Mocking Succession

Trapped between modernity and tradition, the cicadas cry

No horror anime has become as pervasive as Higurashi When They Cry. It’s best known for its minimal production value, its psychological elements, and its unique formatting where, at the end of each “arc” the stage is reset and events play out again, albeit a bit differently. But perhaps, the most famous image from Higurashi comes from its least characteristic arc, Meakashi-Hen, or the “Eye Opening Chapter.”

It’s a popular .gif that even the most casual anime viewer will have seen. In it, a girl with billowing, lime green hair cackles, but not in a subtle, menacing way—she’s thrown her head back in an animalistic roar, her mouth and eye both stretching across her pointed face like a chelsea grin. Blood stains her cheek. You may have seen an extended version of this .gif, which shows exactly what the girl is hysterical about. A girl, much younger than her with blue hair and heavy fringe struggles with an unwieldy knife. She plunges the knife deep into the side of her head. Then, again. Again. Again. The green-haired girl’s eyes widen until she loses it and fills to the brim with an unbridled joy.

Meakashi-Hen, unlike Higurashi’s seven other arcs, is more of a slasher than a slow, creeping horror story. Many of the arcs play out like an urban legend, or a folktale. You can imagine them starting with “this happened to my friend,” or “I heard about this from a strange man in a bar.” Folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs defines legends as “not literary tales but experiences known in [the storyteller’s] own families or among their neighbors,” which indicate or imply something about local traditions and customs. This isn’t the only way Higurashi achieves its folk horror.

Higurashi, as a text, includes many ethnographic details—we learn about the cultural `text of a local God named Oyashiro-sama, who supposedly had a resurgence in belief in the late ‘70s after the construction manager of a contentious dam project turned up dead on the day of Watanagashi, a summer festival in honor of Oyashiro-sama. The culprit was never found. Each year thereafter, on the day of Watanagashi, someone is killed and someone goes missing. This gave birth to a new legend, that of “Oyashiro-sama’s curse.” The people of Hinamizawa speak of the curse in hushed whispers. They say those “demoned away” by the God were punished for transgressing in some way. Some speculate on connections to the original dam incident. Others claim to hear footsteps following them to bed at night, and a lingering presence watching them as they sleep. In this way, Higurashi deftly blends legends both ancient and modern, and pays heed to the different ways in which they manifest. 

Shion Sonozaki, Meakashi-Hen’s narrator, doesn’t believe any of that. Shion is unique in that, though her twin sister is heir to the most powerful family in Hinamizawa, she has barely ever stepped foot in the village. At a young age, she was exiled to a girls’ boarding academy and her existence was erased. The chapter opens with Shion staging an escape on the school. We’ve met Shion once before, in Watanagashi-Hen, where she was held captive and tortured by Mion for breaking a holy tenet. Meakashi-Hen is a retelling of Watanagashi-Hen from Shion’s perspective, and we immediately learn that she’s different than we remember. 

As a person, Shion is defined by rejection. The Sonozakis have strict traditions for succession, and she was born a younger twin, a sign of ill fortune. When she was born, her grandmother, the current family head, tried strangling her. She was denied privileges Mion was afforded. Rejection is what Shion knows, and it’s what she puts out in the world, too. She is steely, crafty, and rebellious, which distinguishes her from her cowardly sister. She doesn’t understand empathy because she is imprisoned by the circumstances of her birth.

Oyashiro-sama’s curse is one of repetition. The children of Hinamizawa go to school, come home, are abused, distrust one another, and fall asleep to the rhythmic cries of cicadas. They do this all June until the Watanagashi festival, when they know their day-to-day mundanity will be squashed by brutal sacrifices. Then they do it all again. Higurashi posits a world where all systems are round and endless, unceasing in their oppression. Those systems aren’t limited just to the resetting of timelines, but includes the viciousness of Satoko’s abuse, of which the whole town quietly ignores. It includes the antagonistic intrusion of the police, who are located outside Hinamizawa and further complicate the locals’ problems.

As a person, Shion is defined by rejection

All these closed systems neatly reflect the attitudes of Himanizawa locals: close-knit, but xenophobic and paranoid. In “Getting Even” from Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, she notes the revenge exploitation genre hinges on two axes: the male/female, and the city/country. Keiichi, the protagonist of the novel’s first arc, represents the polar extremes of “male” and “city”; he is blindsided with the lawless brutality of the village, and is seemingly assailed by only female consciousnesses. Shion, on the other hand, is a balance on both scales. Though she was born in Hinamizawa, she was raised in the city. She is familiar with the town’s supposed barbarity, and even grew up attending riots in protest of the dam. She identifies as female, but refers to an out-of-hand, ancestral demon that lives within her, stirred occasionally by righteous anger. This posits her as a more amorphous protagonist with Keiichi, and therefore illuminates the problematic nature of both the traditionalist, antiquated mindsets of the village as well as the bureaucratic, uncaring nature of modern law and order. 

