Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (when the cicadas cry) is one of the best series (not only anime) I have ever seen. At its core is a mystery with elements of both drama and comedy. What puts it apart from other series is its very complex plot, unfolding little by little in a masterful way. All main characters' personalities, background and motivations are explored in depth and from different perspectives. The series is an adaption (very faithful) of a series of doujin visual novels with the same name.
Visually the series is characterized by the overwhelming amount of gore and its loli character designs, which are effective both comedically and grotesquely, depending on the scene's context. Also noteworthy is the background artwork, which is very well done and renders effectively the appropriate atmosphere. The director also uses it to a great effect shifting from dark and moody backgrounds to light and cheerful scenery and vice versa, depending on what the script demands. Occasionally, the characters are drawn with extremely disproportionate and deformed faces (this was dropped during the second season), which sometimes is really creepy, but other times becomes ridiculous. The animation in general is fluid, but simple, no 3D, no fast-paced action scenes.
The voice acting is just excellent, not only adapting the characters' mannerism from the game, but also many voice actresses had to switch from their cute high-pitched octaves, to deep and brooding, to demented and frantic, etc. Also amazing and fitting thematically is the opening titles' song of the second season and in general the background music is effective, blending nicely with sound effects, without being outstanding.
The story takes place during the summer of 1983, at the rural village, Hinamizawa (雛見沢). The main character, Keiichi, moves in and befriends his new classmates Rena, Mion, Rika and Satoko, joining their after-school club activities, which consist mostly of card and board games. Hinamizawa appears to be a normal and peaceful, rural village, however, the tranquility abruptly ends after the annual Watanagashi Festival, a celebration to commemorate the local god, Oyashiro-sama. Keiichi learns that every year for the past years, one person is murdered and another goes missing on the day of the Watanagashi Festival. Keiichi himself soon becomes drawn into the strange events surrounding the Watanagashi Festival and Oyashiro-sama. In each story arc, he or his friends mentally break down and commit several murders. While it seems impossible to tell their delusions apart from the mystery of Hinamizawa, slowly the truth is revealed.
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Keiichi is the main protagonist in the "question" arcs. The son of a famous artist, his family recently moved to Hinamizawa after an unfortunate event involving him in their hometown. His charisma and remarkable talent for speech-making allow him to easily make new friends and become popular in the village. Early in the story, in the Onikakushi-hen and Tatarigoroshi-hen arcs, he is the one affected by the paranoia and driven to commit murder; however, the inner strength and unshaking belief in his friends he acquires in the other arcs are one of the keys to solving the mystery. Eventually, he is even able to recall some of the events of the past repetitions. When he needs a weapon, he uses Satoshi's old baseball bat.
Rena is a girl who returned from Ibaraki to Hinamizawa one year ago, and is in same grade-level as Keiichi. She has an obsession with things she perceives as cute. Every now and then, she goes treasure hunting in the town's trash heap, searching for 'cute' things to collect, and upon finding something, it's difficult to stop her. She has a habit of repeating words at the ends of sentences, most famously kana? kana? (かな, かな literally "I wonder?") and when finding something cute, she says Hauu! Omochikaeri! (はう-! おもちかえり! literally "I want to take it home!"). Despite this disarming trait, Rena is shown to be amazingly observant and perspective about the things around her. According to Mion, while Rena might seem cute herself, people should be careful not to anger her as she becomes quite scary when angered. She is especially sensitive about the topic of Oyashiro-sama. When she needs a weapon, she uses a large cleaver that she found at the trash heap.
Mion is the oldest classmate in Keiichi's class. As the elder, she is the class president and everyone looks up to her as the leader. Her social skills are on par with Keiichi, whom she highly respects as a friend and rival (though it is later shown that she has a crush on him). She acts like a tomboy, but has a hidden girlish side. She is next in line to be the head of the Sonozaki household, one of the Three Families which holds tremendous influence in Hinamizawa. Right before tattooing the symbol of oni, which is reserved for the older sister, she was mistakenly identified as the older sister which means that she was actually born as Shion Sonozaki, the younger sister. Since then, she switched her identiy of Shion with Mion, the older sister. She is often seen with a holstered gun, even though she has never used it.
