Higurashi: When They Cry – NEW – Episode 1

By: Vrai Kaiser October 1, 20200 Comments
A boy walking with a girl on either side of him

What’s it about? It’s the summer of 1983. Maebara Keiichi has recently moved to Hinamizawa and made fast friends with the girls in his one-classroom school. But Keiichi’s new home is a small and isolated one, with secrets that might be dangerous to dig up.

Content Warning: Gore

Higurashi is a phenomenon. The franchise includes a two season anime plus several OVAs, live-action films, manga, light novels, and platform-crossing games. It revived the concept of the sound novel (a visual novel where the only player interaction is forwarding the text). It arguably created the prototypical seeds of the yandere archetype. It was a major step for both original writer Ryukishi07 and anime director Kon Chiaki’s still-active careers. If you were a Cool Anime Fan in the 2000s, you had absolutely heard of Higurashi.

At the same time, it wasn’t uncommon to have only heard of it. While images of the original violent scenes made the rounds alongside this particularly beautiful send-up of 4Kids! (maybe you had to be there), only the first 26 episodes of the series were licensed by Geneon; and when it went under, those became lost media. Its second half, Higurashi Kai, wasn’t legally available in English until Sentai licensed it a few years ago. The series was often lumped in alongside 00s contemporary and trauma porn-a-palooza Elfen Lied, which couldn’t walk five feet without tripping over some prepubescent girl’s viscera, when in fact Higurashi is a paranoid slow burn that only really doles out one or two gore scenes per arc. But its memetic status was what stuck.

Satoko smirking and jabbing Keiichi with an elbow. subtitle: Hey! Elbows are cheating!
No, they get lovable, I swear.

Or did it? I came back to this question again and again watching Higurashi NEW, which seems downright determined to act like it’s getting an identical, prettier do-over for an audience completely new to the story. …Mostly.

Obviously, I can’t come to Higurashi as a total neophyte—something made even harder by the fact that 85% of this first episode is a literal scene-for-scene restaging of the original pilot—but I can offer fellow staffer and actual meme-only viewer Caitlin’s comment that the first few minutes of school shenanigans are “excruciating.” Which is true.

Higurashi popularized the template of spending long stretches on lighthearted character scenes in order to gleefully poke holes in that happiness later, and it’s one of many elements that I suspect will come across as old-hat for new viewers because everyone else has taken inspiration from it in the 15 years since. But it’s broad and frenetic, and like Toradora! it can be grating to sit around waiting for the writing to stop just Doing the Thing and dig under its characters’ archetypal exteriors.

two small figures walking through a forest during a very read sunset

To folks having a hard time, the episode takes pity halfway through and begins to introduce whispers of a local murder that everyone in town seems eager to deny. These scenes are where the remake truly shines, with sumptuous background art that drenches the captures the simultaneous beauty and dread of Hinamizawa. The characters are more basic and functional, with rounded pastel designs and hyper-detailed cut-ins for ominous moments. It’s one of a few minor hints that the show might be on its way to doing something aesthetically different from its predecessor, which is both blessing and curse.

The original Higurashi’s art style is a frequent subject of mockery, cementing Studio DEEN’s reputation as a stiffly animated off-model hack shop basically until Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju came along. But honestly? I’ve come to like it over the years—with credit owed to my wife’s spirited defense of the subject. One of the most interesting things about the original Hiugrashi is the way it played with popular moe conventions of the time, and a big part of that was knowing how to stretch limited assets to achieve comedic or unsettling effects. Kon essentially went on to make a career out of that very skill, and I don’t think it’s insignificant that the series went from almost no fanservice to a jarring amount of it when a new, male director came on board for the Rei OVA.

Chibified Rena squishing her face happily
It’s too soon to say that the old art had more character but here I am

But it’s also fair to say that those wonky visuals are a notable hurdle to newer fans who might be curious about the series, and it’s not unreasonable to make an update—even if I already mourn the severe playing down of the comedy chibi moments. It’s even possible that the show could find new ways to play with current stylistic trends. There are one or two uncomfortable shots of Satoko’s legs and crotch that I’m severely side-eyeing, but they’re brief enough that it feels too soon to call on that front.

On the subject, if the show continues to stay a fairly faithful recreation of the old writing, there are a few broad things I should note for new viewers. In addition to the gore, torture, and gaslighting that come stock standard with the show’s genre, there are a few tired bits that were easy to roll one’s eyes through in 2006 but have grown increasingly stale and unpleasant in the years since.

Keiichi’s talk about manliness and Being A Man is arguably believable for an ‘80s period piece, but it does become an annoyance as it goes on. My more serious concern is with Dr. Irie, a thankfully minor character who in the original anime made a lot of Allegedly Hilarious comments about wanting to marry prepubescent Satoko and would’ve been right at home in a Doga Kobo anime.  

Rika with glowing red eyes
Honestly the one moment that made me worry NEW will overplay its hand rather than letting the tension build up slowly. This is not scary, NEW. This is funny.

There’s a lot more I could say about the series, from its sometimes authentic and often absurd depictions of trauma to its absolute strokes of genius, but I feel like I’ve maybe scared off some of you prospective new viewers. In the spirit of the original era, let me put it like this.

TL;DR: Higurashi NEW is an almost absurdly faithful remake of the 2006 series’ first episode, from the scenes to the music, with a new coat of paint on top. Its comedy segments can be a tough sit, but its atmospheric ending still has the punch to hook you into its conspiracy. If it keeps being so faithful it’s going to hit some poorly aged bits, but it’s too soon to tell on that front. Anyway, does anyone want tacos?

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