Judge Daryl Loomis has a deep, dark secret: he loves pie!
Grisly murders, demonic cults, mysterious disappearances…
…but you wouldn't know it from the way When They Cry is presented, packaged, and begins. Centered on a series of story-based video games, this anime succeeds because the creators are able to turn cutesy into creepy and sweet into slaughter with a shocking deftness for this serpentine story, far exceeding any expectations I could have had.
Facts of the Case
It is June of 1983 and Keiichi has just moved to the tiny town of Hinamizawa, where living is easy but not all that thrilling. He has a good home life, however, as well as good friends who compete constantly with each other to pass the time. Hinamizawa is a quiet place, but everybody's pretty excited right now for the Cotton Drifting Festival. The whole town will be there and it'll be ever so much fun, except for one little hitch. See, every year on the day of the festival, one townsperson is brutally murdered and another disappears without a trace. The locals chalk it up to an ancient demon curse, but it may be something even more sadistic causing these crimes.
When They Cry uses some great bait-and-switch tactics to throw you for a loop right off the bat. The six discs are contained within three cases that feature some of the most sickeningly adorable artwork you'll ever see, but it's all a setup. The first moments of the opening episode, though brief, show some pretty intense violence, so you know it won't be all candy hearts and sunshine, but it's only a few seconds long. Once the story begins, it feels more like some kind of gross harem anime than any kind of horror piece. Four cute young girls hanging out with one dorky guy is a lonely teenager's dream, but it isn't really my scene. The over-emphasis on the cute, however, plays really well when these kids start beating each other with bats and hacking each other up.
Each of the characters has secrets, and they're all real bad. No matter how nice and sweet they seem, soul-crushingly so at times, something's going to happen that will reveal the truth, and it will not be pretty. When they Cry butters its bread on the metered revelations of these secrets and how they give clues to the greater mystery of the town and the murders. We have seven story arcs, delineated as chapters, with each of those broken down into the individual episodes. Each chapter primarily deals with one character and, for the most part, the others are supporting players. It follows each down a similar but divergent path around the time of the Cotton Drifting Festival, eventually leading to some kind of horrific conclusion. Instead of the next chapter starting where the last left off, the story resets. We're back when thing were happy, only to follow an equally dark road. At first, it's a confusing, if intriguing, device, but as the arcs progress, it becomes clear that the story hasn't reset at all; the creators are instead showing a completely different series of events. When scenes start to overlap, it comes even clearer how much thought went into creating this story. The series doesn't come to an entirely satisfying conclusion, but there is a second series that will potentially (hopefully) fill in most of these holes.
The vocal performances are a mixed bag, but all of it is generally above average. The Japanese track is significantly better than the English, but the subtitle translation does leave things somewhat confusing, making it necessary to occasionally go to the English dub to get the drift. For whatever inconsistencies that actors have, all of the main characters get creepy down really well. Maybe that has something to do with the ungodly sweetness that they begin with, but it worked very well on me. The animation is very standard, with nothing to make it stand out at all. The animators dive into some pretty cheesy waters, especially during the cutesy stuff, but this is the only thing that detracts from the experience.
The DVD set of When They Cry from Funimation is technically just fine, but is even lighter on the extras than they normally are. The transfer is quite good, with strong detail and good color balance. Black levels are deep and solid while the overall picture is bright and clean. The sound is acceptable, but could have been much better in a surround mix. The series, in its original language, is called Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, which translates into English as "When the Cicadas Cry," a title that fits with a sound design that is dominated by the sound of chirping cicadas. This could have been much more immersive, not to mention creepier, coming from all sides. The only thing under the supposed extras menu is a series of trailers for other series, which doesn't count. Funimation doesn't even supply their usual token textless songs…disappointing.
Any quibbles I have with When They Cry are trivial. It may be depressing, violent, and exceptionally dark, but this series features some of the best writing I've seen in an anime.
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