“Do not fuck with me, Maebara: I know when you’re lying!” –Jason Hudson
As the sun began setting on a quiet June evening in 2014, the land was cast in a warm golden light, and shadows began lengthening in my neighbourhood. I had been home, recovering from a minor operation to my jaw, and had remained home to recuperate. At the time, the Giant Walkthrough Brain project was well under way, and I’d planned my summer accordingly to ensure that this day wouldn’t impact the progress. During my time off, I decided to check out Higurashi: When They Cry at the behest of a friend. Intrigue seized me within an episode, and I managed to go through the entire first arc in an afternoon. The mysteries that Hinamizawa held were compelling, and far more than the horrific scenes of death, murder and torture, Higurashi: When They Cry‘s intrigue lay in the precise nature behind what is colloquially known as Oyashiro-sama’s Curse. As timelines reset, and I learnt more about this remote, sleepy village in deep in Gifu’s forest valleys, the enigma only deepened. After twenty-six episodes, what was known is that Oyashiro-sama’s Curse was an area myth designed to conceal something much more sinister: an unusual virus of unknown origin, and closes with a confrontation at the school. A striking horror-mystery, Higurashi: When They Cry caused quite a bit of a stir when it aired owing to its graphic portrayal of violence and immersive story. The questions posed in Higurashi: When They Cry would later be addressed in Higurashi: When They Cry Kai, and the end result was an exceptional journey of comprehension, friendship and overcoming fate itself. Of course, before reaching such a conclusion, it makes sense to revisit Higurashi: When They Cry‘s beginnings, and this time, I welcome Dewbond of Shallow Dives in Anime to look over things in details that are relevant to the story.
- Until today, I’ve only ever mentioned Higurashi in the passing, usually for my Call of Duty: Black Ops related talks. I’m not sure if my perspective is widely shared, but I found that as disparate as Higurashi and Black Ops are, notions of madness, loyalty, doing what’s right and sinister hidden agendas are themes both series touch on during their run. Discussing series outside of my comfort zone with other bloggers is always an exciting thing, and before we delve into the main body of this post, I would like to note that the door is always open for collaborations: they’re a fantastic way for me to explore series in ways I’d not thought about.
It’s been a while since our last collaboration, and an even longer time since I watched Higurashi: When They Cry in full; I finished both seasons while working on the Giant Walkthrough Brain, and had absolutely found myself hooked by this series for its combination of horror and thriller elements. On one hand, there’s a mystery to figure out, but on the other, as I became familiar with Higurashi: When They Cry, it was apparent that every step forward would only result in suffering and death. However, the accumulated details all contribute in a meaningful way to unraveling Hinamizawa’s secrets, and while I may have forgotten the specifics, it is most fortuitous that Dewbond is here to offer his insight and thoughts into a series that has become very well-known. Higurashi: When They Cry is a massive series, and the sheer scope of its writing can initially appear overwhelming. Dewbond: you’ve come from a relatively recent journey through Higurashi: When They Cry (Higurashi from here on out for brevity’s sake); where would be a good place to start this party?
Thanks for having me back here Zen. As you say, I’ve only recently watched Higurashi, having jumped into it in the tail end of 2020. That was because, what we thought of the time, it was going to be remade, and I wanted to see what everyone was saying about the series. Having grown up in the fan-sub era, Higurashi was a series that was on everyone’s lips. A must see classic that was to many, their first steps into the horror genre. I think they couldn’t have picked anything better. Having watched both seasons, I can say that Higurashi earns those accolades and more.
As Higurashi is a series broken up into question and answer arcs, I think it would be best to discuss the first season as a whole, instead of going through piece by piece. I found that after I finish the first half, and without the knowledge of what was to come that the series did a wonderful job at being an episodic splatterfest, and that the constant shifting of characters and roles kept things fresh.
Who was the hero, the villain, the by-standers, the victims, it all kept constantly changing throughout the first half, and it made the show feel like, as Forrest Gump says, a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get. Did you have that same feeling Zen?
The big-picture approach makes sense, and works because, since it has been six years since I binged this series, I’ve forgotten the smaller details! First, there was getting past the initial hurdle that was the violence! It was never the blood, guts and gore that bothered me, but rather, the psychological aspects behind it. The healthy human mind doesn’t have an inclination to take another human being apart, piece-by-piece, or desecrate a corpse, after all. The brutal contrast between Keiichi, Rena, Mion, Shion, Rika and Satoko’s happy, everyday life and the horrific acts they inflict upon one another while under the effects of Oyashiro-sama’s curse immediately made it clear that the story in Higurashi was going to be anything but conventional.
