Umineko no Naku Koro ni (When the Seagulls Cry in English), a bit of a long title, eh? One of the inconveniences with such titles is that once you put them in a post’s title it already becomes a tad too long, so you have no room left to clarify what you are going to write about. So, let me explain it here. So far I have read two Umineko manga series (also called episodes), Legend of the Golden Witch and Turn of the Golden Witch, and 5 chapters of the series following them, Banquet of the Golden Witch. Haven’t seen the anime, don’t know the plot for the rest of the series. In a way, I am in the middle of the story, since each manga series I named is a part of the whole Umineko no Naku Koro ni thing, same as, say, all Harry Potter novels are part of the same story. But this suits the topic I want to talk about.
I’ll start introducing the characters. This is Battler, the protagonist of the story. He is a part of the third generation of his family, who are all cousins.
What I want to talk about is why one would want to read Umineko series. And I would have to explain why one would want to ask this question as well. As I go on, I hope you’ll see why I think it is alright for me to talk about something like this without having read the whole series.
Before we start though, I want to give a shout-out to all people who have seen the anime but haven’t read the manga. As I have not seen the anime I can’t judge it, but my impression is that it is a completely different experience from the manga, so when you read this post, please try to set aside your previous experiences with this story. To be clear, I have this impression for the following reasons. First, according to MAL, the 26 episodes-long anime adapts an equivalent of 4 manga series, which have 102 chapters total, and each Umineko chapter is 25-50 pages long, packed with material. So, there were likely pacing issues. Second, from what little I saw, the character animation looks nothing to write home about, where as the manga’s art is top-quality. Third, the anime has only covered half the story, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the ending wasn’t great. Forth, and most importantly, I think the story itself isn’t very suited for anime adaptation. So, please don’t judge the manga by whatever you experienced with the anime.
This is Natsuhi. She is part of the second generation, which comprises of siblings and their spouses.
Now we can finally start (spoilers ahead). So, why do I think it is a good question as to why one would want to read Umineko? At its heart, the story is a mix of a supernatural mystery and a detective novel. There are all sorts of reasons to read both, right? Well, here is the thing. Umineko repeats its plot every episode (meaning, every series). So a lot of the normal enjoyment of a mystery novel goes away after a while. You know the sequence of events, the characters at play, you can predict what will happen with a high probability. For example, in the first episode Natsuhi was the adult who survived and guarded the youngsters and in the second episode this role was given to Rosa. From the way first 5 chapters are laid out I can confidently predict that Eva will take this role for in the 3rd episode. So, I am not reading the story for sudden unpredictable turns of events, which is part of the thrill of a mystery novel.
That is Eva, whom I just mentioned. She also a part of the second generation.
Supernatural mysteries, especially the ones with murder, tend to serve as horror or torture-porn. To give examples, Mermaid’s Scar tries to be a horror, while Corpse Party is a splatter show. Well, Umineko is neither. It does give you a lot of bloody scenes, but it doesn’t chew on them. It does not like to show you how the characters get hurt, it doesn’t try to exploit violence in a sadistic way (I can’t back up this claim, by the way, but I think I am correct to say it). And Umineko isn’t scary, since you pretty much know what is going on.
Unless you are going to be scared by Maria’s face. She isn’t that scary though, right?
So, what is so good about it then? The “detective story” part, maybe? Well yeah, that is rather close to the truth, I’d say. Umineko is all about finding the criminal who committed the murders that look very much like a work of a demon or some other supernatural entity. The story presents us with a barrage of puzzles that seem impossible to solve. People get murdered in a closed room that no one could enter or leave, corpses disappear and reappear without any logical explanations, etc. And the whole point of the series is to prove that it was all an act of men. So, sounds like a good detective mystery, many of such had already been written.
Here is Beatrice, the antagonist of the series. Yes, the one with the frying pan. What? Not satisfied? Don’t believe me? Okay, here you go, have a gallery of her:
The only problem is that we, the readers, also see again and again how supernatural forces do act and perform their deeds within the story. People fight bull-headed demons using blades of light, evil spirits are summoned and morphed into weapons that fly towards their victim, etc. If one takes this at the face value, the whole thing becomes meaningless, there is no need to solve the mystery in the first place.
Here is an example. By the way, notice how well the scene looks
On the other hand, as with any supernatural mystery, you need to think about which part of the story is a metaphor, which is an illusion and which is the reality. As you read Umineko, you start to realize that supernatural phenomena occur mostly to people who are about to die, and only when it would have been perfectly possible to achieve the same end result without these magic tricks. So you start to wonder, if maybe the whole deal with the magic is just an illusion and you can ignore it.
