Thursday, February 23, 2012

When the Seagulls Cry

Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (When the Seagulls Cry) is one of the largest franchise stories I've encountered so far (although I haven't really been paying attention, so there may be bigger ones that I'm not aware of). Initially released as a PC game series, it has been remade into light novels, manga and an 26-episode TV anime series. There are 8 games, and so far Manga Fox has 6 of the matching manga titles at least partially started as fan scanilations. If you've already played all of the games, then you know what's going on. As for the manga, parts 1 and 4 has been completed, while all the other sequels are still in progress (meaning that you can't learn how part 2 ends before starting part 3 unless you get all the volumes in the original Japanese).

(Image taken from Manga Fox. Used for review purposes only.)

!--!! Spoiler Alert !!!--

The premise starts out as a basic gothic horror murder mystery - 18 people staying on a secluded island in 1986 start dying in a gruesome and macabre way. Most of them are branch members of a wealthy family while the rest are servants or hired help. Three of the family members are central to the story - Kinzo Ushiromiya, the head of the family and a devoted occultist attempting to satisfy the beautiful witch Beatrice; Maria - a young girl that claims to be able to see Beatrice and occasionally channels her spirit; and Battler - a teenage boy who tries to use logic to solve the mystery. The primary clue is an "epitaph" under Beatrice's portrait that hints at a fixed number of deaths a night before everyone gets wiped out. If the mystery is solved before the end, the victims will be revived and the winner will get all of Beatrice's gold that Kinzo has been using to fund the family's expansion in Japan. Given that all of Kinzo's adult children are facing money troubles in one form or another, the story becomes a race to see who can get his gold first. However, Battler is the only one really focused on understanding Beatrice's motives in all of this. In the PC games, the player has the option to decide whether the murderer is Beatrice using occult magic, or an outside killer using traditional physical attacks. This then sets up a battle of wits between Battler, who doesn't believe in magic, and whoever the killer really is.

As mentioned above, Manga Fox is currently running 6 manga titles, most of which are still ongoing (they're all completed in Japanese). Each title has a different artist, and each tells the story from a slightly different perspective. Most of the setups for the crimes show a magical influence, with hands reaching through doors, and blessed talismans blocking off the attack attempts. Various characters, including Battler, actually talk to metaphysical characters identified as witches or their assistants. It's pretty obvious that magic exists here, but the question is whether the killer is using it to commit the murders. In each title, the mystery is advanced a bit, but the results are the same - Battler fails to reveal the mystery and everyone dies, only to have everything restart from the beginning in the next sequel.

In this kind of setup, the quality of the artwork is critical, as what we see in one chapter influences our expectations of the artwork in the next. I read story 1 (Legend of the Golden Witch) first, and was pulled in by the semi-realistic portrayal of the characters. Things do get cartoony or unnaturally distorted when a given character goes insane, but that's part of the appeal to me. Unfortunately, the next 1-2 stories look really childish and I dismissed them out of hand. Story 6 is almost impossible to follow without knowing what went on before (explaining why there are witches all over the place and how Battler can keep experiencing a "Groundhog Day" event after losing to Beatrice), so I'm kind of forced to go through each of the stories sequentially, no matter how much I dislike the character designs, if I want to know how it all fits together.

!--!! LOTS of Spoilers Alert !!!--

Story 1: Legend of the Golden Witch
This is where it all starts, with the various family members coming out to Kinzo's island and being introduced to the reader. Battler is kind of an outsider, so he learns secrets about the family at the same time the reader does. He's told of the epitaph, and little Maria steps forward as a devoted believer in the witch. The murders start, unfold as predicted in the epitaph, and the story ends with Battler's complete failure. (Good artwork. 24 chapters. Artist: Natsumi Kei. Completed.)

Story 2: Turn of the Golden Witch
One of the underlying themes of Umineko is that the servants of the mansion are "furniture", and must accept what the family members do to them as part of their fate. A second theme is that the second generation members of the family treat everyone else, including each other, as trash. Shannon is one of the maids, and is in love with one of the third generation - George. The story starts with her on a date with George, then breaking a mirror in a shrine on the island to help free up Beatrice's power. From this point, love goes head-to-head with "outside imposed duties", resulting in one secret couple, and two pairs of failed loves. When the families start arriving on the island again, it isn't until chapter 10 that we see Beatrice sitting with Battler and announcing the start of the next "game". She states that she'll repeat this game as many times as it takes to get Battler to acknowledge her as a witch. In this particular turn, Beatrice places herself "on the board" and appears before several of the family members and servants, primarily as a sadist that manipulates people's love. After the heads of the family branches recognize her as the family "adviser", she kills all 6 of them in a "locked room mystery" that can only have happened through magic. This story also marks the first time Beatrice openly kills people using accomplices (witches "Lust" and "Wrath" plus several goat-headed demons), while she also states that when she speaks in a red font, she is saying the absolute truth without needing to give further expository supporting explanations (Such as "there are only the 18 people you know of on the island, no one else"). After a few more people die and the main suspect is Shannon's friend, Kanon, Battler caves in and announces that he believes Beatrice is real, in order to avoid having to suspect one of the servants. Maria intervenes and gets Battler to focus on the epitaph, which is what Beatrice really wants solved. (Marginal artwork. 23 chapters as of Dec. 21. Artist: Jirou Suzuki. Not completed.)

