Higurashi, subversion of moe, and the birth of the modern yandere

By: Audrey Di Martino May 3, 20230 Comments
Shion laughing maniacally

Content Warning: parental abuse, ableism/sanism

Spoilers for Higurashi: When They Cry and Higurashi: When They Cry Kai

Floaty bangs, blushy cheeks, precious smiles. From the turn of the millennium onward, moe was increasingly everywhere—you couldn’t so much as blink at anime without big, doe eyes blinking right back at you. As moe ballooned in popularity during the 2000s, its definition expanded and broadened from a general impulse of protectiveness to a genre unto itself that increasingly squeezed characters, usually female, into the narrow confines of one-word traits. 

Higurashi first emerged in the year 2002 as a sound novel with an art style and cast of characters proudly inspired by Air and Kanon’s brand of moe. Higurashi evoked then-popular moe tropes in order to create a false sense of ease in its audience, eventually tearing these adorable overtures apart in order to amplify the narrative’s deeper themes of horror, mystery, violence, and trust. 

The characters most associated with this bait-and-switch are Ryuugu Rena and Sonozaki Shion, female characters who initially appear to meet the standards of moe before ripping away these sweet, simplistic facades and becoming something far more complex. Rena and Shion originally appeared in direct counterpoint to the then-oversaturated moe tropes of the time; however, what began as subversion would  become an archetype all of its own, for better or worse.

Yukako slams her palm against a window from outside

Prior to becoming a genre in its own right, moe was itself just another archetype. While the original blueprint for what we now consider moe is unknown, with people arguing for candidates ranging from Sailor Moon’s Tomoe Hotaru all the way back to The Castle of Cagliostro’s Clarisse (a discussion that also involves reckoning with the connection between moe and lolicon), we do know that it was relevant in the late ‘90s, when shonen mangaka Araki Hirohiko was writing part four of his magnum opus JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Working in a climate overburdened with the moe archetype, Araki created a character who embodied the opposite. Her name was Yamagishi Yukako, and while at the time she was both intended to be and viewed as a bold defiance of the moe archetype, today she is considered the progenitor of one of the most popular ~dere types under the moe umbrella: the yandere.

A yandere is a character, usually female, who is lovesick: dere meaning love, and yan an abbreviation of yanderu, “to be mentally ill”. Affectionate to the point of unhealthily, unstably obsessed, the yandere will readily, even happily commit acts of violence for the sake of love— traditionally (but not limited to) stalking, kidnapping, and killing. While the term “yandere” is believed to have been coined several years after its origins were felt in Araki’s Yamagishi Yukako, it wouldn’t be until the moe boom of the mid-2000s—and the rise in popularity of a certain anime known as Higurashi no Naku Koro ni or When They Cry—that the word yandere would be codified in popular otaku lexicon. 

close-up of Rena laughing maniacally

While the Higurashi sound novels remained in staunch defiance of popular moe tropes, the same could not be said of the 2006 Higurashi anime adaptation by Studio DEEN. Emerging at the height of moe popularity and inevitably forced to curtail the lengthy character development of the novels, the Higurashi anime would ultimately contribute to the moe boom rather than countering it. Though both girls lack the element of lovesickness that many would argue is imperative to yanderism, the anime’s characterization of Rena and Shion introduced a much wider audience to, and ultimately solidified, the popular concept of the yandere archetype. Since their original anime portrayals effectively drafted the blueprint for the yandere archetype as we know it today, Rena and Shion’s yandere legacies continue to endure, their characters reduced in the anime community’s memory to short clips of their distorted laughing faces. Later anime adaptations of Higurashi—such as Kira, Gou, and Sotsu—would offer their own questionable portrayals of the Higurashi canon, but that is a discussion best had another time.

A subversion of the moe of its time, Higurashi presents us with characters who seem harmlessly adorable before revealing—often through acts of violence—far more complexities than their moe trappings may initially suggest. The game begins with Ryuuga Rena, a ditzy, excitable young girl with an offbeat taste in trinkets. Rena’s is the very first sprite the reader sees in all its era-epitomizing glory: from the squishy oven-mitt hands, to the fluffy fringe of hair reminiscent of Tsukimiya Ayu from moe visual novel Kanon, to the vitally big eyes so common to moe as it existed in 2002. Rena isn’t so much an archetype within the moe genre as she is a general representation of the original moe archetype itself. 

Rena’s quirks and oddball tendencies are initially waved away by Keiichi and the Higurashi cast —Rena’s habit of digging through trash in search of “kyute things” is chalked up as simply something that makes Rena Rena. The same can be said of Rena’s carrying a cleaver around with her in broad daylight—in the first question arc, Onikakushi, Keiichi is surprised when he first sees the weapon in Rena’s hand, but he quickly accepts it, and the reader is encouraged to do the same. The anime adaptation, tasked with turning a roughly 12 hour chapter into four episodes, ends the first episode with a very ominously framed image of Rena and her cleaver, implying much earlier than the sound novel does that Rena’s behavior may not be quite as naively oddball as it initially seems.

