Reviewby Casey Brienza, Jan 4th 2009
Higurashi: When They Cry
Keiichi Maebara has just moved from Tokyo to the tiny rural town of Hinamizawa, set in a valley deep within the mountains. Everybody knows everybody there, and his classmates Rena, Mion, Satoko, and Rika put a lot of effort into making him feel welcome and including him in their club activities. Unfortunately, the town is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. One day, while exploring an illegal garbage dump, Keiichi meets a photographer who tells him the story of a brutal murder that occurred several years ago. Strangely, none of his new friends are willing to talk about it. He knows they're hiding something. And when the photographer himself is the next to disappear, Keiichi learns that he has only scratched the surface of Hinamizawa's sinister secrets…
One of the easiest and most effective ways to go about writing a horror story is to take something ordinary, something you see every day (i.e. pets, houses, dolls), and make it scary. The Higurashi: When They Cry manga, based upon a bishoujo game of the same name by Ryukishi07, does just that: An ordinary harem manga plot, the sort you have seen a thousand and one times over, becomes terrifying.
And the manga sets you up perfectly for your first scare with a beginning that could not possibly be more boring if it were a termite colony. The protagonist Keiichi is a—cliché alert!—transfer student who has just started with his new school. He is surrounded and imposed upon by four lovely ladies who conform to typical harem manga archetypes: Rena is the girl next door, a young woman of ordinary virtue and physical proportions who, in an irritatingly unassertive, feminine manner, ends almost every statement with a question mark. Mion is a pushy older sister type gal who has got to be wearing a push up bra. Satoko is a jailbait imp, and Rika is a shy, slightly mystical child who performs the local religious rituals. Much of their time is spent horsing around and playing games or pranks.
Yet by the end of the first chapter, Higurashi's horror side starts to rear its proverbial head. While exploring an illegal garbage dump, Keiichi meets a photographer who tells him about a gruesome murder. You see, the story is set in the 1980s, when Japan's economy was booming and the government was plowing tremendous amounts of money into wasteful infrastructure projects. Hinamizawa was to be one of these project's casualties, dammed and flooded to create a reservoir. The villagers protested strongly, and eventually people associated with the project died under mysterious and upsetting circumstances: dismemberment, disease, drowning, deadly falls, etc. Furthermore, now mere outsiders who were not supporters of the dam are dying…
Needless to say, this revelation puts a damper on Keiichi's warm feelings for his new home, and he is further troubled by the way in which it's obvious his newfound friends are hiding what they know about the deaths from him. They even neglect to mention that one of the people "demoned away" was Keiichi's own predecessor in the club! Things start getting really frightening, though, after the death of the photographer and the insinuation that there may be something supernatural going on. After a cop recruits Keiichi in his investigation of the photographer's murder, Keiichi starts to fear for his own life. Maybe his friend Rena isn't just an ordinary girl after all. Maybe something has possessed her. Something…malevolent.
The moment that she turns on him is the high point of the series thus far. So much for the girl next door of an ordinary harem manga when the girl next door has a scary looking axe in her hands—and you're afraid she might just use it on you! It's a brilliant twist on the genre; every time you would otherwise be drooling over some cute moé-laden scene, instead the fear that it will all abruptly turn ugly will keep you nervous and on edge. That effect is trashy horror at its absolute greatest.
Happily, Karin Suzuragi has brought that effect to vibrant visual life. Though the quality of her artwork and layouts per se is only average, she seems to know exactly how to transition between the adorable and the abominable—and does so with dramatic, nightmarish effect. If, for example, the conversation between Keiichi and Rena middle of the last chapter does not give you a shudder or two, you are made of sterner stuff than this reviewer! The way in which Rena walks right into Keiichi's house unmolested and spies on him is also deliciously cringe worthy.
Higurashi has been partially serialized in the monthly manga anthology Yen+, but later installments will be published straight to graphic novel. The Yen Press edition of the first volume boasts thick, creamy paper, six full color pages, and a pleasing, natural translation with informative endnotes. This is a surprisingly smart series that exceeds expectations. Highly recommended.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ A surprisingly smart series that manipulates harem and horror manga genre codes very well.
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