(Though I usually write spoilery articles, I've made effort to not spoil here given the interesting mystery)
When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni) is an awesome horror/mystery anime somewhere between The Wicker Man and Lost. When city-boy Keiichi moves to the rural Hinamizawa and becomes friends with a group of girls, he thinks he’s found paradise, until he learns that the town hides its darker face of creepy religious worship, a yakuza group, and a very relevant murder mystery. Similar to the Studio Ghibli anime music video On Your Mark, the show’s format involves the Buddhist-inspired concept of the universe restarting and everyone having another chance to get things done right, even if they don’t always remember anything from their previous lives. The show consists as a series of story arcs that act as these independent timelines involving the group of kids encountering dangerous situations that may be connected to an ancient curse. It seems like destiny that there will be murder, but there is always room to hope for a good outcome, while the viewer can meanwhile piece together clues about the general mystery.
The story is set in the small rural town of Hinamizawa, originally known as Onigafuchi (Demon Abyss). The legend is that the town was attacked by demons, and it was rescued by the local deity Oyashiro-sama, who watches over the place. Every year, the citizens of the town perform the Watanagashi Festival, an odd custom that has its roots in a barbaric ritual that hasn’t been performed for a very long time… supposedly. For the past five years, since the government tried build a dam that would have flooded the town, two people have been murdered on each Watanagashi. The locals refer to it as the curse of Oyashiro-sama. It might all be a coincidence, or an ancient conspiracy associated with yakuza, or it could even be the work of a demon called Oyashiro-sama…
The tone varies from dark and scary to cute and funny in a jarring contrast. Though it is most accurately described as a horror story, there are periods of innocent fun about the kids playing games. It can feel like a completely different show. It does have the effect of creating a sense of loss of innocence whenever things get scary. In the horror part, there’s a pervasive sense of paranoia. Can Keiichi really trust his friends? Is someone watching him? Is he being followed? Demons don’t exist, but what if they do? Could there be a demon? This paranoid atmosphere creates great suspense that builds up until the murderers come out.
As a feminist, I don’t have many issues with the anime. There are many interesting female characters ranging from the generic girly girls to tomboys and nefarious members of criminal organizations. The main yakuza group—played alternatively as evil or neutral—seems to always be headed by women. Almost everyone’s a bit screwed up in this show, so that portrayal doesn’t really matter. The fetish-type outfits worn in the club gave me pause, but I’ve decided I’m fine with it. It’s just teenagers exploring their sexuality in a consensually kinky way, and Keiichi winds up in a submissive role as much as the girls, so there’s no problem there. I do have a couple issues, though.
First, is the part where the girls encourage Keiichi to cook for himself. He agrees and dives in energetically; only to accidentally almost burn the house down. Young girls Satoko and Rika rescue him and then cook for him. The message seems to be that men can’t cook and that women can. Second, there’s Keiichi insisting that all men are perverts when he persuades a baseball competitor to throw the game. He manages to get a following of pervy guys after that. I don’t like that stereotyping, especially considering the perviness of the girls in the club. Those are my two issues, which aren’t much. Frankly, When They Cry is pretty feminist-friendly… if the feminists aren’t sensitive to horror scenarios.
When They Cry is very entertaining. It isn’t just shock and gore, but also a rather sweet and heartbreaking friendship story. I would definitely recommend When They Cry to anyone comfortable with the premise. There’s a high-quality manga in addition to the anime, but I personally prefer the anime. There’s also a live-action movie, but I don’t recommend that one.