Shion is Mion's identical twin sister, who currently resides in Okinomiya. In spite of their different personalities, she and Mion often switch places, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Their first switch took place when they were little. Right before tattooing the symbol of oni, which is reserved for the older sister, she was mistakenly identified as Shion, the younger sister, which means that she was actually born as Mion Sonozaki, the older sister. Since then, she switched her identity of Mion with Shion, the younger sister. She was sent by the Sonozaki family to a private boarding school, but escaped and returned to live near her hometown, where she lives with Kasai. She was in love with Satoshi, and blames the Three Families of Hinamizawa for his disappearance, this drives her to mass murder. One of the last words that they exchanged before he disappeared was a promise to take care of Satoko, something which she has taken to heart. She works as a waitress at the Angel Mort restaurant and is the manager's assistant for the Hinamizawa Fighters little league team. She is often seen carrying a taser.
Satoko is a younger classmate in Keiichi's school. She has a distinctive style of speech, ending all of her sentences with ~wa. In spite of her young age, she seems to have an impressive arm strength and is quite clever in setting up traps and likes to practice on Keiichi. Although her personality is quite energetic and mischievous, Satoko's past was full of trauma; her parents died in an accident, she was abused by her foster parents (her aunt and uncle) and her beloved brother Satoshi disappeared.
Rika is a younger classmate in Keiichi's school and is in the same grade level as Satoko. Naturally, she is great friends with her, as they live together in the same house. She is revered by the villagers as the heir of the local shrine, and plays the role of a miko in the annual Watanagashi Festival. She has been the head of the Furude house since her parents died, but rarely attends town meetings due to her young age. While she does not speak a lot, she likes to say nonsense words such as "mi~" and "nipa~", which inflame Rena's passion for cute things. She also likes to describe events using sound effects. In fact, she is one of the main components of the eternally repeating June 1983, and is the only one who is consistently able to remember the past repetitions. She believes she has lived over 100 years, but continues to act like a child in order not to alarm her friends. She is the only one able to see Hanyuu, who has been like an imaginary friend to her all her life. Despite her young appearance, she seems to be quite fond of red wine.
Hanyuu always wears a miko outfit, and has a pair of dark colored horns. Despite she was perceived by Rika all her life, only in the last chapters did she interacted with others. She is the one responsible for the eternally repeating June 1983, which she created in order to save Rika's life. She's very meek and often makes the noise "Au au au…" when she's nervous or uncomfortable. She dislikes alcohol and kimchi, which Rika uses in large amounts when Hanyuu is being particularily annoying (both Hanyuu's and Rika's senses are linked together). Rika refers to her as Oyashiro-sama when talking with others, but does not treat her as a divinity; instead, she sees her as a close friend.
The plot unfolds in chapters (composed of several episodes), which are either a retelling from a different perspective of the same events or alternate version of them. This proved to be very effective, promoting the speculations from the audience, which added to the experience of viewing the series. Below, each chapter is described in detail, followed by screencaps and my opinion with spoilers, so beware ...
Spirited Away by the Demon Chapter
1st season, episodes 1-4
This chapter introduces the simple rural life of Hinamizawa, the after-school club activities and the friendships of the main characters. Excellent start having the murder scene at the beginning of the very first episode and then proceeding by presenting the innocent everyday life and introducing the main cast of characters. Rena is the only one that shows her delusional side, during this chapter, though it is not really explained until Tsumihoroboshi and Minagoroshi. Also she gets a great scene at the garbage pile at the end of the first episode. The whole chapter revolves around Keichi and how he is slowly plunged into paranoia, fueled by Oishi's informations as well as Rena's "not-so-innocent" pranks and finally leads him to a break-down, running amok and murdering Mion and Rena.
Cotton Drifting Chapter
1st season, episodes 5-8
This chapter also begins innocently, with the Watanagashi Festival again marking the start of the sinister events in Hinamizawa. In this chapter my favourite character is introduced, Sonozaki Shion. A partial explanation about the mystery murders is offered, but the whole truth is not unveiled until Maekashi. This chapter's excellence actually can not be realized until Maekshi is over, since both chapters play a lot with the perspective they present the same events.
