Most anime has its origins in a manga or light novel series, but a not-insignificant number of them start life as a computer game. These can often be the more unusual ones in narrative terms. After all, by its very nature a game tends to provide different possibilities depending on game play, and many of the games that get adapted for anime in Japan are what’s known as “visual novels”, which have different paths to follow that affect the end result. The obvious thing for an adaptation to do is to choose one of those paths, and Clannad is a good example of that, but note how it retains some of its computer game origins by adding bonus episodes on the end of each series which explore some of the other ways the characters’ lives could have played out. The approach to the source material in When They Cry is something quite different to the obvious route of choosing one path, and it may be an entirely unique kind of storytelling. I’ve certainly never watched anything like it.
We start off in relatively familiar territory for an anime, with a boy named Maebara Keiichi who has transferred in to a new school. Unlike the large city schools of most anime, this school is in a small village named Hinamizawa, and in fact the school is so small that there is just one class for everyone. Keiichi belongs to a club with some of the other students, who play games together. Apart from him they are all female, so we’re ticking off all the clichés here, but that just lulls us into a false sense of security. Before long Keiichi is starting to get paranoid that his friends are out to get him (with good reason). By the end of the fourth episode, everyone is dead.
Then episode five starts, and everyone’s back to life again and we’re back to the lighter tone of the first episode. I was confused to say the least. And this keeps happening. I have only seen the first series so far (there are three, including a third OVA series), but over the course of 26 episodes, everyone gets killed in different ways every few episodes, only for the series to reset again every time, until the final chapter does something quite different.
This is a highly unusual way to utilise the original visual novel format, but there’s more to it than that. As the series progresses it becomes apparent that these are not simply different stories with the same characters. They all fit together in some way, so what we have is a mystery series where you can put the pieces together to figure out what’s going on. I’m reliably informed that the answer to the mystery can be worked out during the first series but it isn’t completely resolved until the second, so at the time of writing I still have all that to look forward to. Maybe I’m just not very good at solving mysteries, but after finishing the first series I haven’t come to any kind of a solid conclusion, although certainly a lot more makes sense by the end of the series than it does at the start.
The cleverest thing about this series for me is the way it subverts the usual anime clichés. With one male student and four female ones in the group of friends, you might be expecting a harem anime, with all the girls falling for the boy, but it’s not that kind of series. Instead they keep killing each other in increasingly inventive ways. Fanservice is almost non-existent, although the opening credits oddly show two of the characters naked, which seems to be unrelated to anything that happens, at least in the first series. Each “chapter” starts as if it’s one of those silly, comedy anime set in a school, complete with chibi versions of the characters during shouty moments (I can’t stand those), but the series is merely leading the viewer to certain assumptions before pulling the rug out from under us. If I could have changed one thing it would have been to cut down the build up dramatically for each chapter (although some are better than others). In particular, it’s hard to recommend a series to a friend (which I wanted to do) with the proviso that the first episode is awful, but push past that and it’s a completely different series. It’s hardly a glowing recommendation, and that’s a shame because once you get past the forced cuteness of the build-up to each chapter you’re onto a rollercoaster of gripping tension and growing paranoia and fear. The deaths are occasionally gory and verging on gratuitous, but most of them hit the right notes in terms of the fear factor. There are much more gory anime than this, but it really plays on the psychological horror aspects well.
I have mentioned before that I need an anime to have either (a) a great story or (b) a watchable story with great animation. The very best that anime has to offer has a great story with beautiful animation, but those are relatively rare. The success of When They Cry for me lies in the quality of the story, not the animation. In fact, I generally found it quite unattractive. To a certain extent that makes sense, because there is clearly an attempt to provide a disturbing aspect to the whole thing, with a lot of sunset orange hues to the outdoor scenes (and not in a pretty way) and hazy light effects. This is coupled with the insistent sound of circadas at key moments. In fact the “They” of the title is the circadas. The character designs are not brilliant though, and whenever one of them goes into a murderous or paranoid rage there is a monstrous bulgy-eyed animation style that is overused. It gets the point across though.
I’ll be writing about the second and third seasons when I’ve seen those, but for now our exploration of some of the scarier anime series for Halloween is at an end, and we’re moving on to happier things, returning to the gentle world of K-on! next week. In the meantime I’ll leave you with the opening to When They Cry. Be warned, like the whole series it’s not suitable for younger children. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… When They Cry Kai