There’s something special to be said about a horror story that can repeat the same sequence of events over and over again and still leave you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Higurashi: When the Cicadas Cry is a 2006 anime adaptation of a visual novel that masks a series of nightmarish stories beneath a foggy layer of mystery that spills over into its aesthetic. Blending together lighthearted elements with some truly intense and disturbing scenes, Higurashi is an in-depth look into the kinds of inexplicable human errors that can only end in tragedy.
Higurashi begins in the summer of 1983, with the arrival of hotheaded teenager Keichi Maebara to the small, peaceful village of Hinamizawa. Life is ordinary for Keichi and his friends, Rena, Satoko, the twins Shion and Mion, and Rika. They hang out after school and play games to entertain themselves in the mundane little town. All seems perfectly fine, until Keichi starts to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances. It isn’t long before things start to go very bad and the blackest secrets of the seemingly quiet town unravel themselves into a maze of dark mystery with a lethal outcome.
The setup is rather standard for the genre. However, the tenebrous story of Higurashi takes a rather interesting twist in its presentation. The show is split up into several arcs, or chapters, at the end of which, the story is reset. The village returns to its peaceful state, and our young cast of characters are seemingly back to normal. This disturbing Groundhog Day-esque repetition makes for a unique spin on classic horror conventions. Watching a character die gruesomely, only to reappear in the next episode without a scratch, is a strange experience to say the least.
Each chapter in the show is told from a different perspective or time. The same events can happen in each chapter, but the outcome may be completely different. Despite these variations, each chapter plays out in a similar fashion, starting out relatively lighthearted and upbeat, with Keichi and the others having fun and going to school. The turning point in each chapter comes during the Cotton Drifting Festival, an annual event held in the village. It is during the festival that two people disappear and a mysterious entity known as Oyashiro-sama is said to deliver a curse, at which point all hell breaks loose. Characters become paranoid, driving them to murder, psychosis, and their eventual deaths.
The tension is palpable in Higurashi, bleeding into everything from the meticulous pacing to the often uncomfortably bright visuals. The show has a tendency to turn a mundane, seemingly innocuous conversation into an intense moment of anxiety. One little offhand comment can immediately change the tone of the entire episode. It also doesn’t help that even the most trivial of events, like a simple pat on the head, can set a character off, and every panic-fueled hysteria or mental break has a chance to result in the deaths of many people. The animation quality is rather unsettling itself, with a simplistic design that seems really out of place with the tone of the darker scenes, and it’s hard to imagine that this contrast wasn’t intentional. And of course, the constant buzzing drone of the cicadas in the background does little to help alleviate the uncomfortable atmosphere of the show.
With its somewhat perplexing nonlinear story, told from different perspectives and times, it can be difficult to piece together the puzzle of Higurashi. For the most part, the short chapters are their own self-contained stories, with only bite-sized pieces of information weaved in to hint at the greater story taking place. The very town of Hinamizawa is a microcosm, existing very much within itself – the village school consists of one classroom, with multiple grades being taught by only one teacher; almost everyone knows each other by name or their family; and hardly anyone visits or leaves the village. The Twilight Zone-style setting gives the impression that something greater is going on, that some ominous force, demonic or otherwise, is pulling the strings, which may very well be the case. The show is deceptive, concealing the truth behind layers and layers of ambiguity; it’s possible to reach the end of the series with no definitive conclusion about what is causing these events to take place. That’s okay, though, because not knowing the truth is good horror.
Of course, Higurashi has its share of disturbing and graphic scenes to really drive home the fact that it is a horror story. It spares no expense in showing every last gruesome, pulpy detail. What’s even more unsettling is the detached, offbeat manner in which it presents these scenes. It’s sadistic and over-the-top, often panning in on the carnage in a dramatic fashion, as if reveling in the thrill of these unspeakable acts of cruelty. It’s like a twisted, shameless celebration of violence, and the show seems to be fully aware of how depraved that enjoyment is.
Where the show really gets terrifying isn’t in the horrific gore, but the psychological torment of the protagonists and the tragic mistakes they make out of fear. As stated before, some chapters will focus on the same story, but from a different perspective, like the “Eye Opening” chapter, which is the same as the “Cotton Drifting” chapter, but from Shion’s perspective. Each character carries their own fears, and those fears are tested when the tension ramps up. Keichi is naïve and determined, but he’s also suspicious and prone to breaking down if he thinks his life is in danger. Similarly, in both Shion and Rena’s chapters, fear and mistrust replaces honesty and loyalty. Keichi and Rena both see their deepest fears manifested when they begin to delve into the mysteries of the town, leading them to see things that aren’t really there. This can make the characters’ perspectives wholly unreliable. It also drives home an interesting question: are their fates being cynically manipulated by unseen forces, or are they themselves the catalysts of their own destruction?
Higurashi does what psychological horror does best: it plays off the characters’ mental anguish and creates an unsettling atmosphere where just enough little things are off to make the whole experience feel terrifying. With its complex cast of characters and critical tone, it questions the rationality of fear and explores the fragile nature of trust. While the ending can be a bit disappointing for viewers hoping to uncover the mystery of its plot, the remarkable pacing and ambiguous atmosphere make for a chilling experience that delivers as many shudders as it does questions.