Story by Ryukishi07; Art by Kei Natsumi. Released in Japan in two separate volumes as “Umineko no Naku Koro ni: Legend of the Golden Witch” by Square Enix, serialized in the magazine Gangan Powered. Released in North America by Yen Press.
And so the first arc of Umineko: When They Cry is finished, and even more than the first Higurashi arc, it shows us that what we’ve been reading for the last 1100 pages is simply a prologue for everything that is to come. It shows us the main players, allows us to see the family drama at the heart of everything, and of course has a number of gloriously gruesome murders, but you keep expecting the last page to be, with apologies to The Goon Show, Wallace Greenslade announcing “And this is where the story REALLY starts.”
There’s a lot more emphasis on the mystery itself than there was in the Abducted by Demons arc, with each new killing propelling the remaining cast to desperately try to figure out how in God’s name they’re happening. This is made possible by the deliberate closed-in locked-room style of the series, which does not allow much in the way of escaping or trying to forget about everything. Thus Umineko is a more oppressive series than Higurashi, but it’s also more focused. Character allegiances shift rapidly, as Eva, one of the more sensible character in the first volume, proves to be incredibly nasty at trying to pin the crime on Natsuhi; Maria’s split personality is genuinely looked into as possibly being a product of her mother’s resentment; and Natsuhi herself finally takes control of the family at the expense of… well, a whole lot.
Jessica and Kanon are on the cover, but they really don’t get much of a look in beyond the fact that Jessica clearly has a crush on Kanon. (I understand the second arc focuses more on Jessica and George’s relationships.) But the inside cover tells the real story of this book, showing a frustrated and enraged Battler and a smug, grinning Beatrice wielding chess pieces at each other.
Then there’s the tea party. I’ve been reading through a couple of the Higurashi Visual Novels (available legally from Mangagamer, by the way – one of the few non-porn things they’ve done), and each of them ends with a short ‘tea party’ set in the cafe where the cast, out of character, go over what happened in the book and whether it was due to demon or human elements. That said, it’s totally independent of the VNs themselves, and was dropped from the manga adaptation as being irrelevant. Is was therefore a big surprise to me to see the tea party actually adapted for the manga… and it proved to be the biggest plot twist as well. It’s all very well and good to deny the existence of a witch who appears as shafts of light or butterflies, but her physical presence really throws Battler for a loop. And when he continues to deny her involvement… let’s just say things don’t end well for our heroes.
And so we seem to have a plot and a meta-plot, as Battler and Beatrice are now in competition to find the best explanation for the events at Rokkenjima (note that actually trying to stop the murders doesn’t seem to be an option anyone brings up this time). And then at the very end there’s a meta-meta plot, as Beatrice has her own tea party with another witch named Bernkastel… who we’ve seen in the Massacre arc breaking down the Higurashi plot with Rika. Indeed, Bernkastel looks exactly like Rika… and while Ryukishi07 has apparently said that the two are not the same, there’s clearly enough similarities that they’re connected in some way.
The balance between mystery and horror is what drives this series, as the author himself notes at the end. And while events may be more dramatic, gestures more declamatory, and events far more hopeless than Higurashi, the key is whether a reader wants to read on and find out more. I certainly do, especially since I want to find out more about Beatrice, who insists she’s behind everything, but hasn’t really given a reason why beyond “cause I’m evil like that”. I’m going to guess that’s not the real reason.