Where did it all go wrong? As the events of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry) reset again and again to square one, like an inadvertent Goundhog Day, protagonist Keiichi Mabara repeatedly asks himself this question. Caught in a murder spree of some sort or another, with a different friend of his group involved each time, touches that suggest that something not of this world may be going on. The small village of Himinazawa, with its cornfields and its forests, the countryside school with only a few children, the small clinic, the restaurant, and the local festival of Watanagashi provide the environment of this tightly-constructed horror story of an evil to be released when the cidadas cry.
I should probably begin by pointing out that Higurashi is a quite gory show, full of spilled blood, crushing sounds, and entrails—so gory I almost dropped it twice—with an eerie atmosphere in its everyday scenes (sort of like Serial Experiments Lain—a little too pale, a little too bright). It features compelling characters whose personalities unveil in time; themes of child abuse and estrangement, superstition, torture, mental illness, demonic possesion and murder; and the intelligent planning that the works based on 07th Expansion Visual Novels always deliver, toying with different horror story or murder mystery explanations for the events shown again and again from different perspectives.
Despite this, and of it reminding me of Erased, one of my favorite series, at times I could barely put up with the show: If I didn’t drop it just like Medieval Otaku did a year ago, it was only because I cheated and I investigated some aspects of the story beforehand (and not even that got me through Umineko, the other 07th Expansion horror classic), and I knew that the story valued these characters and was invested in saving them in some way, and not just quartering them psychologically or literally for the thrill of it, as does the infamous “torture porn.”
While I’m still not sure if I like it as a whole, it surely has provided me something to think about just before the Lenten season. After all, the original Lent story also has to do with an unspeakable evil confronting Our Lord when He was physically and mentally pushed to the extreme, an evil that frequently crushes us with its deceit and its horror, and of an unlikely plan of salvation that may bring us the truth about ourselves and others, confronting an evil that transcends time with an even more powerful force, uniting and bringing us salvation. And for us here and now on this Earth, Lent is also a cycle, a year-to-year repetition in the midst of our everyday world as the feast of Watanagashi and the perpetually resetting world of Higurashi are in different ways.
The cycle of Lent and the challenges we face, some self-imposed, some external, are thus an opportunity to meditate and remember what kind of story we are living, benefiting from the knowledge of our previous iterations; what lies and illusions may we, or the world around us, be trapped into, and what should we fight to change in the path of conversion; to fight the kind of devils that do not go out except by prayer and fasting; and to repent and take a different path. And some of it depends on the way we live the path towards the feast—which even if the Good Friday and Watanagashi are almost opposites, involves in both cases a cruel sacrifice and a hidden meaning—on the way we celebrate it, and on the way we live its consequences. As pilgrimage, in a way Lent represents our life on Earth as a whole, marked by grief, evil, love, and hope.
Just as some shows are to be enjoyed from the beginning to the end, some are to be endured at times if you want to reach what they want to tell you. Bokurano, Casshern Sins, Now and then, here and there and Madoka, along with Haruhi Suzumiya´s Endless Eight arc, are the examples that come to mind. What is particularly interesting both in Higurashi and the Lenten season is that the not-so-pleasant moments of either horror and fasting (from food, meat or other good things we may chose to postpone for a time) have the purpose of taking Keiichi (and us) away from the delusions of self-sufficiency of the rich man of the parable of Lazarus and to our true mission, to “unblock” aspects of our embodied reality and the reality of the world we may never come to see otherwise. Because there is true evil acting here and now, evil that may twist our personal stories, and the way out goes through friendship and community, soul searching and repentance, devotion to the truth and help from the transcendent.
I will discuss now some specific parallels which will reveal some aspects of the plot. So spoilers ahead for the horrific first and second season of Higurashi (When they cry).
