I know that’s a bold statement, but please, hear me out.
Yesterday I talked about Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, 07thExpansion’s debut work. You didn’t really think I’d pass up this opportunity to talk about Umineko no Naku Koro ni, did you?
My history with Umineko stretches back before 2017, starting in 2014 when my good friend Ben got me to play about thirty minutes of episode one. It wasn’t until two years later in 2016, where upon experiencing a bizarre dream which now seems more like a flashforward or premonition since I was raving about Umineko, that I finally sat down to give it a proper go.
I finished the Question Arc (the first four episodes) in a couple of months, finishing episode four just before the 2016 Hyper Japan Christmas Market in November. But it wasn’t until 2017 when I finally finished the Answer Arc (last four episodes) that I came to fully experience and appreciate what I now consider one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever created.
In this post I’d like to delve into just a few key aspects of why I think so. I’ll be using some light spoilers but nothing I’d consider able to ruin your experience with the series, promise.
There’s something for everyone in Umineko. No matter what background you’re from, no matter what country, no matter what language – almost everyone will find something and someone to relate to in at least some way.
And it’s not like that Umineko chose breadth over depth either. Almost all of the multitude of themes and characters it presents are explored a great deal, ultimately allowing it to present nuanced views and thus creating a unique experience for the reader.
Let’s take firstly the theme of fate as presented in Umineko. Like Higurashi, Umineko features a “repeated world” scenario wherein the same story is played out in different ways with different conclusions, mostly ending in defeat for our protagonist, Battler. Trying to escape his fate on the island of Rokkenjima of being killed by the witch Beatrice, Battler attempts to break through his fate by solving the mystery without magic, allowing him to rest in peace.
Yet, unlike Higurashi, Battler’s journey to challenge fate isn’t presented as a positive one – instead he uses it as an excuse to remain, albeit only in the meta world, because he still has not come to terms with the trauma of the Rokkenjima incident. Over time, he realises that accepting fate and moving on is sometimes the more constructive choice, rather trying to force reality to conform to one’s own values and ideals. Thus, fate is presented as something less antagonistic and more as something unavoidable, and that refusing to accept it can be much more counterproductive than a lot of fiction, particularly Japanese popular culture, portrays it. For anyone who’s struggling with a situation not of their own choosing, Battler’s story will be at once relatable and helpful.
Related to this is how Umineko handles the concept of truth. Rather atypically for a mystery story, the series showcases the negative effects of searching for the truth – particularly with regard to Ange. Since she was one of the sole survivors of the Rokkenjima, and Eva refused to talk to her about the incident, she tirelessly searched for the truth in order to settle her trauma surrounding the incident. However, as Battler shows Ange, sometimes the truth can be counterproductive for dealing with trauma – since the truth might be even more horrible than you realised. Plus, even if you do find the truth, it does not allow you to take back past actions or bring the dead back to life. So, is there much point in pursuing the truth? Like Battler’s confrontation with his fate, it is shown that sometimes, instead of continuing to dig up the past, it is better to move on.
On the other hand, we have Erika, who refused to give up on pursuing the truth as Ange did. Unlike Ange who is able to come to terms with her trauma and the past, Erika is never able to. Her pursuit of truth was the only thing left to her in life – only able to exist in the story because of Bernkastel, who tasked her with the role of detective, which transformed her into a monster. Not only does she commit many reprehensible acts in the name of “truth”, she ultimately ends her life as tortured as she was when she was given a second chance – thus showing us what blind pursuit of the truth without consideration of the consequences can do to the human soul.
Tied into Ange’s character is also the concept of loss. She attempts to deal with her loss by searching for the truth, but ultimately ends up discovering that finding out the truth won’t undo the effect loss has had on her life – she will ultimately never meet her family or brother again. Similar to this is Battler’s own relationship to loss. Blindedby his grief stemming from the loss of his entire family, he stubbornly refuses to accept the truth of magic and therefore refuses to accept his loss, torturing himself further by assigning himself the fool’s errand of trying to solve the mystery because of this. By accepting loss and moving on, both of these characters are able to continue living – just as the people they lost would want them to.
