13 Days of Halloween with The Owl in the Rafters: Day 12

Posted on Oct 30 2011

Welcome to my Mischief Night review in this 13 Days of Halloween horror marathon! I usually try to avoid doing things like this in most cases, but for just tonight I’ll stir up a little bit of trouble and take the time to bash a series that I really don’t like. It is poorly constructed, poorly written, has hideous art and design, and really does just about everything it tried to do wrong. Despite this it did sort of stand alone on the stage of horror anime when it first came out and maybe just because of its perfectly generic and simplistic approach to horror it has been easy enough to understand that it has clung to its popularity long enough to merit a long line of anime and manga, despite all of them being remarkably poorly written. (Ok, to be fair I haven’t read the light novels, so I can’t speak on those, but to my understanding they’re mostly side-stories anyhow.)

I could blame any number of people for this: producers for looking for an easy hit and underfunding, the original Visual Novel creator for having truly horrendous artistic skill, the various art directors and manga artists who failed or refused to correct that artistic problem, or even just a plebeian audience for buying into this garbage. The title is of course the controversial Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Lit. “When the Cicadas Cry“) aka When they Cry. You can expect this review to but ever so slightly biased, if only because I haven’t seen this show since it came out so had to marathon both seasons plus the OVA of this crap in order to write this review, and nothing puts me in a sour mood more than having to sit through 55 episodes and 180 chapters of bad writing and bad art. I did not manage to replay anything from the VN series for this however. I’m not made of time. (For the sake of simplicity I’m not going to touch Umineko no Naku Koro ni as a part of this.)

First off let me just start by breaking down every major artistic issue with this monstrosity. Like the fact that the little girls have heads the width of their hips, eyes bigger than their fists, fists that can fit in their mouths, and wrists thin enough to fit between their eyes. These are not things generally passable as “stylistic” choices, this is just poor artistic skill. xxxHolic (and anything by CLAMP really) sports very obviously disproportionate human anatomy in their character design but manages to present it in a way that is stylistically attractive, Madhouse Studio’s adaptations of Akagi and Kaiji make use of stylized appropriations of was was originally downright bad art, but Higurashi makes next to no effort in rectifying the VN’s original terrible art, and none what so ever to appropriate the terrible character design into something passable. The hair may not be terribly preposterous by most anime standards, but outrageous hair quickly saps any and all potential for intimidation from a character for me, and in a series where everyone is a crazy axe murderer at some point, that’s kind of important. If I can’t take a character seriously in the first place I can’t very well feel any sort of fear towards the character.

In regards to not being able to take anything seriously, the entire slice-of-life/comedy element of the show is entirely superfluous. It adds nothing: it doesn’t make the characters any more sympathetic, it doesn’t ease the audience into any sense of relaxation, and it barely even manages to expound upon the setting in which all the events take place. Half the time the important exposition comes from the main character just asking someone a question and then the show launches into a 5 minute exposition with padding of stupid shenanigans filling out the 5 minutes to either side. The only real piecing together comes between various different tellings of the story, which makes each isolated telling of the story stiff, bland, and ultimately just plain boring. To compare it to another psychological thriller that plays upon elements of slice-of-life, Bokurano uses the slice-of-life sequences of the story to help drive home the importance and gravity of how the supernatural is disrupting the characters’ daily lives, and gradually this pressure on their normal lives pushes them over the edge. This is how slice-of-life should be properly integrated into a horror, by relating and contrasting the two. Higurashi fails at this at every turn, and considering the slice-of-life takes up nearly half the show in both seasons that is not something I’m willing to just brush off like a bad joke or gag shoehorned in at the wrong moment, but only once.

