Death to the shared universe

I talked before about my dislike for anime’s addiction to sequels. I like stories that are self-contained, like the original run of Higurashi. 50 episodes of intense mystery and horror, wrapped up neatly by the end with a memorable finale. Anything added after the fact would only detract from the original’s satisfaction. However, there is an even faster way to ruin a good, standalone story: just toss it into a shared universe.

PHOTO: Keiichi consuming various cakes.

Though its official status is uncertain, When They Cry author Ryukishi07 has gone on record saying that he has a big, shared universe in mind for his various works. A fictional world in which Higurashi, Umineko, and other stories co-exist and intermingle. On the surface, this sounds sophisticated and pretty cool. In execution, I find that it sours my experience of watching these series.

Most obvious is the matter of complexity. Anime’s fondness for sequels and spin-off content already makes plenty of series daunting to navigate. To stick with Higurashi as an example; the main series received a third “season” in Rei, then a comedy spin-off called Kira, followed by the Outbreak movies that were cancelled after the first entry. Now there are also Gou & Sotsu, which disregard some of this canon and which themselves differ from the canon of the manga. Not to mention there are exclusive story arcs tied to specific releases, like the DS port of the visual novel or arcs exclusive to the manga.

PHOTO: Rika headpatting Keiichi.

Still with me there? Now keep in mind that Higurashi has a shared universe with Umineko; an ever-expanding visual novel series renowned/infamous for its monolithic plot. These franchises admittedly had some ties and references to each other before. As of Gou and its sequel, however, we got Umineko characters and lore appearing in Higurashi without obfuscation.

Gou is already a headache due to being an unnecessary sequel. Now you also need to get into all of this other tat to properly understand the story. That, or delve deep into the fan wiki.

Then there is the matter of narrative satisfaction. In a standalone story, the plot that you watch unfold—the adventures of the characters—are the most significant events in that world then and there. Whether its a mystery to solve, a romance to attain, or a quest to do, that’s what the entire story centers on. When tossed into a shared universe, a lot of this significance is suddenly gone.

PHOTO: Rika partially obscured by mountains of poker chips.

The story of Higurashi, as engrossing as it was, is reduced to a silly footnote in the cosmic happenings of whatever stews in Ryukishi07’s brain. A tale about all-powerful, dimension-hopping witches that alter realities for their bemusement.

You can see the impact immediately. Eua, who is heavily implied to be Featherina from Umineko, appears in the Higurashi universe and effortlessly overpowers Hanyu; a literal God around which the entire story of Higurashi used to revolve. She then easily manipulates the cast and undoes all their achievements in the main series.

Higurashi‘s own lore is also altered to facilitate the introduction of witches to the setting. Worse still, this also alters the themes of the series and the nature of its characters. By the end of Sotsu, Rika and Satoko feel like Umineko characters rather than their Higurashi selves. The sense of unity and friendship, the sheer joy felt at the end of Kai, replaced with cynicism and hostility.

PHOTO: Eua smirking haughtily at Satoko.

My love for Higurashi certainly influences these negative feelings towards the changes brought on by Gou. However, it’s not the only anime that I fell out with over shared universe bullshit. I haven’t really enjoyed any CLAMP series since Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle dragged all of it into its shared universe. Seeing such landmark, standalone stories like Cardcaptor Sakura be swallowed up by the canon of an edgy, shounen action series soured my fondness for anything made by the author.

Not everything needs to be some staggering, unified world. You can just tell a story and then move on to something else.

2 thoughts on “Death to the shared universe

  1. I always liked the shows which had a definite ending, and once their story was done, never looked back.

    Which is why I only care about the original Death Note, which concluded its story, and disregard any spinoff, live action, or a sequel. I do think this problem of alternate reality and shared universe has gotten worse in the last decade or so.

  2. I lost track of Higurashi and I haven’t seen Umineko, but this sounds ridiculous. The whole shared universe/multiverse stuff is getting out of hand and sounds like a cheap marketing ploy these days (I blame Marvel on popularizing this). It just comes off as franchise-milking and gimmicky when shared universes are done poorly.

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