Higurashi‘s first season was indeed an unpredictable box of active grenades: as insanity claims a perpetrator and victim alike in each of the arcs, Higurashi constantly kept us viewers guessing what would happen next. There was no precedence, no prior series that did anything quite like it; if Higurashi intended to grip viewers with a story that kept us viewers guessing, it certainly succeeded. After each of the question arcs, I felt like I was no closer to understanding what Oyashiro-sama’s curse was. However, seeing Keiichi and the others, time and time again, enjoying life in Hinamizawa, made one thing abundantly clear: no matter what atrocities were committed, I never once faulted them, counting the extraordinary circumstances in Hinamizawa as being the cause of their suffering, and so, over time, the shock of the violence became replaced by a sense of pity, as well as intrigue. Having Keiichi and his friends thus became a grounding rod of sorts for me: there was reason to follow the developments and see what awaited the characters.
They are very much a sort of grounding rod like you said, and the first half round of the series lives and dies on those characters. Despite the blood and gore, and the constant shifting if who is good or bad, the central cast is incredibly important.
What really stands out, is that despite being friends, and that friend being what carries the day in the final timeline, they are also people who aren’t ‘that’ close to each other. The paranoia, the fear, and most all the dark secrets. Despite the humor and good nature, all of them have a dark side, and when that is brought out by the Syndrome, we can see how quickly that friendship can fall apart.
That was always something that really pulled me in, something that a few animes do. When the ‘animeness’ of the characters is stripped away, when the illusion drops and instead they closely resemble real humans, with anger, rage, and violence. The best example in the first half is seeing Rena in the first question arc. The cutesy-kawaii girl, so common in that era, lose her absolute fucking mind is still really damn unsettling.
Rena herself is probably the mascot character of the show, and while the crown of most fucked up goes to Shion/Mion, she’s a close runner up. What do you think of our knife-wielding girl who just wants to take things home?
It suddenly strikes me that Higurashi represents, from a pessimist’s perspective, a very visceral representation of humanity as a whole – we’re only as nice as the system allows us to be, and in this case Oyashiro-sama’s curse feels like a simple catalyst that brings out the madness and irrationality amongst Rena, Keiichi and the others. In this case, the horror really lies in what acts ordinary people are perhaps capable of perpetrating when pushed over the edge. It’s a darkness that lies in all of us, and admittedly, I fear that quite a bit. It’s a thought that I have to willfully push out of my mind. Higurashi seems to be reminding viewers that madness is like gravity, requiring only a little push. Thus, when it comes to Rena, the contrast between her usual self and her paranoid, violent self is dramatic. Under ordinary conditions, Rena is the sort of person who brings the heart and warmth to a group – she’s a lot like CLANNAD’s Nagisa Furukawa in this way, gently reassuring the others and of course, possesses her infamous kawaii~ mode.
Especially through Rena, I think that the difference here is really to emphasise what fear, isolation and being left alone with one’s thoughts can do to people. Of course, even without the influence of Oyashiro-sama’s curse, Rena can be an intimidating individual, and for the viewer, this means that we’re never too certain what her next move will be. This uncertainty creates that suspense that makes Higurashi continually unexpected, and it does lead to the ever-present feeling that in Hinamizawa, Keiichi does not have anyone to reliably count on. Of course, despite her negative traits, when Rena is sane and rational, I always found her reactions to kyute things hilarious: she might be a brutal murderer when pressed, but where circumstances allow it, Rena is friendly, soft-spoken and kind. This puts her in sharp contrast with Mion Sonozaki, who is boisterous and always keeping an eye out for those around her. While Rena might be the scariest character for her unrestrained moments of insanity, however, I personally count Mion and Shion to be terrifying in their own right when pushed. Dewbond, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the heir of the Sonozaki family.
You are right to say that Rena is soft spoken and kind, but there is also a brutal edge to her, and put aside the insanity of the syndrome, there is, like I said, a deep dark side to her. The ability to commit murder, to turn from kawaii cute, to deeply unsettling is not something you just get from a sickness, it’s always there. That to me was one of the great thing that Higurashi did, and why I think it has become so beloved among the fan-sub generation. It pulls off the mask of cute anime girls and reveals that they are just as capable of doing things that can turn your stomach.
That is no better seen with the story of Shion and Mion. To compare to a western show. If Rena is the ending of Game of Thrones season 1, then Shion and Mion’s question and answer arc is the Red Wedding. Everyone who watches this show, or grew up in that era knows the moments, the gifs, the maddening laughter of the Sonozaki runner-up. Shion, being the most distant of the gang doesn’t seem to do much at the start, but when you get to her answer arc, you see that the author of Higurashi is a master at mystery and the revelations are some of anime’s best.
