I Am One Yet Many: Plurality representation in the When They Cry Series

By: Lilith Miao March 6, 20200 Comments
The protagonist of When They Cry Ciconia looks surprised

The horror genre has historically stigmatized mental health conditions. Higurashi and Umineko, the first two installments in the When They Cry series, lean heavily into the conventions of the horror genre. My teenage self fixated on the spectacles of horror, embedding these harmful depictions into my brain, preventing me from using these stories as a base to reflect upon myself. But later, when Ryukishi07 released the first phase of CiconiaWhen They Cry nine years after the end of Umineko, his more nuanced approach to Ciconia’s characters helped me understand myself as plural.

Plurality can be defined as “The subjective experience of many conscious selves residing in one brain.” Similar to other queer spaces, it can be viewed as a spectrum ranging from having a single personality to having Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

I exist somewhere in-between as a median system. Each of us has our own particular quirks and personalities, but we’re all usually present at the same time and work in unison. If we’re not working well together, we’re sometimes not able to speak at all because we all want to say opposing things and can’t agree on what physically comes out of our mouth.

Meow and Jayden together with Miyao looking on in the background as a ghost.

Before I came out as plural, I only understood it simply as “multiple personalities.” I had no clue about the distinctions between DID and medians. I knew people who identified as plural, but I avoided asking them what their experience was like since I felt that it would be too personal a question. With no real source of learning about plural identities, I instead did the perfectly healthy and normal thing of looking for role models in anime.

The concept of multiple selves is a popular theme in anime. Naruto had a demon fox to fuel its protagonist’s chakra, Yugi had the pharaoh to play card games in Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Hikaru had Sai to teach him go. As a child, characters who displayed some kind of multiplicity captivated me. But due to how fantastical these setups were, I couldn’t relate it to my own experiences. The closest I got was writing alter egos within fanfiction or role-playing them online.

Two boys (Yugi and Yami) stand off in a dark room.

In the real world, I thought, one person = one personality.

Higurashi first challenged this understanding with Ryugu Rena. She was the first character with multiple personalities that I got invested in, but the story ultimately frames her duality as something horrifying to be overcome.

In one of Higurashi’s most infamous scenes, Rena drastically changes from a sweet and air-headed girl to an angry, hatchet-wielding threat. This left me with the false impression that split personalities are a strictly negative mental illness. Rena’s eventual path to redemption required her “other self” to get talked down to restore her “normal” personality.

An angry looking girl bares down on a boy. Text: "I couldn't exhale the deep breath I had just taken. No. It was like I wasn't allowed to exhale. It was here... I first realized... ...The person in front of me... She wasn't Rena Ryuugu.

Rena’s story stressed that I had to be normal. The selves that I presented at home, school, and online stared at each other square in the eye, refuting each other’s existence. We didn’t want to be seen as a horror trope, nor as a danger to themselves and others simply for having multiple personalities. Instead, we swallowed down our growing anxiety and depression to paint a picture of normality.

We reflected on these feelings back in 2008, a year after the Higurashi anime ended. In the meantime, Ryukishi07 had continued the When They Cry franchise with Umineko, exploring plurality as more than just a sign of illness.

Ushiromiya Maria, a nine-year-old child, initially seems to mirror the role Rena played in Higurashi, but Umineko incorporates this trait into the story for more than just shock value. The other characters comment on the tendency for children to create alternate personas when they’re young as a way to explain Maria’s dual personality, suggesting endogenic plurality—that is, multiple personalities that exist naturally. As the story progresses, it’s shown that her mother’s physical abuse factored into Maria’s dual personality, demonstrating traumagenic plurality—multiple personalities resulting from trauma.

Two girls stand side by side. Both smile. Text: Maria onee-chan had given the name 'Sakutarou' to the stuffed animal she was to receive on her birthday... and had warmed and expanded his existence in her heart for a long, long time. Therefore, even before she met him, his existence was sublimated into a personality. Even at the first moment they met, they were already friends.

Umineko approaches Maria’s plurality with empathy and understanding, taking great care in portraying her as a sympathetic character. However, as much care was paid to her portrayal, Umineko obscures its plural representation under a curtain of metaphor using witches, demons, and familiars as stand-ins for a character’s alternate personalities. The burden of interpretation lies solely on the reader, making it difficult to understand that a character is even plural in the first place.

