it might not had been better if Studio Deen had simple left it as they had done Higurashi, without bothering to explain the parallel arcs at first. In any case, the metagame scenes involving Battler and Beatrice in their tea party, while visually appealing and with pretty good dialogue, is easily the weakest link in the production because so much of what goes on is inexplicable.
For one thing, the magic employed in the series seems to be very whimsical, arbitrary, capricious and downright contradictory. I can see only two possible reasons why this is so.
1) Studio Deen actually wrked out the entire structure for Umineko's magic beforehand, complete with a set of rules and flavour and all, but deliberately leave out vital details and puzzle pieces of their anime. Whether it is to dazzle and confound the audience or simply to set up a second season (please let there be a second season) remains to be seen.
2) Studio Deen is really a cubicle office full of lazy bastards who are just making up flashy stuff as they go along and using "magic" as a convenient excuse for everything. In which case I'll like to cut the score I gave for Story by half, as well as give all the collective staff of Studio Deen a big fat middle finger.
I'll prefer to assume that Umineko will follow the pattern set by Higurashi, with the relevant answer arcs in the second season, so I'll stick to Case (1) for now.
In any case, the metagame between Battler and Beatrice often ends up on the backseat until the end of each arc when (after everyone's dead) they confront each other again. In the meantime, the anime takes us through a wondrous series of character conflicts, each telling its own story. An unusual and unconventional means of ccharacter development (more onthis later), but it worked spectacularly in Umineko. It allows the audience to follow the occurrences in each arc without getting bored by same-old same-old, and at the same time gives the studio the luxury of exploring (or showing off) other avenues to flesh out the anime.
Umineko's story definitely doesn't go easy on the viewer. Be prepared fora degree of mind screw; if you've seen Higurashi and think Rika was the good guy and Okonogi was the bad guy, then, well, you might be in for a bit of a shock. It takes a bit of focus to keep up with, but thanks to its cyclical nature offers the viewer plenty of time to catch up and figure things out. Not that it gets you very far, the end of the series leaves a bunch of puzzles regarding the nature of magic quite unsolved. But then, just as Higurashi left us all wondering at the end of the first season whether there was any point to the thing at all aside from watching high school kids maniacally clobber each other, perhaps the second season (fingers crossed for a summer release) will offer enlightenment. I'll say go on and give this a try, unless you're one of those snooty high-brow but-they-don't-speak-in-haiku/iambic metre types.
Animation - Gorgeous. The colours are vivid and varied without being outrageous. The lines crisp and clearly defined. The character art, while not being particularly original, breathtaking and making a mockery of previous standards.
Studio Deen has done beatutiful work over the years, and in Umineko they have scaled new peaks in their penmanship. There are some of the familiar maniac faces we know from Higurashi (and our own nightmares), but with freshened touches. In comparison, after watching the anime, looking at the old art from the visual novel might make you cry in horror.
CG is employed, but very sparingly. The faces expressive without being distracting, the costumes stylish and elegant, the backgrounds solidly rendered and varnished. The character art is noteworthy for how every cast member is distinctive in his/her appearance, behaviour, dress sense and mannerisms despite having such a large cast; too many productions try to fit in a cast larger than the creative wellspring of their crew, and it shows (I'm looking at you, Clannad).
Oh, and the gore. Not nearly as terrifying or disturbing as Higurashi, but definitely flashier and aesthetically more enjoyable. Maybe it's just something to do with my stomach turning over at the thought of pulling a fingernail off that impedes me from saying the same about Higurashi, but- OH SHIT STOMACH FULL OF CANDY TURNING OVER AAARRRGGGHHHH *retch*
Sound - I don't think much of the ED, but the OP is a spectacular success. The vocals are stirring, the use of Italian a sublime masterstroke and the accompanying trailer a mad rush of faces employed to brilliant effect. Probably one of the most enjoyable openings I've seen.
But the real star of the show is the voice acting. A host of experienced seiyuu have pitched in to bring the cast to life, and they don't disappoint. Particularly praiseworthy are the various witches: the playful curelty of Beatrice, the sinister aloofness of Bernkastel, the chaotic mischief of Lambadelta, the all-consuming greed of Eva, the vengeful madness of Maria and the depressed indignance of Ange all wonderfully shine through from their voices.
Beatrice's mocking laugh (note that the anime uses the Italian rather than English enunciation for her name, so it's not wrong and stop blasting them for it) may be grating to some, but is quite literally music to my ears. Most of the witches also have multiple personas, and it is an audio feast to hear them switch between roles beautifully. It's like ice cream in your ears, really.