What really floored me, even months later, was the sheer cruelty of it all. While Rena’s madness can be tossed up to classic horror tropes, Shion’s is intense hatred, black as coal, and made only worse by the syndrome and the seemingly cold reaction from her sister. I’ll always find Mion’s ability to switch from happy-go-lucky group leader, to serious and no-nonsense family head to be damn effective. Not even her beloved sister is spared, even if there is great regret for it later.
As for Shion? Her one-sided love for Satoshi, who may not even had noticed her feelings drives her to do more and more irrational things, culminating in the brutal murder of Satoko who is, as we should remember, an ten or eleven year old girl. Having just come off Redo of Healer, not even that show can hold a candle to some of the moments Shion dishes out.
I want to know your thoughts on the sisters too Zen, but were you aware that Shion and Mion are not actually who they say they are, that they are actually their opposites? Shion was born Mion and Mion was born Shion? A single day where they switched identities for fun led them to be branded for life. I don’t think it was ever covered in the anime.
I am indeed aware of the switch. I think late in the first season (or somewhere in the second?), it was mentioned that the real Mion is Shion, and vice versa. That revelation had my head spinning, and it took me a little while to really get in my mind what happened. The switch, of course, makes Shion’s madness all the more apparent. Even under normal circumstances, Shion is manipulative and calculating; although her manner (especially towards Keiichi) might seem flirtatious and innocent, her choice of words and body language is indicative of someone who knows they’re in control. I do wonder if this is a consequence of the switch she and Mion had made years previously: since she and Mion constantly switch places, it is possible that Shion suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. If this were to be the case, in conjunction with her own insecurities, jealousy of Mion and inclination towards violence, Shion has the makings of a ticking time bomb. I think that her tortue of Satoko was probably one of the most brutal scenes in Higurashi, a shining example of where the series took things.
On Mion’s end, I’ve always been a bit more fond of her, even with the fact that she is the Sonozaki heir: unlike Shion, who conceals her cruelty and hate behind a friendly façade, Mion puts on a brave front, acting as the responsible leader amongst her group of friends, and her actual personality is someone who is shy and hesitant. Similarly, Mion’s serious manner when carrying out her duties as the Sonozaki heir suggests that she’s someone who never does anything halfway. Even after she orders Shion to tear out her own fingernails towards one of the end of an arc, I always got the impression that Mion is simply someone who would go to any lengths to defend what is dear to her, and as she never succumbs quite like the other characters do, it creates the sense that Mion is a reliable constant for keeping everyone else in check, too.
Mion is absolutely a leader, and we see it throughout each different arc. She’s a natural at it, often bringing the townspeople together and keeping her friends on the right path, but yes, she does that have that super serious mode like when she confronts her sister. However, it also comes with empathy, and we see that Mion tears out her own fingernails in order to try and share some of the suffering. She didn’t do what she did because she thought her sister was wrong, only because it was her responsbility as a clan head.
I always found that Mion herself was a character underused by the story, because most of what we see of her in the Sonozaki focused arcs is indeed Shion. I do agree that Shion herself is a character who seems to suffer from an identity crisis, and how fast she clings to Satoshi says to me that she seeks a place to belong, or someone who will love her unconditionally, or at least gives her security. We see how, when influneced by the syndrome, how little she thinks of Keiichi. To Shion, he is an imposter, taking over the role that Satoshi was suppose to have, and she can’t stand it.
One thing I want to note before we discuss Satoko, is that the Syndrome, despite being the cause, may only be a trigger for deeper, repressed memories and actions. While it does drive them all mad, I do think it also provides Rena, Keiichi and Shion an outlet for their madness. Taking the ‘safety off’ in some regards. They would always end up like this if they were pushed far enough. What do you think Zen?
Hinamizawa Syndrome, informally known as Oyashiro-sama’s Curse, is probably my single favourite aspect of Higurashi. Until it was revealed that the frightening events awaiting Keiichi, Rena, Mion, Shion, Rika and Satoko had a scientific basis, the series remained a supernatural horror. The murders and disappearances that Oyashiro-sama’s Curse seems outside the characters’ control, and viewers were gripped in a state of constant uncertainty. It shows us how easily people can lose their shit, and the unspeakable acts of evil they can commit when no longer bound by reason. The true terror, of course, is the suggestion that anyone could be a monster. Admittedly, this is a thought I am, again, uneasy with: in Eli Wiesel’s Night, Wiesel relates his shock that civilised beings were reduced to grovelling on all fours like a beast during times of difficulty. The characters’ powerlessness had done an excellent job of conveying the horror aspects of Higurashi, but seeing each of Keiichi, Rena, Mion, Shion, Rika and Satoko suffer was heart-wrenching.
