Typically, the verb ‘watch’ implies a passive experience. ‘Watching’ fictionalized television can be a relaxing recreational pursuit, as viewers discern unambiguous character development or follow the trajectory of an oft-linear plot. It’s an ephemeral process which rarely challenges our cerebral capacities. By this standard, it’s impossible to merely ‘watch’ Umineko: When They Cry.
NIS America’s latest anime is nearly prohibitively complex. Crammed with characters and a labyrinthine plotline which incorporates the tenets of obtuse logical perspectives such as probatio diabolica and Schrödinger’s cat paradox, Umineko’s collection of 26 episodes coerce viewers into completing a series of cognitive workouts. The customary hard-bound text which accompanies each of the publisher’s premium editions offer a bit of assistive substantiation- exhibiting details such as a graphical chart of the series’ extended family. In execution, the materials offer spoiler-free support which only cover Umineko’s broadest elements. Ideally, the boxed sets would extend a companion app, where tablet owners could optionally peer into series’ deeper details to help decipher the anime’s brainteasers.
Much of Umineko: When They Cry’s complexity stems from its source material. As a popular series of Dōjin-soft visual novels in Japan, Umineko no Naku Koro ni set up a series of murder mysteries while follow-up Naku Koro ni Chiru scrutinized theevents through two elucidating premises- one using magic as an explanation, the other utilizing scientific rationalization. Imagine observing two Ph.D. students engaged in a metaphysical game of Clue, debating dialectic suppositions, and you’d have the faintest inkling of what Umineko extends.
Beyond logical complexity, the anime’s plotline is similarly intricate. Umineko: When They Cry’s first five episodes details the series premise, as the Ushiromiya family descends upon a lavish island resort owned by Kinzo- the ailing head of the family. As each of the remaining adults scheme to become the patriarchs presiding heir, viewers learn of the legend of Beatrice- a witch who purportedly made a Faustian deal with Kinzo. Characters become killed off faster that the fifth act of Macbeth, engaging Beatrice and Battler in a battle of wits to explain the events through the supernatural or the ultra-rational. At first, discerning the ties and motivations of 18 lead characters can be daunting; before long, viewers will realize that the adaption from visual novel to anime led to the simplification of some personalities.
While the paranormal by definition doesn’t have to conform to logical premises, Battler Ushiromiya’s assertions do. Unfortunately, this is where When They Cry sporadically stumbles. Instead of guiding us through each conundrum, with each piece of data culminating in the type of deductive hypothesis common to procedural series like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Uminekos’ outcomes aren’t always presaged or abide by credible outcomes. Either way, a few enigmas aren’t satisfying. Fortunately, these handful of clunkers don’t taint the majority of the anime’s riddles which often revolve around keys, locked doors, and slain family members within. As such, those who enjoyed Aksys’ 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, are apt to become Umineko’s biggest fans.
Nearly as perplexing as the plotline is NISA’s distribution model for the anime. Volume one contains the bulk of Umineko: When They Cry– consisting of 18 episodes, for a $63.99 price tag. Meanwhile volume two’s eight episodes wrap up the series, albeit for a reduced $39.99 MSRP. Although the whole anime can be purchased for a bit over a hundred dollars, the publisher‘s impetus for a disproportionate split isn’t clear, especially since the ratios don’t adhere to any tangible narrative arc. With the initial price of admission to When They Cry raised, it might be prudent for potential purchasers to stream a few episodes to see if the series’ meshes with their sensibilities. Unlike NIS America’s more recent output (anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, bunny drop, Ghastly Prince Emna Burning Up), Umineko isn’t as immediately accessible, despite the impression its roster of busty femme fetales might suggest.
However, for those yearning for some analytical aerobics, the two volumes of Umineko: When They Cry exhibit the publishers’ typical sumptuous treatment. Both are housed in a glossy, oversized case which matches the series’ 80’s/Victorian aesthetic. Forgoing DVD media, episodes are housed on Blu-ray, with each disc delivering pristine picture quality with no visible artifacting and spotless coloring among the anime’s deeper hues. Sound quality matches picture superiority, with the operatic strains of the opening song as well as crystal clear dialog at the threshold of LPCM 2.0 output. One transgression for English language viewer will be the Japanese voice actors- who consistently butcher the anime’s Western names.
On the surface, Umineko: When They Cry might appear to be a combination of horror and suspense, mixed with a morsel of comedic fan service. In reality, the series is a byzantine work which admirably tries to capture the essence of its thorny source material. As such, When They Cry may lack mass appeal, but those looking for a commendable adaptation of the visual novel or manga likely won’t be disappointed.