One of the series that keeps me coming back to manga, even during the times when I wasn’t reading as much of it, is Umineko: When They Cry, an engaging and bloody tale if there ever was one. With it being the season of Halloween, I find it especially appropriate to share with you a series that might be something that could be right up your alley. Let us venture forth and enter the world where things aren’t quite what they seem and where people’s faces will pierce your soul.
Umineko: When They Cry: Legend of the Golden Witch Vol. 1-2
Written By: Ryukishi07
Art By: Kei Natsumi
Translated By: Stephen Paul
American Publication By: Yen Press
Based off a visual novel series (Think Phoenix Wright, but with more creepy children and gore), Umineko: Legend of the Golden Witch takes place in 1986 on the island of Rokkenjima. The island itself is owned by the Ushiromiya family, a very rich and old family, which is headed by Kinzou Ushiromiya. During early October, most of the family is coming together for a reunion, with older adults planning on discussing their inheritance and what happens when their father/father-in-law finally kicks the bucket.
Having been away from the family for years, the second oldest grandchild, Battler Ushiromiya (who the hell names their kid Battler?), is also in attendance and is looking forward to catching up with his cousins and some of the youngest servants. However, the reunion is not going quite as planned, with a typhoon rolling through and Kinzou has been engaging in the black arts. He has a developed a plan that will involve all eighteen people on the island (himself, his family, his servants, and a guest) and the legend of the Golden Witch, Beatrice. It’ll all start with a letter and from there, a very bloody two day tale will begin.
Now here are the rules of the game, let’s have fun!
Legend of the Golden Witch, like the rest of the series, is primarily a horror mystery tale. It focuses on Battler as he tries to figure out the causes of all the events that happen and whether or not there is truly a mysterious 19th person haunting the island. We occasionally will shift focus to other members or servants of the family to fill in some extra backstory or characterization, but it is primarily focusing on Battler.
There are twenty people (two of them don’t really appear until the tail end though) and over forty chapters in total for this story arc. Despite this amount of pages, the story only fleshes out about four characters in detail, learning about their histories, personalities, and such. Sure, we spend time with a lot of other characters and learn about them, but not nearly as much as these four. The rest, I suspect, we’ll learn more about in future story arcs.
The mystery of who is committing the crimes and the murders is a compelling one. You are just as clueless as the main character is as you try to figure how the crimes are being committed and who exactly is causing them. Lots of ideas and theories are tossed about, but no answer is given throughout the arc. The only solution offered up that could be the cause for all of these events is that Beatrice did everything herself with her magic; a solution that is constantly hammered in by the youngest and creepiest cousin, Maria Ushiromiya.
Battler himself does not believe in the supernatural or witches, thus he does not believe in Beatrice or Maria’s reasoning. However, as the crimes get more bizarre and seemingly impossible by human means, you yourself may not be as inclined to believe our hero and his theories. At the end of it all, we’ll simply be left with questions to be answered at a later point. Either way, it is a very sound and strong mystery that’ll keep you guessing and doubting your own perceptions like the characters themselves.
Also, lots of chessboard flipping. And by lots, I mean to the point where you can make a drinking game out of it.
But I also stated this was also a horror comic and not simply a mystery, and as a horror story, it’s very effective. It’s got a fantastic sense of pacing, buildup, and dread; making you just as tense as the rest of the cast. For instance, take the scene early on in the dining room when Maria’s mother discovers her daughter had an umbrella (the girl was out in a rainstorm earlier) and asks which of the relatives gave it to her daughter. The conversation starts off normally and as it goes on; you get the feeling of confusion and dread as it slowly becomes clear that no one in the room gave her the umbrella. It’s really well written and also sets off the first mystery in the story.
Well wait, you might exclaim, that doesn’t sound scary at all with what I described. Surely, there must be more to this than making the audience nervous or uneasy. Well, of course. While the writing is great with getting the audience into the mood, it’s the artwork that really delivers the punch and scares the crap out of you.
The artwork walks a fine line in balancing both real world normalcy and horrific terror. When everything is fine and normal, the manga itself looks like what a typical manga with Moe style art (you know, characters that are overly adorable and have gigantic eyes). Nothing too out of ordinary for the art style and with some good character designs (though some female characters have similar looking faces); it gets the job done.
However, when things get twisted and dark, this is where the artwork truly shines. The angles and panel layouts get more erratic as if the world itself is changing when the mood or air shifts. The tone can easily change in a single page as such, catching you off guard at points. The use of emptiness and black in some pages are especially impressive in striking the right feeling, with a particularly great bit when one of the servants is locking up the windows for the night.
I ain’t afraid of no glowin’ butterfly. Are you?
The true horror, though, lies in the faces and murders themselves. I said tone can easily change in a single panel and that’s mostly because of the characters’ facial expressions. When a person gets mean, angry, and threatening, their expressions can become twisted and warped, almost as if they are becoming less human. Their eyes lose all life in them, their faces scrunch up as if they are being possessed, and their frickin’ mouths curl into deformed smirks and scowls. The murders are just as nasty, showing off some of the goriest acts violence I’ve ever seen in a story (Eli Roth, eat your heart out). It’s in these moments when the comic is most likely to send shivers up your spine and make you squirm in your seats.
Here’s normal Maria.
Now here’s Maria running through a scary filter. See a difference?
But for all the good here, there is also bad. Legend of the Golden Witch is a very slow burn story. It takes a little over half the first volume to truly get going and even then, it continues to take moments to relax and slow the plot down. The buildup is very much worth it, but people who prefer things to be faster pace may not enjoy this. The other problem with the story is that in the beginning, there is a bunch of immature and eye-rolling boob jokes that really don’t fit the tone of the story at all. It takes itself so seriously that moments like these really make you scratch your head, wondering what the hell the writer was thinking.
Before we wrap up, let me mention this. Umineko has a very similar style with its storytelling like its spiritual predecessor, Higurashi (written by the same guy). There are two separate parts to the series. The first one (which includes this arc) are the question arcs that gives the audience all the questions, but offers up no answers in return and just allows them to get a sense of the world. The second part contains the answer arcs that reveal to us the truth behind everything and shows the previous arcs from a different perspective. It is a very unique and extremely interesting way to tell the story. Unfortunately, at the time of this review, only the question arcs of Umineko have been released or are being published in English, so we do not have any of the answers yet.
Umineko: Legend of the Golden Witch is an extremely well told and quite frightening tale of mystery and murder, with possibly supernatural elements. It has strong characterization (well, of the characters the arc actually gives focus to), very effective artwork, and a mystery that’ll make you want to know more and check out the rest of the series. It is highly recommended, even to the non-manga or anime fans.
This arc, the second arc (‘Turn of the Golden Witch’), the third arc (‘Banquet of the Golden Witch’), and part of the fourth arc (‘Alliance of the Golden Witch’) have been or are currently being released. Each arc is broken up into two large omnibuses (‘Alliance’ is being broken up into more volumes considering the size of it), retailing at about 20 to 22 bucks a pop. While recommended, I would suggest checking out the first volume in your local library first before investing the money into it.