This is Shannon, one of the family servants. Her (and other’s) character design are pretty different between first 3 Umineko episodes. That is probably due to the fact that different episodes were drawn by different mangaka.
But then, the protagonist of the story, Battler Ushiromiya, the guy who is solving the mystery, exists in a magical limbo created by a witch Beatrice. She kills him and revives him, shows him all sorts of magical tricks that seem beyond any human capacity. It is one thing for us, the readers, to brush aside the all that magic nonsense, but how could Battler do it? Why does he denies the existence of magic while being engulfed by it? Makes no sense, right?
One more picture of Shannon. She deserves it, okay? :P
So I hope it makes sense now why I think it is strange that a story like Umineko would attract readers. But it does! It attracted me, for one. Let me ask you this, why do people like to play chess? It is not just about the sense of victory, right? A game is somehow enjoyable in itself, no? I can spend an hour talking about everything Umineko lacks, but then so does chess and other simple board games. They don’t even have characters or story, they only give you a problem that usually can be solved. In a way, Umineko is exactly that. It is written in such a way as to be a fair game for the reader. Of course, the reader get relevant information bit by bit, and there are tons of distractions, but ultimately you could figure out a lot of what is going on by yourself. Or so it feels.
This is Kanon, Shannon’s brother. He is also one of the servants.
As I said, I haven’t finished reading the story. So, why do I claim that it is a fair game for the reader who wants to solve the mystery before Battler does (if he does at all)? Well, because at the moment I am not interested in whether or not it actually is a fair game. Instead, I am talking about what keeps the reader going. It feels like a fair game, therefore I keep playing. And it is an interesting play too. As the time passes you get more and more relevant information, the kind that often is lacking even in good detective mysteries. Logic is one of the main tools the characters use in their struggles, which puts the reader in an equal position with them. I personally love to guess what is going to happen next in any story I read, and there are very few that go to the same lengths as Umineko to enable me to do so.
Just read what is on this page, it will give you an idea of what I am talking about in the passage above
But to get back on track, why does Umineko feel like a fair game for the reader? That is probably the most interesting question I can ask here. To start with, for a manga to feel “fair” it needs to respect its own logic. For example, once a rule is introduced it should avoid breaking it, or giving exceptions. And if there are exceptions, they should be given in advance. To give example, Bleach is the kind of manga that would introduce an event and the mechanics that allowed it to happen both at the same time, rendering any guesses (or “theories”, as community likes to call them) made in advance meaningless. Hunter x Hunter, on the other hand, tries to follow its own rules, therefore it is generally possible, although very hard, to construct a theory that predicts future events. Why is it hard though? Because Hunter x Hunter is not trying to provide the reader with enough information. Even though the events follow the rules of the world the necessary information you would require to predict them often comes together with the event. That is the second step to fairness. There are stories that try to be more theorist-friendly than this, One Piece for example. There, the relevant info is often given in advance, so a way better ground for manga theorist is provided.
Here are Jessica and George, both are members of the third generation. George is Eva’s son and Jessica is Natsuhi’s daughter.
Umineko has it all and more. For example, it is being painfully meticulous with the relevant details. If we discuss a murder in a closed room, the manga will explain to you that there were no secret doors, that only so many keys existed, that doors could only be opened and closed with the keys, that the doors and the widows were indeed closed, that there is no trick that would allow you to pass through a closed door, that only so many people had been present in the room, etc. You can discard a ton of theories based on that alone. Normally in manga you have to use your feel for the story to guess where it is going to and choose between equally likely theories. Here you are put in a position where you struggle to come up with any theory and you definitely don’t have to decide between them, as any theory that works is your victory in the game against Umineko.
So my point is, even though the readers have a valid reason to give up on the mystery solving after they see the first demon appear, even though Battler’s motives are highly strange, Umineko still is an interesting puzzle, just because it is constructed that way.
This is Kyrie, member of the second generation, Battler’s step mother.
Besides offering a fair game, another reason Umineko is appealing is its repetitive and meticulous nature, I think. This may not be true for everyone, but something in our minds enjoys repetitive and careful work being shown to us. A lot of people like watching game speedrun attempts, that usually have <1% success rate (the success being a new achievement; a personal best time for example), which is exactly that, a repetitive and careful process. Umineko might be playing with that part of our mind as well.