At the same time, Umineko does not suggest that the reader completely abandon their grief and loss. It recognises that both of these things can be powerful elements in life if dealt with and accepted properly. Even though Ange accepted her loss and therefore rejected the truth in the end (according to the “true” ending), she did not eject that loss from her heart – instead, by choosing to accept her loss, she is able to keep her family inside of her heart; never forgetting the memory of them, but accepting that they will never come back.
Love is also a thing that Umineko tells us to never forget. The phrase “without love, it cannot be seen” has sort of transcended the series, since I’ve seen it being used by people who haven’t experienced the series, but is appropriate as a phrase to characterise the series. For Umineko, love is the key – it is the essential part of what makes us human, of what separates us from the beasts. Those who don’t hold love in their hearts, such as Erika and initially Battler, can never appreciate the world for what it is – they’ll never be able to overcome trauma, setbacks, loss, and move forward.
Humans are raised in a world of love. It was Nelson Mandela who once famously said that no one is born hating – we are born loving, and learn to hate. Ultimately, it is love that drives us forward and justifies our existence. It is the beginning and end of all things. For Umineko, this is true also. Although it may seem like a mystery story from the onset, by the end, it should be clear that it was more of a story about love, about how it can destroy people, but mostly about how it can make our existence worth living. If that isn’t a universal theme, then I honestly don’t know what is.
Meditation on mystery
Even though I say that Umineko is more of a love story, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t heavily influenced by the trappings of the mystery genre or doesn’t initially situate itself within that genre. Yet, many of the things it does within those conventions are actually critically of the genre. But first, I have to give major credit to Umineko for being an absolute education in the principles of the mystery genre, not only in how they are constructed but how they are solved.
Since Ryukishi utilised the meta world concept from Higurashi much earlier this time, he was able to talk more about the actual structure of the mystery and show the viewer how it was constructed each time. Battler and Beatrice discuss the individual twilights like mini-cases within a larger incident, clearly defining them and their rules as those of closed room murders. Because of this, Umineko’s mystery is much easier to digest and therefore make pre-emptive guesses than Higurashi’s, whose mystery was much more sprawling and sparsely signposted.
As a result, I personally was able to engage much more in the mystery elements of Umineko than in any other mystery series I’ve experienced before. I wouldn’t have called myself a fan of the genre since I could never relate to the detective’s sleuthing before Umineko, because I had no ideas about the rules of mystery and how it is constructed. But now, I love watching and reading mystery fiction, since I have been taught the methods of Occham’s razor, of Knox’s Ten Commandments, of Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, have come to understand them and can now apply them to new situations – all thanks to Umineko.
Anyone interested in learning this methodology and craft will surely love Umineko, but will find underneath the series’ presentation of it a profound critique. I’ve already touched on the nature of truth as a theme in Umineko, and the majority of that can be carried over to Umineko’s critique of truth and it’s place in the mystery canon.
Umineko satirises and brings out the absurdities of the different camps of mystery fiction – the casual reader, Battler; constructionists, who worship the rules of the genre and regard anything that deviates from them as bad mystery, such as Erika; and finally the classical detective camp, such as Will and Lion, who tread the middle ground between the empty objectivism of constructionists and the morality of the casual reader.
The constructionists are presented as the worst, shown as amoral beings fixated on the pursuit of truth no matter the human cost. Casual readers are shown as increasingly constructivist, since Battler initially refuses to believe in magic (the unknown) and instead falls back on the excuses of science and logic, most likely influenced by the prevalence of classical mystery “rules” in the genre. The end of the series sees the previous viewer’s representative – Battler – fighting against an army of heartless beasts fixated on destroying the world, an obvious allegory to the way Ryukishi viewed the readers’ own thirsts for the truth.
Eventually, the readers are brought back to a healthy middle ground typical of the days of classic detective fiction such as the Sherlock Holmes stories – stories that did rely on objectivity and logic to solve the mysteries, but also respected the nuances of the human heart and the effects the truth could have one it.
Ryukishi clearly has issues with modern mystery fiction, since his critique so specifically targets the constructivists, but doesn’t stop with simply suggesting the middle ground of detective fiction as an acceptable alternative. He instead criticises the reader and mystery itself, by characterising them as too hungry for the truth and not sensitive enough to the needs of the heart – leading up to a final rejection of conclusion and of an “answer” itself.
