“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” –The Joker, Dark Night
After gaining unearthly powers from Eua, Satoko’s humanity begins eroding as she enters countless loops in a bid to persuade Rika to back down from her dreams: the dæmonic energy eventually expels Satoko’s original spirit and takes over, leading Satoko to commit atrocities beyond description. However, Rika soon works out that Satoko is the one behind her return to suffering, and the two break out in open hostilities. Meanwhile, Hanyū is forced to watch Rika’s suffering, but in spite of what happens, declares that miracles will come to those who make it happen. When Satoko and Rika’s fight causes them to relinquish the Onigari-no-ryūou, an ancient blade forged to kill dæmons, the sword passes over to Hanyū, who uses it to defeat Eua. In the real world, Satoko and Rika continue their fist-fight until they are exhausted, upon which they return to their older selves. Keiichi, Rena and Mion find the pair in the river and drive them back, remarking that friends aren’t constrained by the idea of being together, that a part of friendship is the ability to let go and know that they can still get in touch with and count on the support from the other when needed. In 1987, Rika prepares to attend St. Lucia while Satoko chooses to remain behind in Hinamizawa, and growing weary of the peaceful life in Hinamizawa that Satoko had yearned for, the dæmonic form returns Satoko’s spirit to her body and departs, while Hanyū watches happily in the knowledge that a new peace is reached. This is Higurashi SOTSU, sequel to GOU and a series that has inevitably created among viewers an overwhelmingly negative impression: after all, KAI had ended on a very definitive and solid note, with Rika breaking free of her curse and finding happiness after overcoming all odds. Thus, when GOU finished, expectations were that SOTSU would properly explain what had happened in GOU. While SOTSU does roll back the curtain on why the events of GOU happened, the underlying conflict SOTSU presented was contrary to expectations, the result of Satoko’s inability to face the future and accepting a curse that sapped her of her humanity. In this way, SOTSU indicates that the events in GOU were the consequence of humans being made mere playthings for deities; although having the deities play a larger role (in particular, Hanyū is able to finally have a tangible impact on things, whereas before, she was a passive observer), this undermines what the original Higurashi and KAI had sought to convey.
While SOTSU and GOU lack their predecessor’s impact, these continuations did nonetheless manage to convey the idea that human desires, augmented by otherworldly powers, are a recipe for suffering; Satoko was simply never meant to possess the same power as Rika, and even though Rika is able to live endlessly by virtue of her bloodline, she certainly experiences no joy in reliving the same few weeks endlessly. Regardless of what Satoko’s objectives might’ve been, accepting Eua’s power ended up turning GOU and SOTSU into a crude approximation of the unstoppable force paradox, which asks the outcome of an unmovable object meeting an unstoppable force. From a physics standpoint, the paradox results because an unstoppable force has infinite energy and cannot be dispersed by any means, whereas the unmovable object has infinite inertia and cannot be displaced by any means. Physicists have found an answer for this by suggesting that the result is dependent on one’s frame of reference, while other philosophers have cleverly suggested that the object and the force are one and the same. Assuming this to hold true in SOTSU, the conflicting goals between Rika and Satoko (moving away from Hinamizawa to experience the world, and staying behind to appreciate things forever) is resolved by means of a compromise. Instead of allowing the forces to meet and clash, Satoko and Rika’s problems are addressed by approaching it from a different perspective; namely, friendship isn’t about being together forever, but about being together despite being apart. This is what SOTSU and GOU were likely to have been going for. However, rather like how the solution to the unstoppable force paradox requires an unconventional solution that does not yield a satisfying answer, SOTSU and GOU together do not yield a story that is fully rewarding. This leads to the inevitable question of whether or not SOTSU and GOU are worthwhile for fans. For my answer, I fall back on an old classic from my health science days: “it depends”.
Screenshots and Commentary
- The elevator version of this post is simple: “while I wouldn’t recommend SOTSU or sing praises for it, there’s still a theme and the music was pretty good, so I don’t hate it as much as I would something like Glasslip“. I particularly care about incidental music because it can be used to tell a story where visuals and dialogue fail. In stronger anime, the music is typically a part of the background, accentuating the tenour of a given moment, but if absent, the moment can retain all of its impact. Conversely, when a scene is poorly executed, but the series has a strong soundtrack, the music can actually carry the scene and do what the dialogue and visuals cannot.
