I had spent a good part of the early 2000’s reading through a lot of murder mystery manga that were being brought over by publishers and thoroughly enjoyed delving into those, especially the volume-length ones as opposed to the one-off chapter pieces. I had also found myself really enjoying the Higurashi – When They Cry anime series with what it presented in the mystery of its murders combined with the young kids being involved in all of it. I’ve never been much for visual novel games so I never explored much there, so I went into the anime production with little knowledge and didn’t even see the sequel seasons until they were finally released a few years ago. So when this Umineko – When They Cry series came out in 2009 and was released in 2012 by NISA America, it was a chance to see something more from a franchise that I’d only been exposed to a bit of, one that definitely varies a lot.
There are certainly plenty of similarities between the Higurashi anime and what’s 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, at least in my view. 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. And the mix of those two elements – far more familiar in Western storytelling in the past decade than they were when this came out, makes for a solid overall experience.
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 issues 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 nature of the show is one where if you know of the property you go in with certain expectations. The first three arcs have their share of violence, scares, and murder, but it felt tamer in a way than the Higurashi work does. The final arc doesn’t work quite as well in some ways, from being an open-ended piece to one that feels like it’s more out of control when you get down to it, but also because it really pushes the boundaries of suspending disbelief in order to make it work. But the first three arcs are what really made it work well for me, with all the locked-room mysteries it presented, the tension in seeing the way groups of characters came together in one arc but not another, and just how it ratchets up the tension well with its location that we get further expansion on with each arc. And when you get to finish up the series as a whole, even with its open-ended aspect, and see what the larger story of Beatrice is all about, it creates some good replay value in looking at it anew a second time around.