When They Cry ~ Kai

From the gold rush of the early 2000s until the rise of legal streaming anime as a viable distribution hub, it was difficult to disseminate what was a hit or merely popular in anime. Sounds like the two shouldn't be separate from each other, but there's what you needed to watch when it came out and what you needed to have when it was released on DVD a year or so later if the series wasn't so lucky to hit Toonami or Adult Swim. That disconnect probably drove some business insiders insane and companies to deep financial troubles. Geneon Entertainment was perhaps the most famous supernova in these matters, imploding into a black hole and taking a sizable chunk of the American anime market with it. The semi-last of their licensed properties, Higurashi, was a prime candidate of this dichotomy. One of the series of 2006, you could hardly take a leisurely stroll around the Internet without some kind of animated gif or video clip with the sharer shouting about how you HAVE to see this supremely screwed up thing. When the initial effort was one of the last licensed properties that went through Geneon, it had the precarious position of spawning a sequel series released at the same time that would not be pursued by an organization that, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. FUNimation bought the rights and distributed the finished product with Geneon's name on it, but it sold poorly and FUNimation saw enough to let the license lapse without much thought to its follow-up Kai or the OVAs.

Nearly ten years later, all of Higurashi was snapped up by Sentai Filmworks, which is oddly a new iteration of yet another anime company that met its doom during the anime crash. After all this wait, are the people who fought off the urge to watch fan translations of Kai rewarded for their patience, or was it best left unlicensed? It's the former, mainly. The issue here is a full second series dedicated to the potential denouement, so it feels disconnected without the entire picture. Let's explain it like this: Suppose the movie Groundhog's Day ended before Bill Murray could leave February 2nd and they made a sequel that was all about him figuring everything out. Even if it was made with the same crew and the same skill, there would be a certain emptiness to the experience without the sides connected to each other more directly.

For the uninitiated, When They Cry is a show based on a visual novel (They brand it a sound novel to emphasize the work put into the atmosphere, but the same general idea) bent around June of 1983 in rural community Hinamizawa, a seemingly quiet place holding dark secrets that bubble to the surface during its annual Cotton Drifting Festival. Transfer student Keiichi is at first a model addition to the village, participating in extremely cute, over-the-top antics with his fellow schoolmates at the Japanese equivalent to a K-12 school, including twins Mion and Shion, naive Rena, and much younger Satoko and Rika. When the village's festival comes around, a dark shadow overtakes the community. Whether it be investigations into mysterious disappearances that occur annually, outsiders snooping into the "old ways," or attempting to purge the nastier citizens, tensions begin to boil and the situation escalates with one or more of the kids turning insane, brutal murder and torture following, and everyone winding up dead. The next episode hits the reset button and the process repeats in this seemingly cursed purgatory called Hinamizawa.

Despite some-self awareness of the situation at the end of the first series, not much has changed. Yet it seems everything has changed. The shift from the original to the sequel is best described as switching from madness to desperation. The opening of the first Higurashi flaunted the combination of adorable character designs with savage, gut-stripping violence. The opening of Kai has a different tone. The remnants of the violence are there, but the imagery and editing treat it as mournful regret rather than active, wide-eyed participation. After a prologue that gathers a few "outsiders" to a reunion in the long-abandoned Hinamizawa from the world at the end of the first season, Kai floats back to the meat and potatoes of the franchise in another time loop. In this iteration, however, the point-of-view shifts to mostly Rika, the sweet grade schooler who occasionally gives surprisingly grave warnings to many of the citizens and visitors, and always wound up murdered in front the village shrine. Rika is secretly the most disturbed of all the villagers, being a singular person who recalls every single repeating Cotton Drifting festival "world" that has spawned for a time span of over one hundred years. Her only companion in her suffering is the child-like demon Hanyu, a spirit who is only visible to Rika until a certain point.

If the first season left matters open-ended, Kai is almost too eager to give a peek behind the curtain. At one point, Rika is floating in-between the different worlds and explaining exactly what the rules are. It's unusually forward for an anime like this to just tell what's going on. Since the new focus is how psychologically drained Rika is and teetering on the brink of surrendering to an eternity of suffering, the over-the-top gruesome violence is dialed down for more earthbound and mental damage. I'm not going to lie, one of the key factors to the first season is how entertaining it was when the town turned to madness, and with this more tempered approach, some of the zip is gone. The pacing takes a bit of the blame as well. The number of arcs in Kai are cut in half after the prologue compared to the initial effort, ballooning the episode count of each arc. If the first season seemed to be a bit of a slow burn, then sections of the second will move like a glacier.

