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Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Stories of the Top 80 Anime: Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni

5. Higurashi is another completely unique anime from a brilliant new author, Ryukushi, who learned from the best, Jun Maeda. Ryukushi and Jun Maeda are now working together on their new joint project, the visual novel Rewrite, which is set to come out this year.

'Where the cicadas cry,' is a story about people pushed to the limits, both by their dreadful circumstances, and a peculiar parasitic alien disease that pushes people's paranoia until they die from scratching their own necks open due to the worms boring away inside of them. The difficulty of staying calm, of making the right decision, and navigating your way peacefully through this combination of events is almost impossible, which is why the cast fails at it time and time again. But one of their members, a witch known as Rika, has the ability to go back in time and start over, so every time they end up failing and dying, she reverts them back to the beginning, with their memories of the previous instances gone, except as a dull shadow of a thought, and they all try again. Rika has watched her group die so many times that she is a step away from despair and madness, but suddenly her friends start acting better and better, learning from their past mistakes, until with one last push they overcome every obstacle in a calm, peaceful manner, fight off their infections, and emerge victorious, through the one in a million chance that Rika kept giving them the chance to roll.

Rena is faced with the difficult situation of her father being conned out of all his money by a pretty face, who's working with the yakuza (mafia). The wrong answer was to kill the girlfriend and the yakuza boss, chopping them up and burying them in the hopes of never being caught, which Rena fearlessly decided upon the first time. The right answer was to demand her father break up with the girlfriend and never see her again.

Satoko is facing child abuse from a no-good uncle, this after her older brother had killed Satoko's abusive aunt for her just a few years ago, and run away to escape capture. Because of her previous claims of abuse, the police no longer listen to her or care about Satoko's 'crying wolf.' Keeichi simply kills the uncle the first time, but is haunted by guilt and ultimately falls to the paranoia of the blood worms. That is why, the next time through, they create a letter and rally campaign outside police headquarters, demanding they save Satoko from her abusive uncle. With enough pressure, and with everyone pitching in to convince Satoko to report the abuse yet again, they finally get the authorities involved and peacefully save their friend.

Shion is haunted by the abuse her mother visited on her in the past, and when Keiichi hands Rena a teddy bear instead of Mion, Shion's twin sister, it starts a crazy boulder rolling where Shion ends up killing all of her friends and family in Hinamizawa, completely taken over by blood worms. The next time, Keiichi, just 'because of a bad feeling,' hands the teddy bear he won over to Mion, thus averting the danger.

What's amazing about these stories is how morally justified all of their 'wrong' turns were. The heroes act like heroes at all times, but sometimes that heroism, when combined with their infected paranoia, leads to disaster, and only once does it lead to their salvation. Your admiration for characters increases every hard decision they make, and you realize yet again that the 'ends justify the means,' and that no one could blame Rena for killing to protect her father, or Keiichi killing to protect Satoko, even though there were better alternatives out there. Everyone was trying their best, and they were the victims, just fighting back in self-defense, not the perpetrators.

Trying to piece together who the true culprit is, why the city is always destroyed by the end of the sequence of events, where the blood worms came from, and all the rest keeps your mind continuously spinning, long past the last episode, which still doesn't explain everything that happened. It has all the features of a mystery, the fun part that keeps you guessing even as the story plays out. It has all the features of a horror story, where people die grisly deaths no matter how hard they try to stay alive, full of terror and dread. But it doesn't rely on these mechanisms, keepings its eye on the ball -- what truly makes a story great is great characters, their relationships, and their decisions. Higurashi is no different. The hard choices the cast makes, over and over, and how much they look out for each other, one for all and all for one, propels this story well beyond "Saw 3" or "Freddy Cougar," etc. Higurashi makes a mockery of all western equivalents. The openings to Higurashi are hauntingly beautiful, Rena's shout of "Lies!!!" that sends an entire flock of crows flying up behind her is epic, and Rika's despairing line, "I'm already tired of this Hinamizawa, I want to go on to the next Hinamizawa," will stay with you forever, and find applications to all sorts of unrelated topics. For these lines and more, Higurashi is #5.

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