Everything new is old again: A critical look at “Higurashi” (2020) so far

This blog has pondered in the past the fairness, relevance and even necessity of comparing remakes and reboots to their progenitors. However, comparison seems this seems inescapable with “Higurashi: When They Cry Karma,” which this blog will call “Higurashi” 2020 for simplicity’s sake. Not only is it an animated version of a visual novel, it could also be considered a reboot of a 14-year-old anime.

For those not in the know, the Higurashi franchise begins with an episodic visual novel 2002. With no plot arc choices or dialogue trees, players were reduced to readers solving a disjointed, supernaturally flavored mystery. This was static even by visual novel standards. Perhaps the most apt description of the games was put forth by the UK Anime Network:
“Higurashi” is a game only in the most abstract sense of the word.

I’ve never played the games, but I have seen the first season of the 2006 series–or maybe it’s better described as the first series; I was never clear on that–and it is a deceptively violent masterpiece of psychological horror. Any discussion of “Higurashi” 2020 will involve the 2006 series, as well as the original games. One may ask, even if they’re both based on the same source, why would is it necessary to compare them? Well, the new series uses the same voice actors as the old series, so it’s basically begging for it.

Funimation, which is streaming “Higurashi” 2020, right now, describes the plot as: “Mysterious goings-on have disrupted life in a small town.” That is technically correct, but it’s a bit like saying the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is: “A young man encounters nosy guests and unexpected challenges while running a motel.” A more complete plot would be:

Mild mannered high schooler Keiichi Maebara (or middle schooler, whatever) leaves the city for his family home in Hinamizawa. The rural town appears sleepy, but it hides a secret under that facade, a secret that seems to change depending on who’s looking. Whether its a serial killer, a criminal organization running the village or the centuries-old cult of a demonic deity, Keiichi and his peers–all local girls with their own issues–will have to solve the mysteries or be consumed by them.

In comparison to its 2006 predecessor, this “Higurashi” is much more direct. I don’t even mean more accessible, because the show is still mysterious. It’s just much more direct about things. It gives its information in a much more direct way, sometimes sooner or sometimes just more of it. Images and lines of dialogue appear to have been added or reshuffled to make the narrative a smoother affair.

This blog is not a fan of the directness. There is more to “Higurashi” as a psychological thriller than its twists and screwy narrative, but part of its fun is wading through all that. Anything that clears its purposefully muddy waters doesn’t help it.

There’s still plenty of spooky atmosphere though, most of it courtesy of the voice actors. Admittedly Soichiro Hoshi and Mika Kanai as Keichi and Satoko respectively do not sound like teenagers any more, but the performances themselves are all strong. Satuski Yukino is especially good as the diverse voice of the Sonozaki sisters, and Chafurin’s work as Detective Oishi is as easy on the ears as ever.

Something else that’s notably new is the animation style. Even people who liked the 2006 series usually agree that its weakest point was its animation, which was frequently simplistic or generic. In 2020, the animation is still pretty generic, but at least it’s more detailed. Smatterings of CGI, which often look ugly in the middle of traditionally animated works, is relatively seamless. And sometimes when it all comes together, the result is quite pretty, as in Rika’s deftly smooth ritual dance.

While it’s easy to see this as an improvement, this blog is not entirely convinced. The animation in “Higurashi” 2006 could be erratic, but it was free to lurch from goofy and ugly to monstrous and memorable. “Higurashi” 2020 has yet to sink to lows of 2006, but the cost is character.

There is another 2020 show that we can compare to “Higurashi” 2020, and that’s “Magia Record.” It’s cosmic horror instead of psychological horror, but it’s also a kind of reboot that utilizes some of the old talent; it’s also from a favorite franchise of mine, making me approach it with the same blend of excitement and skepticism. Unlike “Higurashi,” however, it did something a little different with its characters and themes, developing an independent identity and driving away my skepticism. “Higurashi” hasn’t, and I’m losing my skepticism at a much slower rate.

Shoot, this probably sounds like I don’t like the show. That’s not quite right. “Higurashi” is still a good story, and this particular presentation of it is fine so far. It’s got excellent vocal performances, a solid opening theme, and plenty of atmosphere and violence and blood. However, almost everything about it–from its original cast to its more direct approach to its improved-but-still-generic animation–feels frustratingly safe. If this “Higurashi” wants distinction, it will have to take some chances.

