Japanese horror has been all the rage for the last couple of years. Films like Ringu and Ju-On and the Hollywood remakes they inspired have ratcheted up the creep factor, going for actual scares and not for gross-outs or gore. Some of this new tradition came out of Japanese comics, with the occasional live-action movies actually being adaptations of manga, and so I suppose it was only a matter of time before anime got in on the trend, as well.
When They Cry has quite a few of the factors that define Japanese horror. Particularly, an evil curse that comes on our hero with the inevitability of death and taxes, as unavoidable as growing up. This curse brings with it an otherworldly presence, an ill-defined threat that causes our central character to question everything he knows, as well as everyone.
Structured as four-episode stories, When They Cry doesn't rely on the drawn-out drama of other anime series, though it's clear from this first DVD volume that it is, in fact, probably building a larger picture out of these individual slices. The first story presented in its entirety here, however, is one you could watch and never see anymore installments and be perfectly content that you got a complete narrative. Subtitled "Spirited Away by the Demon," this opening four-parter plays on our expectations, using what we think we know about anime series in order to subvert the obvious tropes and hit us where we live.
Keiichi Maebara is relatively new to a small Japanese town where all the kids go to one school and each grade is so small, they all share one classroom. He has befriended a quartet of girls since moving there and joined their game playing club. You'd be forgiven for thinking you've loaded up another comedy romance where a shy, unassuming fellow gets involved with four women at the same time, causing all sorts of complications as they vie for his love and he has to choose who he wants. All the basic types are represented: Rena, the super sweet but shy girl who has a thing for the hero; Mion, the brassy and loud chick with funny-colored hair who can't admit her true feelings; Satoka, who is smart and passive; and Rika, possessive of a serenity that could suggest wisdom. For the first fifteen minutes, the only indication we have that anything is even out of whack is that Keiichi just returned from a two-day trip to Tokyo for an unspecified funeral. There is death in the air.
As it turns out, the town had some trouble with a developer who intended to build a dam that would submerge the area in water, and stopping said development may have involved murder. As Keiichi will soon discover, every year at the Cotton Drifting Festival--a neat ritual where townsfolk put all of their troubles into a cotton ball and send it floating downstream--somebody connected to the dam ends up dead. This is the curse that Keiichi is going to get tangled in, and his friends may already be all wrapped up in it themselves. "Spirited Away by the Demon" is the boy's attempt to get out of it with his life.
When They Cry has three major things going for it. First, the characters are very well written. Though the writers are dealing in types, they do so with purpose. Within those types, they create real personalities and begin to draw interpersonal connections between the five major characters. Second, the animators don't overdo the horror and instead go for atmosphere. From episode to episode, individually titled with ominous monikers that only escalate in the fear factor--"The Beginning," "The Secret," "Suspicion," and "Disturbance"--the foreboding becomes more pronounced the more Keiichi comes unhinged.
Thirdly, and the thing that props up both the characters and the atmosphere, is When They Cry is excellently drawn. The animation could not be better. It's crisp with an individual style, alternating thin and heavy lines to evoke both feelings of things we can't touch and that which can't be escaped. The coloring and the lighting effects all work toward maintaining the mood, of keeping us just a little on-edge until we feel that the darkness may swallow us. The climactic scene comes as a bit of a shock, partially because the painters go completely over the edge, going totally dark, letting the well-placed splash of tonality strike the viewer in just the right way. From there, the director tightens up his shots so that the feeling grows more cramped. We, like Keiichi, are trapped.
Since Geneon is releasing When We Cry as five-episode volumes, in addition to the four episodes that make up the first arc, we also get the fifth installment, the starting chapter of "Cotton Drifting." This actually jumps us back in time to what I assume is roughly the same period as "Spirited Away by the Demon," as it centers on the same festival that kicks off the curse. I haven't seen volume 2 yet, so I am not yet sure how the various stories will connect and whether future storylines will continue to circle the same center. I am definitely curious to find out, though. (For more on volume two, read John Sinnott's complete review.)
All five episodes come with a dual 2.0 audio option, either the original Japanese language track or a special English dub version. I took a taste of both, and while the English sounded fine, I think the Japanese captures the edgy tone of the show a lot better. The voices of the English actors sound like adults trying to be kids, and it's distracting. The English subtitles are really well done, too, so no need to watch the rewrite.
The packaging itself has a few physical extras. First, the DVD comes in a clear plastic case, and the cover insert is double-sided, giving fans two options for covers. There is also a chapter insert with the show's full credits that folds open to reveal a miniature poster.