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Blog: Why is everyone reading Umineko the "wrong" way? [spoilers]

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alpacaman

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If I had to summarize the experience I had when reading the first half of Umineko for the first time, it would go something like this: At least for the first three episodes I mainly tried to identify the culprit with a typical mystery reader mindset. Even when it became obvious the game told its story from a fantasy standpoint, my focus was on discerning which parts could be taken at face value and which were made up by Beatrice. Even as I was able to see how this approach was getting deconstructed, I was still waiting for Battler to come up with the one logic argument able to solve it all. Even as Beatrice kept repeating "without love it cannot be seen" (or WLICBS, as I am going to call it for the rest of this post)) I took this mainly as an incentive to look at all the romantic and fantastical scenes from the "detective" angle and tried to spot if anyone had unintentionally slipped up. I dismissed the scenes where "real" characters chatted with fantastical ones as merely character building because to me they weren't actually happening. If the discussions of Umineko on this forum and especially in the "What are playing" thread are anything to go by, most readers have a somewhat similar experience. Even the ones whose theories get quite close to the truth usually base them on secondary clues like character designs.

Recently I started rereading Umineko, and well, now I know what the "it" in WLICBS is about. The scene where Maria is searching for the wilting rose isn't primarily setup for the first mini-mystery, namely who gave her the umbrella, it's a tale about a small girl who, being overwhelmed by the loss something precious to her and getting abused by the one who should console her, gets saved by love. The first hour or so of episode 2 isn't just Shannon and Kanon bonding with their love interests and a witch, it is important context for establishing the culprit's motive. Which is way more helpful when trying to figure out who is behind the Rokkenjima killings than guessing how the culprit could have killed someone inside a room locked with a key chain. Thinking about why Shannon and Kanon don't see themselves as full humans deserving of love brings you closer to the truth than pondering on some howdunnit.

So why do most readers seem to not pick up on this the first time, even when it is right in front of them? Why is everyone reading Umineko the wrong way at first?

Yeah I know, it is a polemic question. There is no objective right or wrong way to read something. However, more or less every piece of media contains some form of message or subtext, either explicitely stated or at least implied by its author, often intentionally although it doesn't have to be, and which can be read into.* Depending on your own view of the handled topics and which motive you assume the author to have, your interpretation can change (as well as your overall enjoyment of the work). To name one example and shamelessly plug one my other blog posts**, in my analysis about Steins;Gate I argue the common interpretation of its message that fate can't be changed doesn't really get at the core of S;G but that rather it's a story about growing up and learning to make your own fortune. I came to this conclusion based on the true ending contradicting the former reading. If you assume it wasn't included for some deeper reason, but rather the writers feeling like

Spoiler

readers deserved a happy ending,

that is also valid, keeping the "inescapable fate" interpretation as the most reasonable one (although a message definitely becomes weaker when it gets contradicted by the story itself).*** Of course that doesn't mean all interpretations of pieces of media are created equal. They should be somewhat rooted in the plot, characters, themes and so on.**** If your main takeaway from Steins;Gate is that microwave radiation is evil, you are either a troll or should seriously work on your reading comprehension skills.*****

So is there even one "correct" reading of Umineko? Not really, though luckily the game more or less directly states that it wants you to read "with love" for lack of a better term, and not just Umineko but in general. The concept is pretty complex and it takes Ryukishi07 the whole 60+ hours of Chiru to explain it. The basic idea is to base your mindset while reading on the motivations of the characters and the author. Umineko is not even secretive about this or makes it some unexpected twist. Beatrice says WLICBS for the first time at the beginning of episode 2, and over the course of the VN this sentence gets repeated many, many times. So why does it often take readers so long to adapt this mindset, besides it seeming somewhat abstract at first?

I would say it is because Umineko intentionally tricks you into reading it as a mystery story at first. It deliberately frames itself as a murder mystery. This begins with its setting where a rich family fights over an inheritance while at a remote mansion with a mysterious backstory and then people start dying under strange circumstances. Of course you would want to know what is going on there and the seemingly easiest and most logical way to do so is to look for inconsistencies in the alibis and shown series of events. If Umineko wanted to be read as a story about love from the beginning it would have built up the interpersonal drama first and then culminated in the serial killings. Also each episode has a new set of murder mysteries, constantly giving your inner detective more fodder. After the first game board the battle of wits between Battler and Beatrice gets presented as the central conflict. The latter is a witch claiming to be the culprit and killing people in the most ridiculous and unrealistic fashion possible, so of course you would take the viewpoint of her opponent who tries to explain the killings as "real" murder mysteries and try to solve everything his way******. Umineko's structure caused me (and presumably others too) to not really think about what all the scenes of characters talking about the nature of love and miracles and such are trying to convey, but rather search them for clues for the whodunnits and howdunnits, which made me miss the core of the story.

