Umineko: When They Cry Volume 1 & 2 Premium Edition

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Friday, April 19, 2013

The majority of the anime series that NIS America has licensed have either been released in multiple volumes that came out several months apart or in one single volume depending on how many episodes they spanned. But the company chose to take a different approach when they licensed Umineko: When They Cry, choosing to release the 26 episode series on Blu-Ray in two volumes released at the same time that were split as 18 episodes for Volume 1 and 8 episodes for Volume 2. It’s a different set up, and while I do question why it was necessary to separate the final eight into an additional volume I will admit to not knowing enough about the intricacies of anime licensing and the online/brick and mortar retail landscape so there may be a good reason that this was necessary. Since both volumes came out at the same time, I will be reviewing the series as a whole due to the fact that anyone who finds themselves drawn in by Umineko would surely be interested in the last eight episodes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, Umineko: When They Cry is based off of a murder mystery visual novel game in Japan that was developed by 07th Expansion and offers an incredibly complex storyline. The series also has ties to Higurashi: When They Cry, which was released in English by MangaGamer (the Umineko game has yet to be translated/licensed in English as of this time) and also had an anime adaptation that got North American distribution. I have not watched or played anything related to Higurashi just yet or looked for a possible fan translation of Umineko, but did dive into Wikipedia and additional information after finishing the series. As a result, I will be approaching this review as a newcomer and while I do get the impression that viewers who have seen Higurashi and played either or both games may have different feelings about the show this review is based on having no existing background knowledge aside from the legacy and established fan base that 07th Expansion’s work has generated.

Umineko: When They Cry is a series that is always striving to make the viewer think, and it consistently poses more questions than answers. If you’re looking for an anime that’s light viewing or will tell its story and themes in a concise manner, there is a good chance you will hate this show. It’s also hard not to spoil certain elements of the storyline due to how much happens, but what I will do is avoid many of the intricacies and discuss some of the broader themes and situations to give you an idea of what the show is really about. Prepare yourself, as this is an anime that poses just as many questions and in depth discussions as Serial Experiments Lain.

The show begins with the majority of the Ushiromiya heading to the island of Rokkenjima, where the head of the family Kinzo is on his deathbed. What initially starts off as a meeting between family members on how to divide up the estate changes quickly into something entirely different. To put it quite bluntly, after only an episode or two people start dying in horrific ways and Umineko is not shy about showing all of the gory details. It is all tied into the legend of the Golden Witch Beatrice, who was said to have given Kinzo the gold that helped him establish his wealth and is now attempting to resurrect by using his family members as sacrifices. I have to admit that early on I wasn’t fully convinced that this was a series I was going to enjoy, as the characters were almost all unlikeable rich people and the murders seemed to be going for sheer shock value. But after exploring a little further, Umineko changed yet again. If you’ve ever played a visual novel of any kind, chances are you have experienced a bad ending of some kind. Essentially, after five episodes the current arc reaches its bad ending and everyone is presumed to have been killed by Beatrice but she is unable to revive because Battler Ushiromiya refuses to accept the fact that a witch could have committed the murders. What follows for the rest of the series is a giant meta-game and battle of wits in which the events and murders are reconstructed in completely different ways so that Beatrice and Battler can argue the existence or denial of magic. Think of this as a game of chess where human lives are the pieces and you have an idea of what the series does, and chess is used as a symbol several times throughout the show.

Once the meta-game begins, Umineko starts to show just how clever it really is and if you’ve made it this far you’ll likely begin to watch the episodes in rapid succession. There are four distinctive scenarios/meta-games presented (including the initial one), and each one not only presents new horrific ways for characters to meet their fates but sheds additional light on the backgrounds of each of the family members. New supporting cast members are added each time as well, though aside from a final arc set a decade in the future most of these are magical demons/witches. Umineko has a lot of characters to keep track of, but what’s fascinating is that each one is developed to some extent and even those that seemed insignificant early on are given some prominent screen time and a clear purpose. What’s great about this series is that it always keeps you guessing, and as you make your way through each of the games you’ll gain additional insight while also having theories crushed along the way. I often felt like a detective myself as I watched the episodes and tried to piece everything together, and while the final arc wasn’t quite as engaging as the ones that preceded it the way that the story elements came together were still fascinating to watch. But that’s also one of the things that people may not like about this adaptation, as it doesn’t fully represent everything from the visual novel. Based on the information I looked up after finishing the final episode, there are additional arcs and even more characters in the game that further complicate the family structure and existence or denial or magic and witches. Whether this murder mystery and constant suspense will be for you depends on your tastes, but I personally found it to be an intriguing experience that made me think and analyze in ways that anime rarely does.  I realize that I haven’t explored many of the characters in-depth, but that’s because revealing too much about any of their backgrounds or actions would spoil many of the individual meta-games.

Studio Deen was responsible for animating Umineko, and they really did a great job in bringing everything to life. Despite the fact that the North American release comes three years after its Japanese run nothing looks particularly dated and the Blu-Ray transfer helps to bring out some of the details. Every character has some kind of distinguishing element, which is particularly impressive when you consider just how many of them there are throughout the entire show. What will leave a permanent impression though are the violent death scenes, and in this regard the studio seems to have taken a horror movie approach and tried to make them as over the top as possible. It’s almost comical at times in the same way some live action Japanese movies have approached violence and gore, but still manages to have a significant impact. I do like the level of detail Studio Deen put into some of the scenes detailing the character’s hardships and some of their personalities, as they were able to animate elements such as abusive relationships in a way that made those moments as hard to watch as the gruesome deaths.

Both the opening and ending themes have a bit of a gothic feel to them, and they had a very different sound than most anime intro and ending arrangements that I have heard lately. They match the overall feel of the series quite nicely, and the same can be said for the background music. Whenever there were scenes where characters were in danger or there was a sense of unease the music followed suit, but what stood out the most to me was the music that played during the back and forth debates between Battler and Beatrice. There was just something about this particular arrangement that got me pumped up and start running through the facts myself like a detective. Umineko also has some standout voice acting, as many of the actors give over the top performances that showcase just about every side of human emotions. It’s hard to describe in words, but watch the show and I believe you’ll agree.

NIS America has put both volumes out as premium editions, which means that they have the glossy hardcover boxes that feature series artwork. There isn’t anything as far as on-disc extras aside from clean opening/ending themes in the second volume, but the included episode guides are what make the editions worth it. NIS has structured both episode guides to resemble case files from a murder investigation, and pages often resemble newspaper articles. It’s a great way to add additional detail to the show, and viewers will find that some of the contents pose questions and provide new information that wasn’t fully explained in the episodes. The episode guide included with the second volume also features a significant amount of full page character art, and I continue to enjoy seeing how much content NIS can cram in.

Umineko: When They Cry is a bit of a confusing show where it is often hard to keep track of the sheer number of characters and figure out what’s really happening and what is just being included for the sake of the meta-game. It’s the type of anime that people are either going to love or hate, and chances are if you thought some of the story elements I described sounded too convoluted you aren’t going to like it. But I found that like some of the more abstract series, Umineko kept me constantly thinking about what would happen next and what each element represented about the bigger picture. It’s not necessarily a favorite, but it stuck with me enough that I’m planning on further investigating the game and seeing what else there is to discover. NIS America deserves credit for branching out from their usual anime genres and going for a show that tackled more mature themes and took a complex approach, and hopefully they will keep this in mind as they look at new series to license.

http://nisamerica.com/index.php?nav=ap&aid=umineko

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