Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Umineko WHEN THEY CRY Episode 1: Legend of the Golden Witch
With six members of the household brutally murdered, the remaining Ushiromiyas and their servants begin to slide into paranoia and madness. Is there an extra person on the island? Or did someone already there commit the crimes? As more people die and Maria slides closer to the edge of insanity, Battler struggles to find a human answer to what very well might be a supernatural problem.
And then there were twelve.
With the deaths that marked the end of the first part of the Legend of the Golden Witch arc, the opening episode in Ryukishi07's murder mystery series Umineko When They Cry, the author set the stage for a story in the vein of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, a comparison that grows only stronger in this second half. The volume, which combines series books three and four into one oversize tome, faithfully follows the events of Christie's 1939 classic, right down to the device used to solve the mystery at the very end. While retellings of Christie's tale are far from unusual – young adult author Gretchen McNeil's 2012 novel Ten is also closely based on it – it does appear to decrease the mystery to a degree for those familiar with the original work. However Ryukishi07 makes enough interesting, and chilling, changes to the story to make it his own, and in some senses Umineko is a tribute to Christie rather than a retelling, and fans of classic mysteries may find this more palatable than the out-and-out horror of Ryukishi07's other series, Higurashi: When They Cry.
Picking up after the deaths in the previous volume, this book begins with the characters attempting to figure out what is going on. A major bone of contention is the whereabouts of the patriarch himself – did someone kill him, or is he the killer, having somehow slipped out of his study without being seen? This leads to the least exciting chapters in the volume, where different characters accuse various people while spouting their own personal views of the events. While the scenarios are all interesting and plausible in their ways, spending over one hundred pages in a row on it is a bit much, and these three chapters do drag in places. Livening them up, however, is Maria. The youngest person on the island, Maria in the first volume came across as an annoying character possibly hampered by mental disabilities. Now, however, she is nearly a demonic figure, and it is unclear whether she is channeling Beatrice, was putting on an act the rest of the time, or has simply gone screaming off the deep end. All three seem like very real possibilities as the story goes on, with the specter of mental illness rearing its head for other characters as well as the pressure mounts.
Battler remains our point of view character as he vehemently denies that there is any sort of supernatural involvement in the deaths on the island. Because we see events through his eyes, we as readers are forced to look at things as having real-world causes, rather than taking the easy way out and believing Maria about Beatrice's machinations. Figuring out the mystery is at least half the fun of this kind of book, and by opening the series with Battler's perspective we are encouraged to really think about what we are seeing and being told. It's true that the supernatural explanation is the easier one, but the distinct parallels with Christie's book are also cause to think that perhaps Battler is in the right. That Ryukishi07 seems determined to undermine Battler's conviction is also worth considering as the story moves forward, and this is definitely a book that would benefit from a second reading after looking at the extra chapters and the author's commentary at the end.
Kei Natsumi's art undergoes some definite improvement as the story goes on; as it gains momentum, so does the artwork. Maria's distorted face and Jessica's terror are equally striking, and she has a way with a bulging eyeball. Small details are worth paying attention to, as it becomes obvious as the story goes on that nothing Natsumi draws is a throw away image. Also worth noting is that Battler takes on a much more 1980s look as she grows more comfortable drawing him, and as we learn that this takes place in 1986 (three years after Higurashi), that is a nice touch.
Since this is a question arc rather than an answer, it has an ending that is far from conclusive. However this “bad end” still provides both us and the characters some important information to be carried over into the next part of the story, and it will be worth looking this book over again before the next one comes out. Ryukishi07 sheds some light on things in the extra chapters that close out the volume, although those are perhaps better read after you've had a chance to digest the conclusion of the actual story, and readers of Higurashi will notice something rather interesting when they get there. This isn't as strong as that other series, but for fans of mystery, Umineko When They Cry is worth paying attention to.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Maria is much less irritating, interesting parallels with classic mysteries. Battler starts to look like he might actually live in 1986 and the second half of the book just flies.
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