“This is how things are now! You and me, trapped in this moment, endlessly.”
“Then you will spend eternity dying!”
– Doctor Strange and Dormammu, Doctor Strange
Keiichi Maebara moves to a remote mountain village in 1983 and discovers that this seemingly sleepy village conceals a dark secret that has consistently claimed the life of one individual and resulted in the disappearance of another every year during the town’s Cotton-Drifting Festival. At least, this is what Higurashi was originally about: 2020’s Higurashi GOU was quite unexpected and surprising given that KAI had satisfactorily answered all of the questions that Higurashi had raised. Thus, when GOU began airing, the first half of the season felt to be an incomplete retreading of the original Higurashi, as different arcs saw Keiichi and Mion succumb to madness. However, as the story progresses, Rika begins to realise that something is off: having broken the cursed cycle, she finds herself suffering tragedies anew. Rike learns that the culprit is none other than Satoko; after defeating the Yamainu and revealing there never was Oyashiro-sama’s curse, she decides to pursue a future at St. Lucia’s, a prestigious academy for young women. It turns out that Satoko had joined Rika on her journey, but, lacking the academics and social skills to fit in, became increasingly withdrawn. When Keiichi, Rena and Mion invite her and Rika back to Hinamizawa, Satoko begins to long for the days of old and decides to take a walk around, eventually reaching the old storehouse holding the statue of Oyashiro-sama. When she comes into contact with a piece of the statue, she is transported into a void and comes face-to-face with the entity that consents to be known as Eua. Here, Satoko gains the same power Rika has, and vows to do whatever it takes to stop Rika from leaving Hinamizawa, even if it means endlessly killing her best friend to utterly smash her resilence. Satoko’s constant resetting of time begins to be felt across different realities: her uncle, Teppei, begins to realise the horrors he subjected Satoko to and makes amends, while Miyo follows a feeling in her heart and learns her adoptive grandfather had intended her to live a happy life. Miyo decides to stand down from her research, but Satoko capitalises on the moment and takes possession of a vial of agent H-173, promising Eua that Hinamizawa’s fate is now hers to control. From shaky beginnings to a shocking middle and gripping ending, GOU thus sets the stage for the upcoming SOTSU by posing the questions that had allowed Higurashi to be so successful. Despite treading on familiar ground, GOU thus manages to reignite interest in Higurashi and creates a compelling story to follow.
Despite being a question arc, in which the story is only partially told from several viewpoints to pique the viewer’s curiosity and set the table for the big reveal, GOU nonetheless establishes that Higurashi has returned to demonstrate that the notion of a happy ending is only thus from a certain point of view. The outcome of KAI had decisively finished off Higurashi and ostensibly eliminated any chance that evil could rise where it was once buried, but in GOU, this is precisely what happens anyways. In fact, GOU ends up being even more brutal than its predecessor: the instrument of Rika’s suffering is none other than Satoko, and during a particularly horrific episode where Satoko had sawn Rika in half with the ritual hoe, it becomes clear that KAI left Satoko’s wishes unattended; it was Rika who’d defeated her fate to create a path for her future, and nowhere else in GOU was Satoko’s longing more pronounced. While seemingly gratuitous and unnecessary, the reason for such an outcome would later be explored as Satoko found herself increasingly shut out from Rika’s world after the pair had gained admittance to St. Lucia. Melancholy turns to pure hatred, speaking yet again to the horrors that lay dormant. Higurashi had nailed this particular concept, only to demonstrate that despair can be beaten back through hope in KAI. However, with Satoko seemingly holding all of the cards as we leave GOU, it becomes clear that the renewed Higurashi has something else in mind for viewers. GOU had appeared to suggest that an unwillingness to change is an instrument of suffering, causing people to cling to the past, but so far, GOU depicts Satoko as having no remorse, and understanding Rika’s determination only increases her own twisted desire to destroy Rika utterly. The extreme lengths Satoko has gone to in doing a deal with the devil, and the disregard for those around her so long as she achieves her ends, has not been met with a response in equal and opposite manner just yet, but such a path can only be self-destructive: I therefore expect that the upcoming SOTSU will aim to demonstrate the cost of reactionary behaviours, and potentially, how even the foulest and despairing minds can yet be redeemed.
