Higurashi When They Cry - Onikakushi
Developer: 07th Expansion
Release Date: 15 May 2015
Love `em or hate `em, there’s no denying that visual novels have achieved a noticeable presence on Steam. Although Valve do not allow pornographic content on their platform, effectively banning the medium’s most (in)famous titles, there’s still room for “clean” visual novels to reach wider audiences by way of digital distribution. And of course, some developers who are hungry for that tasty Steam pie have taken to dummying the erotic content out of their titles, creating bizarre versions of their products that are essentially “porn-with-a-plot-without-the-porn”.
Fortunately, that’s not the case with Steam’s newest high-profile visual novel release. As of last week, Valve’s platform has become home to the first instalment of 07th Expansion’s suspenseful Higurashi no Naku Koro ni ("When The Summer Cicadas Cry") series courtesy of MangaGamer. First released as doujin-soft (not quite “indie”, think “hobbyist”) at Comiket 2002, Higurashi achieved a fervent cult following despite its no-budget production values and went on to spawn a massive multimedia franchise that spanned animated series to live action movies and everything in between.
MangaGamer had previously published Higurashi to PC in its entirety back in 2009, but this new Steam release is most notable for restoring music and graphics that were previously cut from the English version due to copyright issues. I missed out on the initial release, but I do have some familiarity with the franchise due to the TV anime series. I’ve decided to take the time to see what all the fuss is about with the source material, so let’s take a look at it together.
A little disclaimer before we get into the nuts and bolts: If you’re looking to play a visual novel with loads of story paths like Virtue's Last Reward, you’d best look elsewhere. 07th Expansion describes Higurashi as a Sound Novel, and Novel is right: Whereas many popular visual novels allow the player to make choices at certain junctions in the story, Higurashi is a strictly linear affair that features zero interactivity, making it more akin to Visual Arts' Kinetic Novels than Chunsoft’s Sound Novels. Enter if you dare, but know that you’re in for a purely passive experience.
It’s June 1983 in the sleepy rural village of Hinamizawa. As spring turns to summer, the days grow longer and the drone of the evening cicadas grow louder. 16-year-old Keiichi has just transferred in from with city with his family and is quickly adjusting to country life with support from his new friends, Mion, Rena, Rika and Satoko: four girls of varied ages that he shares a classroom with. The five of them make up The Club, a group of kids who stay late after school to shoot the shit while playing a variety of games, always with the stakes of subjecting the loser to a humiliating-yet-goofy penalty.
Beneath Hinamizawa’s peaceful and welcoming facade, murmurs speak of a violent and brutal act that rocked the sedate burg to its core just a few years prior; An act that, despite being well-known, Keiichi’s friends insist that they know nothing about.
To make matters worse, local legend says that Hinamizawa’s guardian deity bestows an annual curse upon outsiders that causes one to die and another to vanish without a trace. As Keiichi’s friends continue to keep secrets from him, he can’t help but feel like more and more of an outsider himself. Is there truly a curse, or is there a mundane-yet-equally sinister force at work behind the scenes? Are his friends who they appear to be? Will Keiichi be next?
Higurashi has an intriguing premise, which is made even more interesting by author Ryukishi07’s attempt to mask its true identity as a horror story by first presenting it as a slice-of-life romantic comedy. His efforts are admirable, but it’s quite possible that he concentrated a little bit too hard on the masking. The resulting narrative contains an uneven ratio of many hours of lighthearted fluff to a few scant scenes of suspense and terror. I’ll explain in detail below.
The story begins a few days after Keiichi has transferred to Hinamizawa and serves to introduce the cast while detailing his first experiences at school and how he is adjusting to his new environment. This is absolutely fine, and the slow set-up is essential to a story of this type. But there’s a difference between a slow start and wading knee-deep through a pool of molasses. The bulk of these early chapters are dedicated to play-by-play accounts of the various card games Keiichi and Co play together after school. Keiichi discards a card! Rena reveals her hand! Mion matches two cards! It goes on and on, for paragraphs at a time. Additionally, much of the action in these card games can be hard to follow due to the fact that the games themselves are somewhat obscure to western audiences. You won’t find The Club playing Blackjack or Poker; they’re all about Grand Millionaire and Old Bachelor. If you’re as unfamiliar with these games as I am, you’ll probably have difficulty parsing who’s winning and why.
Eventually the narrative reaches a point where Keiichi learns about a gruesome murder from a passerby, at which point he starts to realize something is off in Hinamizawa. One would think that this would signal that Higurashi was about to shift into high gear, but nope! It’s more card games, more flirting and more anime clichés first, complete with a requisite kimono-clad group trip to the summer festival.
Fortunately, the story starts to pick up speed after the festival as Keiichi begins spiraling into the depths of paranoia, dragging the reader with him. We’re treated with some tense scenes in which his previously accommodating friends appear to drop their facade to make veiled threats. From that point on, the tense atmosphere permeates the entirety of the story until its horrifying conclusion. It’s uncomfortable, disquieting and very exciting. It’s great, but it takes 7-10 hours to get there. Brevity is the soul of wit, and Ryukishi07 would benefit greatly from an editor to trim a lot of the story’s fat.
