When They Cry - Umineko
The members of the wealthy Ushiromiya family arrive on their private island of Rokkenjima to discuss the inheritance of the terminally ill patriarch, Kinzo, but Kinzo refuses to see his family upon their arrival, and soon, a storm strands everybody on the island and leaves them without phone service. The youngest grandchild, Maria, brings a mysterious letter from a "Beatrice" to the dinner table, leading some to speculate that an additional person is hiding somewhere on the island; that night, a series of gruesome murders occur. The survivors are left to frantically try to determine whether there is indeed a "Beatrice" or whether one among them was the culprit, a task made more difficult by the apparently physically impossible circumstances of some of the murders. This murder mystery soon evolves into a battle of wits between Battler, another grandchild, and the being calling herself Beatrice, with Battler desperate to prove that the crimes occurred without supernatural intervention as the sequence of arrivals and murders is repeated via a cyclic timeline.
I have a complicated history with Umineko. Back in high school, when I was first getting into anime, it was one of the first shows I watched, at my high school's anime club. Some of the other shows I saw back then, like Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, are still among my favorites, but Umineko wasn't one of them: it seemed like a tedious, confusing, and pretentious waste of time to me, and I didn't get why the other people were so into it...nor was I happy that we kept watching it, week after week, for several months. A few years later, I decided to try watching the show again, with the hope that I might find something to like now that I wasn't just watching it "just because it was on:" in the end, it isn't the unwatchable slog I used to think it was, but I see it as a concept that's horribly ill-suited to a TV series, even if it worked fine as a game. It's engaging and suspenseful at times, but Umineko simply feels like a series written for the benefit of its own characters rather than the audience. As Battler and Beatrice drone on in their wordy, long-winded, and tiresome battle of wits, the show insists on piling on new mysteries and introducing random supernatural beings constantly; it's convoluted, and it ultimately just doesn't go anywhere.
Umineko is the strange sort of series whose structure and the metafictional observations by some of its own characters are much more interesting than the story itself, which is a standard if somewhat effective murder mystery, one that progressively becomes muddled with confusing occult elements as the show progresses. Split into four arcs, each longer than the last, its stories don't represent an absolute timeline reset, as do the stories in Higurashi, for the Battler Ushiromiya from the first arc remains a player separate from those seen in later stories, with none of the individual "Battlers" having the others' memories. The experiment of having all besides the first arc be shown as a sort of "game" is a worthwhile attempt to spin 007th Expansion's past formula on its head, but whereas in Higurashi the metafictional element is kept to an effective minimum, it quickly starts to bog the story down, here. The jump in logic of the first Battler entering a strange "secondary realm" while another Battler suffers through a series of murders is large enough that an explanation is needed, and unfortunately, I was never able to really make much sense of it. Meanwhile, other characters, the family's servants in particular, are often suddenly shown to have awareness of Beatrice's true nature and supernatural powers, such as the bizarre ability to generate a forcefield when attacked, and it's never clear as to why the servants should have this awareness nor what their sudden abilities even imply. Such abrupt inventions on the show's part are just a taste of its overuse of red herrings and deus ex machina climaxes to move its story along, and this tendency quickly ruins the atmosphere of suspense.
Umineko just doesn't know when the time to introduce new characters and mysteries has passed and the time to take responsibility for those it has already introduced and raised has come. Considering the show's enormous starting lineup of players, nineteen in all, it's madness that we should have dozens more characters forced upon us before we can even fathom anything substantial about them, but Umineko plunges straight into that madness, introducing us to demons, other witches, and legions of bizarre "human weapons" (a la Soul Eater) in the service of Beatrice almost every single episode. Though I was impressed that virtually all of the main characters did get at least one important scene at some point, it becomes nearly impossible to keep track of them and their various allegiances over the course of the series, a problem not helped in the slightest by the inconsistent characterization. Indeed, a person who is abusive in one arc may be kind and patient in another arc, or they may alternate between defiant and submissive or between an embodiment of evil and a soft-hearted angel. In Umineko, such contrasts rarely feel realistic, often being far too overplayed to accept at face value, and while we get a half-hearted explanation that some of such characters are somehow "possessed", this is a red herring that never gets confirmed. Mysteries, such as a store of gold Beatrice has supposedly left within the mansion and the cryptic epitaph that supposedly provides its location, arise and are forgotten or left unexplained. New characters, meanwhile, appear seemingly out of nowhere whenever called for, the most egregious example of this being the introduction of Battler's younger sister Ange, a character who abruptly takes over the show during the final arc after having received only one passing mention before. It's the out-of-nowhere developments like this that make me wonder if the staff themselves didn't know exactly where the story was headed, and this show is soon neck-deep in its own mess, with no sign that it'll be able to explain its own world order anytime soon. Worse, the Umineko anime is fundamentally incomplete as it stands: while the television version encompasses four arcs, the game itself has eight, and with no second season in sight, it's basically rendered into a bonus feature for fans of the game, one that's completely unsatisfying for everybody else.
And this series exacerbates the trend of anime adaptations not standing well on their own in several other ways, the worst of which is its dialogue-heavy and pedantic structure. After the opening arc, about forty percent of the screentime is devoted to Battler and Beatrice's arguing, and while this might be fine in game format it makes for very, very tedious television, a medium that usually is better off when the "doing-versus-talking" ratio is high. It feels like a lazy adaptation to me, though since I haven't played the game, I have to admit that mistakes like the clumsy introduction of new characters might be a result of the studio's lack of insight into what makes a good video game versus a good television series, rather than a fundamental flaw in the story. Aesthetically, it's a pretty drab looking show, and while the Victorian and Gothic design is, on the whole, an improvement over Higurashi's simplistic VN-style drawings (and far more interesting to me), the animation remains extremely limited, with far too many scenes of talking heads, and the color scheme seems dull, as if a clumsy assistant accidentally spilled a bucket of gray paint onto the artist's palette before work began. Visuals have never really been either 07th Expansion or Studio Deen's strength, but it's still disappointing.
I don't hate Umineko like I used to, but at the same time, it's a clumsy series. It doesn't transcend its status as a supplement for its parent video game, and its story rapidly spirals out of control as it becomes more and more full of unsolvable mysteries. As critical as I am of it, it's a shame that a second series wasn't produced; given enough space, it's possible that the show would have felt like far less of a tease than it does as it stands. Regardless, it really just doesn't have a handle on its own story, and that's a fatal flaw for a series that's as dependent on suspense and careful revelation of truth as this one.
It starts off promisingly but rapidly becomes lost in its own maze. Diehard fans of the game, who are likely to have more background and understand more than I did, can probably add a star. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Umineko is extremely graphic at points, and bodies are dismembered in gruesome detail several times. Mild profanity and fan service aside, this extreme violence, which is sometimes directed at children and adolescents as well, is enough to make this entirely inappropriate for children.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source
Review Status: Full (26/26)
When They Cry - Umineko © 2009 07th Expansion
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