Screenshots and Commentary
- It feels a little strange to be back in Hinamizawa again after six years: as my story goes, I had a friend who had been quite interested to hear my thoughts about it, and so, I kicked off the series in the knowledge that I had also been watching GochiUsa, as well as working on the Giant Walkthrough Brain on the side. While graphic violence has never been something that I do well with, especially in anime, it turns out that Higurashi‘s art style wasn’t of the disturbing sort. So, I shot through the series, found it superbly enjoyable, but also found myself at a loss for words: back in those days, I wasn’t too effective with condensing out an entire series’ worth of thoughts into a single post.
- Thus, the first I’d ever talked about Higurashi here was with Dewbond, a peer blogger with a keen eye for character dynamics and the importance of certain events on a story’s overall messages. Higurashi had left a trail of questions in its wake, but by the second season, KAI, it became clear that Higurashi had been stressing the importance of winning hearts and mind; the tragedies of Hinamizawa are averted when characters learn to forgive past evils and accept one another, as well as demonstrating the patience to hear even one’s foes out in conversation.
- As Dewbond and I mentioned in our collaborations, the Black Ops approach would probably result in total devastation: the reason there is such a disparity between Call of Duty Black Ops and Higurashi, despite both sharing in common ordinary men and women trying to do good in a world entangled in ancient conspiracies and shadowy actors manipulating things from behind the scenes is simply because of their respective genres. Higurashi is about speaking to players, of making good decisions in the shoes of an ordinary person whose small actions can have a massive difference, and Black Ops is a first-person shooter whose entertainment value comes precisely from blowing stuff up.
- GOU‘s portrayal of Hinamizawa brings the place to life with updated visuals. Modelled after Gifu’s Shirakawa, this remote mountain village has a population of two thousand and is host to a unique set of beliefs, with Oyashiro-sama’s curse being the chief of them. With mysterious disappearances and unexplained murders darkening the area, the village was host to the dam conflict, during which villagers succeeded in convincing the government to withdraw approval to construct a hydroelectric dam in the area.
- Classic elements like outrageous club activities, Rika’s nipaa and mii, and Satoko’s trademark ojou-sama laugh all return in GOU: when the series began, it initially felt like a reboot of the original Higurashi and GOU. Familiar elements are presented, along with a lingering sense of mystery and multiple, distinct timelines that sees characters make mistakes and end up committing murder or walking towards their own destruction. However, GOU also had characters demonstrate a vague awareness of the past, as well, akin to what had happened in KAI.
- One of the most memorable events in Higurashi and KAI was when Keiichi gives a doll he’d won at games day to Mion rather than Rena. Originally, this was intended to signify that Keiichi does see Mion as a girl and staves off the outcome where her twin, Shion, succumbs to Hinamizawa Syndrome. A recurring theme in KAI was how small differences in the choices people make can have a knock-on effect on things, and moreover, that if given the choice, people generally would choose to pursue acts that they know will help those around them.
- Angel Mort makes a return in GOU: Keiichi initially believes Mion to be working here, but it turns out to be her twin, Shion. This initially created no shortage of confusion in me during the original series; the pair are tricky to differentiate from one another on the virtue of appearances alone, and instead, it is subtle differences in their personalities that allow one to tell Mion and Shion apart. Mion, despite her tough-talking exterior, is shy and girly at heart, while Shion’s girly personality is a façade masking her violent and unstable traits.
- Detective Kuraudo Ōishi is seen throughout Higurashi, and while he initially appears to be a hostile member of the law enforcement, it turns out his interest in Hinamizawa stems from the death of a friend here and is search for justice. His direct and forward methods leave Hinamizawa’s residents thinking poorly of him, and his words can often imply that he’s no friend of Keiichi’s, but in most arcs, Ōishi is an ally, looking out for the characters and helping them to achieve their goals.
- The frequent resets in GOU betrayed nothing about where the series was headed, but once the series ventures into Satoko’s arc, it becomes clear that something’s off: in KAI, Keiichi leads a titanic effort to get the local government to recognise that Satoko has trouble at home with her uncle, Teppei, and in the end, manage to free Satoko from his clutches. GOU revisits this route in vivid detail, showing that Keiichi takes a very similar route that had originally worked well: he even manages to convince Shion to stand down, feeling that if they were to off him, something worse might happen.
