#1 A Groundhog Day, horror mystery
In the small, Japanese town of Hinamizawa, there exists a legend. Every year, at the night of the festival celebrating the local deity Oyashiro, one person dies and another disappears. Everyone in town is aware of it, yet it remains a mystery, especially to the police, who or what is behind this phenomenon. Is it a conspiracy within the town? Is it the work of a serial killer? Or could it really be the vengeful wrath of an angry God?
The story centers mostly around a group of friends living in Hinamizawa. There is the klutzy and cuteness-obsessed Rena, the competitive tomboy Mion, the bratty trickster Satoko, cute shrine maiden Rika, and Keiichi, who has just recently moved into town and has befriended the others by joining the club where they play games together. While these kids appear like the ordinary cast of a slice-of-life show, when the festival night approaches they find themselves being both the victims and the perpetrators of the curse, so to say.
The story is set up as a series of arcs that each last a number of episodes and which retell the same events over and over again. Each one deals with the curse, but each of them also plays out differently. For starters, each story has different triggers to it that ultimately lead one character or another to become involved in the curse and harm their friends. In the first story, it’s Keiichi’s insistence on investigating the legend that alienates him from the girls, whereas in the second story depression over a one-sided romance is the fire that lights the fuse. When the damage is done, the story resets and we watch the events again, but this time with new triggers and events being shuffled.
This Groundhog Day approach to storytelling is kept interesting because we constantly see something new. In the first arc, Keiichi spends the festival with his friends, whereas in the second he spends it with a love interest, which causes us to discover new pieces of the puzzle. Through these repeated events we slowly collect all the information needed to figure out the truth behind Hinamizawa, the cast of characters, and the true perpetrators behind the curse. The next challenge, then, is to actually prevent it and create a future wherein Keiichi and his friends never fight one another or die through other means
The story to Higurashi is a straight 10/10 for me. It has so many layers to it and I love how we get to see these characters both as heroes of the story and the villains. The mystery is great and constantly surprising, it had me actively trying to make sense of it as I watched, even taking notes and taking breaks to see if I could figure something out before the show would actually reveal it.
#2 Characters with duality to them
When I first started watching this show I kind of expected a story that was much less interesting. Going by the description I got, I thought it was some story about a bunch of kids that, at the slightest provocation, go mad and kill everyone. That could still have been some dumb fun, kinda like Mirai Nikki, but it wouldn’t be a satisfying mystery if “everybody is a psychopath” was the answer to every arc.
The reality is different. All the characters mentioned above have some hurt to them, things they regret doing, parts of themselves they dislike, a bit of history they keep silent. The mystery of each arc and the overarching enigma of what is causing Oyashiro’s Curse play into these in interesting ways, which is ultimately what causes one these kids to become hateful and angry towards their friends, to the point where they are driven to violence.
Because of this the characters ended up really intriguing me. Seeing them have fun together at school and at their club gives them immediate appeal, but to then explore their story and personality through these arcs and see them cope with their problems gave them a lot of depth. This then becomes interesting when, in following arcs, they may not remember what happened before, yet you get to see them again and realize that side of them is still there. Even though it’s a time-loop story, you get to see these youngsters grow and deal with their troubles.
While I may have gone into it with low expectations, I ended up really falling in love with the characters. Each and every single one of them surprised me in novel ways and I was deeply interested in watching their growth throughout the series.
#3 Absolutely fantastic rewatch potential
I watched Higurashi quite some time ago and have also read the visual novels and manga versions. I am intimately familiar with the story and know exactly how each chapter concludes, yet I keep being surprised at how well Higurashi holds up when rewatching it. While most mystery stories aren’t as fun to see a second time once you know what will happen and why, Higurashi becomes even better because the more you know about the story, the more the earlier events start to take on a deeper meaning.
It’s a fun exercise to spot all sorts of foreshadowing, hints, and lines of dialogue that are easy to miss on the first time through or would seem innocent to a new viewer. I’d even say I had more fun watching it the second time than I did the first time through, at least in the first season. Before I got so invested in the characters, I was really just watching Higurashi to see some scary stuff and gore. The first two arcs especially deliver on that front, but on the second viewing, they contained so much more depth to appreciate.
#4 Painful horror, subtle horror
The horror in Higurashi has a nice balance to it. Most of the time it starts off subtle and goes for a more psychological direction. It gets you nervous and uncomfortable, just like how the characters on the receiving end of the curse must feel. People act uncannily and there is a thick sense of unease that smothers the village. There is nothing actually happening, yet it still feels oppressive and threatening. The first arc has a great example of this through Keiichi’s many interactions with Rena, which become increasingly frightening and unreal. When characters snap and it’s time for violence, that is when the visuals of Higurashi truly shine.
The gore is really something else and perhaps some of the most impressive I have seen in anime to date. While Higurashi struggles in the animation department, the fine directing work manages to salvage scenes of violence and makes them look absolutely great. Higurashi features many a stabbing, vivisection, brutalization, and torture that is… heavy, to say the least. Even having seen the show before and knowing what to expect, I still get sweaty and tense watching stuff like the infamous fingernail scene.
This, by far, is also the greatest benefit of adapting the story to an animated medium. The visual novels did a great job describing the gore and torture through text, but getting to see it animated instead of through stilted sprites, just has so much more impact to it. The voice work is also at its best in these moments, with perhaps the most well-known examples being scenes where those affected by the curse burst into crazed laughter. With actors like Yukari Tamura, Hoshi Soichiro, and Mai Nakahara, the quality and delivery of the lines more than makes up for the often meager visuals that stain Higurashi‘s reputation.
#5 Close-to-perfect adaptation
Being an adaptation of a visual novel series, one of the primary concerns for many was how butchered the story would end up being. In a time when even big-name licenses like Claymore and Fate/Stay Night would get shafted with mediocre and short adaptations, a niché visual novel seemed like a prime candidate to be the next, big failure. Except… that didn’t happen.
Studio Deen’s adaptation of Higurashi: When They Cry is pretty much 90% complete. It adapts all eight of the core story arcs and even has an exclusive ninth arc in the middle that serves to better explain the story, apparently requested by the original writer himself. Now each visual novel is about 8-10 hours long in my experience and not all of the content within them is transferred to the anime, which condenses these 9 arcs into a 50 episode show. Still, the stuff that was lost is summarized or not really important enough; never did I feel like I was missing some vital explanation or that a scene was rushed just to fit in every detail.
Years later Studio DEEN returned and also adapted several of the bonus stories, resulting in Higurashi Rei and Higurashi Kira, as well as the Higurashi Daybreak movie. Of course, these are optional extras, but damn, you really don’t need to worry about missing out on anything in this franchise.