This 26-episode anime from Studio Deen, the same company that brought you Fruits Basketand Junjo Romantica, is now available in two, Premium Edition Blu-ray sets from NIS America. Adapted from a popular series of Japanese “visual novels” (which, for transparency’s sake, I have not played/read), Umineko: When They Cry (2009) begins with the murder of virtually the entirety of the affluent Ushiromiya family, and subsequently finds them murdered again and again and again… by a witch. Then again, maybe they weren’t. For just as in the visual novels on which the series is based, there are multiple possible endings as Battler Ushiromiya attempts to solve the murders while disproving witchcraft, knowing that if he does so, he just might be able to save his family from their horrible fate.
Sound complicated? Well, it kind of is. Had the series played out differently, it might have proven a hokey narrative experiment. As is, however, the anime gives away nothing, leaving the audience to piece together so much of the narrative ourselves that the series proves to be every bit a game in its own right. Of course, the multiple retellings of the story, or “games” as I’ll henceforth refer to them, do more than just complicate the narrative and further problematize the mystery. After all, the second through fourth games refuse to follow the trajectory of the first entirely. Thus, the games tell a wholly different story each time. This keeps the anime fresh and engaging even as it forces us, and Battler, to factor in several variances on the same theme when attempting to solve the murders by non-magical means. It also allows the creators to more fully explore characters who had been killed off early in previous games, introduce new characters, and even give characters powers and abilities they may not have possessed before. In short, each new game that Battler finds himself playing against Golden Witch Beatrice has its own set of rules. You never know what you’re going to get each time they reset.
NIS’s two Premium Edition Blu-ray releases of the series adhere to their usual format, with a large hardboard slipcase housing slimline cases for the discs and a hardbound, supplemental, art book. Curiously, the first set collects the first three games, amounting to 18 episodes, while the second set collects only the remaining 8. It may upset some to see the series divided in this way, but really the division of the series between two sets, if it had to be done, makes the most sense this way. After all, you wouldn’t want the first set to end mid-game by splitting the series at episode 13, or have the releases be back-heavy by packaging them with two games apiece, as the first two games comprise but 11 episodes. Furthermore, the second set is a little cheaper than the average Premium set from NIS, so you’ll hear no complaints from me about the division.
In addition to the usual artwork and characters designs housed in NIS’s supplemental art books, Umineko’s Case File 01 and Case File 02 books offer lengthy, written explorations of various details presented in the anime. These articles, presented in the form of newspaper clippings, tend to be incredibly thorough and ultimately serve two very important functions as a supplement to the series. First of all, the Case Files make it easy to keep track of those small details that can so easily slip one’s mind after twenty-some episodes have passed. So if you’re trying to build a case against witchcraft right alongside Battler, these are most handy tools. Additionally, reading the Case Files tends to make you think deeper about the mechanics of the games themselves than even the series does. For example, a point raised in Case File 02 is that the characters in the series never really explore the ramifications of these multiple reworkings of the same narrative. Does each game exist in its own divergent timeline? Is each subsequent game rewriting history? Or is only one version real, while the others are play out in Battler’s imagination? These are great issues to debate, especially if you’re watching with a friend and engage in post-episode evidence breakdowns (something I did not have the opportunity to do, but sounds like a hell of a lot of fun). In essence, the Case Files encourage a more total interaction with the series than the average viewer may be apt to pursue without enticement, and that makes them invaluable supplements to the series. Apart from the Case File books, special features are limited to the clean opening and closing included on the second set.