Story 3: Banquet of the Golden Witch
Things start off with a small girl (Eva) deciding that she wants to learn magic from "Beatrice the Witch", and the witch waking up later saying that she inherited her title and now, like most witches, is supremely bored. This implies that Beatrice is playing with Battler (who she resurrects from the last game) just to keep amused a little longer. Beatrice challenges the boy to explain the mystery of the second murder, and when he gets it wrong, she throws darts at him, similar to those used to kill the victims in story 2. But now, we get to see the darts change shape to the "Seven Stakes of Purgatory", two of which (Lust and Wrath) we've seen in story 2.) He dies again and she brings him back again in time to start the next game. The story then sees the branch families going to the island in 1986. Now, though, the focus is on Eva, one of Kinzo's daughters, but because she was born female, is stuck in the role of marrying someone and bearing a male heir. She hates being second to her brother, Krauss, and makes a promise with Beatrice to become the next primary head of the family. We also get to meet another of Beatrice's magical servants, this one Ronove, an elegant male demon (#27 of 72) wearing a monocle. Beatrice adds that now that her powers are coming back (probably because of the broken mirror), the rest of her "family" will be showing up soon. The twist this time around is that we learn that there was a 19th person on the island - Kinzo had trapped the soul of the 1000-year-old witch Beatrice and trapped it in a human body, caging it in a second mansion hidden on the island. Rosa, the youngest daughter, had stumbled across the mansion one day and shown the human Beatrice how to get outside. Unfortunately, human Beatrice slipped at the edge of a cliff, fell on to a rock and died in 1966 (freeing her soul and letting her remember that she's a witch). In 1986, Rosa thinks that Beatrice has come back to haunt her. The story becomes a race for Kinzo's gold, and Eva exercising her claim to power over the Ushiromiya name. (As in story 2, Kanon has a fight in which he uses a magic sword, but this time he's joined by Shannon, who has a magic shield. It's a clue for Battler, but the boy fails to figure it out. The two servants die anyway. In story 2, the first six sacrifices are Kinzo and the 5 servants. This time, the oldest female servant turns out to be Beatrice's former teacher, the original Beatrice.) (Decent artwork. 8 chapters. Artist: Natsumi Kei. Not completed.)

Story 4: Alliance of the Golden Witch
A new twist is added when we learn that Battler has a half-sister, Ange, who hadn't been on the island in 1986. At the end of story 3, Eva survived by being in the second mansion where the gold was found, became the head of the family, adopted Ange and shipped the girl to a boarding school where her life is a living hell. Eva is dead now, leaving Ange with no answers. Her only respite is the Book of Maria - Maria's diary. When trying to escape Eva's evil sister, Ange is approached by Berkenstal, Witch of Miracles, and bestowed with the name Ange-Beatrice - the 1998 witch intended to defeat the 1986 witch. She then receives 2 sets of papers that had been found floating in the sea in bottles, each describing two different murders, both where Eva is a victim and written in Beatrice's handwriting. This brings her back to when she was a child and the apprentice witch under Maria learning to control Beatrice's 7 Stakes. She joins with Berkenstal and they go to the island in 1986 so she can act as Battler's adviser under the name Gretel. As before, the family arrives at the island, quarrels, and people start dying. Battler still struggles in the game against Beatrice, even with Gretel's help, so the witch adds a new power - by making a statement that denies witches, using blue font, he can force Beatrice into answering in red. As Battler is starting to make strides, Lambdadelta appears as Beatrice's supporting witch and tells Ange that Berk lied - the only way Battler can return to Ange is if they have an eternal stalemate. On the other hand, as part of the test to see who will succeed Kinzo, Battler is asked to remember his "sin" of 6 years ago (when he broke from the family because his father remarried). He can't remember, and it turns out that Battler isn't actually Kinzo's blood relative. Beatrice states that she created this game specifically to play against Battler and if the person in front of her isn't Kinzo's grandson Battler, there's no point in continuing. Battler is erased from existence, but then brought back by her "furniture". Ange realizes the need to give Battler an incentive to win the game and exit this purgatory, so she reveals her identity to her brother and gets slowly torn to pieces. As she disappears, she rewords Beatrice's accusation such that while Battler was not born to Rudolph's wife, he is still a pawn manipulated by Rudolph and therefore can be argued to be Kinzo's grandson. Beatrice gets forced to start the next game, and she secretly pleads with Battler to hurry up and defeat her once and for all to end her own suffering. However, while Battler does succeed in "killing" her by developing real-world explanations for the deaths, he can't completely eradicate her by answering her final riddle - "who am I?". (Variable artwork. 26 chapters. Artist: Soichirou. Completed.)