However, with knowledge that Oyashiro-sama’s Curse was an unknown agent that inflicted mental breakdown in its victims, a topic of research, suddenly turned things around for the characters. Initially, this seems counterintuitive: I personally would have guessed that Hinamizawa Syndrome is caused by an unknown neurotopic, thermodependent, barodependent pathogen. Viruses are intimidating entities in their own right, insidiously hitching their way into a cell and hijacking its processes to ensure its own survival, often without concern for the host’s well-being. A virus that affects the nervous system would be especially frightening, and while I would love to say that Hinamizawa Syndrome is fictional, its effects on the victim are not dissimilar to the rabies virus, which attacks nerve cells and makes its way into the central nervous system. The symtoms manifest as aggression, mania and even paralysis. Similarly, there are viruses that are most active under a certain temperature range, and other viruses only become active under certain atmospheric pressures. Suddenly, the pathogen causing Hinamizawa Syndrome doesn’t seem so far-fetched: paranoia and formication do seem within the realm of what an entity can cause.
While viruses are not exactly a topic to be taken lightly, especially in light of recent events, the revelation that Hinamizawa Syndrome might have a viral origin, one that has been researched for a long time, also has an unusual, but effective impact on Higurashi: it gives viewers hope that the characters can overcome their inner darkness, however slim the odds are. Much as how placing faith in a rapidly-developed, novel vaccine in the face of a devastating virus is a gamble, the knowledge that Hinamizawa Syndrome has a biological origin initially seems of little comfort. However, seeing things from a scientific perspective means appreciating that a solution might just exist, no matter how small the probability is. For the first time, viewers get the sense that there is hope for Rika and the others. The fact that Hinamizawa Syndrome has a biological component affects each of the characters differently, but this would’ve been especially hard on Satoko, whose older brother, Satoshi, contracted Hinamizawa Syndrome and was taken away for study. This was devastating for her, and taken together with her family life, cannot have been easy for her.
Satoko was the character I wanted to talk about last, because she has the moment that is frankly the most disturbing, not only in the series, but also among anime in general. Anime characters going crazy is no real surprise, and even the insanity of Higurashi ends up becoming a bit blunted (but never not effective) by the end. What doesn’t though, is Satoko’s panic attack at the school. The terror, the vomiting, the constant apologizing, the denials of her trauma. All of it is deeply disturbing because it is real. Such things have no doubt happen to real people, and seeing such a proud and haughty young girl be so effected by her abusive uncle is very unsettling. It’s the one moment where Higurashi ‘gets real’ and in many ways it is the series most horrific moment.
I discussed this before when I gave my thoughts on Emergence, one of the most infamous hentai manga. The horror and shock value doesn’t come from the sex, or in this case the gore. Yes that works in the short term, but it is not what I remember Higurashi for (ok, well I’ll probably never forget many scenes, but run with me here).
I remember those brief moments where the line between fiction and reality are blurred, and an anime is able to almost perfectly capture a moment like it was real life. Sakoto’s abuse and the reaction she has is one of the moments and it hits hard. It’s made even worse by the constant stonewalling of Child Protection, and the truth that Satoko ‘cried wolf’ once before. Zen, did you feel the same way?
As you state, Dewbond, the horror in Satoko’s story does indeed come from the abuse she suffers at the hands of her uncle, and the fact that despite Keiichi et al.’s efforts to help her, they are initially unsuccessful. Moreover, viewers are forced into the others’ perspective – since we have no idea what precisely is happening to Satoko, our minds empathise with Keiichi. Higurashi succeeds here in making the viewers feel as helpless as Keiichi does; in reality, child abuse is an appalling act of depravity, and Satoko’s previous actions only further obfuscate things. Yes, Satoko is an integral part of the cast, and a valuable friend in difficult times, but given her usual antics, it is difficult to ascertain what’s going on with any confidence. Satoko further mentions that toughing it out seems to be the only way of bringing Satoshi back, and for me, this was probably the worst of it: a promise that was unlikely to ever be fulfilled. Her suffering is a recurring point throughout Higurashi, and from a narrative perspective, acts as a vital juncture for determining what fates await everyone.
