The rich and powerful Ushiromiya family, trapped on a secluded island, is being picked off one by one as sacrifices for a witch. Or maybe that's not what's really happening, and family dauphin Battler Ushiromiya is into something even stranger and deeper than he could have imagined.
Part murder mystery, part Gothic horror fantasy, and part meditation on reality, Umineko has too many ideas and too many moving parts for its own good.
- Atmospheric, and sports occasionally effective psychological (and visceral) horrors.
- Intriguing mix of disparate story types.
- Way too confusing, and confused, to add up to much.
- In a story where everything can happen, nothing really matters, does it?
- Director: Chiaki Kon
- Animation Studio: Studio Deen
- Released By: Geneon Universal Entertainment
- Released Domestically By: NIS America
- Audio: Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-MA (gory violence, psychological torment, and various mature subject matters)
- List Price: $103.98 (BD only, both volumes) / $63.99 (BD only, vol. 1) / $39.99 (BD only, vol. 2)
- Video Game Adaptation
Which is witch?
Umineko: When They Cry is a series with a great premise, some fascinating ideas, and utterly agonizing execution—in both senses of that word—of its story. The end result is like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as transmuted through a plot that’s like Philip K. Dick’s rewrite of Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild. If that doesn’t make much sense to you, neither will Umineko, I’m afraid.
The setup, at least, is intriguing. In October of 1986, members of the wealthy Ushiromiya family converge on an island where the family’s scion, Kinzo, is about to die. A typhoon cuts the island off from the outside world, and soon various members of the family are being murdered in gruesome ways—all in accord with what appears to be a kind of prophecy involving “the Golden Witch, Beatrice,” who is said to live on the island. Those who can solve her riddle will be given the family’s wealth.
So far, so good. We have a hero of sorts in Battler, one of the family’s sons, who starts putting together clues as soon as people begin dropping dead (and who strikes a nice finger-pointing “Objection!” pose a la Phoenix Wright whenever he smells a lie). But to his surprise he discovers that Beatrice is in fact quite real, and claims to be using her magic to cause all the deadly goings-on. Battler doesn’t believe in magic or witches, and so sets about to prove how each of the murders taking place on the island could have been executed by nothing more than ordinary people. If Battler caves and admits his belief in witches, she wins.
Complex or just complicated?
This is, again, a great premise. The problem is in how confoundingly complicated it all becomes. I’m not talking about the mechanics of each of the murders, which are more or less self-contained, but the larger “wrapper” plot, in which Battler and Beatrice face off against each other in a sort of parallel dimension where time is apparently in suspension and the whole family has been repeating this locked-room mystery for years on end.
The other problem is how, as things grow increasingly protracted and tedious, they also grow that much less compelling. Magic in any story—even a story that’s set in a world where magic is commonplace—is potentially deadly to drama, because once you’ve established that a given character can more or less do anything, all possible constraints for the story have been thrown out. As someone else once put it, the only thing less compelling than a story where nothing happens is a story where everything can happen. And so much happens in Umineko that by the time we do get to the end, our heads are spinning, and not in a good way.
Maybe they were too faithful?
I suspect most of the problem with the show is that it’s derived from a video game, which usually means the show’s creators were doomed to bend over backwards to accommodate everything that was in the game, whether or not it made sense as a story. It isn’t impossible to do this—look at Persona 4: The Animation, for instance, which stuck fairly closely to the original plotline, and not only held together but made a surprising amount of sense. Or Devil May Cry or Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings, which raided the original game mostly for characters, settings, and inspiration, but spun them all back together in its own way. Or Steins;Gate, where the underlying story was put together with the kind of internal consistency (and compelling human drama, and gut-busting yuks) that it needed.
Umineko could have been great, but it’s in thrall to too many of the convolutions of its underlying material. Watching this series is like trying to drive through a town where you’re not even sure if they’ve finished paving the roads.