- Convincing child services to support Satoko was an integral part of KAI to show how Keiichi could affect positive change, but in GOU, Satoko’s older brother, Satoshi, is completely absent from the proceedings. Despite doing his best to protect Satoko, Satoshi ended up succumbing to Hinamizawa Syndrome and is currently held at the Irie Clinic, with doctor Kyosuke Irie working tirelessly to cure him and redeem himself from his past misdeeds. Like Satoshi, Kyosuke only shows up briefly in GOU, and only serves to encourage Keiichi on his quest to free Satoko of Teppei’s abuse.
- Despite the success Keiichi has in liberating Satoko from Teppei, GOU ultimately took an unexpected turn when Teppei ambushes Keiichi after he walks Satoko home. While Keiichi is initially caught unawares, he manages to fend off Teppei and kills him, but passes out in the process. Later, it turns out that Ōishi himself succumbed to Hinamizawa syndrome and opened fire on the festival-goers with his service revolver, killing Rika, Satoko, Mion and Shion. This handily undoes everything that was accomplished in KAI and is the turning point in GOU where it becomes clear that there is something affecting the timeline, forcing Rika to suffer anew.
- Whereas GOU had not particularly impressed up until this point, the series decides to then take viewers for a shock-filled ride. Many began wondering what GOU had intended to accomplish with this, as the sudden increase in violence wouldn’t likely be enough to compel one to approach the series with renewed interest when the series’ direction had not appeared clear. This is one of the reasons why I elected not to write about the series while it was airing – Higurashi is a series that is always filled with surprises, and my impressions at any given moment may not be a fair assessment of things, especially when the context isn’t known yet.
- As it was, I sat through a full episode of Rika getting killed off in gruesome ways, some of which have been described by others as “torture porn”. As Rika’s resolve weakens, she decides that if she can’t get to a desirable ending in five attempts, she’ll use the shard of an ancient sword to take her own life. Hanyū, who’d been assisting Rika all this time, is beginning to fade, and without her support, Rika begins to wonder if there is anything left in her world worth fighting for.
- Most infamous of all was when Rika reawakens in a world where Satoko is the one to end up killing Rika: after using a ceremonial implement to cut Rika in half, Satoko administers a high dosage of painkillers and explains to Rika that her actions led to this moment. Without any context, only questions linger: what led up to such a moment, and what could drive Satoko to do this? As painful as it was to continue watching, the enormity of what happens here ultimately has an important role in setting up the remainder of GOU: it is in the series final acts that things really begin to take on an interesting turn.
- It therefore seems especially jarring to switch over to a scene of ordinary summer fun in the rivers of Hinamizawa moments later; Rika’s curse means she is doomed to repeat suffering eternally, and the Rika here seems utterly defeated, playing the part of a beaten individual resigned to the sanctuary of idle days in a remote mountain town. This is a dramatic departure from the Rika we’d previously known, whose resolve had been so great she was willing to spend the equivalent of centuries living those same weeks over and over again in the hope for a better future.
- There’s an uneasy feeling as GOU enters its endgame – while tragedies are seemingly averted, viewers are surprised again when Satoko draws a sidearm on Rika. While Rika retains her memories of her previous loops, that Satoko appears to have knowledge of what’s happening becomes a bit of a surprise. This outcome sets in motion the final story of GOU, and it is a thrilling one once the pieces fall into place.
- GOU thus sends viewers back to the point where Miyo is apprehended once more, and this time, it really does seem like Rika is able to continue on and embrace the future she had been cruelly denied earlier. KAI had ended here on the note that Rika was free to follow whatever her aspirations had been, so this would mark the first time I’ve seen life in Hinamizawa after 1983.
- Rika and Satoko thus enter middle school in 1984, a year when the Soviet Union and her allies boycotted the 1984 Summer Games. While Satoko is content to live life out as she and the others had previously, Rika begins turning her attention towards gaining admittance at St. Lucia, a school that makes ladies out of young woman. Unable to bear the thought of being separated from Rika, Sotoko reluctantly follows suit even as Keiichi and Rena continue to run the club that Mion left behind.
