Is like ten lines of “SQUEEEEEEEE” not an appropriate conclusion post? No? Damn.
I think at this point it’s probably useful to think of Umineko relative to Higurashi, considering we’re at the beginning and I thought it was pretty clear R07 wrote this with a reader who’d just come from Higurashi in mind.
There’s a few really interesting way Umineko differs from Higurashi right off the bat, some of which I’ve touched on before and some of which I haven’t, so let’s look at the major points all in one fell swoop:
1. Umineko has a massive main cast
Higurashi’s story really revolved around a small number of people — the four girls, Keiichi, and Takano –with a smattering of side characters, many of whom didn’t even get sprites. But Umineko immediately introduced a cast of 18 people — soon at least 20, if we include Bernkastel — all of whom feel like major characters. I was kind of worried about this going in, both because I thought it might be hard for me to keep track, and because I definitely worry about any author keeping track of a cast this large. But I was worrying for nothing, because I felt like I got to know everyone personally very quickly, and that’s a credit to how well the writing keeps track of everyone. (You can actually see me slowly move away from nicknames to help me know everyone, to their real names, and then back to more familiar nicknames, throughout the posts.) It’s so easy to feel like someone is truly extraneous in a story that’s this crowded, but the brilliance of Umineko’s characterization is that everyone immediately served a purpose. This is also important from a technical standpoint, as it ensures no one violates Conservation of Characters and becomes unduly suspicious as a result. The whodunit nature of Umineko means that not paying attention to Conservation could be fatal, but here everyone is accounted for.
2. Umineko is a closed room
Umineko’s larger thesis as a mystery seems to be, “How can a killer escape from a locked room?” and putting aside the question of magic, this is very different from Higurashi, which was focused on a variety of settings across a large geographic area, and in which the theme of a village coming together was critical. Umineko’s scale is both smaller and larger — smaller because it takes place in one, isolated space, but larger because that means the space is scrutinized much more closely. Higurashi also has a lot of extra scenes and throwaway details. Umineko, at least so far, is very tight.
3. Higurashi was about an idyllic setting being destroyed
The central premise of Higurashi was, “What if there’s something sinister lurking being an idyllic setting full of happy people?” A huge part of the character conflict came from not wanting to believe that these happy, seemingly innocent character we loved could be the cause of horrible things. Umineko is the complete and utter opposite. Right off the bat, the setting is a ticking time bomb populated by awful people who hate each other, and the tension comes from seeing how it’s going to explode, because that it is is inevitable.
4. Umineko lays its supernatural cards on the table
One of the huge questions throughout at least the first 6 arcs of Higurashi was: are ghosts real? Are there supernatural elements here, or can it all be explained? Higurashi held its cards to its chest for as long as possible, and a huge component of the mystery was just how willing the reader was to believe it was all paranormal. Umineko, on the other hand, tells us by the end of the first route: Beatrice is real, she’s watching, and she’s powerful. The question then becomes just how involved she is, but we see her butterflies multiple times, Battler and Maria see her in person at the end of the route, and then we chat with her and Bernkastel in the wrapup. There is a witch called Beatrice. Higurashi asked, “Is there something supernatural going on?” Umineko asks, “Knowing there’s something supernatural, what’s going on?”
5. Umineko is a more traditional mystery
One really interesting thing about Umineko so far is that it very purposefully wants the reader to know certain things and draw certain conclusions, and then move forward from there. It doesn’t want you getting caught up on minor hints and solutions. In this way, it’s a much more traditional mystery story than Higurashi. This ‘catching up’ where the protagonist sits down and says ‘here’s what we know and what it likely means’ is also very Christie. This kind of thing was absent in Higurashi, which had a more horror atmosphere of knowing nothing than Umineko.
I think that covers the big ones, though I know that as soon as this goes live I’ll realize more that I wanted to bring up.
I think one of the most fascinating things about Umineko so far has been how it plays on expectations. This is a very different kind of story than Higurashi, but it’s also very similar in a lot of ways (playing the timeline over and over to reveal more each time; a small, isolated community fraught with superstition; young children who know more than they let on; Bernkastel; etc.). It’s just similar enough that when it deviates, it throws the balance of things a little bit, and this is frankly brilliant. I think having not done Higurashi first would produce a very different Umineko experience, and likely for the worse, because a big part of the thrill here is on the meta level.
Umineko also isn’t hiding that it’s a big homage to Agatha Christie, particularly And Then There Were None, which you should go read if you haven’t yet because it will be talked about a lot in this LP, I imagine. This puts everything that happens in an extra light, where you’re mulling over the question of mistaken identity even when technically there’s no real reason for it, because this parallels are so clear.
When Higurashi turned to the camera and asked the reader to literally put the pieces together, I said it was one of the most brilliant integrations of fourth wall and story I’d ever seen, which is true. But this takes things a step further, and plays not just on the reader’s experiences, but the reader’s assumed knowledge of completely different stories, which is phenomenal. These aren’t just allusions to other works; Umineko seems to have been purposefully designed to be consumed in a unique way by readers who come to it having done their R07 homework. It’s assuming a kind of genre-savviness in the reader I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. I’ve talked a bit in the past about how self-reference is a huge genre convention in detective fiction, but this takes it a step further, making the self-reference an integral part of the setup.
All this means in the long run, though, is — paradoxically — that the expectations we’re assumed to carry and the knowledge we’re assumed to have are actually worthless in the long run, because the very fact that R07 knows we likely have these expectations means the story has to deviate wildly from them. In a way, knowing the basis on which the story was written means it’s going to be more shocking where it goes than knowing nothing about it. Which is insane.
I also found it interesting to read The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizu (basically Japan’s Christie), as R07 cited Yokomizu as a major influence for Higurashi. Unfortunately Yokomizu’s The Honjin Murder Case, his premier work and a locked-room mystery, was never translated.
And for another fun take on And Then There Were None, check out The Last Word, a little rpgmaker game.
And with that, we close out the first route of Umineko. There won’t be any break between routes — we dive right back in next week. Enjoy.