The horror series gets meta.
It’s that time of year again. Halloween is upon us and it’s time for another overview of an Umineko: When They Cry arc. This time around, things are about to get very meta and expository as we dive into rules of detective novels. Is this installment good?
And so has arrived the fifth arc, End of the Golden Witch. Beatrice has been left in a mostly catatonic state after her battle with Battler in the last arc, the young man breaking through many of her mind games and mysteries. With Beatrice unable to fight back, Lambdadelta, the Witch of Certainty, takes control of the game to twist it to her liking. Bernkastel, the Witch of Miracles, also steps in to add her own personal touch by introducing her own character to the game, Erika. She also brings a new set of pawns and introduces the Knox Commandments, the rules that all mysteries must follow more or less. Gone is the horror and creeping dread. All that lies before Battler is a more difficult battle, one that he must win with new logic and reasoning in order to take back control of the game so he and Beatrice can continue it themselves.
Meanwhile, in the story within the story, our attention returns back to Natsuhi Ushiromiya on the eve of Kinzou’s sudden death, three years before the slaughter. With all things falling apart due to her husband’s incompetence, Natsuhi takes control of the situation as best as she can (with the possible help of Beatrice and a ghost version of Kinzou), making everyone keep the grandfather’s death under wraps. Things are difficult for the woman as she tries to keep it all together, but with encouragement from her otherworldly help (possibly depending on how you view things), she manages to keep it all together. However, just on the eve of the newest family reunion, a mysterious person calls her, bringing with him a horrible revelation. It’s about the truth that happened over nineteen years ago…
The fifth episode of Umineko is an interesting departure from what has come before it, bringing with it a new format and feel that freshens things up. The two stories are more equally split up between each other, jumping us back and forth between the real and magical worlds more often. We also have more “in-game” breaks where the story within the story stops as characters duke it out in logic battles to seek the truth. The climax is completely different as well, opting for a more courtroom-like battle as both sides present their arguments and constantly hit one another with their own takes on the “truth”. The end game of the story also isn’t merely about solving the mystery of the murders, but also for Battler to be able to understand the new rules in place and take back control of the situation from Lambdelta and Bernkastel. With new angles to approach each part of the mystery and brand new characters being introduced that affect the reasoning and how each case is solved, this is definitely the freshest the series has been in a while. At least, from the perspective of just the storytelling and plot.
However, I can’t help but feel the latest arc is not as compelling as the previous storylines, especially coming off the last one. I felt the characterization was rather lacking in areas and was missing the strong, singular moments for various characters that previous arcs had. There was still good characterization, but I felt the scope was narrower here. The many mysteries that have been building up throughout the series, like who exactly Battler is for instance, were put on the back-burner for most of the arc. They were hinted at and alluded to towards the very end with a big moment surrounding Battler and Beatrice, but the storyline had its focus elsewhere.
End of the Golden Witch felt like it was more dedicated to getting into the finer details and metafiction that surrounds mystery novels and such. It was more about getting into the “rules,” the reasoning of these stories, introducing new characters who work with these rules, how they use it, and what purpose these rules ultimately serve in logic and how they’re used to break through current mysteries. As such, the series gets very bogged down in technical talk and exposition at times, often acting like the reader already knows what the “Knox Commandments” are instead of explaining them like they’ve done with other rules and theories in past storylines. While the manga is still good at visually conveying these logic battles and meta fights, due to the story’s harder technical approach at times, things feel lacking in some of the stronger emotional elements and compelling theming throughout. The manga doesn’t become an annoying slog to get through or anything, but it lacks the interesting punch it has had before.
So, what does this installment have for us that does work very well? I would say it comes down to the final third of the arc and certain key characters that it focuses on. Everything that has been brewing comes together in a very satisfying and memorable manner in the final/third omnibus. The courtroom setting and battling is very exciting and engaging to watch, leading to some surprisingly heartbreaking moments with Beatrice and Natushi. The series has its first real ending where many people live and a possible answer is brought out, but nothing clear is revealed either. We end up calling back to many of the old mysteries from before while also establishing a new way forward for the series. New facts have been established, characters die for good (maybe), new revelations build upon old twists to further surprise, and the series hits some of its highest moments yet. Though its themes and storytelling are weak at times before reaching this point, everything comes together rather well.
Poor Natsuhi. Throughout the fifth episode, we begin to see and learn how truly tragic and sad this character is, after only getting a bit of a look in the first arc. A daughter of an old, wealthy family, she was married off as a debt to the Ushiromiya Family after Kinzou targeted them for their riches. Deemed only as a prize, she fell into depression and intense loneliness in her new life. Even after she began to love her new husband and family, it was never fully enough for a long time, especially when she was demanded to produce an offspring by Kinzou and was eventually forced to adopt a child because she couldn’t even pop out a kid fast enough. It all paints a sad picture of her, tying back into the theme from the last arc about processing your own bad situation and figuring out how you can cope with or handle it.
By the end, everything we thought we knew about Natsuhi and everything we saw from her perspective back in the first arc is flipped. Her pride, her dedication to keep her family & Kinzou’s honor, the pressure she places upon herself and others… all of it takes on another meaning. All of it to live up to this expectation Kinzou placed upon her or assumed was expected of her from their conversations–none of it was real. All of her suffering and efforts, ways to feel better and meaningful, are for nothing. She just built it all within her head to have something, anything to make her existence more tolerable. She truly is a fascinating character to read about. Even after the revelations of what the mysterious caller was going on about, she’s still so well-written and complex that you can’t help but feel for her. Of all the adult characters, she is the best by a long shot.
