When They Cry - Umineko
The members of the wealthy Ushiromiya family arrive on their private island of Rokkenjima to discuss what should be done with the inheritance of their terminally ill patriarch, Kinzo. 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...and I also wasn't 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 it's still a concept that works really poorly as a tv show, even if was great as a game. It's engaging and suspenseful at times, but Umineko really feels like a series that's written for the benefit of its own characters more than the viewer. Battler and Beatrice drone on in their long-winded battle of wits and the show piles on new mysteries and new supernatural beings constantly. It's a convoluted mess, and because the "answer arcs" from the game were never animated, it really just doesn't go anywhere.
Umineko is a weird sort of series where the structure and the metafictional observations by some of its own characters are a lot more interesting than the story itself, which is a standard but passable murder mystery that gets more and more muddled with confusing occult elements as the show goes along. Split into four arcs, each longer than the last, each stories doesn't represent an absolute timeline reset like in Higurashi, since the Battler Ushiromiya from the first arc remains a personality 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, I think, a worthwhile attempt on 007th Expansion's part to spin their formula on its head. But while in Higurashi, the metafictional element is kept at a minimum, making for a much more effective story, it really starts to bog the show down, here. There's a big enough jump in logic with the first Battler entering a strange "secondary realm" while another Battler suffers through a series of murders that I felt like we needed an explanation, and it never felt like we got one, at least one that made any sense to me. Meanwhile, other characters, the family's servants in particular, are often suddenly shown to be aware of Beatrice's true nature and supernatural powers, randomly showing bizarre abilities like generating a forcefield, and it's really never clear as to why the servants should have this awareness or what these abilities even mean. Basically, this show has a lot of plot elements that feel like red herrings, plus, there are too many arcs that end in a ridiculous deus ex machina moment.
Umineko really just doesn't know when it's time to stop introducing new characters and new mysteries and when it's time to deal with everything that's already been introduced. Considering how many characters we start out with (19!) it's ridiculous that the show keeps trying to introduce dozens of additional characters before we even feel like we get to know the original players all that well, but Umineko runs with this madness and gives us hordes of demons, other witches, and legions of bizarre "human weapons" (a la Soul Eater) working for Beatrice. It's really just impossible to keep track of everybody and who everybody's aligned with, and this feels like another place where something found in the game translated really, really badly to TV. The most frustrating example of this might be Battler's younger sister Ange, a character who suddenly takes over the show during the final arc after having received just one passing mention before. Not to mention, characters' personalities change all over the place: one character might be abusive in one arc and nurturing and loving in the next, or go between being submissive and defiant without warning. These mood swings don't ever feel realistic, since they're way too overdone for me to take them at face value, and while we get a half-assed explanation that some of these characters are "possessed" this is a red herring that never gets confirmed. With all of the characters and the new mysteries they bring, the show's completely neck-deep in it's own mess by about halfway through the season, and since this show only covers four of the game's eight arcs, it's fundamentally incomplete. There's no sign that a second season's ever going to get made, and so this ends up being a bonus feature for fans of the game; for everybody else, it's a complete open-ended letdown.
And this show really just embodies the trend of anime adaptations of games not standing well on their own. The worst of this is the show's overload of dialogue and pedantic structure: after the opening arc, it feels like at least 40% of the screentime is given over to Battler and Beatrice arguing, and while this might work fine in a game, it makes for really, really tedious television. Unless the character drama is really, really compelling (like in Crest of the Stars), TV shows don't do well if there's a lot more telling than doing, and this feels like a lazy adaptation to me, as if the people who made it had no idea what makes a good game versus a good anime series. Aesthetically, it's also a pretty drab-looking show: the Victorian/Gothic design is an improvement over Higurashi's super simplistic design, but, the animation is still really limited, there are way too many scenes of talking heads, and colors are just....dull. Even if Studio Deen and 07th Expansion aren't really known for their visuals, it's still disappointing. At least the music is pretty good (the OP deserved a much better show).
I don't exactly hate Umineko, but it's a really clumsy show. It's a half-assed bonus item for fans of the game, as it stands, and nothing else. It's still a shame to me that they never made another series, because I might've been more forgiving if some of the mysteries had been explained, but even then, this show still might not've felt like it had a handle on it's own story, and that's a huge problem.
It starts off promisingly but it's a mess by the end. Fans of the game can maybe add a star, if they have the background and aren't put off by how incomplete this is, but it still has a lot of problems. Maybe I'll be more forgiving if they ever finish this. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Umineko has a lot of really, really gorey violence; you're going to see bodies of characters you know dismembered in gruesome detail, sometimes more than once. There's also some fan service, but the violence enough makes this totally inappropriate for kids.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (26/26)
When They Cry - Umineko © 2009 07th Expansion
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