The third volume of Higurashi: When They Cry ushers in the second reset button of the series -- the Cotton Drifting arc -- and very skillfully alters the tone of the narrative from the first arc, ensuring that the reader won't even know what hits them once the murderous "reveal" is finally unveiled in volume four.
As in the first arc, the opening volume is almost entirely set up, giving very few solid clues that will allow the reader to comfortably predict the possible outcomes of the central mystery of who is responsible for the annual murders which take place during a cultural festival in a small, isolated Japanese village. For five years now one person has been murdered, while another dissapears and always during the Cotton Drifting Festival. The story once again revolves around a new member of the village, teenage boy Keiichi, and his daily life with his small circle of female friends. Keiichi is still an outsider, but this time he isn't so obviously marked because of his newly minted status as one of the village's few young people.
While the fanservice in the first arc lulls the reader into a false sense of the security, by volume three it tends to feel entirely too excessive. There are maid outfits, multiple incidents of underwear flashing, big breasts bouncing...well, you get the picture. On the other hand, the harem feeling of the first arc, in which teenage girls were fairly exchangeable so long as they exhibited some form of "feminine" charm, is replaced by a much stronger sense of each girl actually having a distinct personality. Keiichi isn't taken by all the girls equally, as he clearly has a special relationship with the "tomboy" of the group, Mion. Mion, however, wants to be a *girl* in Keiichi's eyes and so goes to disturbing lengths to "start over" as a more feminine version of herself, i.e. as her twin sister Shion. There's some confusing identity play here -- does Mion really have a twin sister or does she just want to be "different" with her crush, Keiichi? And isn't there something a little disturbing about wanting so desperately to not be the "you" that you are right now, that you invent or borrow an entirely new persona? I'm not sure that if these questions about identity and gender will return in the conclusion of the arc but somehow that is almost the point of this -- any narrative identity the book establishes in the first part of the arc may crumble entirely in the second.
While the writer of the book remains Ryukishi07, this arc has a new artist, Yutori Houjyou. The art and tone of this story *feels* much lighter, as the majority of the volume is concerned with highly improbable romantic comedy shenanigans. There are hints all is not right with this world, but they are much more subtle than in the first arc, probably because the reader already knows the rules of this world -- i.e. "there will be blood" as I like to think of it -- but we are never entirely sure how violence will shake out in the end. I was less carried by this particular volume of the series than the knowledge that the next volume will shake everything you think you know about this particular version of this universe to its foundations. Amazingly, even when you expect the unexpected, the story still manages to surprise you. This reading experience inspires an incredible amount of tension, because even if we think we're seeing the same cliched shonen harem manga we've seen before, by now we know that the very shape of a girl's eye can be a potential clue of lurking violence that the protagonist of the story can't even begin to comprehend. By being kind of lackluster, this volume has the intended effect of making me more eager to read volume four simply because there was so little indication of what evil is actually lurking in the village. Therefore, we can actually be assured that the story's conclusion is going to be that much more of a bloody head-trip.
Review Copy provided by Yen Press.