Viseual novel Rena with pupil-less glowing eyes

Degrees of foreshadowing aside, both sound novel and anime proceed to slowly invert Rena’s personality from cute and friendly to unsettling and deeply creepy. The sound novel removes the light from Rena’s famously big eyes, giving them an unsettlingly preternatural glow. In the anime, this shift from cute to creepy is done through yet more uncomfortably angled framing, as well as a gradual increase in the use of blackout shadows to obscure half of Rena’s face. Her exaggerated cute features become distorted instead, their disconnect from real human features used to horrify instead of entice.

Rena’s arc is one of trust lost and ultimately renewed. While the opening arc, Onikakushi, focuses on male characters Keiichi and Ooishi talking, even gossiping shallowly about Rena’s history, answer arc Tsumihoroboshi involves Rena herself narrating a much more detailed, devastating picture of her past. She describes her parents’ divorce; her feelings of displacement and inadequacy resulting from the separation and, before long, a spiral of fear, agitation, and paranoia culminating in self-harm.

By the time Tsumihoroboshi returns us to the present day, it’s clear that Rena’s exuberant, lackadaisical front is a deliberately designed facade that helps her to hide her struggles from her friends, and that the yandere-adjacent tendencies she depicts in both Tsumihoroboshi and Onikakushi are in fact symptoms of the very deep trauma she carries following her parents’ divorce. Though Rena’s actions in Tsumihoroboshi are fundamentally reprehensible and are treated by the narrative as such, it also asks us not to focus on these actions but on Rena’s rapidly deteriorating mental state. While the initial ax-wielding, blood-splattered image of Rena would go on to substantially inspire the yandere archetype of today, she herself is not an example of the archetype, and the parts of her character that did inspire the archetype are the parts of her character that we, reading or watching Higurashi, are urged to look beyond. 

Rena pinning Keiichi down, frozen about to bring her cleaver down on him

While the anime largely succeeds at compressing Rena’s arc in a way that conveys the complexity and humanity of her character, the same is not true of its approach to Shion. Introduced in the Watanagashi question arc, Sonozaki Shion is a seemingly gentle girl with a playful, teasing streak, the quintessential “big sister” type, even if she is technically the younger sister to her twin Mion. Despite their twinship, Shion and Mion exist in perfect counterpoint to one another: where Mion is boisterous, Shion is coy; where Mion works with her uncle in a toy shop, Shion waits tables in scanty uniform at the maid cafe Angel Mort; where Mion is the firstborn, and therefore next in line to head the Sonozaki family, Shion is the younger who floats around the outskirts of the family. Shion lives in the neighboring town, as though there is no place in the sprawling Sonozaki family estate for her—as though there is no place in their family for her. 

If the two sisters do share one commonality, it’s that both appear to have a crush on Keiichi. In Mion’s case, this seeming crush ends up being outright confirmed when she expresses heartbreak and rejection as a result of Keiichi’s admittedly thoughtless actions. When he doesn’t even think to give her the doll she wants, saying that it’s too girly for someone as tomboyish as her, this hurts her deeply as someone who wants to be seen and loved as a girl by the boy she likes.

Higurashi sound novel cover featuring Shion

Shion’s feelings toward Keiichi, however, remain more implicit than explicit throughout the course of the Watanagashi arc; indeed, it isn’t until the corresponding Meakashi answer arc that the true nature of Shion’s feelings is revealed. In the Meakashi arc, Shion’s own narration reveals that the one she loves isn’t Keiichi at all, but rather Satoshi, a missing boy Keiichi is often noted to resemble. As the arc combs back through the events of Watanagashi, this time from Shion’s perspective, it is revealed that it was Shion, not Mion, who committed those acts of violence we witnessed in the question arcs. Shion who shook the ladder. Shion who killed Rika and Satoko. Shion who hammered nails into Keiichi’s fingers one by one. In her narration, Shion states that everything she does—every single act of malice and violence—she does to take revenge on all those who wronged her and Satoshi. 

In the Meakashi arc as it operates in the sound novel, these acts of brutal violence are quickly skimmed over in a written montage, the focus being not on action that’s already been covered but on Shion’s mental state and motives. The sound novel makes it abundantly clear that Shion has been treated as a stranger by her family almost all her life. From being treated at birth as a baby that “should never have been born” to being cast out of the family home and away to a boarding school, Shion is raised in the shackles of displacement, rejected by her relatives, and forcibly estranged from her home and sister because of the family’s superstitious beliefs. This ongoing familial trauma follows Shion like an extra footstep that she can’t hear—at least, not until she meets Satoshi.

