When They Cry

aka “Higurashi no naku koro ni”
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Score: Beyond Excellent
Rating: 18 for graphic violence (no, really)
Length: 2 seasons (48 episodes)

Keiichi has moved to Hinamizawa, a village so tiny that all the children are in one classroom, and life seems to be good: he’s surrounded by beautiful scenery and a bunch of cute girls. But he starts to hear rumours of a series of murders committed on the same night every year, and of a brutal cult that used to be practised in the village long ago. Soon the girls around him start acting strangely, switching from sweetness and light to creepy anger and back again, if they are possessed or schizophrenic. Soon Keiichi doesn’t know if anybody can be trusted – including himself.

This is one of the most confusing mystery stories I’ve ever come across, made more so because it can’t be dismissed as not making sense. It starts quite sweet and innocent, with only hints of what’s going on in the first episode; by the end of episode four all the main characters are dead. At the start of episode five, they’re all alive again and we’re apparently back at the start – but things are happening differently this time.

The series is told in a series of chapters each about four episodes long, each approaching the story from a different perspective. Some of these chapters contradict each other, as if events have been set in motion again from the same starting point – a bit like Groundhog Day. Others replay the same events but from another character’s view: the fifth chapter retells the second and completely turns it around. But even if chapters are unrelated they still inform each other and shed light on what might have been going on. But one way or another, each of the chapters starts with a bunch of ordinary people and ends up with a set of gruesome murders.

More unsettling is that there isn’t just one culprit out there. Depending on events, every one of the main characters reveals themselves to be capable not just of murder but of extreme cruelty and sadistic pleasure. The thread connecting these parallel stories is that the village is subject to a curse, related to an ancient ritual presumed abandoned where offenders against the local religion are tortured and sacrificed on the night of the annual festival. While people’s reasons aren’t always made clear (at least not till later), the message seems to be that anybody is capable of becoming a monster. The secrets that are gradually enlightened as the series goes on really do change your opinion of what was said and done in earlier chapters. Even so, having watched it just once I still don’t feel I know the answers.

This show isn’t for the faint-stomached. It’s not as distressing as Narutaru, but it does feature graphic (and quite inventive) scenes of murder, torture and suicide. Mostly inflicted by little kids in sweet outfits. The way the story is told takes some getting used to. The drawing style will also put some people off, as it’s not merely cutesy but oddly misshapen – heads are too large for bodies and limbs are too thin, particularly on the children. But if you’re able to accept the medium, the story is compelling.

* The red bit is an official part of the name, apparently. The Japanese title translates to “When the Higurashi (cicadas) Cry”, referring to a specific species that only makes noise in the evening. The story was a series of games first, then manga and novels, then an anime. A second anime series is on the way, and may provide more answers – although in this case I think the journey is more important than the destination.

Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni Kai
Score: Still Excellent
Rating: 18 for graphic violence

The word ‘kai’ in the title means ‘answers’, and this second season of Higurashi does gradually provide them. In a mystery story like this, the quality of the end affects that of the beginning: the answers that are arrived at colour the previous events. Higurashi proves in the second season that it really does know what’s going on, and the secrets are worth arriving at.

When watching this series you should really watch each chapter at a sitting, even though some chapters are seven episodes and some are just one. Unfortunately, it looks like real life murder in Japan has made some channels stop broadcasting this (as well as School Days), so fansubs of the last dozen episodes are likely to be delayed.