One episode of 2017 involved me taking a trip back to 2006, to the darkest days of the DeviantArt collective consciousness…
This post is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2017 project, where anime bloggers post everyday for 12 days leading up to Christmas. Check this post out for more information.
More concretely, 2017 saw me watching Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, the 2006 Studio DEEN adaptation of the debut doujin game series by famed author Ryukishi07.
I’d heard of Higurashi, and had been spoiled about many of it’s iconic scenes because of my time on DeviantArt circa 2011. Even though I wasn’t part of the fandom, the sheer popularity of the show on the site at that time meant that, invariably, things would spill over into my side of the site (which was, incidentally, the Sonic fandom).
And for the most part, now that I’ve seen both seasons of the show, I can see why it was so popular at the time. Beyond the mid-2000s aesthetic which has not aged that well, since digital techniques had only just been introduced to the animation world and were still being refined, many aspects of the story and characters surprised me with their quality. I’d like to introduce some of these, in an attempt to attempt to cut through the prejudice and the memes. There’ll be some minor spoilers, but I won’t spoil any major plot points.
The dynamics of friendship
Keiichi, Mion, Shion, Rika, Satoko and Rena are probably one of the best ensemble casts in anime next to The iDOLM@STER.
It’s rare that a group of friends feel so genuine through a screen. There’s always an element of disassociation on the part of viewer, or an element of artificiality to the character interactions. But not in Higurashi.
They truly feel like friends, who go through many of the same things friends do – they fight, they play and they grow together. Obviously, there’s a degree of fantasy to their interactions since most of them are conditioned by the horror elements of the show, which are of course divorced from normal reality. But even so, it’s rare that I’ve felt such a connection between fictional friends as well as understand why they share that connection.
Keiichi is the focus of the group. He’s the friend all of the friends are friends with – someone who can hang out with anyone of the friendship group and it not be strange or forced. His personality is at once wilful but also attentive and caring – behind a boyish, brash façade he conceals a genuine concern and self-sacrifice for his friends.
Mion is the glue of the group. She’s technically the leader, but truth be told her relationship with everyone isn’t as positive as Keiichi’s is. Her relationships with some of the group members are stronger than others, her relationship with Rika being seemingly the weakest and her relationship with Keiichi being the strongest. Even so, everyone in the group appreciates her and her efforts within the friendship group since without her, the group wouldn’t have even existed in the first place.
Shion is a part-time member of the group. Everyone has a good relationship with her, but they don’t spend that much time with her. Most likely everyone would like to, but unfortunately circumstances keep them apart – namely going to different schools. This separation and longing on both sides to become friends, as well as lingering trauma surrounding previous members of the group, lays the foundation for arguments, and ultimately tragedy later on…
Satoko is the child of the group. In order to protect her and shelter her, the group acts as one. For the most part, she enjoys this coddling, but as she grows up she becomes more and more dissatisfied with this. She comes to dislike this dynamic, because it affects her relationship with those older than her in the group – she can never become friends with someone like Mion or Keiichi on an equal footing. Because of that, she grows closer to Rika, pushing her negative emotions onto her as a result…
Finally, Rika occupies a special place within the group. Like Satoko, she is treated as a child initially, but many members of the group, most notably Keiichi, recognise her maturity beyond her years – especially in the later arcs. She is the one who has the most criticism and dislike for the group itself, much more than Satoko, since she is constantly frustrated and let down by it. Thus, she begins to isolate herself more and more from the group, but comes to realise that her strength also depends on the group’s strength in the end.
Despite having to juggle 6 characters who share almost the same amount of screen time, at least in the first season, Higurashi and Studio DEEN were able to establish them as their own distinct characters as well as clearly define their dynamic and place within the group, and their relationships with other members of the group.
None of the memes had told me something like this existed in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. I had thought that the characters were simply vehicles to fuel the horror and despair, not interesting and relatable characters in their own right. Such a surprise I was glad for, since non-stop horror and violence through the vehicle of paper-thin characters isn’t usually the type of thing I like. In the end, I came away from Higurashi surprised as to how much the cast of characters interested me, and even more so that I was able to relate to some of them.
That’s not to say, however, that horror isn’t a key part of the appeal of Higurashi. Because it definitely is. If not for the pure shock value that most likely scarred all of the 10 year olds on DeviantArt at the time, then for the level of mastery over atmosphere and tension that is needed to create such a climate of horror.
Higurashi’s first season in particular showcases a deft hand in crafting good horror in anime, probably the best I’ve ever seen. We begin the show on perhaps some of the most tense moments in the whole story, with Keiichi slowly begin to suspect Rena and Mion’s involvement in the murders that had occurred in the previous cotton-drifting festivals. What begins as flat out denial on their part becomes a veiled threat of violence towards Keiichi if he attempts to find out any more of the truth, ending in a series of nerve-racking visits to his house – a series of visits of which the viewer already knows the bloody outcome, only further heightening the tension.
