We've already looked at Higurashi before in its original game format via Manga Gamer - A murder mystery that splits down into multiple arcs to give a different twist on each story, while maintaining the characters and setting. Different stories, but with familiar characters. While that works in an interactive game, how does it work in manga format?
The series follows Keiichi Maebara, a new resident of Hinamizawa village, a quiet, isolated place deep within the mountains of Japan. Each arc is set days before the village's annual cotton drifting festival where it is said a curse takes two people away in different circumstances. While the village seems to be the perfect place, Keiichi starts to peel back the surface layer of the village and finds something much darker and more sinister.
Firstly, it is best to explain how this manga works. Based upon the PC game of the same name (which UKA has already reviewed), Higurashi explores the different arcs of each story that the PC game presents. The first four volumes follow the Abducted by Demons arc and the Cotton Drifting arc. Each arc resets everything from the last, while keeping the principal characters and setting so that the overall plot is changed each time to give a new story with different leads. While Keiichi remains the protagonist in each arc, the direction that the story goes spins off in wildly different ways between one another. While in a game, it is obviously done to invoke replay value, in a manga however it is an experimental way of storytelling which for the most part seems to work.
Higurashi is very much a murder mystery, but the fact it manages to weave in a constantly shifting dynamic between what could easily be called a high school comedy and a gruesome look at the darker side of people is a credit to the story writers. Each arc usually breaks down with the first volume swinging more towards high school comedy with hints of something more sinister before taking the second volume and going head-long into the disturbing mystery. The manga manages to organically shift between the two to the point you’d swear you were reading something completely different. You’ll actually believe in Keiichi’s analysis of what he is seeing and wonder how the people around him are capable of doing what is happening. It is a disturbing thing to read when the dark side of a character appears to taunt Keiichi, making you question everything you’ve read so far. It is highly engrossing stuff and it's quite surprising how quickly you end up finishing the book when reading chapter after chapter.
If there is one criticism I had about the PC game it was that the artwork was god awful. Thankfully the manga adaption improves upon this ten-fold to at least bring it up to a standard we expect from our manga. Each character is quite clearly defined and while not particularly stand-out, it does make the stories much more palatable and easier to get sucked into all aspects of the story, even the light-hearted sections at the beginning of each arc.
If there is one thing that is annoying, it's something which is part and parcel of the entire reset at the beginning of each arc. The explanation of the history of the village, while mercifully cut down in later arcs, is still needing to be shoe-horned in to be explained to Keiichi again. We know it’s a restart, but they could at least explain it all off-screen. The reader doesn’t really need to be told the same information time and time again.
As for the individual arcs themselves if I had to choose between each, I think the Abducted by Demons arc (which makes up the first two volumes) would get my vote. This arc seems far more sinister and due to being the first arc it is far more jarring when the darkness starts to take over. The Cotton Drifting arc does have its own moments as well, but the riddle-style explanation of some of the final events just ends up being confusing, making it a somewhat messy ending.
If you enjoyed the PC games, there is unlikely to be much new here. While the artwork is much better, the stories will no doubt be quite similar, though carrying a book versus lugging a laptop around with you will no doubt be more appealing. For people looking for a good murder mystery and something a little different from your usual manga palate, then Higurashi could very well be a good buy. With its two volume arc limit and intriguing storyline you might discover a darker side that you enjoy.
An interesting experiment in manga storytelling and improved artwork over the game with some slight design flaws.