When They Cry - Umineko
The members of the wealthy Ushiromiya family arrive on their private island of Rokkenjima to discuss the inheritance of the terminally ill patriarch, Kinzo, but Kinzo refuses to see his family upon their arrival, and soon, a storm strands everybody on the island and leaves them without phone service. After the youngest grandchild, Maria, brings a mysterious letter from a "Beatrice" to the dinner table, leading some to speculate that an additional person is hiding somewhere on the island; that night, a series of grisly murders occur. The survivors are left to frantically try to determine whether there is indeed a "Beatrice" or whether one among them was the culprit, a task made more difficult by the seemingly impossible circumstances of some of the murders. This murder mystery soon evolves into a battle of wits between Battler, another grandchild, and a being calling herself Beatrice, with Battler desperate to prove that the crimes occurred without supernatural intervention as the sequence of arrivals and murders is repeated via a cyclic timeline.
I have something of a complicated history with Umineko. Back in high school, when I was first becoming interested in anime, it was one of the first shows I got a glimpse of, via my high school's anime club, and while some of the other series I saw then spurred me to dig further into the medium, Umineko struck me as being a pretentious and tedious waste of time, an impression that was not helped by the fact that I was in a foul mood and surrounded by legions of noisy fans at the moment. For quite a while, I used it as my standard for what I disliked most in anime, in spite of having seen relatively little of it, and I even made the unfortunate mistake of steering clear of the Higurashi television series for a long time due to their shared producer and superficially similar concept. Now, about four years hence, I have decided to return to the show with the benefit of a (hopefully) more seasoned approach, and while it is hardly the unwatchable slog I once derided it as, I nonetheless view it as a concept that, while potentially interesting as a game, is ill-suited to a television show. Though capable of being appropriately suspenseful at times, Umineko frequently feels like a series written for the benefit of its own characters rather than the viewers, with Battler and Beatrice droning on in their wordy and long-winded battle of wits and new mysteries and supernatural beings constantly being introduced with no apparent means of explaining them.
Umineko is the strange sort of series whose structure, along with the metafictional observations by some of its own characters, are of much more interest than the story itself, a standard if intermittently effective murder mystery that rapidly becomes muddled with confusing occult elements. Split into four arcs, each progressively longer than the last, its stories do not represent an absolute timeline reset, as do the stories in Higurashi, for the Battler Ushiromiya from the first arc remains a player separate from those seen in later stories, with neither possessing the other's memories. The experiment of having all besides the first arc be portrayed as a sort of "game" in which Battler tries to prove that the culprit was indeed a human is a valiant attempt to spin 007th Expansion's past formula on its head, but whereas in Higurashi the metafictional element is kept to an effective minimum, it quickly begins to overburden the story here. The jump in logic of the first Battler entering a strange "secondary realm" while another Battler suffers through a series of murders is great enough that an explanation is needed, and unfortunately, nothing comprehensible is given. Meanwhile, other characters, the family's servants in particular, are often suddenly shown to have awareness of Beatrice's true nature and supernatural powers, such as the bizarre ability to generate a forcefield when attacked, and it is never clear as to why the servants should have this awareness nor what their sudden abilities even imply. Such abrupt inventions on the show's part are a mere taste of its intensive use of red herrings and deus ex machina moments to move its story along, a tendency that rapidly erodes at its initially effective atmosphere of suspense.
Indeed, Umineko simply does not know when the time to introduce new characters and mysteries has passed and the time to take responsibility for those it has already raised has come. Considering the show's enormous starting lineup of players, nineteen in all, it is madness that we should have dozens more characters forced upon us before we can even fathom anything substantial about them, but Umineko plunges straight into that madness, introducing us to demons, other witches, and legions of bizarre "human weapons" (a la Soul Eater) in the service of Beatrice. Though I was admittedly impressed that virtually all of the main characters did get at least one important scene at some point, it becomes nearly impossible to keep track of them and their various allegiances over the course of the series, a problem not helped in the slightest by the frequently inconsistent characterization. Indeed, a person who is abusive in one arc may be kind and patient in another arc, or they may alternate between defiant and submissive or between an embodiment of evil and a soft-hearted angel. In Umineko, such contrasts are rarely plausible, often being far too overplayed to accept at face value, and while we get a half-hearted explanation that some of such characters are somehow "possessed", this is a red herring that is never confirmed. Mysteries, such as a store of gold Beatrice has supposedly left within the mansion and the cryptic epitaph that supposedly provides its location, arise and are forgotten or left unexplained. New characters, meanwhile, appear seemingly out of nowhere whenever called for, the most egregious example of this being the introduction of Battler's sister Ange, a character who abruptly takes over the show during the final arc after having received only one passing mention before. It is sudden developments like this that indicate that the creators themselves did not know exactly where the story was headed, and this show is soon neck-deep in its own mess without giving any sign that it will explain its own world order. Even worse, the Umineko anime is fundamentally incomplete as it stands: while the television version encompasses four arcs, the game itself has eight, and with no second season in sight, it is essentially rendered into a bonus feature for fans of the game, completely unsatisfying for everybody else.
This series, unfortunately, exacerbates the trend of anime adaptations not standing well on their own in several other ways, the worst of which is its dialogue-heavy and pedantic structure. After the opening arc, about forty percent of the screentime is devoted to Battler and Beatrice's arguing, and while perhaps acceptable in game format this makes for very tedious television, a medium that generally benefits from a high percentage of action rather than of words. It is, in many ways, a lazy adaptation, and as I have not played the original, I am forced to admit that such other mistakes as the clumsy introduction of new characters may be a result of the studio's lack of insight into what makes a good video game versus a good television series, rather than necessarily a fundamental flaw in the story. Aesthetically, the expected improvement in art quality between game and television standards apparently did not occur, and while the heavily Victorian and Gothic design is, on the whole, an improvement over Higurashi's simplistic VN-style drawings (if still generic), the animation remains extremely limited, with far too many scenes of talking heads, and the color scheme seems eerily dull, as if a clumsy assistant accidentally spilled a bucket of gray paint onto the artists palette before work began. It is, in my opinion, also somewhat unfortunate that Umineko embraces otakudom to the extent that it does, and throughout its run it is dotted by out-of-character flashes of perversion, utterances of "nii-hii", "uguuu", and other "kawaii" catchphrases, and similar touches that were clearly thrown in to appeal to that demographic. While it does not entirely derail the show, it is nonetheless a distracting element, one that I have strongly come to dislike in recent years.
I do not hate Umineko as I once did, but at the same time, it is a clumsy series, one that fails to transcend its status as a supplement for its parent video game and that rapidly spirals out of control as it becomes more and more full of unsolvable mysteries. As critical as I am of it, it is unfortunate that a second series was not produced, for given enough space, it is possible that the show would have seemed to be far less of a tease than it does as it stands. Regardless, it does not have a handle on its own story, a fatal flaw for a series as dependent on suspense and careful revelation of truth as this one is.
It starts off promisingly but rapidly becomes lost in its own maze. Diehard fans of the game, who are likely to have more background and understand more than I did, can probably add a star. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Umineko is extremely graphic at points, and bodies are dismembered in gruesome detail several times. Mild profanity and fan service aside, this extreme violence, which is sometimes directed at children and adolescents as well, is enough to make this entirely inappropriate for children.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source
Review Status: Full (26/26)
When They Cry - Umineko © 2009 07th Expansion
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