PLOT: Hinamizawa. It’s a little town, a quiet village. Every day is like the one before. It’s a little town, full of little people, and Keiichi is the new boy in town. (What, you thought I was going to turn the whole review into a filk?)
Anyway, we meet our lead, Keiichi, and one by one we are introduced to his
Then it starts to get weird. A roving photographer hints at a terrible incident. Some of the girls start to fill in the backstory, of a dam project that threatened to destroy the town and a series of murders connected to it. Then, after the annual Cotton Drifting festival, the photographer is found dead, seemingly killed by scratching his own throat out. Now Keiichi is afraid that not only have the murders started again, but that his friends may know more about them than they let on.
STORY: I am going to be straight with you guys: I do not like moé AT ALL. At the very least, it’s far too sickeningly sweet for my taste and I feel that it enables lazy, aimless storytelling under the name of "slice of life" or "character-driven story," despite the fact that the cast isn't so much a collection of characters as it a collection of quirky or tragic personality tics. At its worst, it’s creepy and downright demeaning to women, because it idolizes girls who are helpless and childlike, who will always need a man to provide guidance and validation, and the cast will be specifically created to appeal to specific fetishes so that they can merchandize these characters to a select audience that will always eat this stuff up, no matter how many times it has been done before.
So it should come to no surprise that I did not like the first half of this story AT ALL. It’s cliché to the point of parody, annoying, and kind of creepy, and when I wasn’t groaning I was slapping my forehead in frustration. I mean, for god's sake they use the “boy falls into boobs” gag – more than once! But then I got to that second half, and suddenly all the moé-moé-kyun crap went away. Instead it became a more personal story, as Keiichi begins to explore the mystery of Hinamizawa and begins to lose himself to paranoia. Now I was wanted to see where this story went. Now all the moé business up front became more suspicious, as we get more and more hints that there's something else going on in those sweet little bobbleheads, and whatever it is can't be good.
What I'm ultimately trying to say is that this a really well structured story. It's tense and moody, like any good horror story should be, and it builds that tension in a steady, well paced manner. By the time you get near the end, and things truly begin to get weird, you begin to question the reality of the town and the girls just as much as Keiichi. Sure, the characters are pretty much just archetypes, but the characters are not the draw here. What is the draw is the mystery, and the tension that builds when you know that at any point someone - anyone - could be the next victim.
ART: The character designs are just as moé as the story content, where the girls are tiny, bobbleheaded, big-eyed and in possession of some inordinately large busts. It should come to no surprise then that there is a fair share of fanservice, although most of it is nonsexual in nature. Sure, there are some shots where the art is a liiiiitle too focused on some of those clearly unencumbered, oversized boobs, but most of it is more about the girls being 'adorable,' (or as Rena would phrase it, "ADOWABLE!"). It's not the greatest tradeoff, but if I can get a choice in forms of fanservice, I would rather have be about Rena freaking out over cute things versus it being about looking at her panties.
Of course, all this cuteness provides all the more contrast for the dark goings on. I will say that I do like the way the artist made use of tight close-ups to create tension. They always come when the girls start acting a bit off, even before the first murder, and they are timed well enough to maintain the tension without becoming overused, so complements to Ms. Suzuragi on that front. There’s also something here that's unusual for American manga. This may be the first time I’ve seen the color pages used to highlight a major mood shift. Usually, if the manga features color pages at all, they are used solely for supplementary art, or maybe to highlight the original color pages at the beginning of a chapter. Here it’s used for dramatic effect near the end, and it's used very well as it helps to jar the reader visually as well as in the text. Now, with all this talk of murder, you may be wondering about the explicitness of the violence. Well, most of it is talk, not show. What little actual violence is shown is often obscured (censored?) by dark screen tones, so the squeamish will not have much to fear here. Overall, while the art clearly panders to the moé fandom, those character designs and composition help to enhance the atmosphere and provide all the better contrast to the mystery and violence.
PRESENTATION: As I noted before, this volume features color pages - twice, in fact. The first is at that aforementioned dramatic peak near the end, and the other is...ugh...a splash page at the beginning featuring the girls in sexy, skimpy maid outfits. There are also some author's notes and translation notes in the back.
I'm honestly suprised at how much I ended up enjoying this manga. Not even my own personal distaste for moé could not completely detract from this genuinely interesting and well-crafted exercise in mood and tension. I want to find out more about the madness and the mystery of Hinamizawa, and how (if?) Keiichi will survive, and I suspect many of you will do so as well.
Higurashi When They Cry is an on-going series in Japan. It is published in the USA by Yen Press and as of this review, 18 volumes are in print.
This volume and many others like it are available today through RightStuf.com!