- After a gruelling effort, Satoko manages to pass the entrance exams, but rapidly finds herself falling behind in academics, as well as feeling the culture at St. Lucia’s to be too formal and stuffy for her liking. Despite doing her best, Satoko feels as though Rika is leaving her behind in the past, and resentment grows. The gap between Satoko and Rika’s experiences at St. Lucia is indicative of what the difference between people are when they do something by choice, and those who do something because they have no choice.
- Had Satoko chosen to accept that Rika and her futures diverged, the events of GOU would not occur, and that would correspondingly mean there’d be no SOTSU, either; in real life, people often have guidance as to how they should best handle challenges and difficult decisions such as these, but where common sense and reason may have an influence in reality, stories are written to accommodate the story, and as such, characters act in a way that drives the narrative forwards. Satoko’s choice is therefore logical in the context of Higurashi even if it may seem foolish in reality.
- Satoko’s story really takes off after she and Rika receive an invitation to hang with the old crew in Hinamizawa for old time’s sake, their afternoon is spent retreading old club traditions with Mion, Keiichi and Rena, who are now post secondary students. While times have changed quite a bit, everyone’s still more or less who they were before they’d left, creating an old sense of nostalgia reminiscent whenever I gather with old friends for raclette or other events. By this point in time, Mion’s obtained her operator’s license and is able to transport everyone around without trouble.
- Despite the time that’s passed, some things have evidently not changed: beyond Mion’s love for classic club activities, Rena retains her love for all things kawai and practically bulldozes Keiichi and Satoko into the ground in her haste to hug her. With the catching up over on short order, it’s back to classic club activities again with the same familiar rules and penalties. These moments evoke memories in Satoko and make her yearn for the world to be perpetually trapped in the June of 1983, where all seemed possible. However, resisting change is something that brings upon suffering to varying extents; Satoko’s wish of keeping things as they were have a significant impact on the remainder of GOU.
- While I started my Higurashi journey with a fondness for Rena (bonus points for the fact that Mai Nakahara also voices CLANNAD‘s Nagisa Furukawa), time has led me to appreciate Mion greatly: despite her boisterous nature and a love of creative punishments, Mion is also fiercely loyal to those around her. With an indefatigable resolve and spirit, Mion is the only member of the main group to never fire a shot in anger. In short, she acts as a constant throughout Higurashi, being the energetic club president leader who looks out for her friends while at the same time, embodying the themes that Higurashi strives to convey.
- After the day’s activities end, Mion and the others end up swinging by Angel Mort for dinner, but Satoko uncharacteristically declines, wishing to tread along familiar paths in Hinamizawa. She discovers that the village itself is changing when seeing that Rika’s old house has collapsed from snow load, and when following an instinctive feeling to return to the temple storehouse housing Oyashiro-sama’s statue, Satoko suddenly finds herself transported into a void known as the Sea of Fragments. Here, an enigmatic being greets her and grants her the power to live in loops, feeling Satoko to be an interesting character. She later accepts the name Eua and walks Satoko through the details, helping viewers to fill in gaps in the process.
- Thus, Satoko’s effort to stave off the future where Rika leaves for St. Lucia begins. However, to her frustration, nothing works on Rika: Eua explains that Rika was no stranger to pain, and as such, her determination to escape tragedy had resulted in the fabric of reality reflecting this. It would thus be very difficult for Satoko to find the outcome that she desires: despite imbibing the memories that Rika retained, Satoko is unsuccessful in all of her attempts and winds up committing suicide to gain a fresh start on multiple occasions.
- Satoko’s frustration becomes increasingly apparent with each failed attempt, and one can quickly see how GOU‘s most horrific moment came to fruition: on one of the particularly bad timelines, Satoko’s emotions get the better of her, and she presumably cuts Rika in half before committing suicide again. GOU‘s final act speaks to the dangers of clinging to the past, and while a traditional story would go the route of telling how this negatively impacts the individual, Higurashi boldly chooses to show how much damage can occur when misguided individuals are given the power to affect their fate, but understand little of what this power actually entails.
