This is a guest review by Fernando Ramos. Fernando is a contributor for Otaku USA and Anime3000 and currently lives in Saitama, Japan. Feel free to check out his pictures at Flickr or on mroutside.com whenever he finally gets around to learning how to edit a proper website.
Shrill Cries of Summer (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Live-Action)
Review by: Fernando Ramos
Director: Ataru Oikawa
A great while back, I reviewed Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, released in the US as When They Cry, an anime that brought mixed feelings. It was a gimmicky mix of cutesy clichés and shock horror, but compellingly so thanks to its tightly woven narrative and high production values. Perhaps not all too surprisingly, some producers found value in the property for a live-action cash-in to sell to the J-Horror crowd. So, in 2008, we got a live action version, also entitled Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, renamed to Shrill Cries of Summer.
As mentioned earlier, the original franchise takes much of its appeal from the shocking contrasts of the cute girls and the bloody murder that they create or fall victim to. Oh, but Higurashi isn’t about cookie-cutter slasher film murder. No, it’s about cruel, sadistic torture complete with pleas for mercy and maniacal laughter. It’s all about the visuals and the audio drilling into your soul driving you insane until you see the scorpions stinging you to… I digress.
As our live-action version opens, its clear that director Ataru Oikawa has done his homework. Opening the trademark cry of summer cicada’s lifted straight from the anime, followed by a creepy techno tune by series mainstay Eiko Shimamiya. The basic set-up is much the same – in 1983, young Keiichi (Goki Maeda) comes to the sleepy hollow of Hanamizawa and discovers that not only are the four students over the age of 13 are girls, but they all seem to be into him. In particular, the voluptuous and playful Mion Sonozaki (Rin Asuka) and cute-obsessed Rena Ryugu (Airi Matsuyama) are just too eager to go out fishing, dumpster diving and playing “punishment games.” Then come the stories of a brutal dismemberment that occurred years ago and now everything starts to crumble into a huge bloody mess with the vengeful spirit Oyashiro-sama…
It’s all quite slavishly faithful to the anime adaptation of the first arc of the series, in fact. Oikawa does put his own spin on things and tones things down. The early comedy segments in particular are all but done away with in favor of more slice-of-life moments. Yet, unlike the anime, which would embrace its tone so as to almost become a different show altogether, Oikawa opts to drench every frame with a specter of dread. His is a world of abrupt slow-motion, unidentifiable droning and moody shadows everywhere.
It’s understandable when shifting from one medium to another that certain compromises and adjustments have to be made – who be to those who expected Mion to keep her D-cup figure and green hair or Rena’s cleaver to be anywhere as big. However, what is disagreeable is when a horror movie isn’t scary. The source material of Higurashi based its chills on constantly rocking the audience from zero to Warp 9. For all the gnashing of teeth it caused, it played us like a fiddle, constantly swiping our emotions up and down faster than we could keep up. Oikawa, on the other hand, treats the material like a cello – slow and stretched out. We see where he’s going and arrive way before he does, even if one isn’t familiar with the source material.
Plus, even when we finally hit the high notes, they are diluted and robbed of their power. A legendary scene in the original was when we finally see Rena’s darker side come out after suspecting something fishy about Keiichi’s investigations in the conspiracy of Hinamizawa. I’ll let the power of YouTube speak for itself:
Nice After Effects filters there guys. Adding insult to injury is how cheap everything looks despite being handsomely photographed. The vistas and skies bloom with unreal color, but the night scenes scream of low-budget blue filters or unnatural lighting set-ups. The theatrical lighting might be deliberate on Oikawa’s part to recall the franchise’s 2D roots. Sometimes it actually adds flavor – an otherwise dull café chat between Keiichi and a detective gets eerie reflections constantly running over their faces, presumably by passing cars. Those scenes are few and far between however.
Also bringing things down a notch is the acting by most of the cast, which feels hammy and overdone without the cartoon trappings of the original. The three leads pull their roles through decently, in particular Matsuyama pulls Rena’s psychosis convincingly in the finale, right down to replicating her trademark “Ka na? Ka na?” On the other hand, Asuka’s Mion feels off the mark when things start going to funky town and Maeda’s Keiichi doesn’t make us feel the potent combination of rage and love that drives so much of his character.
Even the gore scenes are underwhelming – the various scenes of people clawing their throats out look more like people smearing red paint over their necks, even if the sound department did some good work on it. Considering how much the franchise is based on its lovingly detailed depictions of brutal sadism, it feels like a lost opportunity for some truly squicky effects work.
To top it all off, the greatest asset of the series is missing, albeit by necessity – the whole idea of the time reset. Since this movie is only based off the first story arc, one that provides no resolution, at that. As such, there is little in the way of climax. Instead, it’s “here’s our characters, watch them die and see you next time.” I’m aware that there is a sequel, but as a standalone movie, it leaves a hollow taste in the mouth and gives little motivation to indeed fork out more of your hard-earned cash to see the sequel. Save that money to pick up a box-set of the entire series if you need your fix of schoolgirl torture.