Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Nov 29th 2012
Umineko WHEN THEY CRY Episode 1: Legend of the Golden Witch
Every year the prestigious Ushiromiya family gathers at the island home of their patriarch on remote Rokkenjima island. Battler, the eighteen-year-old grandson of the family, has always found the gatherings and the familial bickering about inheritance unpleasant, and so has avoided going for six years. Now the deaths of his maternal grandparents have pushed him to attend, and while he enjoys reconnecting with cousins Jessica, George, and Maria, he finds that the rest is much as he remembered it...except for his grandfather's increased obsession with Beatrice, the Golden Witch of Rokkenjima. He pays it little mind, however, until Maria starts acting oddly and bloody events begin to occur...
Clearly inspired by Agatha Christie's landmark “trapped on an island” novel And Then There Were None, Ryukishi07's second series in English follows the terrors that befall the wealthy and generally unpleasant Ushiromiya family on their island home. While it is clearly from the same mind that brought you Higurashi: When They Cry (if only because of titular similarities), Umineko: When They Cry's first two volumes, presented in omnibus format by Yen Press, is in itself an engrossing mystery, albeit one that takes a bit to get off the ground.
The book opens with Kinzo Ushiromiya cackling about his nefarious plans, which involve a woman named “Beatrice.” We then switch to our primary point-of-view character, teenage Battler Ushinomiya, the self-estranged grandson of Kinzo who six years ago pronounced himself disgusted with the entire family. He's back now, though, and seems to be enjoying interacting with his cousins, two of whom are his age mates. The fourth is little Maria, a character who manages to be simultaneously the most menacing and the most irritating in the book. Maria's age is not immediately given, and although we know that Battler did see her six years ago, it is easy to gloss over that and assume her to be around six years old herself. This is because she is naïve to the point of appearing to have a handicap – she speaks in the manner of a very small child and is constantly making the sound “uuu,” presumably some sort of whine or keen. For the most part this serves to make her very annoying to read for at least three-quarters of the book, when she makes a shift in tone.
This, along with the sluggish pace of what would be the first volume, suggests that Yen Press did well to combine the two; the second half of the book is fast moving and all in all much more intriguing than the first, and some readers might not have picked up volume two had it been sold separately. It does, however, make this an uneven omnibus, with the first half being something of a slog in places and the second much more in keeping with the series' genre. The art likewise picks up when the bodies begin accumulating. Mangaka Kei Natsumi, who draws three of the Umineko arcs and is the author of the okonomiyaki manga Ousama no Mimi wa Okonomimi, does try to make everyone appear distinct, but some characters are still difficult to tell apart and the breasts on more buxom characters are patently ridiculous in a way that takes away from the story's atmosphere. (To be fair, Ryukishi07 is guilty here as well, giving Battler a breast obsession that gets old quickly, as it does nothing to further the plot and is too old a gag to be especially funny.) But when the blood starts to spatter, Natsumi comes to the fore, and the mutilated faces are guaranteed to turn a few stomachs.
One place where Umineko's first omnibus succeeds is in scattering small clues throughout the text. One character makes mention of someone related to Battler who does not appear, other servants are brought up, and an astrological component to the crimes is hinted at. The idea that familial blood is so important – in-laws are treated like second-class citizens and servants refer to themselves as “furniture” - has some intriguing repercussions on the actions of the characters, particularly Jessica's mother Natsuhi. The ominous roots of the family fortune may also prove to be more important than we think and certainly bear keeping in mind.
Yen Press' presentation of the book is up to their usual standards, with a large trim size, flexible spine that is pretty crease-resistant, and many color pages. One might wish that they had opted to spell cook Gouda's name “Goda,” possibly with an accent mark for the long “o,” because the juxtaposition of his name and his profession can lead readers to pronounce his name like the cheese.
Despite a slow first half, Umineko: When They Cry's opening omnibus is a promising mystery that fans of Higurashi should enjoy. More focused on detecting than horror at this point, with Battler taking the role of the investigator, and with enough similarities to Christie's text that those who enjoy her work should be happy, this looks like a series to keep an eye on. It has a few glitches in both art and writing, but overall this is a satisfying read that leaves us wondering just who Beatrice is and whether or not Battler and his cousins can figure it out before she comes for them.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Interesting mystery is brewing, art is appropriately horrific when needed. Nicely put together book on Yen Press' part.
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