Repeated deaths, locked rooms, a mysterious witch and a deadly game unfolds here.
What They Say:
The affluent Ushiromiya family patriarch, Kinzo, is on his deathbed, and his family has assembled at their private island to discuss the division of his estate. As they bicker over their father’s immense inheritance, a typhoon closes in, trapping them on the island. They suddenly receive an eerie word of warning… and then, in the dead of night, the murders begin.
One by one, family members are discovered murdered in bizarre and inhuman ways. Some within the family turn to superstition, blaming it on a witch rumored to inhabit the island. But one of them – the young Battler Ushiromiya – refuses to accept the supernatural and vows to uncover the real killer behind the seemingly impossible slaughters. He soon finds himself confronted by the apparent witch, and enters into a life-or-death battle for the truth.
Contains episodes 1-18 (arcs 1-3) and a full-color, 28-page hardcover artbook providing a deeper understanding of the series with in-depth story analysis, detailed character bios, and character sketches, in premium showcase packaging.
The audio presentation for this release provides us with the original Japanese language only, in stereo, but using the lossless PCM encoding for it. The series has a good mix of dialogue and action along with some dramatic music swells, which gives it a very rich atmosphere in this area. A lot of the show is filled with the dialogue and with numerous characters on screen, placement comes in well and there’s a lot to like with how the sound design is done. When it comes to the more action oriented parts, it gets a lot fuller and dominates both of the forward channels in a really good way, giving it some great impact and real sense of presence. Combine this with the way the music blends into everything and you get a really rich and engaging mix overall. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2009, the transfer for this series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. This set contains eighteen episodes spread across two discs with nine episodes on each. Animated by Studio Deen, the series has a really great look about it with the character designs and the detail there but also with the backgrounds and general flow of the animation. The show brings in magic fairly often and some decent transitions and all of it has a really rich and vibrant sense of color design around it that gives it a great life. There’s a lot of standing around in the series with plenty of dialogue, but the set design brings us such good looking locations that it works well. When it does hit the high action moments or swirling magic, it ramps up even more and the transfer captures it well with a high bitrate that shows off the colors, detail and flow of it all.
The packaging for this limited edition release follows tradition for NIS America as we get the oversized heavy chipboard box that holds a hardcover book and two clear thinpak cases. The front of the box has a great image with the pairing of Battler in serious mode with a conniving Beatrice in the background. Mixing in a lot of reds and golds with the black background, it’s dark but distinctive. The logo is kept simple but has just enough flair to it and the hook with the When They Cry aspect to draw in unfamiliar fans. The back cover is a bit simpler as it moves the logo to the middle and removes the character artwork but keeps the butterflies and adds some ornate edging to it that fits in with the wealth side of the series.
The hardcover book inside uses the same design as the back of the box and provides a dark looking tome, both in and out. The inside provides a creative breakdown of the episodes, doing them as scrapbook style layouts, while mixing in character design material along the way as well. The mysteries are laid out and expanded upon slightly and has an interesting flow to it when you read about it after watching it. It’s not hugely colorful, going for the newsprint look for the text sections, and a lot of the shots from the show that are used are pretty dark in tone overall as well. Also included in the box are the two thinpak cases, both of which use the ornate nature from the back of the box and provides a couple of character pairings on the front cover that works well. The back covers have a few shots from the show as well as a breakdown of the episodes and story arcs by number and title. The technical information is also all included here and lays everything out clearly. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.
The menu design for Umineko goes for a simple approach where it has a black and gray checkered background over which we have various clips from the series play out. It provides a good mix of symbolism and character material to give it a good blend of what’s going on without being too up front about it. The navigation strip is along the bottom and keeps it to just an off-white stripe with the basic selections that are quick to access and easy to move around through. The general design is decent though it doesn’t go for the hard sell or revealing too much about it. Submenus load quickly and it works well as a pop-up menu, though I dislike that once more, when you look in the episode menu during playback, it doesn’t indicate which episode that you’re on.
No extras are included with this release.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the game by 07th Expansion and numerous, numerous novels and manga by Ryukishi07, Umineko is a twenty-six episode series that deals with a familiar kind of story overall. I’ve had little experience overall with Ryukishi07’s works, but I thoroughly enjoyed my original experience with the first Higurashi anime series when it came out. There are certainly plenty of similarities going on here as we deal with a story that’s told with changes several times over, but with a stronger narrative overall that binds it together. A twisted Groundhog Day is the core of it, as we see events repeat in different ways and there’s a lot to enjoy there on a very base level. But we also realize that there is a second story going on that’s the real primary story in a way.