It's only with story 4 that the real nature of the "game" surfaces. Battler makes a supposition, such as "Kinzo has been dead all along, so while there really are only the fixed number of 18 people on the island, one of them is the unknown killer". Beatrice responds by playing out the killings based on that supposition and while supported by whatever magical beings (Stakes, demons) she has at her disposal. As time goes by, more of her power returns to her. Meaning that the details of who dies and by what means changes with each successive "game". What really matters to us as readers is: when different magics (red font, blue font) or creatures (Lambadelta, Ange) appear that will reappear in later stories. The details of the murders themselves are irrelevant because they change with each successive game. Conversely, as Battler develops more logical theories about how the murders were committed (people stealing room keys, small bombs in the food for blowing off people's faces), he backs Beatrice into a corner and strips away the magic facade, forcing all new strategies on the part of the "gamemaster".

Story 5: End of the Golden Witch
The story picks up with Beatrice as a living doll. In the recap at the beginning, we're told that she had given up on playing the game and given her place to the other witches, leaving Battler to play against an auto-pilot. Lambdadelta takes Beatrice's role, and Bern fills in for Battler up to the second day, putting herself on the island as a child detective. The game this time assumes that Kinzo is dead and that Krauss's wife, Natsuhi, has been abetting her husband in a fraud against the other family members to hide the fact that Kinzo's already gone. Bern accuses Natsuhi of wanting to be Kinzo's successor and being the killer. The twist now, introduced by Lambda, is that Kinzo had given Natsuhi a child to raise as her own, and it and its nurse supposedly died in a fall 19 years ago. The child, or its ghost, calls Natsuhi on the phone on the island and sets up the murders. As part of the prelude, though, Bern assists Battler in finding Kinzo's gold ("where" is unimportant), which then triggers the fight for succession and Natsuhi being framed by Lambda as the killer. (Decent artwork. 12 chapters. Artist: Taka Aki. Not completed.)

Story 6: Dawn of the Golden Witch
Because a lot of the previous stories still haven't been fully fan scanilated, the backstory for #6 is incomplete. In #5, it's implied that 1998-Ange was killed in #4 by her evil aunt. At the beginning of #6, it's stated that there have been 4 messages in bottles (two of them written on the internet), the best fake one being written by a female mystery writer - Hachijo Toya, AKA Itoukukuro Reigonamu. #6 starts with Battler completely chained up in a locked room mystery he'd created himself at the end of #5 by defeating Lambdadelta and being named the new Gamemaster. This is followed by Ange, in 1998, meeting Toya. Toya claims to have read the previous Golden Witch stories, and she's pieced together what really happened on the island in 1986. Toya is also a witch, Featherine, and she uses Ange as the reader of her story to bypass the interference from Lambdadelta, Bern and Beatrice. As the next Gamemaster, Battler performed a ceremony to resurrect Beatrice, proving that she is the embodiment of the rules of the game, and was initially created by whatever "sin" it was that Battler committed in 1982. However, since she's only 3 days old now, she has no personality, and this enrages Battler, who demands the return of the 1000-year-old witch. (Average artwork. 6 chapters. Artist: Hinase Momoyama. Not completed.)

Summary: An action in 1982 taken by someone called "Battler Ushiromiya" triggered the birth of something called "Beatrice the Golden Witch". In turn, Beatrice sets up a chess board in a frozen dimension where she attempts to trap Battler into a corner so that he must accept that magic is real. Each game on the board consists of a serial murder on Rokkenjima island, but the details of the murders, the order and the list of victims depends on Battler's suppositions as to how Beatrice performs her tricks. With each successive game, the number of supernatural creatures joining in the fun increases, while Beatrice herself loses her powers, and eventually Battler replaces her as the magician Gamemaster. Told in 6 parts, with varying levels in the quality of the artwork. Most of the parts haven't been fully scanilated yet. Grudgingly recommended since there are such big gaping holes in the continuity right now.

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