Higurashi and the Rules of Mystery Novels

I’ve been reading a story called ひぐらしのく頃に, or Higurashi: When They Cry. (A higurashi is a kind of cicada.) It’s a story about a small town in which a curse takes the lives of two people every year, and this year is no exception, and—

*record scratch*

“Hey, weren’t you reading a story with a very similar mystery/fantasy murder and a very similar title?”

Well, yes, but that one takes place on a small island, and way more than two people die, and it’s seagulls (うみねこ) rather than cicadas. Totally different!

…Okay, actually they’re by the same author, the pseudonymous Ryukishi07. Higurashi was his first major work, Umineko his second. And I still haven’t finished Umineko yet because the other person in my (two-person) reading group has been busy with school. So I’m reading Higurashi instead (nearly finished).

Anyway, I’ve been reading a story called Higurashi: When They Cry, and it has mystery elements, and at the end of the first episode you’re pretty much totally lost. Both Higurashi and Umineko have a clever device where the story then restarts, but things play out differently, and you use the commonalities between the stories to figure out what must have happened in each one. (Or in my case, largely don’t figure out what happened in each one.)

Now, mystery isn’t my genre, or at least it mostly hasn’t been, so it’s not really a surprise that I’m not getting the answers here. But the thing about Higurashi that violates my expectations is that there just really aren’t enough clues to tell what’s going on. Certainly when I go back and read the earlier episodes it makes more sense now. But while there might have been enough information to put together a hypothesis, there was barely any hint at a motive, and the actual answers were so far off the map that they probably bypassed several more likely options. It’s the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun; imagine a detective show where the main characters are looking out at the street, and suddenly they zoom in on the third woman in the crosswalk—“It was me, I did it!”. I’d probably put it closer to feeling like deus ex machina.

(Umineko does this a few times too. Episode 2 added a whole new mystery-relevant location—the chapel—and episode 3 bluntly confirms a bit of information as true that had previously been declared fairly unlikely. I’d say I was less unhappy about those.)

A story that’s too hard to solve from the clues, but makes sense once you know the answer. Is this the best kind of mystery or the worst? Again, it’s not my genre, so maybe I’m just not observant enough, but for the most part it felt unfair from a “mystery-solving” perspective. The original problem was underspecified; there is no answer.

Ultimately, though, it was the content of this heretofore unrevealed information that struck me. In the few mysteries I’ve read before (and most detective shows), the revealed motives are “aha, that makes sense” moments—something you might not have guessed, but usually not something that matters that much. What’s important is that you’ve solved the mystery.

This was not the case for me with Higurashi. The “rewinding” mechanism and Ryukishi’s willingness to switch viewpoints in later episodes worked together to show that each supporting character actually had much more going on than the original protagonist (and us readers) ever saw. Words and actions I had taken at face value were overturned as soon as I saw what was “really” going on with that character.

Suppose you come into work and see your colleague kicking his desk. You think, ‘what an angry person he must be’. Your colleague is thinking about how someone bumped him into a wall on the way to work and then shouted at him. Anyone would be angry at that, he thinks. When we look at others we see personality traits that explain their behaviour, but when we look at ourselves we see circumstances that explain our behaviour. People’s stories make internal sense to them, from the inside, but we don’t see people’s histories trailing behind them in the air.

(from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,1 chapter 5)

“Other people have lives” is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but somehow Higurashi managed to convey it in a way that hit me emotionally. It was a reminder of how little we really know the people around us. I don’t mean to say that’s inherently a bad thing; it just is, and if you want to know someone’s history and state of mind you have to ask. (This is also a message of Higurashi.) We may not be able to truly understand one another, but when it’s important we can try.

I can’t quite put it into words. It hit me very strongly at the time: we are apart, how much do I really know about any of my friends, etc…and at the same time, a rejection, a reminder that we can form these connections, that people do try. And even when we don’t do it well, we still mean well. What made Higurashi a frustrating mystery also made it touchingly real.

Having nearly finished the story, I don’t think the ultimate purpose of Higurashi is the mystery. It’s messages like these, a story about a boy who moves to a small town and the friends he finds there.

P.S. Higurashi is not the best thing I’ve ever read, but it isn’t bad, either. If the intersection of mystery and fantasy and schoolboy fun sounds good to you, pick up the manga. Or the visual novel. Not sure about the anime.

P.P.S. But Umineko is better, and for that one you should definitely read it in visual novel form, available on Steam. Apparently the anime is crap.

  1. HPMoR is also a mystery of sorts, and the answer was incredibly satisfying for me. Still recommended. ↩︎