Shion’s frustrations come to a head when she moves to Okinomiya, a small town (albeit a modern city compared to Hinamizawa, of which it is less than an hour away from) where she lives in hiding from her family. Now unemployed and unenrolled in school, Shion contacts her twin and arranges to go out occasionally in disguise as her sister. Eventually, she meets one of his classmates, Satoshi Houjou. Shion falls in love with Satoshi almost immediately. In contrast to Shion, a self-reliant yet cold person, Satoshi is mild-mannered and polite. 

Her blind affection for him stems from a place of intense projection. Satoshi, along with his younger sister Satoko, lost their parents just a year prior to Shion’s move to Okinomiya. Consequently, he is under the care of his abusive aunt and uncle. Much attention is drawn to how “exhausted” Satoshi is from his toiling with the two, particularly when it comes to protecting Satoko from verbal and physical abuse. Shion, who was raised to accept abusive cycles as normal, comes to resent Satoko for her complacency in Satoshi’s anguish. Everything he does is for her sake, and Shion perceives this as Satoko relishing in his love indulgently, leaving nothing but a husk for the others in his life.

Shion displaces her feelings of herself onto Satoshi—a courageous, innocent, helpless individual—and her feelings of her sister onto Satoko—incompetent, favored, and undeserving. She soon lashes out against Satoko violently, failing to uproot Satoshi’s trauma at its point of origin. Throughout Higurashi’s question arcs we are reminded that the Houjous were ostracized from the village because they supported the dam project. Consequently, even after the death of their parents, the Houjou siblings (Satoshi and Satoko) have been all but abandoned by the village. They turn a blind eye on their abuse in fear that they will be cursed, as they suspect the Houjou family has been. Child services refuse to intervene and continuously fail them. Shion sees these cruel truths as facts of life, unshakeable and permanent. Shion’s internal resolve clashes with Satoko’s, who externally relies on the support of her brother. Shion can’t imagine a world of nonparasitic kindness.

This dynamic eventually morphs into a toxic relationship, where Shion infantalizes Satoshi and fears he won’t be able to so much as cook a meal without her assistance. The narrative avoids unnecessarily feminizing Shion in this position; conversely, she is portrayed as his protector, and outs herself after Satoshi begins being suspected for murdering his aunt. This shift in identity reaches a boiling point after Shion is ritually punished for fooling her family and breaking her exile. Before her entire family, Shion is humiliated as she must rip three of her fingernails off to vindicate not only herself, but Satoshi and her allies. She is saddled with this weight because she transgressed a ridiculous restriction on her gendered autonomy.  

She is saddled with this weight because she transgressed a ridiculous restriction on her gendered autonomy

Everyone stares in silence as Shion begs for forgiveness, eager to know what she’s done wrong. She has committed no crimes, and is instead punished because customs dictate she must be. The Sonozaki clan is helpless before these laws—even if someone wanted to help, they would be unable to. She brutally sows the consequences for acting selflessly.

This unspoken brutality develops further after Satoshi goes missing. Shion begins hearing steps, which, up until now, has been an early sign of impending doom. But unlike Keiichi and Rena, she doesn’t interpret these steps as the sinister presence of Oyashiro-sama. Instead, she assumes Satoshi has been following her, and even has tender conversation with him. Her euphoric association with the curse further cements her as a non-believer, a rejector of the occult explanations in Hinamizawa.

This pacifies her long enough until her paranoia reaches a fever pitch the next year, after she suspects she will fall victim to the “curse.” This is the genesis of Shion’s revenge. Imprisoning Mion and accidentally murdering her grandmother, Shion plans to kill everyone she imagines to have been involved with Satoshi’s death. She impersonates Mion and reclaims her role as the successor to the family. She learns of another hidden system—the “curse system,” an unspoken, off-hand way for members of Hinamizawa to receive a “pass” to murder on the night of Watanagashi. She compares this process to an infection, noting that soon it must spread to the entirety of the village, making the murderer of each person each year Hinamizawa itself. Her atheistic plot becomes a game of free will versus the predetermined; would she be able to rally against the very Earth itself? 

Shion wants to weaponize her modern sensibilities to, as Clover calls it, “dismember” the lawless frontier of Hinamizawa. In doing so, however, she reverts to her inner demon. Her disregard for the law, as well as her giddiness to kill even Satoko, is as Clover calls it “perverse[ly] simple,” branding her as one and the same as the villagers. In her sadness, she abandoned her humanity and used vengeance as an excuse to fill the void left by her rampant rejection. She imagines scenarios of escape that will never happen with a smitten Satoshi, who ultimately never met the real Shion for more than once.

In her dying moments, Shion admits that her efficiency in killing is due to being born into a losing game. Failed by her family and peers and bound by impossible rules, her free will bent to fate. Shion’s tragedy is that the suffering of her fractured self—Shion, Mion, and the demon—all originate at the same base. She chases because she is being chased. Lost in a mire of meaninglessness, she can only regret being born. And then it begins anew.

By Austin Jones

Austin is a music and games writer. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and 80s-90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire.

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