Speaking of sad sorts, this story arc introduces us to Erika, the newest character to enter the mystery, while also interacting with the witches and their dimension as well. She is Bernkastel’s clone/self-insert fanfic OC meant to act as the detective, a figure meant to solve the mystery according to the Knox Commandments. She’s arrogant, full of herself, loves seeing people miserable for her own pleasure, and delivers spiteful pain upon those who cross or offend her. She’s narrow-minded and is sort of the opposite of Battler in a way with how she goes about solving things. She is a pretty good representation of Bernkastel’s true self…
…but yet, Erika herself is broken. What she truly is, we don’t know, but her identity as Bern’s clone may not truly be such. She has no love in her heart or comprehension of care; she’s only desperately seeking attention and approval from Bern, who she views as her “mother.” Erika fears being forgotten by her and will do anything to please her. However, the witch sees her as nothing more than a pawn to be used and abused, only satisfied if Erika gives her exactly what she wants. It’s a toxic relationship, and one that our “detective” cannot escape. Erika is just another victim in her own way, as she’s merely another pawn for Bernkastel to use to her liking. She’s not as sympathetic as our other characters, but she’s interesting nonetheless.
This arc also reveals what kind of character Bernkastel truly is. Normally just a passive watcher with no real gain or motivation outside of relieving her own eternal boredom, Bern comes into her own here. And by that, I mean she shows how vicious and despicable of a character she is. She’s only interested in violently and painfully eradicating and destroying Beatrice, all of her servants, and everything she cares about for her own pleasure. She’s willing to see the Golden Witch’s true end throughout all realities. She loves to watch people squirm, and looks to stab right where it hurts the most. Even her own friend Lambdadelta is just another figure she’s looking to screw over and hurt for her own pleasure. All that fail her are deemed worthless unless she “graciously” gives them another chance. Without a doubt, from being originally an unknown figure in the series, Bernkastel has revealed herself as the biggest monster in the series to date. She is the true villainous force of the series now and one that’s all too perfect for the role.
The last character to bring up is the witch-hunting bishop and daughter of the creator of the Knox Commandments, Dlanor A. Knox. She’s introduced as an ally of Erika out to break through the mysteries that Beatrice has and kill her, initially coming off as cold and heartless in her pursuit and following the Commandments to the letter. She even mentions that she killed her father for breaking them, showing just how dedicated she is. When she’s off the clock, however, she is a lot different. She’s pleasant and nice, chatting casually with Battler and other witches about things and offering advice to him. She even flat out ignores magical acts that happen near her, saying that while she believes they are not really magical, she has no reason to break any illusion and is only interested in punishing those that use “bad” magic. She makes for a good anti-hero due to her obsessive need to follow her laws on the job. I enjoy her interactions with others, but I also find her a bit lacking. She has good elements and an interesting background, but I don’t think the manga capitalizes enough on her as an individual character to make her as well-defined as she could be. She’s mostly there to act as a rule enforcer most of the time and that’s it.
Overall the writing for the arc is mostly good, though more flawed than usual in certain areas. As previously stated, the story structure and flow aren’t as good as in past arcs. It focuses so much on explaining the new rules, and getting heavy into the technical aspects leads to a very dragged out middle portion with several chapters that go nowhere outside of introducing Dlanor and her team. The opening also drags a little, though not as bad as in previous arcs. Some of the new story elements here keep things exciting, like the epitaph being solved and everyone reacting to finding the gold. Dialogue gets pretty clunky in areas with its over or under-explaining things at times, making some parts more of a chore to read. There is also a portion of the final arc where the manga is being coy about certain plot points, while also acting like there’s something big being revealed that is obvious, and it doesn’t read well. It’s more confusing than anything due to the characters double-talking, and the metaphors and double meanings thrown around are all kind of awkward.
The artwork for the story arc is handled by Akitaka, a new artist for the series. Akitaka’s style really works as well. They nail the crazy, over-the-top logic and truth battles and there are some poignant, striking moments depicted, with the opening of chapter nine being one of the most haunting, visually memorable scenes in the manga to date. The style tends to waver at points, however. It isn’t very refined overall, switching between being detailed, a bit minimalist, or scratchy, making for an inconsistent-looking book. Some of the more horrific or creepy moments don’t look as good at times, with the line-work being too soft and not menacing enough in its detailing early on. It does gets better as time goes on, especially in the final third, but the style still feels far too cutesy and light-hearted. Also, some of the character designs are a bit too wild and weird for their own good, like Dlanor and her team’s outfits, which take away from the seriousness. Admittedly though, that last part is more due to the creator’s vision than the artist’s own.
Is it Good?
Umineko: When They Cry Episode 5: End of the Golden Witch is the weakest story arc in the series to date. It’s far too bogged down by introducing new meta elements, diving too heavy into the technical details, some weaker storytelling points, and not having as much strong characterization or artwork as the manga usually does. There are certainly some fantastic moments, great characters, interesting concepts, and amazing twists and turns in the narrative, but I didn’t find the arc as a whole as investing as what came before it. This is by no means a bad storyline, but it doesn’t capture the overall quality of the series. Thankfully though, the next time we return to this manga things will be looking up.