Monday, July 13, 2009

Umineko no Naku Koro ni Episodes 1 and 2

Umineko, this season's horror offering from the creators of Higurashi, isn't yuri in the slightest, but it's crammed to the gills with 6 Degrees of Yuri seiyuu. The first episode didn't "wow" me, but it intrigued me enough to check out episode 2. Episode 2 still hasn't really delivered the level of intrigue and creepiness that I was hoping for, but I'm holding out hope that this series will deliver some awesome plot twists and genuine scares later on in the same vein as Higurashi- not to mention, develop its characters a little more.

Umineko begins on October 4, 1986, with several members of the uber-wealthy Ushiromiya family taking a boat to an island where the family head, Kinzo Ushiromiya (who only has three months to live due to an illness), lives. The protagonist seems to be Kinzo's grandson Battler (?) Ushiromiya, who is traveling with his parents Rudolph and Kyrie, his aunt Rosa and her daughter Maria, and his aunt Eva, uncle Hideyoshi, and their son George. At the dock, Battler establishes himself as one of the most irritating characters in the show (only surpassed by the snaggle-toothed brat Maria) by sexually harassing his cousin Jessica, who rightly punches his lights out. George realizes that there are no seagulls around the island (!) and Maria notices that a shrine that used to be on a group of rocks by the water is now gone. Genji, the head butler, and Kumasawa, one of the maids, take the newly arrived group to Kinzo's creepy-looking mansion, where Kinzo's eldest son Krauss and his wife Natsuhi (Jessica's parents) also live. At the mansion, we "meet" Kanon, a young, withdrawn butler who considers himself furniture and wears an outfit so ridiculous-looking that I can't really take him seriously. Finally, there's Shannon (whose real name is "Sayo"), the young, demure maid with fanboy-pleasing proportions who is friends with George, Jessica, and Battler.

While the cousins hang out, their parents verbally duke it out over how their inheritance will be doled out after Kinzo dies. Every single adult member of this family seems to be a jerk.

Meanwhile, Battler, George, Jessica, Shannon, and Maria come across a painting of an unknown woman.

The painting supposedly depicts the "Golden Witch" Beatrice, who Kinzo claims he sold his soul to in return for the vast amount of wealth he has attained. Nobody else in the Ushiromiya family has seen her, and only Maria believes in her existence. Next to the painting is a cryptic poem describing where the witch's gold is hidden. From the way she's described, as well as her appearance in the theme song, she seems like a pretty cool character. :)

The group of cousins and Shannon move out into the garden, where they see Maria's mother Rosa. Maria is distressed because the sick rose she saw earlier that she wants to take care of is gone. The audience is forced to endure a long, drawn-out (it feels like) scene of Maria whining about how she needs to finds the rose. (Yui Horie does a fantastic job of voicing Kyouko in Aoi Hana. Why does she sound so gawd-awful as Maria? ;_;) Her mother gets angry and hits Maria, who won't stop crying. (If you'll forgive my soapbox moment: Maria is annoying as hell, but that's absolutely no excuse for hitting a kid.) Jessica, George, Battler, and Shannon leave Maria and Rosa alone, and Maria's mother leaves, while Maria stays in the garden with a shadowy figure lurking behind her.

One guess as to who it is.

When everyone in the mansion realizes that Maria isn't with anyone, several people go into the garden and search for her in the rain. They find Maria with an umbrella, and (after Maria's mother apologizes to her profusely) she claims that Beatrice gave it to her.

In the next episode, Maria reads Beatrice's letter to the Ushiromiyas,

with a suitably Higurashi-ish expression. (One problem I have with this scene- when the characters in Higurashi look homicidal, it's normally because they're threating to do something or are in the process of doing something, you know, homicidal. This kid's just reading a letter. Big whoop.)

The letter states that Kinzo has terminated his contract with Beatrice, and she will take back all of the Ushiromiyas' fortune and possessions. However, if the Ushiromiyas can find all of Beatrice's hidden gold and give it to her a.s.a.p., she will leave them alone and let them keep everything they already have. Long story short, Krauss has one of the bars of Beatrice's gold, and he only shows it to Natsuhi. One morning, the phone lines are cut and the Ushiromiyas realize that several people are missing. They find that the tool shed in the backyard has a symbol drawn in blood on it.

Inside are the disfigured corpses of Krauss, Rudolph, Kyrie, Rosa, Gohda (the head cook), and Shannon. I hate to say it, but I only really felt for George's loss.

The Pros: Great theme song, cool villain, intriguing enough mystery, and pretty art. The older male characters pretty much look like generic middle-aged men,

but the women are all pretty and distinctive,

disregarding the ridiculous outfits they wear. :) (Particularly the Victorian garb.)

And while Battler is a fairly typical self-insertion character, at least his character design is distinctive,

as well as George's and Kanon's.

Considering how the art in the original visual novel looks,

the art in the anime looks especially nice.

Plus, the 6 Degrees of yuri voice cast!! ^^

Emi Shinohara (Youko in Marimite) plays Natsuhi, Miki Itou (Sachiko in Marimite; she also plays Miyo in Higurashi, where she sounds more like Sachiko) plays Eva, Ami Koshimizu (Kanako in Marimite, Paraietta in Simoun, and Nodoka in Saki) plays Rosa, and Rie Kugimiya (Touko in Marimite) plays Shannon. And of course, we have poor Yui Horie (Kyouko in Aoi Hana and Yasuna in Kashimashi) as Maria, and an upcoming character, called Bernkastel, is being voiced by Yukari Tamura (Tomari in Kashimashi, Nanoha in all three seasons of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Mai in Kanon).

The Cons: The characters largely aren't terribly likeable or empathetic. It's hard for me to feel any concern over whether or not they'll live, because they're still pretty much ciphers. I want to like this series and from what I've read of the plot ahead, it looks like it will get much better, but for now I'm just watching it in the hopes that it "gets better" soon. Oh, and I know that this is by the creators of Higurashi, but the melodrama still seems heavy-handed; after the beautiful subtlety and earnestness of Aoi Hana, Umineko feels crass and manipulative. (Granted, Saki is plenty melodramatic and manipulative, but I still like it because it seems to be aware of how silly it is. :) )

Here's hoping Umineko steps it up soon.

Story: C+
Art: B+ (Mostly nice character designs, although Maria's bug-eyed Gothic Lolita character design is irritating.)
Overall: C+

I'm looking forward to improvements ahead. *crosses fingers*

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