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Friday, April 4, 2014

Manga Review: Umineko When They Cry GN 1

Umineko no Naku Koro ni volume 1
Author: Ryukishi07
Artist: Kei Natsumi
Yen Press
512 pages
In the summer of 1986, the Ushiromiya family is called to Rokkenjima for a family meeting dealing with the head of the family's will. After they arrive a typhoon hits the island and traps them there. Soon afterwards, people start dying mysteriously. In order to figure out who is causing the murders Battler Ushiromiya must solve the witch's epitaph before everyone is dead, including himself. (Source: ANN)
Yen Press was correct to release the manga version of Umineko no Naku Koro ni (aka Umineko When They Cry) in massive 500 plus page omnibus formats. It's a series best read in bulk, because the building suspense and nerve-wracking drama will have readers flipping through the pages at supernatural speeds to see what happens next. As the first half of the Legend of the Golden Witch arc opens, the stage is being set for even more chaos and blood in this supernatural game of cat and mouse.

The opening book for Umineko, which includes the first two volumes of the Japanese original release, is a setting of the pieces for the real action. We are introduced to our cast of characters, the Ushiromiya family, and our main protagonist, Battler Ushiromiya, a cocky boob-grabbing grinning teen who has no interest in any sort of inheritance and would rather pal around with Jessica and George and wee Maria. We also meet the servants of the house, including Kanon and Shannon, who oddly refer to themselves as mere pieces of furniture (although George certainly sees Shannon as someone more than a chair or table).
It is here that the basic conflict is set in stone, the conflict that will define the series as a whole. What originally was a family drama over the elder Ushiromiya's inheritance turns into a much deadlier game as the goal becomes to solve the riddle of the golden witch of Rokkenjima and reclaim the old man's gold before everyone on the island is killed. Battler, who is very much a man of science and not of faith, has decided to 'turn the chessboard around' and is determined to find a rational explanation for these events that does not rely on magic spells or the occult.
The biggest, most important character so far is one whose presence is only felt, not seen: Beatrice, the Golden Witch, the woman who has such great influence over Kinzou Ushiromiya. She is like Jacob in JJ Abrams' LOST: spoken by those who know here in a reverent voice, disbelieved by those who think she is a mere fairy tale, a force without a discernible face or form who visits those she has chosen in her own way and for her own reasons. Unlike Jacob, Beatrice is bound to turn up much sooner in the Umineko series, and her arrival will throw the island into further disarray.
Acting as foil to the island's antics and to the influence of Beatrice is our very own Battler, who thinks rationally and has decided that the maker of mischief on Rokkenjima is of human and mortal origin. He's gonna Sherlock Holmes this locked door mystery even if it kills him. But can he keep from growing more and more paranoid of those around him since he suspects the killer is one of the people currently trapped on the island? His ability to turn his perception of events around and see it from other people's points of view is helpful, but it may not be enough to stop the body count from climbing higher.
Umineko is a very suspenseful, dramatic series, but it is very much a horror manga. It feeds upon the psychological trauma of people trapped on a island far from human interference, unable to leave due to forces beyond their control, being eaten away by greed and the need to survive, all the while painfully aware that they might be next to die for the cause of 'Beatrice's sacrifices'. People are being killed in the middle of the night with their bodies laid out for all to see. What sense of safety can be found in such an environment?
So, considering the above, please take to heart the warning that this manga title is very violent, very bloody, and very dark. Nothing is censored. The dead are illustrated in great detail. Maria's psychotic faces become standard for each chapter, as is her blood chilling laugh. It will only get worse from this point. Let's say that if TV programs like Hannibal or Supernatural make you ill, avoiding Umineko is your best bet.
I enjoyed the artwork of Umineko's manga. It can be very striking at times and extremely appropriate to the mood of whatever scene is going on. Artist Kei Natsumi has a good handle on facial expressions, including non-traditionally pretty expressions of anger, greed, and basic human ugliness. Eva Ushiromiya's face alone is worth the price of admission; boy, that lady can shoot some twisted looks, usually at poor Natsuhi.

Even though I watched the anime adaptation of the Ryukishi07 visual novel back when it aired (with that terrible TV censorship!), the manga is an absolute treat. Fans of the franchise, as well as Higurashi no Naku Koro ni fans (by the same author), will certainly be picking up these omnibus volumes as soon as they come out. Umineko is proof that the chase to find the answers to a series' great mysteries can be just as entertaining and enlightening as the answers themselves. Plus, next volume means the formal arrival of everyone's favorite witch, Beatrice!