I've seen the games for sale on JBOX and really wish I knew Japanese so I could play them. The mystery elements, combined with the creepiness, would probably make them lots of fun.
It's 1983, and Keiichi Maebara moved to the tiny rural town of Hinamizawa only a month ago because of his father's job as a painter. It's an idyllic little town where everyone is friendly and gets along well - even though Keiichi is such a recent transfer student, he's already part of a close-knit group at school. That group is composed of four girls: Rena, Mion, Satoko, and Rika. Rena is a gentle, blushing girl Keiichi's age who obsessed over "adowable" things. Mion, also Keiichi's age, is more confident and aggressive - she's also got a big chest and loves to use it to tease Keiichi. Keiichi's new school is very small, so there's only one class, composed of a variety of grades and ages. Satoko and Rika are younger than Keiichi, Mion, or Rena. Satoko is mischievous and loves to try to get Keiichi to fall into the traps she sets. Rika is sweet and very polite.
Keiichi figures he's starting to fit in pretty well, until one day, when he meets an outsider, a freelance photographer named Tomitake who often visits Hinamizawa to take pictures of birds. Tomitake tells Keiichi a little about a gruesome murder committed in Hinamizawa several years ago - the victim was dismembered, and one of his arms still hasn't been found. When Keiichi tries to get Rena to tell him a little more, she cuts him off, saying that she doesn't know anything and that she, herself, only moved to Hinamizawa a year ago. Mion, too, seems creepily resistant to admitting that any violence ever occurred in Hinamizawa. When Keiichi discovers an old magazine with an article on the incident, he has further cause to wonder why his new friends are lying to him. Little things start to freak him out, like when Rena approaches him with a huge cleaver (at this point in the story, Rena's intentions are still entirely innocent - she found the cleaver so she could cut some "adowable" junk free).
Keiichi's life becomes a surreal mix of goofy fun with his friends and an increasingly paranoid desire to understand what's lurking underneath Hinamizawa's idyllic surface. On the day of the Cotton Drifting Festival, Keiichi meets Tomitake again, as well as Miyo, a nurse at Irie Clinic. Miyo tells Keiichi more about the murder. Apparently, a dam was proposed that would have destroyed Hinamizawa, and the man who was killed was the director of the dam construction project. He was killed on the night of the Cotton Drifting Festival, and, every year after that on the same night, somone has died and someone has disappeared. The locals call it "Oyashiro-sama's curse," after the village's guardian deity (which is actually a demon). Despite this freaky bombshell, Keiichi and Tomitake leave the festival in high spirits after spending the night playing festival games with Keiichi's friends.
The next day, however, Keiichi is called out of school by Detective Ooishi of the Okinomiya Police - Tomitake died on the night of the Cotton Drifting Festival, sometime after leaving Keiichi and his friends. There was evidence that he has been attacked by several people, but the direct cause of death was self-inflicted wounds - he clawed his own throat out. Miyo has disappeared and may be dead as well. Ooishi wants Keiichi's help identifying the killer. He wants Keiichi, who hasn't been in the village long but gets along reasonably well with the locals, to act as his informant, letting him know if he hears or sees anything potentially useful. However, Ooishi warns Keiichi that he must not tell anyone about the murder or what he's doing to help the police - not even his friends, and especially not Mion, whose family led the resistance against the dam construction project and who personally interfered with a public official performing his duties during the resistance.
Keiichi is conflicted - he wants to know the truth, but he hates hiding things from his friends. He later overhears Rena and Mion talking about the murder, which they shouldn't even have known about, since it was supposed to have been a secret. They say something odd, that Miyo may have been "demoned away" - Rena worries that she may be next because of something that happened a while back. While cleaning up with Rena after school, Keiichi discovers an old score sheet with all the girls' names, plus the name Satoshi. Rena won't tell him about Satoshi, saying that she had only just transferred to the school when Satoshi transferred out and she never knew him well. Keiichi is getting more than a little tired of constantly feeling like an outsider, however, and he blows up on Rena and accuses her of hiding things from him.
That's when things get really freaky. Rena's eyes become inhuman, and her behavior completely changes. She confronts Keiichi about the things he's hiding, how he met with a stranger. Keiichi, terrified, doesn't tell Rena the truth about Ooishi. Her behavior briefly switches back to the old Rena, but then she goes demonic again, screaming that he's lying. She changes back to her usual gentle self, but now Keiichi doesn't know what to think or do. When Ooishi calls, Keiichi tells him about some of the things he's overheard, but he doesn't think Ooishi will believe him if he tells him about what happened with Rena, so he doesn't mention that. Ooishi tells Keiichi more about the murders, including that Satoshi was one of the people "demoned away" on one of the nights of the Cotton Drifting Festival. Unfortunately, after Keiichi hangs up, he discovers that his father had let Rena into the house earlier, and she had apparently been quietly listening in on his entire conversation with Ooishi.