A walk in the art: A critical review of “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” (2017)

It’s probably fair to say that video games don’t suffer from the mystery science ghetto the way they used to. In fact, that’s an interesting question. What do you feel more comfortable admitting to your normie peers: that you like video games? that you like horror movies? or that you like Japanese cartoons about young men in fantastic settings who inadvertently surround themselves with groups of sexually hungry young women?

As interesting a question as that may be, it’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” a game that developer Ninja Theory sold as more than a game. It was an experience, one that took mental health and authentic medieval history seriously. That’s fair, but it’s also fair that “Hellblade” is a hack and slash dark fantasy game. Achieving a balance between those concepts might be a thankless task, but it’s one the game itself set out to do, and the developers have no one to blame but themselves.

“Heckblade: Shenmue’s Sacrifice” concerns the story of Senua, who is not a Viking but has come to Viking Island to save her dead lover’s soul from Hel, the Norse goddess of hell, unless of course she’s just having a psychotic break. Either way, she’ll navigate the island with the company of the myriad voices in her head, but she’ll have to face demons, seemingly from without and within, before she can achieve her goal.

In the conceptual balance alluded to before–the balance between experience and game–“Hellblade” exceeds at experience. Everything good about the game is experiential, and the environment one experiences is good indeed. From the minute one starts playing, the visuals and sound are just about perfect. A narrator announces that Senua has reached “the land of mist and fog,” and players can practically feel the damp and chill along with the character. Every environment of “Hellblade” is rich and painstakingly crafted.

Players who want to examine every nook and cranny of the environments will find some Dark Age design to observe. Additionally, the lighting and sound shift, sometimes not so subtly, in relation to Senua’s mood and perspective. Sometimes things are pretty and calm, as when Senua is optimistic or energetic; other times they’re dark and stormy, as when Senua hears a grave legend or unhappy prophecy. Regardless, this environmental flexibility always feels natural and never intrusive.

If “Hellblade” functions at all as a psychological horror game, it’s here that it does best, creating engaging and atmospheric environments that range from spooky forests and abandoned settlements to screaming hellscapes and beached dragon ships rotting into the ground. There is a constant sense that things are forgotten and falling apart, and it is a testament to the game’s design that the mood always feels fresh.

The sound is likewise fitting. On the ambient side of things, forests hum, swamps plop, fire crackles and swords clank, but it’s the voices in Senua’s head that draw the most attention. Well placed and well acted, they seamlessly blend into the experience. Also, since the game has no tutorial, the voices shout out advice. That’s a nice touch, although it can grate after a while.

The presentation is great, but unfortunately “Hellblade” suffers as a game. Remember how we said “from the minute one starts playing”? Well, that was a lie. The minute one starts playing is actually after a minute and a half of cutscene, which is fine, but control is leashed for another five and a half minutes. One can just barely adjust the camera while Senua paddles past the credits. Maybe you think that’s creative, but I’m pointing it out because it’s indicative of the game’s attitude toward the player.

“Hellblade” wants you to experience something, and it wants you to experience it the way it wants you to experience it, dammit. There is no room for innovation or interpretation. The game is aggressively linear. Maybe it will comfort you that everything you encounter has a purpose, but this blog was somewhat disappointed when an abandoned house that initially appeared to be atmospheric ended up being part of the game’s narrative structure. It was just a vehicle to find a stupid rune in the dirt.

All “Hellblade” is divided into two parts: puzzles and combat. The puzzles mostly involve trying to find depictions of runes in the landscape to unlock doors, and the combat involves using light attacks, heavy attacks and blocks to fight off spooky Viking warriors. At first the puzzles were so tame that this blog longed for more combat. But as the puzzles got slightly more complex, it became increasingly clear how repetitive combat was. And no, it did not mix things up to throw increasingly more Vikings at Senua. Considering how visually creative the game is, it’s surprising that it never varies in its range of enemies–barring one encounter with a spectacularly bestial boss rather than a humanoid one.

It also doesn’t help that the camera is eternally fixed behind Senua’s shoulder. It’s tolerable during puzzles, but in combat it allows enemies to spawn randomly behind her. The voices in her head try to warn her against such hijinks, but I’d rather play without the hijinks. Besides, Senua needs all the breaks she can get. Everyone in the game is yelling at her, from the various voices to a guy who looks like “Songs From the Wood”-era Ian Anderson. Her development as a character consists of standing around cross-eyed and getting the crap beaten out of her.