Shion sitting in a desk next to a troubled Satoshi

In Satoshi, Shion sees herself: her lost childhood, her secondary importance to her sibling, her forced invisibility, and her desperation to protect her younger sibling by taking parental abuse on her own shoulders instead. Something the anime never touches on which is imperative to understanding her character is that Shion was originally born as the elder Sonozaki twin, but ultimately switched places with Mion to protect her.

By putting herself between Mion and a lifetime of familial estrangement, Shion protects her sister from abuse but redirects it onto herself, in much the same way she sees Satoshi do when he protects his sister Satoko from their uncle’s physical abuse. Shion’s love for Satoshi is thus predominantly about projection. Nowhere is this clearer than in Shion’s short temper when dealing with Satoko, upon whom Shion subconsciously projects her complicated feelings for her younger sister. While the sound novel never makes excuses for Shion’s violence, its closing-in on her complex feelings and trauma allows us to understand her actions as deeply pitiful and tragic, born as they are from dehumanizing rejection that no child should ever be made to feel. 

Mion's armed strapped down to a torture table with her sister beside her

Unfortunately, through its depiction of Shion, the anime adaptation of Higurashi feeds into the up-and-coming yandere archetype of its time in the way the sound novel expressly cautions against. The Higurashi anime first premiered in 2006, four or so months after the manga Future Diary entered serialization. At the time of Higurashi’s premiere, Future Diary was already gaining recognition—if not notoriety—for its character of Gasai Yuno, who was rapidly popularizing the yandere archetype  through her behavior, mannerisms, and what would ultimately go on to be known as the “yandere face.” This vivid expression of lovesickness as drawn by Future Diary’s author Esuno Sakae shocked readers as early as two chapters into the series—two whole months before the airing of Higurashi’s first episode. By the time the Higurashi anime came around to its portrayal of Shion’s Question and Answer Arcs, the yandere archetype was fully emergent. 

Indeed, there are echoes of Yuno’s “yandere face” in the gratuitously lurid facial expressions Shion makes throughout the Meakashi arc of the Higurashi anime (none of which were ever present in the original Meakashi sound novel, which reads from Shion’s closed first-person perspective and so never shows her sprite on screen). The Higurashi anime relishes in these visual depictions of Shion’s cruelty. This comes at the cost of her character development, and ultimately, her character development is sacrificed for the sake of schlocky horror and unnecessarily sexualized violence. She is reduced to a spectacle. All this considered, it unfortunately makes sense that Shion’s anime portrayal would help give rise to a whole ~dere archetype unto itself—the yandere as we know it today. 

Another reason the anime opts for an overly decadent depiction of Shion’s cruelty rather than exploring her mental trauma more sensitively and thoughtfully as it does with Rena (despite both girls committing comparably reprehensible acts of violence while grappling with mental health issues) may well be due to its placement in the overall narrative of the first season. In the anime, Meakashi is placed squarely in the center of the first season, which is, for the most part, composed of question arcs. Rena’s answer arc, Tsumihoroboshi, rounds out the first season of the anime and thus gives her arc a coherent conclusion. Meakashi, on the other hand, sits in an awkward middle position (episodes 16-21) that requires it to raise complications and horror in the lead up to Rena’s concluding arc. The anime’s wildly differing treatment of both Rena and Shion may also explain why today Shion is considered more of a poster girl (so to speak) for the yandere archetype than Rena—while the anime clears away the mists of yanderism initially surrounding Rena, putting Shion’s question and answer arcs so close together and giving them less time to play out mires Shion deeper and deeper within them until they become seemingly integral to her character.

Shion looking miserable

By showing us characters who are more than simply one or another type of moe—and in fact cannot be reduced to that one word, that one limiting concept—Higurashi demonstrates just how reductive moe and its archetypes tend to be. To describe Rena or Shion as simply yandere is fundamentally counterintuitive to what Higurashi is trying to do. Even setting aside the often-overlooked fact that both characters barely scrape into the criteria of the yandere archetype, it does a major disservice to both characters and Higurashi’s exploration of trauma and mental health to reduce them into that box. They are young women with a history of deep trauma, ongoing struggles, and mental illnesses. They are not the sum of their symptoms. 

Today, the yandere archetype is best known for being a reductive and simplistic handling of mental illness in female anime characters. There is a bigger discussion to be had on the ways in which the yandere archetype has evolved since its initial emergence, but I would argue that part of the reason the trope tends to oversimplify—and even stigmatize—mental illness is that the archetype was so notably shaped by a reductive description of the otherwise complex, thoughtfully developed character of Sonozaki Shion. As the Higurashi anime itself demonstrates through both its portrayals of Rena and Shion, schlock does not make for a thoughtful representation of trauma and mental illness. As the Higurashi sound novels emphasize, on the other hand: in order to even begin understanding the mental health issues that young women may struggle with, it is imperative that we don’t sensationalize, stigmatize, or even sexualize their symptoms, but rather make efforts to understand their world as they see it, and listen to their stories without judgment.

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