Umineko is an anime that I had actually dropped after completing the first arc.
At the time, I had felt that it was destined to descend into a somewhat infantile shouting match going something like this...
Beatrice: I'm a witch, and magic exists!
Battler: BS! Witches and magic can't possibly exist!
Beatrice: But they do! Watch me prove it to you!
Cue Beatrice creating a gruesome scene most easily explained by magic
Battler: Heh! There's a perfectly logical scientific explanation for this. It is... insert incredibly creative but laughably implausible explanation here.
Beatrice: Fool! Your alternate explanation proves nothing! I am a witch and magic exists!
Battler: No it does not!
Beatrice: Yes it does!
Battler: No it does not!
Beatrice: Yes it does... and you're a fool to think otherwise!
Battler: I know what you are, but what am I?!
Beatrice: A witch!
Battler: I know what you are, but what am... blast it! You tricked me!
While those last two lines would be quite amusing, the general idea of a shouting match over whether or not the main villain is a witch didn't really appeal to me. Especially given how this is what I thought Battler and Beatrice would be arguing over practically non-stop while Battler's family would be getting brutally killed all around him. Repeatedly.
Yyyyyeah... you really have your priorities straight there, Battler! ;)
Thankfully, though... this wasn't what Umineko was focused around. While the philosophical struggle over the existence (or lack thereof) of magic and witches was a recurring plot point and catalyst in the anime, it didn't feel like the clouds of Clannad hanging over everything and burying everything in its relentless snow.
So, long story short, and thanks to a close cousin of mine who watches anime and recommended that I finish it off, I recently picked Umineko back up. And, watching it at around a pace of three episodes a day, I just finished it off yesterday.
Umineko is one of 2009's more prominent animes, and for that reason, as well as others, I feel compelled to now do a review of it.
Before I continue, though, there's a few key points I want to make clear.
First of all, I'm not familiar whatsoever with any of the Umineko games. My review of the anime, as such, will not touch upon how faithful (or unfaithful) it is to the source material.
Secondly, I will first look at the general pros and cons for the anime, before getting into the four specific arcs one after the other.
Finally, this review features many major spoilers.
PROCEED AT YOUR OWN CAUTION AND DISCRETION!!!
- Umineko does an excellent job of taking a somewhat groundhog day-esque plotline and keeping it superbly dynamic and fresh. As we all know, such groundhog day-esque plotlines, if not handled very well, can feel as excruciatingly endless as the loops in an eig...
...this is awkward. ^_^;;
Sorry, Yuki, I didn't mean to open up really old wounds like that. Mind you, if it's any consolation, Umineko tends to have a lot of old wounds as well; old wounds that leads into the following pro...
- Enthusiastically encourages excellent emotional investment. This is definitely a strength of Umineko's, at least after the first arc. Many of the characters I came to care a lot for. In my case, I came to care a lot for Ange, for Maria, and for the lovebirds of George and Shannon, and Kanon and Jessica. Speaking of those two pairings...
- Romantic aspect. Romance is very much an accentuating, as opposed to primary, feature in Umineko, but to the degree that it's there, it's handled as smoothly and heartwarmingly as George's sauve gentlemanly attempts to win over Shannon.
- The fight scenes!
Quite possibly the main element that the first arc was missing, relative to the other three, was exhilirating and startling fight scenes. While these tended to be won conclussively by the villains, making their endings a bit predictable after awhile, they were still always quite the treat for the eye, and always felt intensely immensely important.
However, no treat for the eyes was quite like the following pro...
- Thigh-Girls! :D
Col. Sanders has nothing on these thighs... ;) It'll take more than eleven secret herbs and spices to match the spiciness of these girls and their alluring sex appeal! :D
The very aptly nicknamed "Thigh-Girls" made for some delicious candy that Rosa better not try to crush underneath her feet. ;)
The purgatories were also very fun characters in general, and one of the strengths of the final arc was how they were surprisingly used there; in a way that really developed their characters, and provided insights to them.
The "Thigh-Girls" were certainly not alone in sex appeal, though, as many of the female characters in this anime were attractively and/or seductively drawn.
Which seques into another pro...
- Character Designs
In general, I very much liked the character designs. The Uroshimiya family crest is a good representation of the streamlined elegance to how most of the characters were drawn. The artwork and animation weren't particularly good or great, but the basic character designs were well done. At a visual level, it wasn't hard to tell the characters apart from one another, either, I found.
And finally, the main pro...
- The Villains
Not all of these women are villains, of course, but it's the closest I could find to a group shot of the main four...