- The original Higurashi and KAI had suggested to me that individuals could take control of their destiny: both the original first and second seasons did a wonderful job of portraying how horror and fear come from a lack of control, and the second season had shown that by taking the initiative to regain that control, one could make miracles happen. However, GOU and SOTSU‘s portrayal of Eua and Hanyū was an example of supernatural beings clashing, and given what these entities were capable of, even the best firearms and training would prove useless against the gods themselves.
- As such, it did feel as though GOU and SOTSU was saying that, in a duel between the gods themselves, we humans were only capable of being taken along for the ride and otherwise, lack the agency to master our own destinies. This implication didn’t particularly sit well with me, since Higurashi was previously about the exact opposite of this. Eua remarks that Rika and Satoko are destined to continue fighting one another until the end of their days, since neither are resolute enough to kill the other, but simultaneously refuse to back down and compromise.
- For me, watching Satoko killing Rika in ways that would probably impress the Doom Slayer in a repeated manner eventually became tiresome, and so, when Rika finally comes to realise what’s happened and fights back, I’ll admit that there was a satisfaction in this. Their fight takes them through various timelines, and for the other shortcomings in SOTSU, this was a bit of a visual treat that took me back to iconic locations and moments, including the first season’s confrontation at the top of Hinamizawa School. However, whereas the originals made these an emotionally-charged moment, I didn’t feel the same investment into the fight’s outcome upon returning here.
- The fight gets kicked upstairs when Rika reveals she’s still got a Shard of
Narsil Onigari-no-ryūou, the weapon that could be used to kill dæmons. Her initial stroke looks like it would’ve dealt some damage, but what follows next ends up being something I did not expect: Satoko has more or less the full swords and subsequently engages Rika in a battle that was reminiscent of Setsuna squaring off against Ali Al-Saachez’s Enact Custom during the Middle Eastern intervention in Gundam 00‘s first season. That fight was a pivotal one in Gundam 00, marking the first time anyone had engaged the Exia with such ferocity (Union ace Graham Aker was a bit of reserved when dealing with Setsuna and only really went all-out after piloting a GN Flag into battle).
- Such a fight did indeed come unexpectedly, although I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call this moment a meme. The reaction I have to SOTSU is rather different than that of the community at large: when I watch something I didn’t find satisfactory, I am content to let it go and at most, remark it wasn’t suited for me. The only exception to this rule is when I’m actively being told that a work is a philosophical masterpiece demanding that I go back to university and take a few courses on Albert Camus’ literary works (e.g. The Myth of Sisyphus).
- While there are legitimate use-cases where philosophy can be used to discuss anime, it is not adequate to simply say that a given anime is an allegory for something that people wouldn’t ordinarily study as a counterargument for the fact that a given anime failed to deliver a discernible theme. Glasslip‘s messages were obscured, and the messages in The Myth of Sisyphus do nothing to clarify what Kakeru and Touko were about. Conversely, SOTSU and its viewers has not made this particular ask of me: however quickly thrown in the theme was, at least it was present to some capacity.
- Given the fact that Satoko had essentially sent viewers on a wild goose chase for a year, I was personally hoping that Rika would finish the fight here: a part of breaking curses can mean making difficult decisions, but at the same time, executing Satoko would also go against the themes that the original Higurashi had presented. Originally, no matter how irredeemable and reviled someone was, there existed a set of conditions where even these individuals could be saved. KAI had shown that even Miyo could find happiness, and in GOU, it was shown that Teppei could indeed turn over a new leaf where given the chance. Against all odds, I actually did feel sympathy for Teppei in several of the timelines where he had genuinely tried to make amends with Satoko.
- In keeping with the older themes, Rika spares Satoko from death and contends herself with beating her up instead. Onigari-no-ryūou is discarded and falls into the river. Hanyū recovers it, and now armed, is able to fight Eua on even terms. Here was another aspect that SOTSU ended up doing differently than its predecessors; Hanyū had previously been little more than a passive observer, resigned to Rika’s fate in the timelines where things failed, but having seen this many iterations, Hanyū begins to take a more active role in shaping Rika’s future.