Characters - Many viewers may be tempted to, within the first arc, start ignoring the apparently peripheral characters and start focussing on the core cast. It is an understandable approach, given that the cast of almost 20 regulars may be daunting for those not used to it. But it will also be a terrible mistake, as I expect any Higurashi veteran to know. To discount the 'supporting' cast in Umineko will be like watching the first season of Higurashi with only the scenes of Keiichi and Rena left in.
No one in Umineko is left redundant, and every single cast group comes to the front, if not centre, of the stage at some point. Even the humble servants and summons. Well, except the goats.
I previously mentioned that Studio Deen craftily worked a large number of character conflicts into the story by manipulating the cyclical arcs. The effect is that despite the large cast, the majority get a respectable degree of character development and airtime to investigate their backstories. Every member of the cast becomes a complex figure with a complicated past, many intricately woven either with the island mystery, or more magic. Even those cast members who don't get a chance to tell their story offer tantalising hints that there is much more to them than meets the eye.
A recurring theme in Higurashi then was madness, as the various characters take place being driven to the brink of insanity and brutally murdering other villagers. In Umineko, there is madness as well, but madness is eclipsed by cruelty. Every murderer is shown to be in fairly good control of himself or herself, and far from being mad, is quite lucidly and deliberately working towards a specific goal. They just like to toy with their prey a lot. It may be indicative of Umineko's magic, in a way.
Closing Remarks - I'll end here with these words: PLEASE LET THERE BE A SECOND SEASON!
First off let me say that I am likely going to update this review at some point. I know one should usually try to keep an unbiased perspective when reviewing something, but I guess this was unavoidable. I watched all the Higurashi animations, and though I never played the games, I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. So of course, seeing as how Umineko no Naku Koro ni comes from the same line of storytelling, understandably I desperately wanted to like the series. In the end, this was not possible, and I don't know whether that's because I'm stupid and have a hard time wrapping my mind around some of the abstract concepts presented in the story, or if the actual method of storytelling was flawed, but I don't doubt that there were probably some things I missed on the first watch-through. As such, I'll probably watch the series again just to attempt to get a better understanding of it. Why am I giving it a 7 then? I don't want to give a low score and risk discouraging other viewers from watching the series and start questioning their intelligence like I am right now after having watched it. =p
Fair enough, but what can I say about the actual series even though I have little idea of what's going on? For one, the plot and story is very clearly similar in many respects to Higurashi. As usual, the series is divided into arcs, and every arc depicts some kind of mystery or murder that is to be solved. I should mention also, that the way the killings are portrayed in this series is FAR more gruesome than in Higurashi, to the point that several clips were actually censored on the version I was watching. I'd even say the gore is almost comparable to Elfen Lied, not so much in the detail as in the brutality of many of the killings. But anyway, it all ends there as far as similarities go.
Umineko adopts a vastly different style of storytelling than its predecessor. Why do I keep bringing it up? Because it's very likely that anyone who enjoyed Higurashi will flock to Umineko and expect the same style of storytelling. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The series starts off simple and linear enough, but after the first arc it adopts a very schizophrenic (for lack of a better term) style of storytelling featuring what could be called an "in-game" and "out-of-game" zone, where the game is the mystery and murders and everything is occurring. If anyone has seen the Jet Li movie Hero, I find it to be very similar to the story part with the different colors from various characters and such. By about halfway in, the series has made a habit of hopping between these two settings that it becomes hard to tell where the actual story is taking place. This was no problem to me, but might prove to be an annoyance for some viewers that prefer a more direct style of storytelling.
Sadly, this is all I am able to say with any amount of confidence at the moment. Perhaps when I've watched the series through a second time, I'll be able to better understand what is or isn't going on, and adjust my rating accordingly. Until then, I certainly encourage fans of Higurashi to have a go at it despite what you might have heard already from other people who've watched this.
EDIT: Okay, so after checking out the Wiki site, a lot of the stuff made more sense on the second watch-through. Even so, there are a few things that will still weird some people out. A couple things I said in my initial post remain the same; gore is still a factor, and the storytelling style is indeed different. The only thing that might be different is your understanding of the series once you've gone to the wiki site and done a bit of research. On the other hand, there will no doubt be those of you who wonder if a series that requires one to go to a wiki site in order to understand the story really is a good series. That's up for debate, but as far as my own rating goes, I'm bumping it up from a 7 to an 8.