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Worlds Without End Blog

Contemporary Fantasy Manga 101: Umineko – When They Cry Posted at 11:07 AM by Glenn Hough


GWitch02bSo, can a fantasy set in the mid 80’s qualify for the historical fantasy sub-genre? Now, if it was the early seventies, certainly. But eighties? Probably.

Not that it matters. Umineko, also informally known as the Saga of the Golden Witch, is just plain good. Which is the important part.

Yen Press has this to say about Volume One:

Each year, the Ushiromiya family gathers at the secluded mansion of its patriarch, the elderly Kinzo. It has been six years since Battler joined his cousins at the annual event, but their happy reunion is overshadowed by worsening weather and an eerie premonition from his youngest cousin-not to mention their parents’ feud over the inheritance. Battler doesn’t hold much stock in dark omens, nor does he believe the tales of the witch rumored to have given his grandfather a fortune in gold…and who walks the halls of the mansion to this day… But when the eighteen family members and servants are trapped on the island by the raging typhoon, the grisly events that follow leave Battler shaken to his core. Is one of his relatives desperate enough to kill for the family fortune? Or is this the work of the Golden Witch?

18 people trapped on an island due to a typhoon. They’ve come to discuss the inheritance, since the elder Kinzo is dying. (He’s had three months to live for over a year.) Some members of the family really don’t get along with each other and some of the members of the family certainly could use their share (or a larger one) of the family fortune right about now.

GWitch17bAnd what a fortune! The inheritance comes in three parts. The first is the control of the Ushiromiya clan. The second part is the seed that everything since, the third part, has been built up from. And what a seed: ten tons of gold bullion. At roughly $850.00 an Oz. in Oct. of 1986, that’s $272,000,000 million. (Not Gates money, but then, what is?) A quarter of a billion certainly bought more 30 years ago.

When Umineko starts, we’re presented with the classic set up for a “closed circle” murder mystery. Motive and opportunity are at hand. But this is not just mystery, this is also fantasy. We have a witch running loose. Or do we?

The elder Kinzo is heavily into the occult. (Never a good sign.) The servants all swear that Beatrice (the Golden Witch) is real. The epitaph under Beatrice’s massive painting in the main hall speaks of her resurrection when it it time to collect what is her due, for lending Kinzo all that gold. (Faust, anyone?) So the possibility that there is a 19th person on the island becomes relevant. Or is someone simply playing the witch? These are the starting questions that Battler has to unravel as the typhoon rages and people start dying.

GWitch13bIn the first book, the author does a careful balancing act between the prosaic answers to the murders and the supernatural answers which are to come in later volumes. There’s careful attention to details about the murders. Where is a key kept? Who has access to it? And who would know the key without fumbling around for an unmarked key in a rack full of unmarked keys? Who had alibis? Could the murders have happened and then could one person move them to where they were found, in the assumed time frame? Or is that the work of two people? More? Or is something supernatural needed to fit what appears to be the facts?

A balancing act. With all these standard mystery questions comes the occult questions. The seventh pentacle of the sun was drawn by the first set of bodies. (Was that in red paint or blood?) Six sacrifices so something, or someone, could escape the chains of fate, or perhaps be reborn into the world. Witchcraft indeed. And then the umbrella and the letter which seem to show up out of thin air. The scorpio charm which seems to have deflected/foiled the intentions of the witch. Maria, the youngest Ushiromiya, seems to have either a split-personality disorder (which includes a college level education in the occult) or channels something, on a regular basis. Maria knows it’s Beatrice at work. Nobody wants to believe her.

GWitch20bBelief in the Gold Witch is of central important as the books progress.

By the end of the second volume, the mystery is over. Not solved, but over. The Ushiromiya incident is now a legendary unsolved crime in the annuals of Japanese criminal history. There are 14 corpses, and four missing, who are presumed dead. (Shakespeare, who showed us all how to cover the stage with corpses, would be proud.)

And then all pretense of normalcy is cast aside in the final pages of the second volume. In another place, not of this world, Battler confronts Beatrice. A Challenge is issued, stakes are wagered, and the whole thing resets. The true horror of the situation is illuminated. They’re already pawns of the Golden Witch. The Ushiromiya family amuses Beatrice and staves off the curse of immortality: boredom. There’s only one way out for Battler and his family and that is to win the challenge.

GWitch15bThe standard SF/Fantasy element of a time loop hidden and at work, wearing the comfortable camouflage of a murder mystery, seems a master stroke. It’s even better since all the little details of a murder mystery are of central importance to the challenge between Battler and Beatrice. This theme and variation motif will reveal bits and pieces of the truth behind these events. The writing here is complex, multi-layered, with a mystery writers eye for detail. Even with all these characters, I felt I was already getting a good sense of their motivations and contradictions. Obsession, Arrogance, Pride, Jealousy, Greed, Envy, and Wrath. Those dark motivations are balanced by Love, Friendship, wanting to do the right thing, Obedience, and Caring. A complicated picture for a complicated wealthy family. Throwing a witch into the mix, who’s payment is due and resurrection is at hand, brings everything hidden rushing to the surface. It’s not a wonder then that no one survived round one.

GWitch14bThe best complement I can give this series is that the minute I read the first book, I had to read the whole thing. Even though I’ve already seen the anime, I really want to read how this unfolds on the page. I’ll be getting the Umineko series, two books a month, through the rest of the summer.

Umineko: When They Cry is brought to us from our friends over at Yen Press. The series is very much in print and widely available. If the cost per volume seems high, notice the size of the volumes. They’re physically larger than most manga published and a lot thicker page-wise as well. If you still feel the need for a free digital copy, they’re available at multiple places:,,,

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