No more is this apparent than in the Mass Slaughter arc. Spanning twice the episodes of the average arc length episodes, every major aspect of the plotline is given extensive attention. At one point, there is a revisiting of Satoko being forced back into the household of an abusive uncle that led to murder and downward spirals in season one. Determined to take the right path, Rika and Keiichi try to get Satoko back without resorting to violence. This spans three episodes, throwing vast amounts of time to every step of the way. I know this is taking a jab at child social services which have frustratingly long waits due to walls of bureaucracy (Someone either making the visual novel or the anime must've had a seriously horrible time with Japan's child services as they spend as much of the series as the antagonists as almost anyone else), but the momentum has already halted due to the introductory episodes rehashing Rika's feelings most of the initial arc spent its time on. Not that there aren't worthy and resonant moments here as they deal with the complicated psychology of a child going through guilt and abuse at the same time in admirable fashion. The more patient approach simply throws off the urgency in a story that should have a constant ticking clock over it, and the series doesn't gain back its forward momentum until six episodes into the arc.

Even when the final arc Festival Orchestration rolls around, it begins with a hefty chunk of flashing back to what led up to the endless cycle. Hinamizawa is described as a maze, but it plays more like a giant puzzle. Once a key piece is found, there's a rush to fill out that particular side as much as possible before moving onto another section, regardless of flow. Needless to say, this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you're not a fan of a show dangling the reward of a conclusion on a string and then pulling it away a few times before finally coming to a conclusion, this might get annoying.

All of the technical values are on par with the previous season since it mainly kept the same staff. Studios Deen's work is fine, albeit occasionally inconsistent. If a character constantly shifting from somewhat normal body proportions to being a bobble head whose face is 40% crazy eyes drove you nuts, there isn't much here to change your mind. Also, the animation can get mighty stiff when they're not breaking out the A-team for the more disturbing sequences. Tuning in for less than 20 seconds on the open is enough to show Hanyu's horns staying perfectly still as a loop of her hair in the wind ruffles about, oblivious ignoring the things growing out of her head. What Higurashi lacks in resources and pure skill is made up for in purpose, as there's generally rhyme and reason given to the various physiological permutations of the designs depending on mood, and the plainness of the surroundings rarely detracts from the drama. When the multiple styles of the series show up in the same scene, it can create some awkward clashes, especially with the Blu-ray where the different line work on the separate character designs is crystal clear.

Kenji Kawai's (Eden of the East, Ghost in the Shell) music is probably the sneakiest of his career. It does well to support the scene and all but a couple cues hide his trademark bittersweet strings. What strikes me about the music is how I can rarely tell when it starts. A scene will play out, and the middle of it, I suddenly realized there was something under the rest of the sound to accompany it. As a person who gets a little miffed when a tune is blatantly cranked up to manipulate the audience, it's a good thing.

The main difference between the two seasons has to be how it wields its disturbing and extremely over-the-top violence. The lavish horror shows that sold the initial effort are re-purposed to underlining the sheer awfulness of what the characters have been through. Moments of extreme fingernail yanking and ghastly dismemberment are mostly relegated to flashbacks. The violence is more earthbound, as when a key character is shown in an orphanage being dragged by her hair before receiving a beating that respectfully edits around the most cringe-inducing parts to keep the impact without feeling exploitative. The cruelty is no longer cartoonish, but far more uncomfortable. No longer the guilty pleasure to recommend to its friends with its outrageous sequences when sanity has broken down, Kai still manages to turn the trick of being an anime with a reputation for extremely gruesome scenes and the awareness to use it responsibly (Unlike, say, Elfen Lied). There is solid reasoning for why it's there, and everything has its right time and place. I did find a couple moments when a group of academics morph into a mob of Snidely Whiplashes forced, though.

The DVDs and Blu-rays are barely worth bringing up as they're the usual batch of Sentai Filmworks releases for works that aren't particularly popular. There's a menu, there's a sub-only translation with a few typos (Including when the translators lose count of what episode they're on), and that's all you get. I wasn't expecting much more, but it's weird when the official releases sometimes feel like bootlegs these days. I remember when people complained an extra disc of special features wasn't nearly enough to warrant a purchase.

You'll notice I haven't talked much about the plot directly, mainly due to the spoiler-heavy nature of the sequel. Even the first episode, which is mainly red herrings to stir up the imagination, has its fair share of truths to it. What you need to know is the reveals are satisfying if completely over-elaborate to the point where the finale sometimes feels anti-climactic due to taking so much time. Regardless, it does have the same appeal as a heist movie when the final stage is revealed and the little details pay off. If you came in wanting the same series that mixed cutesy with insanely elaborate bloodletting, the sequel might disappoint a little bit. If you're in it for the characters, the bizarre twists and turns, and how everything sorts itself out, Kai is definitely a quality follow-up even with a couple speed bumps.


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