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.

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