Why does Higurashi: When They Cry (2007) work?
Most horror anime nowadays are most of a gore fest than actual horror, but Higurashi has always managed to balance both horror and gore correctly. The story is basically about one of our protagonists, a boy named Keichi Maebara, who has moved into a rural village and has gotten himself some nice friends. However, he learns of the village’s history, and starts to see the friends around him in a dark and disturbing light. As he finds out more and more, everything unravels into a mystery of paranoia and insanity. I’d like to analyze what it is exactly that makes this series so eerie, as I believe it has to do something with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny.
How can anime be scary? Especially one with such a goofy looking art-style? — was what I mistakenly thought before clicking play on episode 1. Yes, the art-style is definitely goofy (it’s animated by Studio DEEN after all), but because of the simplistic, childish looking animation, the scenes where character’s faces get weirdly detailed or distorted can be extremely jarring for the viewer, especially when they are accustomed to the cutesy anime look.
However, it’s not just the art-style that gives off uncanny vibes. The soundtrack is awfully creepy and the story itself relies on the familiar-turned-unfamiliar. I think it is pretty similar to that of E.T.A Hoffman’s The Sandman, due to it’s similar narrative of unreliable protagonists falling into paranoia. Nathaniel is told of the Sandman in his childhood, while Keiichi is told of the deaths of the dam site workers and later, the curse of Oyashiro. Both protagonists are told of supernatural legends that rationally cannot be real. However, the more they attempt to rationalize the mysterious events around them, the more they unconsciously/consciously link it to their respective villains, and when they feel that they cannot trust their own friends, they begin to react extremely aggressively. Gradually, both Nathaniel and Keiichi are so engulfed in their paranoia that they attack others before killing themselves. Both protagonists, unable to distinguish reality and their hyperactive imaginations, end up gruesomely dead — Nathaniel throws himself off a building and Keiichi claws at his own throat whilst calling the police. Sigmund Freud would say that this behavior is driven by the mind’s desperation to understand what is real and fantasy. The protagonists are both trying to make sense of the world — as they cannot fathom the idea of a mystical figure being actually real. The uncanny is exactly that: anything that cannot be clearly established as reality or imagination is immediately unfamiliar, and therefore a threat to the rational brain. If reality can have curses and monsters, then reality is a lie, and therefore anything can happen — is possibly what’s going on in our protagonists’ heads. Nathaniel’s perception is so warped that he cannot distinguish between a woman and an automaton, and Keichii’s mind is so paranoid that he begins to hallucinate his own friends plotting against him. As the audience, we can tell something is off with our narrators, but cannot stop them from their own growing insanity.
However, unlike Nathaniel, after five episodes of creepy mysteries and gore, Keiichi and the people he hurt are all alive again. The world has seemingly restarted from the beginning, as if none of the murders happened. This is where the uncanny starts in the writing itself. Every five or six episodes, the world resets back to the beginning, bringing the audience back to a familiar setting with familiar characters who are now supposedly normal. Similar to P.T. (a video game I’ve mentioned in another blog post), we have loops. However, with each new loop, we see the story from another character’s perspective, tiny things in the narrative have been changed, and many new clues are revealed to the overall mystery, making what is supposed to be familiar, unfamiliar. We learn new things about characters that weren’t mentioned before — what they were doing during certain events, what information they know, how they contributed to the overall mystery of the story. Just when we, the audience, think we know the answer, we’re immediately thrown off, and that is what makes the series so uncanny.