In the first season of Higurashi, an impulse and brash Keiichi is only able to see what’s in front of him and ultimately kills Teppei, before suffering the consequences for his action. This was to demonstrate what awaits those who act rashly – yes, Teppei’s treatment of Satoko is reprehensible, but by taking the law into his own hands and taking a life, he sets himself down a path of no return. The second season has Keiichi stopping to consider what possible alternatives there might be to save Sakoto; by calling on help and pushing the Sonozakis to step in, Keiichi and the others save Satoko, allowing the authorities to do their job. If the first season had been about the cost of acting out of incomplete information, then the second season suggests the power of cooperation and putting faith in others.
I think that beyond being a visceral portrayal of child abuse, Satoko’s story is perhaps the best indicator of what Higurashi is about: alone, Keiichi, Rena, Mion, Shion, Rika and Satoko are powerless against forces like Hinamizawa Syndrome, Tokyo and fate itself. Blood is spilt, characters descend to madness and suffering results. However, in being open and honest, both with one another, and those around them, they can find allies in the most unexpected of places and build the future that they seek. The question arcs isolate the characters and demonstrate their outcomes if they attempt to solo their challenge, and the answer arcs show an outcome where the characters, aware of what pitfalls lie ahead if they act rashly, make choices that are more sustainable for the long term. In doing so, this creates a superbly powerful story around Higurashi‘s original two seasons, and it is reasonable to say that this is where Higurashi truly excels: while the series might be a horror, it also suggests that the darkness within us, while ever present, is quelled and displaced by light when there are people in our corner.
I think you say it, as always, better than I could. There is a great degree of loneliness among the characters of Higurashi, and that syndrome high focuses on the bad and negative aspects of those feelings.
As we wrap up our look at the first season, I will that on its own, the first half of Higurashi is a masterwork in classic horror. The episodic nature, the way that questions are asked and answered, and how the mystery becomes bigger and bigger is still, even over a decade later, the default example in my mind, of how it do it. I like what you say about how Keiichi first tries to take matters into his own hands, and then realizing that he has to work within the system and use pressure, not a baseball bat. It’s a heartwarming end to the first half, but of course as with everything Higurashi, there is darkness in every corner.
What is even better though, is how Higurashi is able to do what so few series are capable up. Have a perfect paradigm shift in genre and tone. But we’ll talk about that, and the true hero, and villain of the series, next time.
Unsettling and gripping, Higurashi‘s first season is the shining example of what horror is – exiting this first season, it feels like the deck is completely stacked against our protagonists. I’ve always held horror to be a genre defined by the protagonists’ inability to respond to a threat. While broadly referring to a genre designed to evoke thoughts of fear or revulsion in viewers, an effective horror makes known to viewers just how powerless a given group of characters are against their foe. Seeing arc upon arc conclude in a bloody fashion, Higurashi has driven this point home and then some.
However, as you’ve stated, Dewbond, we undergo a change in Higurashi by the second season: having established what is, and how incomplete information results in grisly ends for Keiichi and the others, Higurashi Kai turns things around in a manner that, until then, was something I’d certainly never seen before.
- For folks wondering, I am indeed watching Higurashi: Gou this season. I was initially curious to see what the project would be about, and insofar, it’s been a curious journey so far. It goes without saying that Gou requries Higurashi to fully appreciate, since there are references back to the original. I’ll probably do a talk on the entire Higurashi series, from the original season back in 2006 all the way to the events of Gou in the future, but for now, there’s the second half of this collaboration with Dewbond, and the remainder of Gou, to go through.
What awaits us in this collaboration’s second half is nothing short of exciting. Higurashi Kai had been an exceptionally fun ride, and while it’s been some six-and-a-half years since I watched it in full, I still recall the series’ details in great detail. Observant readers will have noticed that in this first half, we’ve left out a few central players. This is deliberate: Higurashi is a vast series, and to do it justice, our collaboration has been spit into two halves. In the second part, we will return to looks over the answer arcs. As the mystery begins giving way to facts, the horror in Higurashi slowly gives way to a world that I am familiar with, and especially fond of discussing. As such, Dewbond and I will both take a short breather here, gather our thoughts and then proceed to the second half – stay tuned! In the meantime, for folks who are interested, Dewbond also has a separate, and insight, set of thoughts on Higurashi‘s first season. I’ve never actually written about Higurashi until now: this is a series with both depth and breadth, and I never did feel I could adequately distill out its core messages in a single post, or set of posts, since there’s a very intricate, well-written story at Higurashi‘s core. Every detail needs to be considered in order to draw a satisfactory conclusion from things for a series like Higurashi, and, as collaborations demonstrate, having an extra set of eyes on things has been superbly helpful towards unraveling the enigmas behind what is one of the most well-done horror-mysteries around.