- Indeed, while Satoko herself certainly hasn’t been made to learn any lessons yet from her actions, her constant resets are beginning to affect the world, to the point where other individuals are beginning to recall memories from alternate timelines. Much as a database lacking normalisation would have many redundant entries, which slows down search and insert operations, the accumulated memories (i.e. data) Satoko’s created appears to be breeding instability in her timeline. As of GOU, no ill effects are noticed yet, but if other works of fiction (including the new MCU mini-series, Loki) are anything to go by, the increasing instability will demand correction in the form of what could be a violent return to equilibrium: for one, I doubt Eua can be bargained with.
- One of the things GOU absolutely succeeded with was showing how even the most irredeemable individuals, if given a second chance, might be able to accept their mistakes and make amends. Teppei had been presented as a wholly detestable character, but towards the end of GOU, after recalling his own sufferings and the pain he’s caused, he attempts to reconcile with Satoko, who is shocked that such a thing could happen. In any other timeline, this would be a pivotal moment that accentuates Higurashi‘s themes, but Satoko seems to be intent on turning even this to her advantage; in a manner of speaking, Satoko has become a greater evil than Teppei and even the Hinamizawa Syndrome itself.
- If I had to guess, Eua would probably be most similar to Death Note‘s Ryuk, who dropped his Death Note in the human world out of boredom. Eua similarly has no concern for Satoko’s well-being and only facilitates her actions because she deems them interesting. Assuming this to be the case, Satoko’s fate would be doomed to be similar to that of Light’s, and it would take a titanic effort from Rika and the others to bring Satoko back from the precipice. This is merely speculation from my end for the present: with SOTSU only a few weeks away, I’m curious to see where things will head. Having said this, Higurashi‘s always been an unpredictable series, and as such, I am not particularly invested in any of my own personal theories: as long as things are compelling, I’ll be happy.
- The stakes are amplified by the fact that Satoko is exploiting Miyo’s change of heart to steal a vial of H-173, which is a chemical agent that induces the same symptoms from Hinamizawa Syndrome. Declaring that she’s now able to dictate when tragedy strikes, Satoko sets off with the determination of obtaining what she feels she is owed, no matter how much suffering occurs. That each timeline is a proper reality in its own right speaks volumes to how callous Satoko’s become: loops had simply made Rika more resilient and understanding of things like kindness, but Satoko’s become more selfish and stubborn. Where these opposing forces meet will doubtlessly form the bulk of SOTSU‘s story.
Higurashi GOU is, like Black Ops: Cold War, something that didn’t necessarily need to be made, but now that it exists, serves as a powerful and enjoyable instalment in their respective franchises, further developing and expanding out their worlds further and giving them a fresh coat of paint. The new character designs in GOU aren’t particularly distracting or jarring, and the updated background artwork is solid. Kenji Kawai returns to score GOU‘s soundtrack and as usual, excels in creating atmosphere for both ordinary and horrifying moments. The story, despite starting off slowly, accelerates wildly towards the end; familiar events and outcomes are gradually displaced by the presence of something much more sinister, and GOU absolutely delivers a stunning reason to give the continuation a go; in the knowledge of what’d been established in Higurashi, and then how things reached a resolution in KAI, GOU shows that there remains a ways to go yet before a new equilibrium can be established. The journey will doubtlessly be a part of SOTSU, and if the trailer is anything to go by, SOTSU will not be pulling any punches at all. I appreciate that some viewers did find the violence to be more brazen than anything seen previously in Higurashi, where things were more implicit, but shock factor aside, the choice to portray things directly is meant to suggest that Higurashi and KAI, being Rika’s stories, had been about the fear that lies within her heart. The open portrayals of violence in GOU, on the other hand, mirror how Satoko is more direct and forward than Rika, acting rashly without thinking things through. It’s a clever bit of a contrast to indicate that GOU is Satoko’s story, and my only remarks here are that, as long as I’m not made to watch heads being mangled in SOTSU, I will accept the more explicit violence as a part of GOU and SOTSU‘s storytelling. With this post in the books, I think that at some point, it’ll probably be prudent to invite Dewbond back – as I’ve demonstrated, my thoughts on Higurashi are feeble at best and lean quite heavily on my making remarks about the series’ unusual connection to the Black Ops series. Having an extra set of eyes on things means being able to really delve into how GOU turned around from being a middle-of-the-road experience to something I’ve become quite excited to check out.