Still, it’s the narrative hand holding that gets to me. For example, “Hellblade” taps briefly on the fourth wall at the beginning. The chief voice in Senua’s head appears to address you, the player, to invite you in, which is when the game actually starts. Is it possible that you are also a voice in Senua’s head? It’s an interesting idea, one that is given no further consideration by the game and, considering how linear things are, seems thoroughly unlikely. I’m not one of the competing voices because I ultimately have no influence on Senua’s actions. Only her environment and the developers do.

Another thought. To what degree are mental illnesses temporally bound? If mental illness has certain biological or genetic markers, it’s fair to say that biology and genetics change over time. Also, mental illness is defined by the society around it. What is considered shameful in one culture might be celebrated or ignored in another. Definitions expand and contract. A mental illness, through biological, genetic or societal means, might evolve or even go extinct.

Accordingly, is it anachronistic of Ninja Theory to consult modern mental health experts about Senua, her motivations and experiences? Ninja Theory definitely did research on both psychological and historical fronts, and the goal was presumably to strike a balance between the two. It’s a noble effort, but one side or the other would end up suffering, and historical accuracy takes the hit. Upon closer scrutiny, “Hellblade” is a game that speaks to its audience–who is more familiar with contemporary psychiatry–than it does to its characters–an eighth century party of one.

Also, why is there a run button? Given Senua’s middling pace, I had that thing pressed all the time. In fact, why are there any run buttons in any video games? One would figure by now we’d have learned that if someone is leaning on a joystick they want the character on screen to run and we shouldn’t bother dedicating a button to it, but I guess not. Whatever.

I’m straying, and perhaps being critical, but “Hellblade” sets itself up as a work of art, and artwork invites artistic criticism. Ultimately, “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is not as original as it thinks, but it is beautifully designed and relatively accessible, a moody and engaging think piece. Too bad it’s not quite as good as a game.

Haunted for the holidays: News November 2020

Happy Halloween, everybody. Are we about two weeks too late for that? No, we’re 50 weeks early. There’s never a bad time to say Happy Halloween, tonstant weader.

Well, maybe you shouldn’t say it at a funeral. But outside of that context, there’s never a bad time.

Admittedly, this blog was a little late on Halloween hijinks, with our final Universal monster review missing both All Saint’s Day and Hallow’s Eve. I have a reasonable excuse, as I was solidifying a few writing projects. It ended up being a surprisingly busy start of the month, and there are a couple of items of personal note.

For those who are after the more literary stuff, please see my news feature “West LA Gothic,” where I delve into the lost Los Angeles haunts of writers like sci fi fantasist Ray Bradbury, thriller stylist Raymond Chandler and psychodramatist Tennessee Williams. From now on, my greatest literary claim to fame can be that I debunked a rumor about William Faulkner’s beachside rental.

For those who want a horror story, my short fiction “Worse Than Wolves” was published on Friday the 13th, arguably the second spookiest day of the year. It’s surreal and just in time for the holidays, since it details a weird encounter at a family Christmas get-together. The good folks at The Fabulist found it reminiscent of David Lynch, and I will gratefully take the comparison.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to talk about the weeks to come. Thanksgiving is literally days away, and the Santa Claus season will follow sooner than you think. I don’t know how it is for you, but this blog has pretty much canceled traditional holiday plans for this year. Instead of doing a regular “home for the holidays,” we’ll be doing what we do best: ignoring social reality and living vicariously through thrillers.

There will no doubt be a quick news post in December for some last second shameless self-promotion, but I’m thinking we’ll be posting reviews of various homecoming thrillers from different media until next year. What will that look like? I’m playing the medieval psychological horror hack and slash “Hellblade” right now and that fits the theme of “homecoming,” assuming homecoming is understood at its broadest definition. There’s also the new “Higurashi.” We have to talk about “Higurashi.” So you can definitely expect those.

And w can fill in the rest later. Timeliness is not my specialty, but I do take requests. What says horror and homecoming to you? Let me know. I’m not going anywhere soon.

Not out of breath: A critical review of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

After World War II, it seems like the horror market dried up for a while. The popular opinion is that, by the 50s, the public was sick of horrors and looking for something more optimistic. Arguably some film noirs kept the spirit of surreal thrillers alive, but when the atomic bomb came down and all eyes looked up toward the space program, cinema followed.

The Wikipedia page on Universal monster movies only reports Gill Man and Abbot and Costello movies for the 1950s. This blog has its own beef with that page–it doesn’t have the silent “Hunchback of Notre Dame” or James Whale’s “The Old Dark House”?–but the message is clear. It doesn’t take a seasoned cultural critic to recognize that in 1950s western cinema, horror was out and sci fi was in. Traditional vampire and wolf man movies vanished for a while, and even when they came back, they were clumsily crossed with atom age science, as in the howler “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”

For this reason, it seems like the “Creature” movies, with their ancient, monstrous webbed toes dipped into the pools of paleontology and anthropology, were an effort to view the old Gothic horror formula through the new sci fi filter. How well did that effort work? Let’s dive in.