In retrospect, Umineko served to subtly inform me that I was plural. It left me with a great deal of empathy for its plural characters, but I was unable to fully connect it to my own self. Thankfully, the latest installment of the When They Cry series decides to be a lot more explicit about plurality.

The cover of the Umineko When They Cry comic featuring two women (both Beatrice), one in modern clothing, one in a hoop dress.

When Ciconia debuted, I had been getting closer to another median system and a system who has DID. Through these relationships, I questioned my own identity as I unpacked my childhood memories and traumas, a process that only started in earnest two years prior. However, compared to the growing wealth of resources for LGBTQ+ identities, there weren’t many accessible resources to help me build an understanding of plurality.

Ciconia provided me with an explicit framework to understand my own plurality by allowing its plural characters to be visible, running counter to how Higurashi and Umineko used them to build mystery and suspense. Ciconia moves away from the isolated settings of the previous When They Cry installments and into a vast, worldwide stage of a post-WW3 future. With its expanded scope and foray into sci-fi, Ciconia spends a lot of its narrative on grounded worldbuilding, pulling concepts from 2019 and extrapolating them into the far future.

Ciconia initially posits ideas revolving around politics and war, but once it’s finished with its initial worldbuilding, it immediately delves into the plurality of its protagonist, Mitake Miyao.

Meow in Miyao's clothes looks on embarassed as Jayden also blushes. Text: No matter how much talent you have, ...it's never pleasant when people look at you strangely. So, even though Gauntlet Knights have become a shared dream for kids all over the world, almost no one 'comes out' as a CPP... It was all thanks to what remained of streotypes from the old era, where multiple personalities were treated like something out of the occult or horror genres...

Jayden, Miyao’s (battle) partner, catches sight of him at an arcade in Akihabara. When Jayden approaches Miyao, he’s surprised to instead find a girl who looks exactly like Miyao, down to the way he dresses. Similar to how Higurashi introduced a twin character under similar circumstances, the scene introduces Miyao’s other personality, Mitake Meow.

Plural folks in Ciconia call themselves Congenital Parallel Processors (CPPs), a term that fits in with the myriad of other sci-fi acronyms in Ciconia. While Miyao and Meow coexist as brother/sister medians, the narration makes it clear that there are many different types of systems that define themselves by their own terms. The story approaches CPPs with the same level of seriousness as the rest of the worldbuilding done in the game through an extended segment explaining their history, presence, and significance in Ciconia’s world.

The narrative states that 30-60% of Gauntlet Knights are CPPs, creating a central cast where the majority are potentially plural. Ciconia correlates plurality to a character’s Parallel Processing Power (P3) levels. P3 levels measure one’s ability to multitask, as performing simultaneous operations is a necessary skill for a Gauntlet Knight, Ciconia’s top soldiers. Even though CPPs are normalized within the Gauntlet Knights, it’s also clear that they’re still a minority in the overall population.

When Meow comes out to her partner, Jayden thinks about the importance of treating Meow as her own person. He recognizes the fear of coming out and being treated “like some kind of bizarre animal,” assuaging and soothing Meow of her worries by creating a space where she can be open about her own existence.

A boy (Jayden) smiles as a girl (Meow) stands beside him. Text: At the word 'partner', Meow smiled broadly for the first time. Miyao was probably the main personality. So, Meow's personality always had to be kept hidden away, and it was hard for others to notice it. ...She must've been happy to be recognized as a separate personality...

I cried when I read that scene for the first time, as if they were directly addressing me and my personal troubles. I saw so much of myself in Miyao and Meow. The struggles they faced mirrored the fears that I had when examining myself: namely, the fear of being ostracized and othered. Ciconia normalizes plurality and frames it as explicitly positive, making me feel comfortable in trying to express myself as plural.

In a way, it’s ironic that the franchise that showed me how multiple personalities were something to be feared and hidden ended up becoming the franchise that gave us the courage to come out. When representation is tokenized and depicted as dangerous or unstable, it can push people to repress themselves to avoid being seen as the caricatures on screen. Ciconia provided me with positive role models, giving me a framework to have clearer, more open conversations about plurality and myself.

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