So. Higurashi.

First, some general site news: I am currently building a WordPress site to replace this one, for two reasons: 1) I’m a published author now, [my name].com should go to my site, 2) WordPress has a vastly superior commenting system to Blogger, and 3) I’m doing increasing amounts of non-pony stuff, which is hell on my traffic but great for keeping me from burning out, and I want everything to share one home. Some time in the next week or two, this site will move to the new location (I was hoping for this week, but I appear to have accidentally blown up WordPress to the point that I can no longer access the site dashboard), and mlpomo.blogspot.com (as well as animated-discussions.blogspot.com, not that anyone ever went there) will be redirects to the new site. All articles and comments from all three of my blogger blogs will be imported to the new site, so it will have the full archive. On with today’s thought…

I mentioned Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (English title variably When They Cry: Higurashi or When the Cicadas Cry, depending on who you talk to) when discussing The Art of the Opening, on the grounds that its first season has a really, really good one. That was right before Halloween, and it’s a horror anime, so I started rewatching it.

It is definitely not as good the second time around. The problematic elements are all still there, and once you know all the big twists, it becomes very clear just how poorly put together the series is. Except for some gloriously over-the-top facial expressions, the animation is quite poor. Characters go off-model frequently, motions are simplistic and repetitive, and often bizarrely out of place, as the anime can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a horror series with comedy interludes or slice-of-life interludes, and thus achieves neither.

That last is a serious problem for the writing, as well. The melodrama is frequently too much melo, not enough drama, while the comedy tends to occur at inappropriate times and not be particularly funny. Particularly obnoxious in that regard is Dr. Irie, who is a straight-up pedophile stalking a little girl who is both his patient and his research subject, and his unbelievably creepy comments and intentions regarding Satoko are repeatedly treated as a joke by the framing, even while the characters themselves seem to be under the impression that he’s serious.

The writing also struggles. The need to have a cliffhanger every episode, coupled with the need to fill a preset episode count, combines to produce some very odd pacing. Most noticeable is the final episode of the first arc of the second season, which contains more than seven minutes of flashbacks, mostly to the previous episode but with a few scenes repeated from the same episode, and has characters bizarrely repeating to each other conversations the viewer has already seen. It could not be more obvious that the arc was half an episode short on story, and had to have its ending massively padded.

Characterization is basically non-existent. The main cast are a milquetoast generic boy from the Tenchi Masaki school of bland audience surrogates and his chaste harem of annoying moe archetypes, as cliché a setup as possible for an anime of the 2000s. Characters’ personalities shift between arcs in the first season, not just due to the paranoia afflicting the focus character of each arc, but at random–in early arcs Satoko detests Keiichi, but then suddenly there’s an arc where she looks up to him. In first season Shion hates Satoko, and then in second season she’s Satoko’s surrogate big sister. Small changes between arcs make sense, since they represent alternative possibilities, but complete rewrites of characters and their relationships not so much.

But then, character is always subordinate to plot in this series. Each arc represents a painful combination of characters who have very good reason not to talk being much too open with information (for example, Irie discussing intimate details of a patient’s case, Ooishi’s apparent burning need to tell random teenaged witnesses-who-might-be-suspects the details of his ongoing investigation) and characters refusing to dispense important information for flimsy reasons (or because they’re suffering from a paranoia-inducing contagion). Which happens is entirely about what is most convenient for the plot–characters are chatty when the building of suspense requires a reveal, and taciturn when they know something that might prevent the string of murders about to occur.

And yet… the core premise is really good. There are few reveals in anime as jarring as episode 5 of the first season, as characters we just saw die in the previous episode are now up and about, few creeping realizations as simultaneously satisfying and disturbing as realizing we’ve gone back to episode 1, but it’s happening differently now. The mystery is revealed slowly but steadily in a way that suggests there actually is an answer, unlike most serialized mystery/conspiracy plotlines (see The X-Files for one of the most famously obnoxious examples). Clearly, there’s something compelling here, enough so that the show by and large gets away with shallow, sexist characterization and cheap animation.

4 thoughts on “So. Higurashi.

  1. Well I think one thing that helps is that there WAS an answer, from square one. My understanding is that the visual novels (which I've never read) for both this and Umineko were basically written and drawn by one person, which is one of the most likely ways to net you a coherent narrative (though not guaranteed). And he probably didn't have anyone pressuring him to produce X episodes and do the big finish on sweeps week. So the plot knew where it was going and went there with proper pacing, and because it knew where it was going it looked like it knew where it was going.

    You can't fake knowing where you're going, usually. X-Files couldn't, Babylon 5 couldn't. Either you know where you're going from the start or your story will run in place.

    Now port it over to a different medium, convince the execs not to force any filler episodes/arcs on you, and even if you screw it up a bunch in the transition that still gives it an advantage over the typical stuff that's a slave to the exec's desire to keep it going as long as it makes money. My understanding is that the anime for both series are utter hack-jobs compared to the original VN, but that still puts their plot far above a crowd of things that weren't written with the goal of having a good plot.

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  2. Good point.

    X-Files couldn't, Babylon 5 couldn't.

    Agreed on The X-Files, but Babylon 5 did such a good job of faking that it knew where it was going that TO THIS DAY people are astounded when they look at the original plan and see how unrecognizable the series that actually resulted is. I think it helps that Babylon 5 always had a planned ending. Even when that ending shifted as a result of events along the way, it remained a destination toward which the series could work. It ends up a more-or-less coherent path, just with a few odd turns along the way.

    convince the execs not to force any filler episodes/arcs on you

    Quite the opposite: The developer convinced the execs to add an extra arc to the second season to clarify plot elements he felt the first season skimmed over.

    I find most visual novels borderline intolerable, so I'm glad they made anime. I should watch the sequel series sometime.

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  3. If the author himself thinks some of his plot points need more explanation for everything to make sense, I think by definition it's not a filler arc.

    I can promise you that most of the complaints you had for Higurashi don't carry over to Umineko–the protagonist is no longer a flavorless cardboard cutout, none of the female characters are especially helpless or struck me as being moe archetypes (the only child in the cast is a fangirl of the villains who they were trying to make creepy, not that they really pulled it off), the pacing is amazingly tight and I don't recall anyone acting wildly out of character between arcs (also the differences between arcs are the result of deliberate scheming rather than random chance). You're especially not stuck with a frustratingly helpless protagonist for half the series. That said, I know that so many plot points got left out or mangled that fans of the VN were livid and it'll probably never get a second season once the VN finishes. (Plus, probably because they weren't expecting another season anytime soon they shoehorned in a “climactic” showdown at literally the halfway point of the story, only for the other villains to comment on how every last thing he just said was wrong as a sequel hook).

    Also, it has some of the best music of any anime ever and noone will convince me otherwise.

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  4. Umm, that said, trigger warning for horribly unhealthy family dynamics including at least two abusive parent-daughter relations, though I think only the more disturbing of those two got any real focus during the anime. Though if anything the victims of the above get more accomplished in their respective arcs than almost anyone save the main character and the villains, so they're hardly helpless.

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