Wednesday, 7 September 2011

When The Cicadas Cry (anime)

Repost from 29/09/08:

There are many anime series in which a teenaged boy of no particular attractiveness is deluged with the attentions of eligible potential love interests.

This is one of those anime series. The protagonist is surrounded by adoring girls.

Most of these anime series are light-hearted in a prurient fashion, encouraging the viewer to imagine himself (for it is males who watch) as the protagonist, surrounded by adoring girlfriends, spoiled for choice. Such are called "harem" series. The protagonist typically makes bad choices and has bad luck, but all the problems can be laughed off in the end.

This is not a "harem" series. The mistakes and misunderstandings and failures of this series have horrible, indelible consequences. A "harem" series has a little bit of modesty and frustration covering up a deep supply of young love. This series has passionate desire and murderous hatred and arrogant confidence and soul-destroying guilt, wrapped up in a suffocating -- but beautiful -- garment of Japanese culture.

The artwork is very well done. The artists must have been masters of every nuance of the "harem" style. The music is your first hint that something is very wrong with this series. The music is serious, elegant, and solemn. The music forces the viewer to realize that the mistakes and misunderstandings of this series will not be laughed off. The script and direction show the influences of Hitchcock and Lynch. The emphasis on suspense is from Hitchcock. The dreamlike, nonlinear storytelling, which slowly unwraps layers and layers of horrible meaning, is from Lynch.

It is pleasant to watch a well-made anime series, and this series is indeed well-made. It is unpleasant to watch horrible, horrible sufferings visited on sympathetic characters who have done nothing wrong, and this series requires a strong stomach in that regard.

This is a series that emphasizes how Japanese manners are excellent for keeping secrets, for dissembling, for coolly returning the pleasantries of one's enemies as if they presented no threat. At first, when one sees the first few episodes, one may think that the characters are taking this aspect of Japanese culture too far. They are indeed Japanese, the viewer may cry, but even the most reserved Japanese would be willing to speak openly about such horrors!

After you see the next few episodes, you will realize that there are several layers of refusal to communicate in this series, and you will see that the apparently exaggerated characters are making absolutely rational choices in an absolutely believable way.

The hardest part of horror is balancing the attractive and the repulsive. Horror is not scary if the viewer likes both pretty girls and dismembered corpses. For horror to work, the viewer must want to look at the pretty girls -- the viewer must be reluctant to look at the corpses. This series has layers of beauty and layers of horror. The shallowest beauties are the pretty girls and the pretty landscapes; the shallowest horrors are the bloody corpses. But below that shallow layer, there are deeper beauties of emotion and soul, and deeper horrors of emotion and soul. The murder mystery is never perfectly explained, but unwinding the details has an odd satisfaction. For the most part I dislike Hitchcock thrillers and refuse to watch murder mysteries -- and yet this series compelled my complete attention.

This series is moving and gripping. It is horrifying because it is plausible. It has noteworthy flaws, the greatest of which is the frustration inherent in peeling away the layers of deceit. Many viewers will probably abandon it from a mixture of honest frustration and insincere weakness.

Those viewers who have seen many "harem" and romance animes will have noted that the abilities of young, skinny girls to push and punch is often exaggerated for humorous effect. Often the viewer of romance anime must wonder whether the artists are distorting the distinction between women and children. Often romance anime depict oddly precocious girls. Many of the genre-appropriate exaggerations of romance anime are subverted in this anime. The precocity of the girls in this anime is truly horrifying.

Those viewers who have seen many romance animes will have noted that the art always draws limpid tears but rarely depicts murky blood. The anime of beautiful girls is devoted to symmetry, and slow transitions, and smooth curves, and large eyes with dark pupils and colorful irises. This series has all those things, but it contrasts them with asymmetry, jarring shocks, wrinkled faces, and terrified eyes showing the white around the iris. The more anime you have seen, the more you will be impressed at how the artwork in this series leads the viewer onward with seemingly familiar images which become blazingly original shards of terror.

For all the consummate skill put into this series, it has some glaring flaws. The murder mystery's outer layers unwrap so perfectly that the final revelation is underwhelming and strained. Worse yet, some of the vital paradoxes that drive the viewer to watch the series are not satisfactorily explained. Even if there are perfect, explicit answers in the software game on which the anime is based, some of those answers did not make it into the anime. Since the story is a murder mystery, one expects all the clues to be resolved and all the red herrings to be exposed; one does not happily concede when a murder mystery reaches its ending without explaining everything.

Overall: 4/5

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