I’ll give a brief explanation for anyone who somehow hasn’t heard of this show yet, or at least hasn’t seen it and doesn’t know about the format in which the story is told. The story follows a young boy, Keiichi, who has moved out into a rural town and gets wrapped up in a crazy “super natural” conspiracy involving the town and its history. The story is broken into various different versions of the same general span of time with differing details in some events. What this means is that the main character dies multiple times, and every time he does, the next episode resets the whole story to the last major relevant event. I suppose this was meant to give a sense of eerie reoccurrence, or some sense of fated doom, but frankly it just feels like watching someone trying to play a game that he really sucks at and keeps resetting and reloading every time he screws things up. The background stories are all consistent no matter how many times the story gets reset and ultimately every single character has some melodramatic history and the entire main cast turns crazy at some point, and everyone kills someone else at some point. It is just as convoluted as it sounds.

Another thing, trying to use cute girls in a horror series? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make the sudden homicidal murderous streaks any less expected, it certainly doesn’t add anything to the level of intimidation or fear, and it only goes to emphasize the aforementioned artistic setbacks. I may be at some small disadvantage here because I don’t quite get the whole “little girls kicking ass is awesome” trend. (I absolutely hated Hit-girl in Kick-Ass, both comic and movie, yet she practically hijacked the film’s lead role.) It’s not a wacky or fresh new spin on things, it doesn’t break old character limitations or gender roles, it’s just physiologically impractical in most cases. Speaking of unbelievability, while it does get some sort of explanation, although a dubious one even within the world of the story, the very fact that these little girls are all effectively hiding either their entire life or a serious clinical mental illness is not good character writing. When every character “snaps” in a way that totally betrays every established facet of their character up until that point, that is not what you would call consistent character writing; “Convenient” character writing better suits it. A murderer usually ought to have some combination of motive and means to push them towards murder not just for the sake of the plot, but when the motives are all petty and the means always boil down to “she’s crazy/possessed” that is not good writing.

To be perfectly honest I don’t actually hate everything about the Higurashi series, there are some small elements of the story that I actually think had a lot of potential, all of which went unfulfilled. Other than the things I’ve gone over already another major issue was the use of horror elements at all. Having inner monologues give exposition on EVERY tiny little event or thought the character has, no matter how obvious it was in the first place, is one of those stupid little quirks that anime tends to do regardless of genre, but in a horror series it really takes away from the suspense when the character comes to a horrifying realization and then stares blankly for another minute and a half while his inner monologue explains that he just came to a horrifying realization. By the time he’s done his inner monologue he’s still scared stiff, but the audience’s tension level more than likely subsided the moment time stopped, the camera zoomed in, and he started speaking.

Also the soundtrack is so perfectly generic and sickeningly boring that it nearly brings me to tears. Every single little attempt at a “twist” is led up to with a typically “scary” crescendo and the entire series makes virtually no effective use of silence. Generally some degree of unpredictability either in the plot itself or just from scene to scene is essential to creating a good horror and Higurashi lacks any and all unpredictability in every aspect. It did try to be unpredictable with its open ending but frankly, by the time I got to the end, I had already stopped caring about the mystery. As important as an unpredictable end is, if the path getting there is still eye-rollingly bland then it doesn’t matter what the ending is.

The setting also needs to be believable and engrossing. The rural Japanese setting is a common one used for nostalgic appeal in anime, but the town is so unconnected and inactive throughout most of the story that it doesn’t feel real -scenes cut and the kids are magically transported from place to place, most of which don’t even seem like parts of the same town. It’s like watching someone put together a puzzle where the pieces fit by shape by the image is all wrong- but more importantly it just isn’t interesting. There’s no curiosity about the town, how it works, or who lives there. It just feels like a cardboard set and fails to call you to want to explore or examine more of of it, and again in a horror story curiosity is essential. The build up throughout the story is just so boring and then when the climax takes place there’s no real satisfying pay-off for the viewer/reader.

