Teenager Keiichi Maebara has gradually adjusted to pleasant life in the small rural village of Hinamizawa, where he has joined a game-playing club with the older girls amongst his fifteen classmates. As Keiichi soon learns, however, even a village like Hinamizawa has a dark underbelly, one that led to the brutal murder and dismemberment of a man a few years in the past. Every year since then, on the night of an annual festival, one person is murdered and another goes missing. The locals claim that the curse of the village god Oyashiro is responsible, but Keiichi soon has cause to suspect that his cute fellow club members either were involved or know more than they are admitting. The more he delves into the truth, the more he begins to suspect that he may be the next person to die.
Don’t let the cutesy art box artwork, reversible cover art, and exceedingly cutesy insert art fool you; within the first few seconds of the first episode it will become quite clear that this is something well departed from a pleasant little moe fest, despite the way the rest of that first episode plays out. No, this is a case of moe meets murder, one that unnerves and disturbs much more with its violence and wickedness than with any sexual connotations, one where a perfectly cute-looking girl can turn into a perfectly menacing creature with startling swiftness. Its beginning, the way it transposes cute and evil (with its accompanying bloody violence), and how it bounces back and forth between its thoroughly innocent and grippingly dark content invites comparisons to Elfen Lied, but whereas the latter was a very visceral tale, When They Cry concentrates much more on mystery and psychological effects. Gimmicky it may be, but at its best it is also thoroughly unnerving.
The first few episodes delight in the bipolar behavior of their story and characters. When it is cute, cuddly, and reveling in basic kiddie fun, it is as tame as can be. When playing up the creepiness, the sudden personality shifts, bloody violence, or the tension of the real or imagined threats to Keiichi, it can have you on the edge of your seat. Some of its moments work beautifully, such as the scene in episode one where Keiichi makes a joke to the photographer about Rena hiding a dismembered corpse in the junkyard and he takes it deadly seriously by referring to a real incident. Other times the structure feels forced, such as the mechanic of Keiichi talking to Detective Oishi on a regular basis to receive and relay suspicions instead of gradually uncovering them himself, or the tame parts beating the viewer over the head with their innocence to emphasize the severity of the contrast.
During a panel discussion at a ‘con earlier this year, Geneon reps explained that they had specifically put five episodes on the first volume because they felt that the fifth would be necessary to get a new viewer fully drawn into the story. By the end of the second episode most viewers will be wondering why a series with such involving mysteries needs that kind of commitment, and by the end of the fourth episode, which completes the first story arc, many will wonder why they didn’t just start the new arc on the second volume, since that feels like a good break point. Once one has seen episode five and tried to absorb what it all means in light of what happened in episode four, though, it will become eminently clear why Geneon did what they did. That episode’s content may leave you scratching your head, but its inclusion in the first volume is necessary to convince viewers that they have not seen anything close to the full story in those first four episodes, despite how self-contained the arc may seem to be. Much more strangeness awaits, it would seem.
On the downside, Geneon apparently decided that the five episodes were enough content for the disc, as aside from the above-mentioned bonus art the only included extra is company previews. Each episode does retain the full original Japanese opening and closing credits, however, with the translations only being provided in the Credits option on the main menu where the DVD manufacturing credits are normally found. While the art box may be thoroughly (and misleadingly) mundane, the volume’s cover art prints its picture in a blood-stained negative, giving a dark and warped look to the otherwise-innocent-looking depiction of Rena and Mion. The gimmick with printing one of the kanji in red is reproduced in the English version of the title by printing the “C” in Cry in red, which is an appropriate adaptation.
The artwork in the series itself emphasizes extremely moe character designs for the girls, while the one young adult woman features prominently looks properly pretty. The standard visual conventions used for the sillier parts give the impression of a more simplistic artistic style, but they way the countenances of the girls are altered to suit the more horror-oriented sequences, generally denoted by a changed in the pupils of their eyes from rounded to vertical slits, is quite effective. Good background art provides sufficient detail to make the settings convincing, but the animation does not impress. The visual highlight is unquestionably the carefully constructed opening sequence, where the maniacally angry look of Mion’s eyes in one scene and a butterfly with one wing pulled off in another starkly contrasts with the fluffy look of the other visuals, providing an effective representation of the series’ dichotomous nature. The much simpler closer, by comparison, uses CG representations of flowing blood forming around a cicada. No sign of fan service can be found beyond a brief scene in the opener, but bloodshed and graphic violence do, of course, occasionally appear.
The nature of the series requires a soundtrack that can adeptly transit between cutesy themes and dark, tense ones, and this one does the job quite well. The great opener, with its stylistic transitions, synchs well with its visuals but feels too short, which begs for a full-length version to be included as an Extra at some point. The Japanese-accented English lyrics of the closer are worth listening to once or twice but highly skippable after that. The most notable sound feature, which carries over exactly into the English dub, is the frequently-present chirping of the cicadas that give the series its name. The intensity of their sound in some scenes strikes an ominous tone. And we can’t forget those nicely icky sound effects in the intensely graphic scenes, either.
Given all the young-sounding girls’ voices in the series, and how they can dramatically change their vocal style and speaking tone in certain scenes, one might have expected this to be a tricky English dub to do. Bang Zoom! Entertainment has proven more than up to the challenge, however, as they have produced an effort which even sub fans should appreciate. Every significant role is appropriately cast and performed in a style sufficiently close to the original that there should be no significant complaints. The quality can especially be heard in the performances of Rena and Mion/Shion, who can startle with the abruptness of their respective characters’ transitions from playful into Scary Mode. These are not the gimmicky performances you might hear from a lesser dubbing studio. The English script also stays fairly close to the original, except for correcting one factual error about the name of a playing card that crept into the subtitles.
When They Cry was clearly intended to be a dark, violent, horror-themed take on moe, but it actually works fairly well as a straight-up horror/mystery tale. Though not without flaws, it is compelling enough in its darker side that the cuteness overload on the lighter side can be overlooked.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Effective horror elements, excellent English dub.
− Minimal Extras, some parts feel forced or overly gimmicky.