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” starts with a grasping claw gaping out of a wall of solid rock (serious question: is “Jurassic Park” modeled on this at all?). This relic of an apparent missing link between man and fish prompts a hastily constructed expedition of scientists with swimmer bods to trek into the Amazonian rain forest to search for more fossils. Once they’re cut off from civilization, and the body count goes up, they find that their quarry is not as extinct as they suspected.

“Creature” is harder to fit into this blog’s reviewing mold of movie-Gothic thriller-horror film because it does not display the obvious Gothic trappings of its predecessors, but we’ll give it a shot. At least the first question is easy to answer. “Creature” is a good movie, well made and entertaining.

Anyone with a knowledge of ecology will note the Amazon looks suspiciously like Florida, but it’s well shot either way. The direction, by (appropriately) sci fi film vet Jack Arnold, is solid. The camera is active, the production is clean, the performances are believable. None of the characters and performances are particularly complex, but standouts include Nestor Paiva as the cigar chomping boat captain and Julie Adams as the team’s only lady scientist. In fact, I might like Adams more than any other Universal horror heroine. I like her big eyebrows, her form-fitting tops and generous bottoms, and her sense of actual agency. It would have been easy enough to make her a prop, but this film made her a character with actions and motivations.

Accordingly, Gill Man’s fascination with her comes across as, maybe not as profound, since I think the creature is just looking for a convenient place to lay his eggs, but at least relatable for an audience. The Universal films always tried to make the audience understand the monster, and “Creature” is no different. The bottom line is I’m attracted to Kay’s character, so it makes sense that both the bickering male leads and Gill Man would be too.

And before anyone gets on me about being sexist, we see plenty of toned, tan male bodies and chest hair too, so everyone has something to look at. Personally I think Mark is cuter than David, but he’s kind of a dick, so I guess it evens out.

The underwater stuff was handled by James Curtis Havens, and special mention must be made of his contribution. Underwater sequences in thrillers can be a bit dry, if you will (if memory serves, “Mystery Science Theater” once referred to underwater chase scenes as the drum solos of movies). You’ll get none of that in “Creature.” The underwater photography is elegant, sometimes strikingly pretty, and often pumps up the thrills with the creature carefully shot through gloomy weeds. Can anyone deny that Adams swimming right side up above Gill Man swimming upside down is an iconic horror image?

While we’re at it, Herman Stein is the uncredited author of Gill Man’s three-note theme riff. Hard to deny that’s iconic too. It’s more bombastic than I normally like, but well timed to the images on screen and never feels out of place.

Much of the film’s success is due to its effectiveness as a thriller. It is perfectly paced for suspense. The story/writing credits are all over the place, but at least one name is Harry Essex, who worked on high concept crime thrillers like “Kansas City Confidential” and thoughtful sci fi flicks like “It Came From Outer Space”; the editing was by Ted Kent, who’d been chopping up Universal monster movies since “Bride of Frankenstein.”

Notably, Gill Man isn’t overexposed–sometimes he’s just a claw at the window or suggested with bubbles–so his menace feels real. He doesn’t mess around either. Gill Man drowns people, claws them in the face, laughs at being set on fire. By the end of the film, he’s killed at least five people and disfigured one, making him one of the most dangerous monsters we’ve watched all month.

It also helps that Gill Man functions like a real creature. He gapes at new sights and gasps for air when he’s out of the water. Little touches like that elevate Gill Man from an animal–or just a guy in a suit–into something believable.

However, in case it wasn’t clear, “Creature” is not a particularly profound movie. It does not mine any Gothic depths or probe any aspect of human psychology. It acts like it’s going for something grand and cosmic, with an introduction sequence that quotes the book of Genesis over images of the big bang, but it never really goes beyond that.

Likewise, you’d think that with its paleontology, missing links and old relationships between team members there would be something about the past’s influence on the present, but that never materializes either.

Whatever. The fact is that more than 20 years out the Universal crew was still making effective monster movies. They didn’t all have to be Abbot and Costello vehicles, and they weren’t just rehashing “Frankestein” and “Dracula” either. They could still do solid thrills. “Creature” proved that, for at least 80 more minutes.