I mentioned art already, but can I also point out again that the character designs are utter crap? Seriously, the outfits in half the characters make absolutely no sense. Either because of actual clothes or just the color choices. Brightly and unnaturally colored anime clothes, hair, and eyes don’t help this as it very seriously distracts from the whole horror element as well. Shiki actually managed to turn this fault into a very stylish appeal point with high contrast colors practically glowing in the dark of the abundant night time scenes, but Higurashi accomplishes no such feat. In general Higurashi just fails to create an air of discomfort. Even in scenes that seem to stick to tried and true horror formula, like scenes alone at night, or in a room alone, somehow miss the mark and fail to give even a proper sense of isolation, let alone dread or paranoia. It’s actually almost impressive that they don’t manage to accidentally do at least one thing right throughout the entire series. Admittedly the manga manages to at least convey a better mood, even if the sense of fear is still totally lacking from key moments, but the anime manages to go episode to episode without feeling like it’s even trying to scare or unsettle the audience.

Also a serious problem is that the voice acting (at least in the original Japanese, I can’t account for the dubs) is mostly terrible. To be fair, the conversations aren’t awful, though they certainly aren’t anything special either, but the cast falls flat at all of the most important scenes. For as many breakdowns, freak outs, and psychotic cracks that occur throughout the show, not a one of them is well acted, which seems absolutely ludicrous. You’d think that when casting for a horror series that you’d cast almost entirely based on the actor’s ability to do a reasonable scream, yell, or manic laugh.

Then there is of course the notorious gore element, which is most of what seems to bother people, but quite frankly the only real thing the torture scenes have going for them is that they aren’t very clever so they actually show you every little bit of violence, but really when the art quality is as piss poor as it is, there’s not even any sense of squeamish sickness or fear. I mentioned it yesterday, but Audition actually takes a slightly similar approach to body horror with prolonged torture scenes, but unlike Higurashi manages to make a truly disturbing and compelling torture scene without showing any graphic violence and often carried purely by lead actor Ishibashi Ryo’s ability to scream like a man caught fire even while he himself is off screen. The insertion of needles and drawing of blood was audible through his voice even if you couldn’t see it. There was no such power in any of the performances in Higurashi, and certainly while I wouldn’t expect a handful of all remarkably young anime, video game, and drama CD voice actors to measure up to the talent of an actor like Ishibashi, the gap in performances is well beyond what I would be willing to attribute to just a difference in professional experience. Also, even by gore standards, there have been more graphic depictions of gore in action shows from the 80s, with more detail put into the flying entrails, breaking limbs, and exploding heads. When your attempt at a dark and gritty horror scene is outclassed by heroic beat’em up I think that’s the clearest sign that you failed at your job.

Again though, I do like certain core elements of Higurashi apart from the writing, like the actual story of the town and the idea of a time loop in a horror story, and the question of what real effects the supernatural element had in the mystery or if it was just one big conspiracy among the townspeople, but in the end the execution was just sloppy. It couldn’t set the mood properly, it wasn’t even remotely unsettling, the gore was too poorly drawn to be sickening, and it was too predictable for jump scares. So, in the absence of any real elements of horror, the characters were uninteresting and unsympathetic, the mystery was inconclusive, and the pacing of the plot was so slow that it could barely hold my attention from episode to episode, and when there was some plot advancement it frequently happened in one sudden 3-5 minute long information dump rather than gradually over the course of an episode. With a better rewrite of the script, an abridged version of the plot, better suited voice actors, better character designs, better artwork, and better animation, it could have been a decent and even unique horror story, (sort of like a Nightmare on Elm Street crossed with Groundhog Day) but with that many issues left to correct I really don’t see any justifications in calling Higurashi no Naku Koro ni anything but a waste of potential, waste of resources, and waste of time.

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  • nerdwerld October 30, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    I can see where you are going with saying Higurashi has very awesome elements in sense of writing, and the way they attempt of using the time loop. Personally I liked the show, and your criticism of it is right on. The art is not that great, but again animation is expensive. I don’t know if they were on a budget like Evangelion, or just put something together quick, and gave us what they did complete. Is it bad that I consider Higrashi at times not to be horror, but instead comedy? I laugh whenever I watch the death/torture scenes.

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