Even though we know the outcome, we don’t know the story behind it nor the reasons why it occurred, which acts to balance our known with the unknown. And it’s this fear of the unknown that fuels Higurashi’s horror. Ryukishi was clearly aware that the most terrifying thing of all is the unknown, that it is not because monsters are terrifying that they terrify us, but because they are an unknown quantity to us. When we are unaware of something, we become unsettled and begin to frantically search for the answer. Higurashi exploits this emotion, and uses it to good effect to become a truly effective psychological horror series, riding on the coattails of such classics as The Shining (one of my favourite films) and Psycho.
What’s even more terrifying is that we can never be sure of the information that is given to us in order to help us solve the mystery. The first arc clearly showcases Keiichi’s insanity, as we open on the scene of him killing Rena and Mion with the baseball bat, making us suspicious of the information we achieve. Yet, the fifth arc positively blows this out of the water when we are told that all of the events we supposedly witnessed in Mion’s arc, the second arc, were actually performed by Shion masquerading in Mion’s place – further increasing our paranoia and distrust as to the events of the series.
Characters also play a huge part in the horror aspect of the show. Without developing them and making them as well-rounded as I’ve already explained, the tension simply would not have been as high throughout the series. So, when such events as Keiichi hanging off of a bridge at the mercy of a mentally-ill Satoko and Rena’s slow descent into insanity occur, because we care about these characters, we feel for them and worry about their fates – heightening the tension and our anxiety.
For me personally, the first season of Higurashi was overwhelmingly unsettling. This wasn’t because of the gore or violence, which there is plenty of, but because of the psychological horror elements that persist throughout the series. I don’t often get scared or anxious, so for Higurashi to do so despite me knowing several of the more iconic horror scenes, is a real testament to it’s quality.
Life is cooperative
If you haven’t seen the series yet, you’ll notice a common thread throughout all of the horror elements I mentioned – they all mostly have something to do with deteriorating mental health. I won’t go into why that is, since that would be going into major spoiler territory, but I do want to go into Higurashi’s positive message surrounding mental health and why I found that particularly appealing.
We have an unfortunate habit, as a society, of stigmatising mental health and asking for help in order to treat it. Men especially experience this, with more and more males committing suicide each year in relation to this.
Higurashi’s characters also do this initially. Satoko never talks about her trauma surrounding her brother and her uncle, because she views it as a punishment for her being a bad person. I’ve done this too, in the past. Rika also isolates herself from her friends, suffering alone, because she believes no one can help her, despite not trying to ask them to do so.
Rena’s case is perhaps the most tragic of all the characters in terms of mental health. By coming back to Hinamizawa, she believes that her psychotic delusions and mental breakdowns will stop, yet this turns out to have the opposite effect. Since she doesn’t want to bother her family, who tore themselves apart because of her previous breakdowns, she suffers in silence and continues to try and believe that things will get better, in time. In turn, as her mental health deteriorates, she becomes less and less able to face her friends, since she believes herself to be too far gone at that point to be saved.
I’ve also gone through a lot of the same problems in my life. Before going to University, I had mental health problems such as depression and dysphoria, yet kept in my mind that University would be an opportunity to reinvent myself and start a new life, free from these problems. Yet once I got to University and realised these problems still persisted, these problems got worse since my only hope had proven to be false. In turn, I isolated myself and considered myself not worthy of help, blaming myself instead of mental illness, never asking for help from anyone.
Yet Rena realises that her friends are the best people to rely on, since precisely because they are friends, they won’t judge her and will always try to help her, not matter how far she has fallen. Even when she commits murder, her friends still want her to get better and support her as she tries to tackle her problems.
Beyond Rena, Rika also goes through a similar sort of journey. Because she is the only one able to retain memories of previous loops of events, she thinks that the others don’t have the knowledge necessary to overcome fate and break through the tragedy of June 1983. Furthermore, as she fails continuously, she loses hope and becomes pessimistic about the future. Yet, once she tells her friends about her problem she is surprised as to how much they are able to offer her – something she was never able to see since she never asked. Furthermore, she learns to think more long-term and remain positive despite setbacks, always looking ahead and learning from her mistakes.
Watching Higurashi made me learn these lessons. It made me realise the importance of relying on others; of trusting in your friends; of not being discouraged by small defeats; and, above all, of not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. Life is not a solo endeavour – and although things may seem hopeless, there’s always something you can do, and others you can rely on to help get you through.
In this sense, Higurashi probably has one of the most potent and positive mental health messages I’ve seen in anime, next to Sangatsu no Lion. I certainly was not expecting something like that when I started the series – and shocked me since no one seems to be giving the show any credit in this regard.
