Innovative murder mystery series with a real twist
“When They Cry” (“Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni” or “When the Cicadas Cry,” a colorful term meaning the summertime in Japan when the cicada’s cry can be almost deafening) is one of the most unique adaptations I have seen of the Japanese computer game-type known as a visual novel.
Visual novels (although in the case of “Higurashi no Naku Koro” it was called a “sound novel” due to its use of mood-setting music and sound effects) are kind of like “Choose your own adventure” books for the computer. Players get a standard plotline that can be resolved in different ways based on conversations they have with other characters and choices they make in the game. In the case of “When They Cry,” the game was a murder-mystery where the killer and victims could be any number of people depending on how the game was played. The anime for “When They Cry” replicated this by making a series of story arcs, each which resolves the main story in a different style.
The basic set-up is always the same. Five friends live in the small village of Hinamizawa home of the summer festival known as Watanagashi where bits of cotton are floated down the stream to do away with bad memories. Keiichi is a young boy who has recently moved to the village, where he quickly befriends a group of four girls, Rena, Mion, Satoko, and Rika. Things start out innocently enough, but slowly Keiichi learns of a local legend of a village curse by someone named Oyashiro, and that every year on the Watanagashi festival someone is murdered and someone disappears forever.
The twenty-six episode box set has six story arcs, “Spirited Away by Demons, “Cotton Drifting,” “Curse Killing,” “Time Killing,” “Eye Opening (Actually “Cotton Drifting” told from a different point of view) and “Attonment.” Each story arc starts on a sunny day on the way to school, and ends with bloody murder. The plots can vary quite wildly, with only a few elements linking together each of the story arcs.
When you first watch “When They Cry,” this can be somewhat disconcerting. At the end of one episode all of the main characters are thrown down wells or chopped up into pieces, only to have them whole and healthy at the beginning of the next story arc with no mention of what you have just watched. Once you get into the rhythm of the series, this cycle becomes comfortable and it is fun wondering who will be the killer and who will be killed this time around. There is even a little meta-joke in the series, as the friends are members of a club who play a game like Clue, trying to guess who the killer, location and weapon will be in the game.
There is a sharp contrast between the cutesy character designs and the foul play that eventually ends the story arcs. With the first episode, I was almost annoyed at the characters because they seemed like every fluffy bunny stereotype of anime girls you could possibly imagine. This only made it more fun however when the baseball bats started swinging and the blood started flowing. The series really took me by surprise when it made its dark turn.
The story arcs aren’t entirely separate. Each one introduces some new elements of the characters that might be carried over into the next story arc, like Mion’s twin sister, Shion who appears to complicate the situation. Even if the story doesn’t flow, the character development does.