Manga-ka: Karin Suzuragi
Publisher: Yen Press
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: December 2011
Synopsis: “Rena has taken extreme measures to protect her and her father’s happiness, but such drastic actions have terrible consequences. When her friends learn of her crimes, they feel no revulsion toward Rena, but rather a sense of regret that they hadn’t been able to help her and avert this tragedy. But even if they had sensed Rena’s desperation, would her classmates’ pity have transformed itself from sentiment into action?”
Higurashi isn’t a series for everyone. It deals in extremes – when it’s not over-the-top gruesome, it’s cavity inducing cute. The two things might seem at odds, but the manga uses these disparate elements to play up each other. The violent scenes become that much more unsettling when committed by cute, wide-eyed characters and previously innocent scenes become less cute and more creepy as the series goes on.
Another thing that makes Higurashi hard to get into is the strange format. The series is made up of several independent arcs, each of them stand alone while at the same time contributing to a larger picture. In general each arc covers the same stretch of time (the summer of 1983) and place (Hinamizawa, a small rural town) but each time events play out differently. In one arc a character might be a crazed killer, where’s in another arc they are the detective, while in yet another arc they’re a victim. The ‘Atonement Arc’ is one of my favourites. It takes the two driving forces in the series- friendship and paranoia- and pits them head to head. As to be expected in this series, the results aren’t pretty.
I also like this arc because it puts the spotlight on one of my favourite characters, Rena Ryuga. Rena seems like a happy-go-lucky girl obsessed with cute things, but when a couple of yakuza threaten her father she proves to be a lot tougher than her energetic persona lets on. Rena decides that if she’s going to get her normal life back, she has to take care of things herself and does so in typically gory Higurashi fashion. Then, just when Rena thinks that she has everything under control, her friends stumble upon her in the middle of a crime scene.
Friendship isn’t a unique theme when it comes to anime and manga – it feels like every other series extols the power of friendship and how it can save the world. Higurashi manages to take a well worn topic and put a unique spin on it. Being a friend to someone is not always easy – sometimes the people you love do horrible things, or sometimes you might let down a friend when they need you the most. A lot of series only focus on the positive aspects of friendship and not the responsibilities. Higurashi explores both sides of it. There’s a huge chunk of the book where one character takes the rest of the main cast to task for failing to help a friend. It’s a tough segment to read as it’s hard to see likeable characters get raked over the coals, no matter how justified the accusations. But following that is the most heart warming moment in the whole series, when the cast not only forgives Rena for her crimes but asks her to forgive them for not being there for her (it says something about the series that its sweetest moment is a group of kids agreeing to cover-up a double homicide). While the situations in Higurashi might be extreme (very few people will ever need help chopping up and hiding a body), the sentiments at its heart are still relatable.
The art reflects the extreme nature of the series. It can do the cute easily enough, but when the story takes a crazy turn the art is right there with it, amping up the surreal and gruesome atmosphere. One place where the art is super effective is the scene where Rena explains herself to her friends. It’s a pretty simple scene with a lot of talking. In lesser hands it could have just been a lot of text on the page with little impact, but the artist makes this a tense and dynamic scene. As Rena goes on she gets more and more worked up – her hair flies around, her expressions become more and more manic. There are speed lines in every other panel. It might look gratuitous and over-the-top while flipping through the book, but I think it does a really good job at capturing Rena’s state of mind. The artist also makes effective use of splash pages, using them to capture both despair and hope.
The second-half of the volume delves deeper into the mysterious history of Hinamizawa. One thing I like about the series is that every arc offers its own, far-out there explanations for what’s going on in the town: It’s aliens! No, it’s an ancient god! No, it’s the local crime family! No it’s…well, you get the idea. In this arc Rena starts to investigate the town’s history, but as she does she becomes paranoid that her research has made her a target for murder. While there’s clearly something weird going on, it’s hard to tell how much of it is for real and how much is in Rena’s head. This series is full of twists and turns, as well as its fair shares of unreliable narrators. Often times the characters themselves don’t even know what is real or not, making it that much harder for the people at home to solve the mystery. I personally like this extra layer of intrigue. It also makes for an interesting re-read after you’ve gathered clues and have a firmer idea of what’s going on.
Higurashi is a puzzle manga. Like a puzzle, the individual pieces don’t always give you a clear picture, but the more you piece together the more satisfying it is. I personally really like mysteries (and don’t mind either extreme violence or cuteness) and I really like this series, but if you want to read a more grounded manga with diffident answers and a clear reality, then you might want to read something else.
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Book provided by Yen Press for review purposes