A mystery led many to believe magic caused the tragedy. Can you prove otherwise?
You’ve heard of Sherlock Holmes. You’ve probably heard of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You might even have heard of the Monk TV series. But what about When Seagulls Cry? Don’t feel bad if that name doesn’t ring a bell – this is no traditional murder mystery. It’s a visual novel, revolving around the mystery genre told in a fantasy format. Originating in Japan, it has recently been translated into English.
You may wonder what a visual novel is. Essentially, it is an on-screen novel accompanied by images, music, and voice acting while the text appears for the reader. It might sound like a movie with subtitles; however, depending on the visual novel, you often see it from the point of view of one character. From that perspective, you have the power to change the direction of the story when prompted. Unlike most visual novels, When Seagulls Cry is mostly linear, until the last episode where the reader has some ability to influence the story through their choices.
There are over 18,000 visual novel titles (predominantly Japanese) ranging over a variety of genres, but typically romance. Some of the more popular visual novels have given birth to new adaptations in the form of animation or manga. These include Kanon, Fate/stay Night and When Seagulls Cry.
When Seagulls Cry – or Umineko for short – is a Japanese visual murder mystery novel series produced by 07th Expansion. The series is eight episodes and follows two different arcs: the story arc and the breakdown arc, which is unusual for a visual novel format as they are generally stand alone pieces or a straight series. You must read the story arc at the very least if you want to see the truth hidden in Umineko.
The story takes place in a fictional island named Rokkenjima at the end of October 1986, when an annual Ushiromiya family conference is being held. A monsoon strikes the island and the family is unable to leave. Things become interesting when they chance upon a mysterious message that appears under their noses. What they discover sets off a chain of events, leading to the mass murder of the Ushiromiya family and their servants. The scene of each murder leaves the survivors in a state of confusion, trying to make sense of seemingly impossible circumstances. They give the illusion that no human could have possibly committed the crime.
Umineko presents multiple styles of narration, each fitting the purpose of the episode. For example, one episode would be presented in a point of view from one character, while another episode would narrate parallel stories in a complementary manner. While this might sound overwhelming, the style allows each episode to incorporate or draw references to previous episodes, allowing clues to spring up for readers to solve the mystery.
In the story arc, the episodes show the same story told from different perspectives. Clues are given to the reader so they can slowly piece the puzzle of Umineko together. With the abundance of false leads, the reader must determine which clues are lies and which hold the truth.
The breakdown arc, however, takes a different approach. By the time the reader has finished the story arc, the breakdown arc will begin to shed light on what is true. It will reveal actual truth and ‘false’ truth, providing multiple new extra clues. It even provides new methods for the readers to use to solve the mystery. Eventually, by the end of the breakdown arc, an “answer” will appear in cryptic fashion regarding the truth of Umineko. So unless the reader has gone through the story arc, it is unlikely they will have discovered what the “answer” entails.
One of the first things this novel alludes to is chess. In this story, every single character is nothing more than a chess piece being moved around on the whim of witches. Like a chess piece, every character will act in a certain, preordained way. However, when the character does act differently, it is a clue for the reader to figure out their mystery.
There are more than 18 characters in Umineko, ranging from humans to personifications of important objects. Frankly, it’s easy to hate a lot of them as their cruelty contrasts with the elegance of the setting. Some characters, both human and not, have twisted morals and questionable reasoning. Whether it is due to their upbringing or what they personify, each character holds their own share of secrets. Relationships between each character are fleshed out in each episode, revealing just how dysfunctional the Ushiromiya family truly is.
There are two parts to what makes a visual novel a high quality product in Japan. One is the story writing, the other is the music. Umineko‘s music is varied and atmospheric, ranging from sombre classical melodies to fast paced sadistic techno music, aiming to invoke the atmosphere of the scene. Despite its strong presence in Umineko, it doesn’t provide any form of clues. Instead, it aims to entertain during action scenes, or cue things like comedy and romance. Regardless, should the reader choose to find the truth behind Umineko, they shouldn’t be swept away by the tone of the music. Clues are riddled everywhere in the novel and no matter how silly, jovial, violent or sad the music may seem, the text surrounding it may be dropping vital hints.
Umineko is an excellent choice for a mystery lover, but isn’t a piece for everyone because of its unique format. You may find it difficult to get used to the slow pace and given it has been translated from Japanese, certain wordplays, jokes or sayings have been lost in translation. On top of that, the novel is a very long piece so be prepared to use up a lot of free time to read it. However this is one of the best novels 07th Expansion has to offer.
Rating 9/10. – Roger Lee
Top screenshot features the main title screen from “When Seagulls Cry”.