Life couldn’t be better for Keiichi Maebara. Sure, he’s moved to a sleepy, little town where nothing happens and high school consists of a one-room schoolhouse — but his new friends and fellow students are all cute girls! When he happens upon a story about a grisly local murder, however, his contentment turns to uneasiness as he finds himself drawn into a web of silent intrigue that involves his newfound friends . . . and threatens his very existence.
A few months ago, the manga reviewers here at Manga Village were discussing our review grades. John Thomas awarded a grade of 10 to the first volume of Eden: It’s an Endless World! Now, I’ve read Eden, and John’s right, it’s a fantastic series–but I don’t know that I’d grade the first volume with a 10.
Here’s the thing–this grading thing, it’s an imperfect beast. How do you compare the excellence of books miles apart from one another? And I’m not talking subject matter or genre–no, I’m talking about how various manga approach storytelling and format. For instance, the first volume of Drifting Classroom is gonzo, full-throttle awesome. I loved it. That book stakes it’s claim on an anarchic mindfreak somewhere around chapter two and never lets go. How do you compare that with the first volume of Tezuka’s Buddha? or the classic shojo manga Swan? Or any series by Urasawa? Or the zany, slapstick rhythms of something like Ranma 1/2 or Iron Wok Jan, or even the quiet cultural layering of a book like Translucent or Mushishi. A lot of titles, all over the map in terms of genre, and I like each one.
However, some grab you right off the bat, and some don’t. Some build slowly. I’m a bookseller at an independent bookstore and we live and die on our ability to hand-sell–figuring out what someone likes and putting a book in their hand that they’ll respond to. So, somebody comes in whose last great manga read was Death Note and I’m not going to recommend Eden to them–both are great, both appeal to the same “demographics” if you like, but Death Note is all about the taut, urgent cat-and-mouse game between Light and L and Eden is much more expansive, taking its time to build up interpersonal, political, and other conflicts that pay off in the long haul.
So what does all this have to do with Higurashi When They Cry? I first encountered Higurashi in the pages of Yen+ magazine, and I was impressed with its debut. In fact, after reading that first volume cover-to-cover, the two selections I had the most hope for hands-down were this and Svetlana Chmakova’s Night School. Reading it there, its quiet, slice of life portrait of a small town with hints of something much, much darker was interesting, entertaining, and engaging. So I was very excited to get my hands on this first volume– I was thrilled at the thought of sitting down to a big chunk of this story all at once.
While that is what I got in this first volume, the sum total wasn’t what I expected. Ryukishi07′s mystery develops slowly, using a casual, slice-of-life approach interspersed with elements of humor and a hint of almost nostalgia to woo you, lull you into seeing the whole story as an unfolding character study before amping up the mystery elements and turning the heat up on the plot. This is a clever move–you get heavily invested in all the characters before you have to confront the possibility that one or more of them may be murderers.
Unfortunately, this is a structure and a plan which work best on the installment plan: in the pages of Yen+, the chapters can just be what they are–if this month’s portion of Higurashi isn’t as strong or as plot driven, it’s okay because it’s got half a dozen or more different tales to pick up the slack. Put another way, I have no interest in reading the separate volumes of Pig Bride, but I enjoy it in the pages of Yen+. So, standing alone, suddenly some of the structural elements that made Higurashi stand out, seem different or interesting, slightly backfire in the collected volume–and it’s not helped by some of the stereotypes/all-too-common-to-manga characterizations that occur here.
So I give this book a grade possibly higher than what it deserves based on the potential I see as this mystery unfolds, as characters turn from happy go lucky to driven and mad, and as seeds of future plot threads bear fruit. On the other hand, the grade is possibly lower than what it deserves because when I have finished reading the first volume I know that this book is only prologue, that the gentle, silly banter between these innocent characters will soon wither in the face of the onrushing boulder that is the overarching mystery–something we, as readers, see coming but we still can’t make heads or tails as to its nature. Will this be Blue Velvet? Will it fall short of all its plans and promise? Who knows. I hope, however, that it continues developing at its own pace, gathering steam– in short, I’m liking Higurashi, because I want to see where all this goes.