- The end result is that Hanyū defeats Eua, stripping her of her powers. Hanyū might’ve been all talk about miracles and taking the initiative to shape one’s future, but given her constant efforts to overcome Eua, the sword levels the playing field. It was satisfying to see Eua get her comeuppance; it felt like all of the events in GOU and SOTSU simply emerged from a bored deity looking for some amusement. Having seen what the consequences were, Eua thus became a grating character to watch. Some folks have speculated that Eua is a powered-down version of Dawn of the Golden Witch‘s Featherine Augustus Aurora, a similar deity with the power to rewrite reality at will, holds a high opinion of herself and whose ultimate foe is boredom.
- Of course, being immortals, the gods themselves don’t look like they can be killed: Eua somehow just reverts to a child-like form, not unlike Hanyū, and disappears to fulfil her end of the bargain. With interference from the heavens gone, everything that occurs now is left for those in the mortal realm to sort out. While deities and spirits did play a role in the original Higurashi, they were secondary to all that was going on; the first season gripped viewers with its horror-mystery piece, and KAI was right up my alley, being a science-fiction thriller with a government conspiracy piece.
- The execution seen in the originals, coupled with how decisive and conclusive ending, meant that strictly speaking, Higurashi and KAI are the definitive experience: the story was intriguing, engaging and satisfying. GOU and SOTSU adds nothing to the themes the originals had sought to convey in this regard: I felt that these continuations ended up being an alternate “what if” scenario, if Satoko were to be given the powers Rika possessed and allowed to go to town on Hinamizawa. The end result started out shocking, but this gradually wore thin when it became clear the sorts of atrocities we witnessed were for what more or less amounts to childish whims.
- Childish whims result in immature antics, which manifests as a fistfight between Satoko and Rika that certainly did not merit the emotional tenour of Kenji Kawai’s music: my ears told me I was watching Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson, but my eyes saw otherwise. The music in GOU and SOTSU was being the piece that I came to enjoy most; I first came upon Kenji Kawai’s music through 2007’s Gundam 00, and subsequently came to associate his style with Ip Man. Characterised by a heavy use use of strings and choir, Kawai’s style is very distinct: while Kawai’s motifs are iconic, the more emotional pieces Kawai composes all possess a similar style.
- Hearing the same elements in SOTSU and GOU as those in Ip Man 3 and Ip Man 4 meant that for me, the same feelings of melancholy and struggle Ip Man faced in handling Wing-sing’s cancer, or when Ip Man discovers that he himself has cancer. Thus, while it was quite difficult to empathise with Satoko and Rika’s situation in and of itself, having Kawai’s music present meant I had something familiar to ground myself to. This is why music is such an integral part of anything I watch, whether it be anime or a film: the music can tell stories that the writing alone might not, and here in SOTSU, Kawai’s music carries some of the moments.
- With Kawai’s music, the same conflict, longing and desire for reconciliation in spite of their differences could be heard. This is unfortunate; since not everyone is going to be looking at the soundtrack and utilising that: a story should stand of its own accord and give viewers precisely what the authors intended. It also goes without saying that Satoko and Rika’s fistfight is several orders of magnitude removed from the most iconic fights in Ip Man, lacking the same emotional intensity and desperation that was conveyed when Ip Man squared off against General Miura, Taylor “The Twister” Miller, Cheung Tin-chi and Barton Geddes.
- Besides the music, one aspect about GOU and SOTSU that also helped me to find some positives were the backgrounds and scenery artwork: Passione did an excellent job here, bringing Hinamizawa and its surroundings to life. Passione had previously worked in Rail Wars, Hinako Note and Ishuzoku Reviewers, works with above-average visuals. I am aware that the character designs in GOU and SOTSU are not well-received by everyone (facial expressions appear pinched and constrained compared to their original incarnations, for instance), but they’re serviceable, and Passione does successfully capture Rena’s kyute moments.