Taking place in 1986, we see three generations of a powerful and wealthy family gathering on Rokken Island at the behest of the grandfather, Kinzo. He’s kept to himself largely over the years on the island but has maintained leadership over the family and its wealth. With him as the head, his adult children are arriving along with their children, some in the teens and one very young girl, Maria. Eighteen members of the family overall end up on the island along with five household staff that are often referred to as nothing more than furniture for the family. We learn early on about Kinzo and how he rebuilt the family after ruin decades before, turning it around after only twenty years to be as powerful as it is. But there’s also a mythology about it how a witch named Beatrice granted him the gold to do it and that the family is beholden to all of this. It’s an interesting angle, one that the younger family members don’t take seriously since there’s that whole witch thing.
While the show gives us a lot of family squabbling and internal issues early on as they get there, as the adult children have issue with Kinzo and his ways, the younger generation does their best to act like good cousins and not like their parents who have years of issues with each other. It’s here that we get the dapper Battler, the young Maria, the blonde and attractive Jessica and the serious but romantic George. We see their own interests, such as how George is in love with the single maid on the island, Shannon, and Jessica has an interest in one of the male servants, a young man named Kanon. Battler doesn’t have any interests and Maria is just too young, but her main struggle is a very, very difficult mother.
What everyone is unaware of here though is that Kinzo is attempting to deal with a contract he made decades earlier that made all of this possible. With Beatrice being a true witch, one of several in fact that we meet over the course of the series, the deal involves her getting everything back, plus interest, toward the end of Kinzo’s life. And Kinzo wants to get back to Beatrice since she is his true love, or at least he believes so, so bringing everyone together at long last in this form when there are enough people to fulfill the epitaph that Beatrice created that would set everything into motion, it moves quickly. The bodies start falling, the mystery of what the epitaph really means starts to come into play and the survivors try to figure out how to not die – or how to not be accused of killing others.
The structure of the series has Beatrice causing her chaos multiple times, each one going in a different way. They’re broken up into different arcs and not just every episode, which has the first arc running for five episodes while the second goes for six and the third continues on through the remainder of the set. In doing this, we see difference ways for events to unfold, some of them expanding further into the back story and others showing different configurations of the familial relationships. While some characters die quickly in the first arc, they take more importance in a later one, adding uncertainty to it overall, though you know most or all of them are fated to die based on the epitaph and the way it requires many, many sacrifices to be made. And they are bloody and brutal at times, though it’s something that feels tamer than what Higurashi did by comparison.
I really got into these stories and enjoyed the various locked room mysteries and the way the family did or didn’t come together to deal with the murders, rather than what they were supposed to do. But the series also places a larger narrative over this as Battler, the ostensible male lead of the series, strikes a deal of sorts with Beatrice when she reveals herself in the first arc. Seeing him as a welcome challenge as she’s ready to escape the contract that she made, he refuses to believe that she’s a witch and she restarts the events over and over in order to create these kinds of mysteries that can only be explained by magic and her being a witch. Battler refuses to accept that she’s a witch, and the whole thing takes on a game-like manner as they watch events from a supernatural room and come up with their own rules for telling the truth, showing events and discussing it. It takes some really great twists and made the show more engaging than just a series of repeated killings without any sense. While we see the living going through the experience several times trying to deal with their challenge, we also see Battler’s experience. Of course, how he can not accept magic while going through all of this is the elephant in the room, but you sort of have to accept that.
While comparisons to Higurashi are obvious and natural, Umineko thoroughly stands on its own even while using some familiar structure. The series in its first eighteen episodes offers up three different stories with binding elements across all of them that are quite engaging to watch. I can completely see why this show would be off-putting for many, but for me there’s a whole lot to like and enjoy here. The cast is explored slowly in some cases since it has so many characters to work with, but as we see the different configurations and the few constants, it makes you want to know and more of them even as they start dying off. The series isn’t as brutal as one might think it would be, but that works in its favor overall as it becomes more about the characters than seeing the grisly deaths. There’s a whole lot of death but it’s the upper layer story that drew me in more as it started to reveal itself and gave it a different kind of challenge to be worked with. Umineko also won me over with its pacing and animation, making for an engaging viewing even as you work through eighteen episodes in this first set. I’m very enthused about the series and what it offers, but it’s also something that has a rather limited audience that will get into it. It definitely won me over though.
Japanese PCM 2.0 Language, English Subtitles
Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: N/A
Released By: NIS America
Release Date: December 4th, 2012
Running Time: 413 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70″ LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.