Curse Killing Chapter
1st season, episodes 9-13
Keiichi attempts to help out a Satoko with drastic measures, but instead he sets in motion events that quickly get out of control and finally resulting to the extermination of the whole village. Tatarigoroshi, deals with the serious subject of child abuse, but this is its high point, because it really fails to create a suspensefull atmosphere as the previous two chapters and its theme is not very well integrated with the rest of the events and the setting.
Time Wasting Chapter
1st season, episodes 14-15
In contrast to the first three chapters, this chapter takes place before the events of the fateful summer of '83 and is shown through the eyes of Mamoru Akasaka, a young police investigator from Tokyo who comes to Hinamizawa in order to investigate a kidnapping of a politician's grandchild. Soon, he too becomes implicated into the mysteries of Hinamizawa. This chapter focuses on Rika Furude as being the key part of the mystery and gives an insight into the inner workings of the village.
Eye Opening Chapter
1st season, episodes 16-21
Meakashi consists of the events of Watanagashi told from the perspective of Shion Sonozaki, with only a few minor variations. In this chapter, the audience sees the true reason for the criminal's murderous actions in Watanagashi. The first hints of that which ties together the chapters are given. The plot structure is excellent, despite retelling the same story as Watanagashi, Maekashi is not repetitive and very emotionally involving. But remember this is the most bloody chapter in the whole series and the villain's actions go beyond the description of sadism. Finally, apart from being amazed with Shion's character, it was Rika's actions that really amazed me and actually set the scene for the second season.
1st season, episodes 22-26
In Tsumihoroboshi, Rena experiences a situation similar to Keiichi's in Onikakushi, as she is marginalized by the situation within her family and then falls victim to paranoia fuelled by information fed to her by Takano. It has a (seemingly) happy ending, although there is a sinister twist, revealed in the beginning of the second season, which consists this chapter's true ending. Tsumihoroboshi is also very bloody, but never reaches the levels of Tatarigoroshi.
2nd season, episode 1
Mamoru Akasaka, with an assistant, visits the abandoned town of Hinamizawa in the year 2007 and meets Officer Oishi. They still wonder about the great disaster that decimated Hinamizawa and the connection to Miyo Takano's File No. 34. Rena shares with them the little knowledge she has about Rika's strange behavior shortly before the supposed "gas leak", and Akasaka recalls his meeting with the young Rika as well. Here we see what happened after the events of Himatsubushi. This is the true ending of that chapter and a pretty decent introduction into the second season (remember that the series was off air for half a year).
Disaster Awakening Chapter
2nd season, episodes 2-5
Yakusamashi is an anime original chapter that interweaves scenes from the first season's chapters while giving other information that connects to the last two chapters. Yakusamashi takes place in a scenario where Keiichi, Rena, Mion, Rika, Satoko, and Shion all attend the school without issue. In this chapter, Satoko notices Rika's odd behavior and hears her speaking of her inevitable murder; Rika denies Satoko's questions about it. Satoko later witnesses Rika trying to warn Tomitake, thus furthering her suspicion. Satoko then goes through a Tatarigoroshi-like situation, and dies in the hospital once knowing of Rena's message.
2nd season, episodes 6-13
On the surface, Minagoroshi is the solution to Tatarigoroshi; however, it answers most of the major common mysteries of the previous arcs. It is told from the perspective of Rika Furude. Most notably, the true identity of the massacre's masterminds are revealed. Also Rika's odd behavior is explained, along with the introduction of the final major character, Hanyuu. Finally, this chapter has some very powerful scenes, like Satoko's cry for help (11th episode), the hounding of the main characters by Takano and Rika's murder (13th episode).
Festival Accompanying Chapter
2nd season, episodes 14-24
After Minagoroshi, the mastermind of the murders was revealed. This time, all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. The last step for the characters to take is putting the pieces together in order to defeat the culprit, obtain the miracle, and break through the barrier of June 1983. But before that we are given Takano's background and circumstances. Some minor details are also explained and finally Hanyuu manifests and aids the characters. This chapter despite being the longest was not boring at any point, though do not expect sudden twists and turns, since Matsuribayashi is the result of a plan to undo the cursed fate of the last thousand something years.