- Towards the end of SOTSU, it appears that all of the timelines have converged back to one point: Rika is bound for St. Lucia as she’d dreamed, and prepares to part ways with the others for the present. Mion, Rena and Keiichi are present to see her off, but Satoko is noticeably absent. However, she does show up fashionably late, and in a manner reminiscent of Homura’s words to Madoka at the end of Rebellion, suggests that while they’re going to be parting ways for now, their destinies would be bound together. To me, this signifies the possibility that there could be a continuation is non-zero: I’d thought Rebellion marked the end of Madoka Magica, but recently, it was revealed that a fourth movie would be released at some point in the future.
- I’m not sure where Higurashi intends to go from here on out, but SOTSU and GOU had already stretched things by reviving a story that had already been neatly wrapped up. Folks wondering why all of my screenshots are concentrated towards the final few episodes will find the answer to be unremarkable: the whole of SOTSU presents the events of GOU from a different angle to show how Satoko had manipulated things in each timeline, but from a discussions perspective, this didn’t offer me much to consider, so I’ve opted to skip to the end, where there was new content.
- Overall, Higurashi GOU and SOTSU are experiences that will depend on the viewer. The completionist fans of the series who want to see every corner of Higurashi through to the end will probably find time for GOU and SOTSU, but for most fans, it’s going to be up to the individual. to determine whether or not GOU and SOTSU is worthwhile. For me, I managed to get a message out of it, and the music helped in some places: SOTSU and GOU don’t have the magic that Higurashi and KAI did, and I didn’t get anything new from the experience. However, I’m also not going to be a piece of shit about it and say that I laughed sarcastically at what I saw: it’s okay if works don’t hit home runs a hundred percent of the time.
- The ending of SOTSU appears to be indicative of a new status quo (Satoko is restored to her old self, and even Teppei seems cool now), but I’m also going to be more cautious, since GOU and SOTSU shows how writers can find ways of resurrecting series that ended on a high note, even when it’s not necessary to continue. With this post in the books, I will note that I’ve probably only scratched the surface for the discussions, and I intend on inviting Dewbond over for a collaborative post such that we might look at SOTSU in a more comprehensive (but still fair) manner. Finally, with SOTSU‘s soundtrack coming on November 26, I am rather looking forwards to hearing how much Ip Man made it into the music for this season.
My enjoyment of a given anime and the subsequent verdict is not dependent on a predetermined rubric composed of a checklist; typically, my experience is based on whether or not I got anything meaningful out of something, and since I tend to be looking for this actively, most of the time, I do end up with some sort of discernible theme. In this area, SOTSU has not failed for me, and at the very minimum, even though the anime goes about doing so in a lengthy and roundabout manner, SOTSU still has a message to leave with viewers. The other aspect of SOTSU (and GOU) I found enjoyable were the pieces of incidental music that Kenji Kawai composed: Kawai has been with Higurashi since the beginning, and the stylistic elements he uses here is consistent with how he had scored the Ip Man soundtrack. While Higurashi and Ip Man have drastically different motifs, Kawai’s use of strings and percussion are virtually identical in their respective series’ most emotional songs. Eua’s inclusion into GOU and SOTSU had made the anime very inconsistent in terms of emotional impact; on their own, Eua’s over-the-top mannerisms and irreverent attitude had diminished what was going on for Satoko and Rika. She laughs at the tragedy, and invites the viewer to do the same even as Hanyū represents the opposite end of the spectrum, desperately trying to stave off another calamity. Viewers are pulled in two directions, but familiar music helped to ground a given moment and remind me that there was a point being made. In this area, having Kawai’s signature style was an asset: listening to the music in each moment clarified what it was intended to do, and this in turn helped me to understand why something was happening. When everything is said and done, SOTSU made a brave stab at bringing an old classic into the present, and covers a side of Higurashi I certainly thought to be impossible; it’s not easy to make a recommendation for SOTSU, especially for fans of the original Higurashi and KAI, but on the flipside, I do not feel the same level of vitriol towards SOTSU as others out there have: the story wasn’t something that impresses, but at the very least, there’s still a discernible theme, and the music is pretty good. On these grounds, Higurashi SOTSU does not dethrone Glasslip as my least favourite anime of all time: Glasslip‘s lack of a theme means that at least, for the time being, it continues to sit in the unenviable position of being the worst anime I’ve watched to completion.