Also, even so I was focusing this post entirely on the “detective mystery” part of Umineko, it is not just that. The characters are fairly interesting as well, and the way they are introduced, with new details given to us at each episode, it is pretty good. The story usually focuses on a couple people at a time, making them “main characters” of the episode. Natsuhi and Battler were the main characters of the first episode, Shannon, Kanon and Rosa played that role in the second one, and the third episode seems to belong to Eva and maybe Beatrice. Some characters are just nice to watch, like Shannon who is a too-good-to-be-true girl, or Battler who is a very charismatic guy. Some are sort of interesting as people, like Kyrie or Jessica, who has more to her than she lets out, which is always intriguing. And some are wonderfully suspicious, like George who seems to be a manipulator, making Shannon and others do exactly what he wants, never showing anything that would allow to distinguish between his intended appearances and his real self.
Did I already mention that I like Umineko romantic and comedy moments? They are very fun to read. Like, look at George here, he is adorable.
Also, each episode gives you themes or motives. The theme with the older generation (like Natsuhi, Eva and Rosa) seems to be different forms of oppression. Natsuhi oppresses herself, her daughter and her servants for no reason other than being a huge snob. Eva oppresses people only as much as she needs to achieve her goals, one of which is to provide a great future for George. Rosa only oppresses her daughter as she is worried of the other people’s opinions about her. It is softly implied that some of these oppression tendencies have lead to the tragedies that we see in the Umineko episodes.
Servants have their own themes. Shannon and Kanon share a theme of doubting themselves as being humans. Although at first it seems too abstract and even silly, his is mostly a question of social status. A lot of their problems stem from the way they are treated by people around them, which leaves marks on their personalities. Older servants could probably tell their own stories, but I haven’t seen that yet. I would go as far as to say that social inequality is one of two big topics in Umineko. Although this theme sort of finds a conclusion in the second episode, it may go on in the others, I don’t know.
The second big topic that goes though the whole series is gender inequality. This is something that made especially clear in the third episode, where Eva confronts her brother and father trying to prove her worth while they are limiting her role to being a wife and a mother. This manga doesn’t just try to state the problem, it also does a fair job going outside of the gender stereotypes the anime/manga stories seem to have. One of the most physically powerful character within the story seems to be Eva, the smartest person seems to be Kyrie, the ones with most agency are Battler, Beatrice, Natsuhi, Eva and Rosa. This is a supernatural murder mystery, yet it doesn’t employ a damsel in distress stereotype, the girls are not just victims. Even though the individual characters are pretty usual, their actions are done right. I wonder if the story manages to get anywhere with there two topics, it would be interesting.
To close this off, just a quick mention of the art. Apparently, Umineko is drawn by a whole lot of different people. The first and third episodes are drawn by Kei Natsumi and the second one is done by Jirou Suzuki. They have a clear difference in the art style, and they even use different character designs. I think both are really good, though they have different strengths and weaknesses. There are lots of really good panels, and character acting is nicely done. You can notice that Suzuki tends to deform human limbs in weird ways and she seems to like giving her characters bushy light-colored eyelids. Natsumi’s scary faces are more reminiscent of Higurashi series. On the other hand, if you read Umineko online, the scans quality is all over the place (especially for Natsumi’s volumes I’ve read) so there is that.
As my pictures hopefully showed, the manga isn’t hundred percent dark and serious, there are silly jokes and romantic subplots. I find these pretty enjoyable as well.
P.S. Just to let you laugh at me, I’ll tell you a few of the guesses I had about the murderer’s identity. When I read the first episode my favorite theory was that George was the killer. The first six victims were exactly all the adult members of the family, aside from his parents, so it makes sense to suspect them. Next, his parents attacked the only other survivor of the second generation, Natsuhi, though Battler stopped that. Then George’s parents died, which left George to be almost the closest one to be the new head of the family. And their death happened in a closed room. The murder seemed impossible, but it kinda-sorta made sense if they invited George in (they would trust their own son, right?). He did survive the episode too.
My favorite theory for the second episode, where everything was revolving around the fact that only servants had master keys, was that Beatrice counted herself as a servant, so she had a master key too. This would mostly explain all the closed door mysteries, I think.
Alright, sorry for a huge post, congrats if you made it all the way to the end ^^b If you did, be so good and tell me what you think about the series and what I’ve written about it in the comments. See you next time!