Coming from Umineko to Higurashi was a retroactive step in many regards – not just in production quality, but also in writing quality. That’s not to say that Higurashi isn’t well written however, because all of the points I’ve just mentioned clearly prove that, but it’s just that Umineko is the greatest piece of fiction ever written. But that’s for another time.
Even so, what was really interesting in coming to Higurashi after reading Umineko was seeing the way that Ryukishi took many elements of Higurashi and repurposed, reimagine and reconceived them for Umineko.
The first of which comes in the forms of Satoko and Rika. To anyone who’s read Umineko, it’s interesting to see how these two characters came to form the essence of the characters Lambadelta and Bernkastel, and how the dynamics of the series shaped their later development into the two Umineko witches.
On a basic level, their personalities are very much the same. Rika’s change in personality from an innocent child to a dark, brooding and pessimistic one over the many cycles of the Hinamizawa incident puts her more in line with Bernkastel’s personality as the series goes along, and obviously their character designs are very similar. The playful nature of the prank-loving Satoko also carries over pretty much wholesale into the mischievous Lambdadelta, yet adds a touch more menace.
Moreover, after experiencing the events of Higurashi as a child, PTSD or at least severe trauma are probably par for the course. This unfortunate reality is reflected in the evolution of Satoko and Rika into Lambdadelta and Bernkastel respectively. Both of the witches are extremely broken beings, so scarred by their time in Hinamizawa that they have to entertain themselves with games such as the Rokkenjima mystery in order to keep them from remembering the traumatic events that they experienced.
Even so, key differences emerge between the two because of the differences in their experiences during the events of Higurashi. Rika was arguably the most damaged of the two, since she remembered every one of the cycles. In turn, Bernkastel is much more insidious and evil than Lambda, since her trauma is greater. Since Satoko only had to deal with one set of trauma each time, surrounding her brother and uncle, she ends up not being as evil when evolved into Lambda. Without this knowledge of Higurashi, I would in turn not be able to appreciate this key difference between these two characters from Umineko.
This also translates into Ryukishi’s better handling of the “repeated scenario” concept, since Umineko also features the same set of characters and same world each time eight times. Yet in Umineko, Ryukishi introduces the “meta” elements much sooner, in episode two of Umineko instead of in the “Answer arc” as he did with Higurashi. As a whole, this helps to better integrate the meta elements into the story, making them feel more like a part of the whole rather than something tacked on like they sometimes felt in Higurashi.
Because Ryukishi introduced them a lot earlier, he also had time to develop them much further and in much more depth in Umineko than he did with Higurashi. Rather than just Hanyuu and Rika, in Umineko we got a massive array of meta characters, not just contributing to the story by being fantastic characters but, crucially, contributing better to the audience’s ability to decipher and solve the mystery. Higurashi presents us with four Question arcs and four Answer arcs, with clues only really being given in the Answer arcs, whereas Umineko contains hints right from the very beginning, because the characters discuss the meta much earlier.
It’s clear that Higurashi and Umineko were influencing forces for one another. Ryukishi was fundamentally satisfied with the things he had pioneered in Higurashi – the repeated worlds concept and the meta elements – yet still saw in them room for improvement. This is why Umineko is, in my opinion, better than Higurashi – but Higurashi is still absolutely fundamental in understanding Umineko better as a whole, as well as being a brilliant story in it’s own right.
Higurashi is really great. And I really wasn’t expecting it to be. The only reason I started it was because after reading Umineko, I was hungry for more Ryukishi. Yet beyond enjoying appreciating how Umineko evolved from Higurashi, I found in it many appealing things that have made me recommend it to countless people since I watched it.
I found in it a great cast of characters, who’s dynamics were not only well-established and fleshed out, but fundamentally interesting and relatable. Keiichi, Mion, Shion, Rika, Satoko and Rena felt like real friends, and because of that I forged a bond with them that I don’t think I’ll be forgetting any time soon.
In addition, the positive mental health message was something I’ve not seen in any other anime, and was something that really hit close to home for me, because of my own personal experiences with mental health. It made me change several elements of my life and my attitude towards my own mental health, which is much more than I can say for any other anime I’ve ever watched.
Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised as to how well the horror works in Higurashi, despite having been spoiled back in the day as to some of the major horror moments. It relies heavily on it’s excellent cast dynamics to put forward a really effective psychological horror story, which had me on the edge of my seat many times.
Therefore, even though you may have your preconceptions about the series I thoroughly recommend you go and check it out. I wasn’t able to mention this here, but I do think it’s best to watch/read the series before going on to read Umineko (not watch, you’ll notice I didn’t write that and that’s because the Umineko anime is terrible). I was able to overcome my personal preconceptions surrounding the series, and was able to thoroughly able to enjoy it – so I think you could too.