What's going on with Rena? Will Keiichi, still an outsider, die next?
Higurashi: When They Cry started out as a "PC version doujin novel game," according to one of the pages of extras in the manga. There's also an anime version - I saw a few episodes of this prior to reading this manga. I have to say, I prefer the anime so far, because the level of creepiness seems much higher. The contrast between the girls' sickeningly happy and often goofy behavior and the horrors that Keiichi gradually uncovers feels, to me, to be much better in the anime - not only are there visuals to raise the tension, there's the music and the voice acting. The bit with Rena's cleaver also was better in the anime, I think. I can't say anything about the game, because I've never played it. You can buy it (and other related games) at JBOX.com, but you'll need to know Japanese, because it hasn't been translated.
The goofy parts of this manga are just over the top. At one point, Keiichi tries to foil one of Satoko's traps by wearing a cicada outfit. At another point, he plays a game with the girls where, when he wins, he gets to tell them what to do, like wearing panda ears and talking like a little sister, or wearing a PE uniform and talking like a maid. I'm glad that this is a horror manga and not a harem romance manga, because this would all just be disgusting otherwise.
Rena's demonic behavior was very well done - the artwork was a little odd, but the slightly "off" feel fit well with Rena's "off" behavior, so I didn't mind so much. The artist emphasizes Rena's freakiness by switching over to full-color artwork for the spread where Rena blows up on Keiichi - very nice effect, although I ruined it a bit for myself by flipping through the manga before reading it all.
Ooishi bothered me in the anime, and he still bothers me here. His usual cheerful smile just feels a bit macabre when he's there to talk about a murder. Plus, what is this guy thinking? He knows the situation is dangerous, he suspects that a group of locals is responsible for the murders, and yet he's asking a teenage boy, who he has already identified as a potential future victim, to be his spy?! Is he trying to get Keiichi killed?
A lot of stuff in this first volume corresponds to what happens in the first few episodes of the anime (I'm not sure which came first, the anime or the manga). However, the emphasis on the demonic aspects plus the information about Mion's potential connection to the murders are both things that don't come up quite as strongly or in the same way until later in the anime. It's interesting seeing another interpretation of the story - it makes me wish I both knew Japanese and owned a Nintendo DS, so I could try the game.
Overall, I look forward to reading more of the manga, but, I don't think I'll be buying any of it - I've already got the anime on my "to be watched" pile, and that's good enough for me. When I finally get around to see it all, I'm sure I'll be sleeping with the covers pulled up to my chin and a flashlight nearby.
There's a page that explains a little about the story, its origins, its appeal, and the way it's structured. There's also a little bit at the end written by Ryukishi 07, just a few paragraphs, a few paragraphs by Suzuragi, and two pages of translation notes. You can also count the 3 (or four, if you count that first page) full-color pages as extras, if you'd like. Those who appreciate that sort of thing will like that the translation keeps the suffixes (Tomitake-san, Oyashiro-sama, onii-chan, etc.).
I had a horrible time coming up with read-alike and watch-alike suggestions, so feel free to comment and suggest your own. I just don't watch a lot of psychological horror - I get nightmares too easily.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Perfect Blue (anime movie) - This movie is about a Japanese pop idol who wants to become a movie star. She takes a very sleazy role that's not in keeping with her shiny pop idol image, and one of her fans feels very betrayed and begins stalking her. Those who liked Higurashi's combination of cute and creepy might like this movie - the "cute" factor is lower (basically, just that the main character is a pop idol), but the "creepy" factor is off the charts.
- Paranoia Agent (anime TV series) - A mysterious kid with a bent golden bat has been going around attacking people. Two detectives are investigating, so that they can stop this kid, dubbed Lil' Slugger. Lil' Slugger's actions sometimes reveal the (often strange) secrets and private lives of his victims. Those who'd like another creepy psychological mystery story might want to try this.
- Elfen Lied (manga) by Lynn Okamoto; Elfen Lied (anime TV series) - Two teenagers find a bloody, naked young girl on the beach. She has lost her memory, so they name her Nyuu. What they don't realize is that the girl is a killing machine, from an experiment gone horribly wrong, and it's only a matter of time before she starts killing again. Those who found themselves strangely fascinated by Higurashi's combination of cuteness and horrible, bloody murder might want to try this. I'll admit, I've neither seen this anime nor read the manga - I watched a snippet of an AMV using clips from this series, and the graphic depictions of severed body parts was a little more than I felt I could handle.