Something that struck me was how from the very first arc, the characters I had come to like suddenly felt threatening in the course of a scene. Sometimes it is an illusion; sometimes they are in effect falling into the fated role of the killer, some seemingly possessed, others affected by the Syndrome, their traumas, or such overwhelming pressure that they lose it. Familiar faces suddenly look unfamiliar, words become harsh, ugly sentiments come to light and the behavior of Mion, Shion, Rena, Keiichi, and Rika, become dark or even demonic. Twisted parts of their personal stories are revealed. It seems that we never knew them at all. The rest of the characters become afraid for themselves. It is especially unsettling when this happens to the POV protagonist, who we were identifying with, sharing his or her struggles, as Keiichi in Sakoto’s arc or Shion in hers. This kind of reveal happens in real life, too.
Yet we must never forget that in a world of sinners, the worst enemies are inside us, and we and our loved ones are affected by that evil. Sin is indeed dark, and the evil we see is only its manifestation: the root of all evil lives in the heart, not in the external realities of the world. And yet, in the heart there is also thirst for God, a desire to be saved. Those are the people Our Lord loves, heals, and redeems, the people we are called to love. Just as He healed those who were possessed, He inspires our faith in Him to forgive our sins and give us a path. As Keiichi slowly comes to learn in the course of the different arcs, whenever we are afraid of the evil in ourselves and in others, the call of loving and receiving God´s love becomes specially urgent.
Another parallel is found in the path given. Rika Furude, the priest of Oyashiro-sama, turns to be in true connection to the deity, and keeps the memories of all the previous iterations. Thus she knows what will happen beforehand. Yet she is human, one of the group, each of whose members have a different vocation to protect the others, from Satoshi’s bat to the detective skills of Rena. Just like that, in this world in which good and evil, and love and sin transcend time and space, the Church and the Scriptures hand down to us what lies beyond the apparent. This brings us a community, too, whose members have the gifts we need, while we have some they need. Only from there may we overcome a darkness that would devour us were we to combat it with our own force.
Lastly, I was impressed by how explicitly pagan the world of Himinazawa is. Far from the usual Shinto traditions are presented without much thought in most anime series, the cult of Oyashiro-sama is a true self-adoration by the Himinazawa community akin to that of totemic cultures. The true Oyashiro-sama turns out to be benign and eventually part of the gang, just as the real God could not be more different from the idols of the pagans, for they project in them the darkness of their own hearts. For all purposes, she is as forgotten as the Unknown God St. Paul told the Athenians about, and the one who is revered is the statue at the forbidden sanctuary full of instruments of torture.
The way of life of the inhabitants of the village is marked by harsh traditions such as infanticide of the twins. The dance at the Watanashi festival represents the ritual human sacrifice of old, the rule of the three families sometimes entails severe group pressure, and superstition is rampant, along with which seem to be demonic possessions. They are not, but rather paranoia and illusions caused by the Himinazawa Syndrome and narratively something more akin to the self-closure caused by sinking into different sins, from lack of faith to the lust of revenge. Not demonic possession, but demonic temptation. Keiichi, though a stranger, is involved in it all. In that way, he is similar to the first Christians in the Pagan world, including the Apostles, who were often killed in gruesome ways, some of them too gory for even Higurashi to depict. Influenced by the demonic, the hate of the worshippers of the idols towards Christians of all ages often reaches dimensions which seem impossible, as Our Lord told us that will happen. For if the Master has been persecuted, the disciples will be persecuted too.
But Christians know that the path of the martyrs is not one of tragedy and despair, but, like the deaths at Higurashi, precisely a mysterious way of joining Christ at the Cross and saving others. Loving the very executioners that kill them, aided by Providence, they are giving testimony of a love greater than the prince of this world and crossing a door which will lead them to Christ´s Resurrection, just as it lead them throughout Christ´s Passion. In the penultimate episode of the first season, it’s shown that the hopeful path of Higurashi started with a sacrifice: under the bat of a maddened Keiichi, Rena extended her hand towards him and offered love and friendship until the end. He didn’t even notice at the time, but twenty episodes later, this memory came back to show him the first step of a way out for him and for her, and for the others, too. In different arcs, Sakoto and Rika did the same. And many have done the same for their tormentors, for their loved ones and for us. And there is life at the other side.