Unanswered questions and the folly of mystery
Answers aren’t everything in a mystery.
We’ve already seen the effect searching for the truth can have on the human heart through such characters as Erika – twisting it, moulding it into a tortured image, and never letting go. Therefore, when it came to conclude the series and therefore the mystery, Ryukishi purposefully chose to leave it open ended.
In line with his criticism of the genre, one major reason for doing so seems to be to drive his point home even further. By refusing to provide a concrete answer, Ryukishi underlines his point that mystery needs to be sensitive to and receptive to the human heart – as without love, it cannot be seen. If the answer to the mystery was revealed, would our experience be soured if it was a conclusion we did not like? Would we end up trying to find our own answer, refusing to accept our own trauma? In this sense, wouldn’t Ryukishi be acting without love?
I doubt that Ryukishi planned to do this from the beginning, but as the series progressed and his message and critique developed, he probably thought that this was more thematically consistent than revealing the answer. Also, this provided him with a convenient way to avoid disappointing fans who had kept up with the series for so long, especially from fans he had schooled in the methodology of mystery fiction, who would pick apart his solution if there were any inconsistencies or errors, no matter the size.
In this sense, Umineko probably has the best ending to any mystery story ever written. What’s more, is that it is certainly one of the most rousing endings to any piece of fiction ever created.
The ending of Umineko has given rise to an absolutely incredible fandom. Because of the open-ended nature of the conclusion, many are still to this day involved in theorycrafting and debate. What’s more, it didn’t put a dowser on fans’ enthusiasm for the series – they were encouraged to continue participating in the fandom. This has given rise to an amazing plethora of artists, writers, cosplayers and many more. Mainly thanks to Umineko’s ending, Japanese fans remain passionate enough to host their own convention dedicated to 07thExpansion works every year. After a series ends, usually enthusiasm fades – but not with Umineko.
Of course, there were some who were initially angry about the lack of an ending, but I think that many have come to appreciate just how instrumental it was in securing it’s place as the greatest piece of fiction ever created. Not only was it thematically perfect, but also a perfect way to ensure the continued existence of the fanbase, one which I am a proud member of, and will continue to be a part of for a long, long time.
Today I was able to outline only three reasons to support my lofty statement, but hopefully you’ve been able to see at least some of why I think Umineko is one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever created.
Umineko’s universality ensures it has a profound effect on anyone who reads it. Whether you relate to Ange’s initial struggle with grief, or with Battler’s final appreciation of the value of love, there is something for everyone, regardless of background, in Umineko. This universality will be absolutely key in ensuring the franchise’s continued success and impact in the future, which I’m sure it will continue to do as long as there are ways in which to experience the story properly.
Furthermore, Umineko contains several interesting and well-presented meditations on mystery fiction. It criticises the current constructivist nature of mystery fiction, positing it’s own style of heart-conscious mystery solving as the most progressive. As to what effect this will have, only time will tell. But in the immediate term, Umineko also serves as a brilliant learning tool for understanding mystery and how to engage with them – a tool which has served me well since I finished the series.
You don’t have to be worried about being disappointing when you finish the series either, since the ending is perfectly executed and consistent with the key themes I explored. Furthermore, the nature of the ending ensures the continued existence of the fandom in the future – adding to the value of the original by interpreting, internalising and critiquing it, just as this post is doing.
In this sense, you should be able to see at least a portion of the reasons as to why I think Umineko is one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written. It’s universality struck me and many others, as well as educating us on the key aspects of mystery. It even goes as far as to present it’s own ideal of mystery fiction as superior to others, which may be very influential in the future. Speaking of the future, I believe Umineko will persist as a work of art because of it’s ending – as well as it’s inherent quality – thus multiplying the potential effect it could have on art by hundreds of years.
So, when we’re all ninety years old, decrepit and dying – if Umineko replaces The Great Gatsby or Of Mice and Men in schools as a classic and a true work of art – I want at least a portion of that credit, for at least trying to raise awareness at the time. But who knows what the future may hold?