The villainous witches, and their servants (including, again, the Purgatories) are all extremely entertaining antagonists. They're simply more fun than a happy hour Halloween party! ;)
For me, at least, Beatrice is the character that carries this anime, much moreso than any others. She is the zest of this anime. An anime villain that I frequently can't help but find myself rooting for. In fact...
Quite the similarity, eh? ;)
Looks like Umineko has a big El Hazard fan on its animation staff. Or, at the very least, a Katsuhiko Jinnai fan.
So... Beatrice is my favorite anime villain since a famous villain in his own right from a 1995 anime. Best anime villain in 14 years!
Not bad, Beato!
So... with that long list of pros taken care of, let's look at the cons...
- The very story premise itself. Of all of my criticisms of Umineko, this is the most subjective, I'll admit. Basically, the idea of an anime being about a guy trying to deny what's frequently right in front of his "lyin' eyes" is a bit... silly, to me.
I'm sorry, hardcore Umineko fans, but it really is.
It would be different if Beatrice was like the villain Mysterio of Spiderman fame. If she was a normal but skillful human using smoke and mirrors, and it was all an exquisitely effective elaborate illusion.
But... if the scenes of this anime can be trusted at all, anyway... she's not like the villain Mysterio.
She's obviously a magic-wielding witch... or empowered by one, anyway.
It's hard to get behind the protagonist when, well, he's wrong.
Or... clearly wrong barring a scientific solution to everything that's so contrived that Sunrise directors would blush over it. ;)
However, as I said before, this con didn't come up anywhere near as often as I thought it would. Often, Battler's philosophical feud with Beatrice was merely background scenery to what was going on in the main plot.
The main plot itself presents one other notable flaw, for me, though...
- Kinzo and his immediate children could have been developed better.
Aside from Eva, and perhaps Rosa, none of the adults of the Uroshimiya family felt well fleshed out to me. And, even in the case of Eva and Rosa, the unique conflict between those two... a conflict that Ange alluded to when discussing "the chain of hatred" during the final arc... was never really touched upon in the anime.
Yes, there was Eva-Beatrice's slaughtering of Rosa and Maria, but that didn't delve much into the relationship between normal Eva and Rosa either, in my view.
However, across the full plot of all four arcs taken together, these are the only two cons that kept coming up, really.
Pretty good, eh?
The arcs themselves contain unique strengths and weaknesses (unique to specific arcs) that I will look at now...
Well, as I stated before, I dropped this anime after the first arc. That kind of says a lot about how I felt about it...
The first arc just felt a bit slow in its plot progression to me. And... it really needed some more spice, courtesy of the Thigh-Girls. ;)
It also had very little of Beatrice, the numero uno strength of this anime, in my opinion.
Finally, aside from George and Shannon, and Jessica to some extent, the first arc never really made me care all that much about any of the characters (later arcs did, of course).
The first arc, if I remember correctly, featured a lot of Battler debating with Maria.
Passionately debating over whether or not magic and witches exists while your family members are getting brutally killed all around you... I don't know, something just seems very wrong about that to me. And, in this case, I fault Maria as well... though at least she has the excuse of believing that everybody will be revived into 'the Golden Land'.
Also... never play chess with Battler. If you start winning, he'll just flip the board over on you. ;)
Seriously, that line was horribly overused in the first arc.
Thankfully, the line was used much more judiciously the rest of the way.
Arc 1 wasn't entirely with out its charms though. I loved the romance between George and Shannon from the very beginning, and I truly felt for George the first time he heard about Shannon's death.
But... no good fight scenes, few surprises compared to later arcs, and a general lack of these characters...
... made the first arc pretty forgettable for me. It certainly curbed my enthusiasm to watch more. However, I'm glad that I did, because for all the critiques I make of this arc, I have just as many rousing compliments to make of the second and third arcs!
This arc began with a very pleasant surprise to me.
I had expected to be right back at the island, as per episode 1 of the first arc. However, the anime astutely ascertained that these characters could use some nice character development before they hit the island.
And so, we're treated to some wonderful Jessica, Kanon, George, and Shannon, background scenes here. The Touhou cosplay was a particularly sweet touch. ;)
This was definitely Beatrice and the Purgatories (a music band with that name would do great in Japan I think) time to shine though. This arc is where we get fully introduced to Beatrice, cooly charismatic crafty cunning conspirator against the Uroshimiya family. Malevolently masterful machinations manipulating Shannon into misdeeds, and many into heartwrenching despair.
What delicious villany!
This arc is where we finally get to see some stirring struggles, involving the heart, the mind, and the body.