The characters themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. Like many visual novels, they often feel more like 2-dimensional archetypes than well-rounded characters. 16-year-old Mion, the eldest and the Club gamemaster, is a crass prankster; Rena’s the shy girl-next-door who infantilizes herself when presented with cute things; Satoko and Rika are considerably younger than the others at age 10, the former being the bratty half-pint, the latter serving as a foil who is wise beyond her years. The shallowness can be forgiven; This type of story doesn’t command absolute believably from its characters, but there are some noticeably odd choices when it comes to giving these characters their voices. Satoko, for example, can’t tell the difference between cauliflower, broccoli and a piece of bacon-wrapped asparagus (shame on you!), but the word “plebeian” is in her vocabulary.
And of course, we can’t forget Keiichi, who goes from good-natured to unhinged over the course of the story, and is afforded the most depth by privilege of being the narrator. Most depth does not mean most likeable, however. Keiichi loves suggestively teasing the girls he hangs out with, and the way in which he does so starts out as harmless teenage japes. Over time, however, Keiichi becomes a total creeper and subjects his friends to what is essentially sexual harassment. Most memorably, Keiichi repeatedly wins at a card game, forcing Mion to dress in a swimsuit, Rena to call him “master”, Rika to wear cat-girl accessories and Satoko to wear a collar. This is all pretty gross, but Keiichi involving Rika and Satoko--two ten year old girls--in his harem subjugation fantasy is really disgusting and unpleasant. Thankfully, outside of this one scene, the story is largely free of this kind of insight into the author’s paedophilic fetishism.
Script-wise, Higurashi won’t be winning any awards for its writing. I can’t vouch for the original Japanese text, but MangaGamer’s translation has an odd, stilted quality about it; as if it was localized and edited by somebody whose first language wasn’t English. It’s not a terrible translation, but there’s a number of awkward sentences and typos to be found. There’s also a number of of anachronistic references to anime and video game franchises, such as Street Fighter and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and they predictably tend to fall flat as they’re sloppy and not very amusing.
There appears to be a number of aspects to the story that may have been lost in translation. For example, Keiichi narrates that the character Detective Ooishi is crass and vulgar, but Ooishi comes across as polite, concerned and focused in all of his dialogue. There are many ways to say things in Japanese that indicate dialect and personality, and many of these things do not have an English equivalent, so it’s easy to imagine some of these things being difficult to localize effectively. Still, the end result feels sterile. Outside of a scene late in the story in which the detective ogles a waitress, not much evidence is presented to support Keiichi’s assessment of Ooishi as sleazy.
There’s also some misconceptions and mistakes to be found in the narrative itself. Notably, Higurashi equates dysautonomia, a condition that is the physical breakdown of the nervous system, with a nervous breakdown, two things that have nothing in common. It’s kind of an embarrassing mistake which could have easily been avoided with five minutes of additional research.
That said, Ryukishi07 excels at building suspense, and MangaGamer did a good job at bringing this across. The ways in which the murders are described are genuinely disquieting, and there’s a certain level of primal fear permeating the scenes in which Keiichi’s paranoia starts to get the better of him.
The suspense is heightened effectively by the music design, which features some uncomfortable instrumentation during the story’s more disturbing scenes. Higurashi also effectively uses absence of music when appropriate. However, for a piece that labels itself as a Sound Novel, the sound itself tends to be inconsistent. Occasionally we’ll hear sounds as they happen in the story; a door shutting, a doorbell ringing, somebody being punched etc. But more often than not, sounds are described but not heard. It’s a little bit of a bummer.
On a visual level, the first thing one will notice about Higurashi is that it wears its origins as doujin-soft on its sleeve. The backgrounds are all photographs with Photoshop filters layered over them. They serve their purpose and they don’t look bad, but it does occasionally look strange when real people are visible in certain backgrounds. The original character sprites have a childlike naivety about them, but the Steam release contains a choice between these original sprites and a set of updated ones by the professional studio Alchemist. Personally, I preferred the original sprites: the unskilled look has a certain amount of charm to it that is not quite heta-uma but resembles outsider art to a degree. The updated sprites are a bit too derivative for my tastes, not only resembling the art found in dozens of other visual novels, but also having a moe/eroge quality about them that I’m not very comfortable seeing children represented as.
The Steam release not only allows you to switch between the original and updated character art on the fly, but also allows you to switch between English and Japanese text. This is a nice feature if you’re learning Japanese, or if you’re a Japanese-speaker learning English.
Higurashi takes the relatable anxiety of moving to a new town and meeting new people and twists it into the ultimate paranoia trip; One in which even the friendliest face is concealing a dark agenda. It's unfortunate that, more often than not, this horror-story-disguised-as-a-romantic-comedy felt more like a romantic-comedy-disguised-as-a-horror-story-disguised-as-a-romantic-comedy. If you have the patience for it, Higurashi does pay off eventually. I only wish it didn’t take so long to do so.