Musings on a “sound novel” — an Umineko review

One of the perks of playing the rhythm game Osu! is that if an anime or visual novel boasts an OST that’s any remarkable, you’re probably going to know about it. And boy, pretty much everyone knows about Umineko on that game.

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Umineko no Naku Koro ni tells the story of the mysterious murder of 18 people on the secluded island Rokkenjima owned by the Ushiromiya family head, where his relatives gathered to debate the terms of his inheritance. Each chapter retells the events with new dialogue and different killing methods. All murders have in common, though, that they occur in seemingly impossible circumstances and are claimed by Beatrice, the legendary witch of Rokkenjima. Each chapter is a new tale taking the form of a gameboard, where the Witch’s side moves characters like chess pieces while the Detective’s side attempts to solve the mysteries in order to prove that a supernatural entity is unneeded to explain them.

Umineko’s first half really shines via its atmosphere. The first chapters tempt the reader into thinking the witch Beatrice truly exists — letters are received from her in puzzling circumstances, and certain characters see her or act as though she were real. Part of the mysterious atmosphere is built on the characters acting in odd ways, and Umineko is a character study as much as it is a detective novel. Each element making Umineko’s atmosphere is explained to the reader through the slowly unravelled pasts and states of mind of the characters. The main narrative gives you a glimpse of the characters’ personal issues; the flashbacks add a believable backdrop, and show the way the characters come to cope with them. As you learn more about the characters, Umineko shifts from a strong horror fantasy to a very human tale.

Along the way, at the point where the culprit should be evident, you will also pick up on his motive. Sadly, the culprit’s motive is unconvincing and the origin of his murderous intent much too understated. The most crucial character is among the most lacking ones, and this proved somewhat disappointing when part of the VN’s abundant commentary on detective fiction deals with the importance of believable motives.

The solution to some of the murders also disappointed many people. One of the weapons used by the Witch’s side is the “red truth”, statements which are guaranteed to be true. The way the statements are worded can be crucial, and misleading red statements have made for interesting plot twists. But one of the problems caused by the “official” culprit is that it twists certain red statements and interpret them liberally, somewhat cheating the reader and undermining the red truth’s authority.

Red Truth

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance of Umineko cheating the reader, especially in Chiru (the second half). Another important rule in Umineko is that what fans came to call the “meta-world” should have no influence on the tale itself. The meta-world is the dimension where red statements are spoken and where the Witch and the Detective duel and argue — it’s a supernatural area which should be disconnected from the stories. But in the Our Confession booklet it seems like the sole reason for a murder to be carried out instead of being faked is to allow the meta-world’s Witch to state in red that the victims are actually dead later on. Chiru has mysteries left unexplained, and most theories for them require the characters to do superfluous actions whose only purpose is to allow certain red statements to be spoken. I made a spoiler post about some of these mysteries here.

In spite of all that, the first half of Umineko still has largely solvable murders, and brilliant closed room tricks. It isn’t important if the official explanation to a couple of them is unsatisfying — the first four chapters approach the murders in a howdunit fashion, emphasising the variety of possible killing methods rather than the actual culprit. Watching Battler make theories for the murders is very enjoyable, regardless of whether said theories turn out to be true. And watching the witch use new tricks to outplay the Ushiromiya in their efforts to stop the murders is nothing short of exciting.

Umineko’s atmosphere is amazing, and the background music plays an essential role in it. It gives a lot of emotion to the backstories, makes the horror scenes genuinely stressful, and the great showdowns between the detective and the witches absolutely thrilling. “Sound novel” is a fully deserved title and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that no anime or visual novel OST I know comes close to Umineko in impact on atmosphere and sheer number of memorable tracks.

Umineko no Naku Koro ni has been one of my most enjoyable experiences with Japanese media. Umineko Chiru does cause some retroactive damage to the story because of a flawed solution, but it remains enjoyable in its own right with new closed room tricks, and even more intense and suspenseful battles of wits. A favourite!

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