The arc was not with out its weak points, as the protagonists felt a bit too overmatched at times, for me, but... it was still far more entertaining than the first arc, and it's what sold me on Beatrice and her colorful minions.
There's a word that I do not use easily. I take it very seriously. Many drop this word so frequently that, I fear, it begins to lose its meaning.
But, with respect to its full enriched meaning, I use it only when I feel its deserved.
And Arc 3 of Umineko is one such time.
Arc 3 of Umineko is a masterpiece.
However, its full magnificence only dawns upon you when the final glorious twist is made in the last part of this arc.
I honestly did not see it coming. It was the best anime plot twist that I've seen in a very long time; perhaps even ever. For this alone, Umineko deserves a fair deal of hype and popularity.
Beatrice's seeming ascent into rehabilitation... her acting like a redeemed soul... the "north wind and sun" plan... so convincing; so brilliant. And yet, not feeling contrived in the least.
It was such a wonderful villain plan. It deserved to succeed, really.
Alas, Battler actually reads the small print... ;)
In addition to this, the third arc amped up the fight scenes even more, and gave us the chillingly cruel chaotic Eva-Beatrice, a character who went on a rampage that would make Emperor Joker blush.
Beato's best fights were also in this arc, as her struggles with Eva-Beatrice as well as Virgilia were splendid to behold. The tactics put on display in the Beatrice vs. Virgilia contest were particularly grand.
Arc 3 may have had a couple flaws that I could nitpick, but all-told, it was far more fantastic than a certain stretchy scientist has been in a long time... ;)
Arc 3 ended with such penultimately potent promise.
And Ange's awesome acrobatic ass-kicking at the end of Arc 3 was a big part of why that was.
Who was this fearsome fiery female that threatened to gain my adoration?
Would the protagonists finally put up a good physical fight against the villains?
Would Umineko's first season meet with an end that even Akasaka would be proud of?
Well... the good news is that shades of Akasaka's anime finally made themselves felt in this arc.
Until the fourth arc, it was often easy to forget that Umineko was a cousin of Higurashi.
A certain eerily familiar witch would remind us of the connection when she appeared on screen, but the spirit of Higurashi often felt lost with this anime.
Whatever flaws Arc 4 has (and they are many, I will say now), it deserves credit for bringing back that distinctive Higurashi feel.
What made it distinctive?
Incorporating the future of a time-line that didn't turn out well. Seeing what the results of the massacre was.
"Gretel" is one such result, and her story was an encaptivating one to me.
However... it was mishandled.
Arc 4 is a muddled murky mess compared to all of the arcs that preceeded it. It's plot skips all over the place with seemingly reckless abandon. It's as though the correct chronology of this arc was cut up into pieces, and randomly sprinkled across the animation cels for this arc. There is often no rhyme or reason to how the plot shifts backwards and forwards and upwards and downwards.
Dr. Seuss makes more sense than this. ;)
The cliffhanger of one episode doesn't even come up again until two episodes later.
Pieces of Ange's backstory is interspersed along with pieces of Ange's present and pieces of Kinzo's villainous actions and pieces of Maria's backstory and present.
It appears as though the anime as a whole is infected with the same sort of madness that overtook a certain Aunt that received her just deserts in this arc... ;)
This arc was not with out it's spectacular swashbuckling scenes, though.
George, Jessica, Ange, and even Battler in a few brief moments, all shined in this arc.
I say "even Battler" because his final fight with Beatrice was, for me, anti-climatic. It felt rigged, or tanked by Beatrice (to use a pro sports term). And thus, when combined with its inevitable cliffhanger aspect, it felt very... unsatisfying to me, I have to be honest.
Arc 4 was like a dish with wonderful ingredients, but put together in a mish-mash way that doesn't help them combine together into a greater whole.
It almost certainly would have been better if Ange's backstory had been covered in two or three episodes all about her, before shifting back to the main plot.
As is, I found everything hard to follow in this arc.
It was nice to see Maria apparently get a happy ending though... :)
All-told, Umineko is a difficult anime to rate. Its first and last arcs are tremendously flawed, but its two middle arcs are tremendously entertaining, if not masterfully wrote.
However, I eventually decided that Umineko deserves a 7/10.
If the final arc had been better, I'd give it a 8/10, or maybe even a 9/10.
Still, the ball was dropped in Arc 4, and not in the shocking way that Eva-Beatrice would drop it either... ;)
What I've seen in Umineko reinforces some broader thoughts I have pertaining to the modern anime industry, both in its strengths and in its weaknesses. That I may touch upon in a future Blog entry.
For now, though, my words on Umineko are complete.
I hope you enjoyed reading the review as much as I enjoyed looking at this closing image... ;)