It’s pretty safe to say that, in general, horror does not translate well into anime. All we get is dumb characters, gore for the sake of gore, and blood that closely resembles red paint. There are horror manga out there that will keep you up at night, but somehow, this has rarely worked for anime. In 2006, along came Higurashi no naku koro ni (otherwise known as Higurashi or When They Cry). Despite being years younger than other ‘classic’ shows, Higurashi’s impact on the horror scene has earned it a place among the elite of anime.
With the exception of maybe the original Hellsing, horror anime was few and far between in pre-2005. Even then, Hellsing’s later and remastered counterpart Hellsing Ultimate is considered to be far superior to the older original. But after Higurashi’s release and subsequent popularity, the swathes of horror shows that came afterwards have all been subject to comparison, and for good reason. From the concept to the characters, it’s considered by many to be a masterpiece.
Arguably one of Studio Deen’s most loved shows, Higurashi has a synopsis that is more than enough to draw in the unsuspecting viewer. Keiichi Maebara is a teenager in the 1980s, who moves to a sleepy mountain village named Hinamizawa. The school there only has about a dozen students bunched into a single class, contact with the rest of the world is scarce, and the village is filled with superstitious vigilantes. He soon begins to learn of the mountain god’s ‘curse’, causing people to die or go missing each year at the cotton drifting festival. As he delves deeper into the mystery, he and his friends are put in grave danger, and he must stop this endless loop of murders for good.
While we’re directly on the subject of gruesome yearly murders, we must talk about the gore in this show. Higurashi was somewhat revolutionary in that it did not censor or shy away from excessive violence. Even more disturbing was the violence when it came from his adorable, doe-eyed female classmates. It taught the world a lesson in how to do gore right, and years later, many shows have included heavy amounts of well-placed blood. Back then, we had little girls stabbing each other or tearing out each other’s insides. These days, it’s cutting out their tongues (see: Corpse Party) or relieving them of their fingers (see: Elfen Lied). It’s all commonplace now. And that’s partly in thanks to Higurashi, and, by extension, Hellsing for garnering the fame that they did. It’s not often you hear reviewers (who probably aren’t strangers to a good horror movie) call an anime ‘visceral’.
The combination of the moeblob art style and excessive gore is now a solid concept in the world of anime. We couldn’t imagine adorable elementary schoolers like Rika Furude involved in brutal suicide or murder when we first saw them grace the screen, but Higurashi surprised everyone with its friction of cuteness and violence. Some may even say it’s disturbing. But it definitely made its mark. In 2015, the popular show Gakkou Gurashi came to fame for this same idea. We had happy-go-lucky pink-haired girls in a life-or-death zombie apocalypse. While the protagonist is trapped in her make-believe world of happiness that resembles a normal high school anime, the rest know the truth of what they are facing. One girl confessed to her senpai, and was then forced to brutally murder him with a shovel after he turned into a zombie and tried to eat her. While not as unpleasant as some of the actions of those in Higurashi, Gakkou Gurashi’s girls seem to have been directly influenced by Higurashi’s. It’s been said that the moe characters can take away from the realistic setting or make it feel less threatening, but many believe that this duality is one of the most memorable elements of the show. It clearly had an impact, if shows are still imitating it ten years later.
A series related to Higurashi, Umineko no naku koro ni, didn’t do quite so well. It surrounds a wealthy family who get trapped on an isolated island at a family conference. Soon after this, family members begin dying inexplicably, and some believe they are cursed. Possibly trying to bounce off the success of Higurashi, Umineko failed to live up to many people’s expectations. If there is a possibility that a show can be compared to the legendary Higurashi, the community will inevitably find it and use it to keep Higurashi at the top.
It made so much of an impact on the anime world, Higurashi has almost become its own brand. The show began life as a visual novel, then was adapted into an anime. Soon after came the second season, which provides the ‘big’ explanation for everything, and several OVAs. There’s also a popular manga version. There’s even the legacy of the ‘Higurashi face’, when a cute character’s face morphs into something really disturbing when they go insane/get angry/scared.
The show definitely had its faults. It had poor animation, and it takes until season 2 to even vaguely understand the cleverly fragmented plotline. For all these failings, the successes of Higurashi make it memorable for so many people. It’s one of the founders of great horror anime, and while it might not yet have been matched up to, it has influenced many great shows we see today. Grab a pillow to hide behind and go dose yourself up on this nightmare fuel.