Which is the point of telling it this way: "Mystery literature" thought patterns don't just not help you to solve Umineko. In fact they get you further away from being able to see the truth, even though it is right in front of you the whole time. Umineko basically forces you into adopting the "mystery" mindset to make its deconstruction hit you harder. By gently, but decisively shoving you into taking a certain perspective you start to have a personal stake in the story, which makes the takedown of said viewpoint so much more effective.******* Only by utterly defeating your own seemingly logical default approach it becomes apparent why the alternative Umineko proposes is superior.********

There is one huge downside to this approach though: Most readers wont get even half of what is going on in Umineko on the first reading. Which is a big deal when your VN is so long most people won't bother going through it a second time. Those that do though get rewarded with an experience that is even better than the first readthrough. Or as Kinzo would put it: The bigger the sacrifice, the greater the magic that results.*********

 

 

 

* This topic does a great job exposing (probably, hopefully) unintentional subtext in a certain subgenre of VNs. Not to say this only happens in trashy media, whenever something is considered to "not have aged well" it usually has to do with some its implicit assumptions about how the world works not being considered acceptable anymore in today's society.

** Originally I thought about naming my blog "Paca Plugs" which would have been an amazing pun, if I dare say so myself. I decided against it because I didn't actually plan on doing any plugging. I don't orgle on here either though so maybe I should have gone with my original idea…

*** I have to admit that after having read Steins;Gate 0 and Chaos;Child, both of which seem very confused about what they want to communicate, I've become much more inclined to accept this admittedly more cynical interpretation, and have started to see Steins;Gate as more of a case of a broken clock showing the right time twice a day within the SciAdv series. I hope Robotics;Notes manages to prove me wrong…

**** I mention this mainly for the sake of completeness, to preemptively invalidate the "if any interpretation is possible, no interpretation can be true, thus interpretation is pointless" argument, not because it ties into where this post is going.

***** Here, have another footnote where I apologize for the length of the sentences in this paragraph and for adding so many footnotes. There's just too many possible ways to get sidetracked with this topic. I thought about adding another one later on where I would rant about Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi and why I thought the way it forces the reader into becoming complicit doesn't work, especially when compared to how clever Umineko achieves this, but then decided not to.

****** One of the greatest ironies in Umineko is that the "real" murder mysteries in the games are just as made up by Beatrice as her fantasy explanations. And just like she keeps adding characters to a closed circle, I keep adding footnotes to a post that would work just as well without them. Without my boredom during proofreading "it" cannot be seen.

******* So about why Totono doesn't work in comparison: Where Umineko lets you make the choice how you want to read it in your head, Totono literally forces you to take the approach to its choice system it is trying to deconstruct if you want to progress beyond its first few hours. Because of this it is easy for you to divorce yourself from your in-game decisions. So when the game scolds you for picking them, you can rightfully shrug it off because your only alternative would have been dropping the VN. I can't imagine Nitroplus praising you for asking for a refund in that case though.

******** The more I think about Umineko's concept of love, the more I find myself actually disagreeing with it. No, I won't go into more detail here because it would take me another blog post of this length to properly explain why. Weirdly enough despite this my enjoyment of the VN hasn't suffered at all.

********* Oh my, this post has gotten really really long. Thanks a lot to everyone who actually bothered to read through all of it! Yes, all three of you!

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Not to discount your initial premise or the entire post, because I think what I will say won't disprove it or anything, but I'm somewhat willing to bet that the majority of people that read Umineko for the first time do not fit into the pattern you have described.
Many, including myself, who are fans of the mystery genre are not actually interested in solving the mysteries. The interest is in having characters be smart and do it all for us so we can be amazed. This particular type of reader is often kicked in the shin by Umineko which does not actually bother to solve its mysteries, and even when it does, it does not do so correctly*. Indeed, the novel itself dedicates many of its scenes to giving the readers clues and trying to get them to actually think and try to solve the mystery. Many of the scenes where meta Battler is alone introspecting or talking with someone else as an aside of the main plot it can often be them encouraging him to try and solve things or explaining why it's not an impossible task.

In light of all this, it is very difficult for me to swallow that the novel did not intend to have you read it as a mystery at the start. Thankfully that isn't quite what you said and I ultimately agree that whilst the novel wants you in mystery-solving mode for the tale it wants to tell, that mode isn't the one that'll get you to the truth/meaning/whatever of the scenes.

On the topic of my own replay, I leaned heavily into the mystery-solving aspect for my readthrough because I didn't try to solve anything my first way through, and by the end the game does give you the key pieces of info to put things together. Still, most of the more abstract scenes I do "ignore" from a mystery solving perspective even now, choosing to read them purely as character moments. I don't have it in me to try parsing them in any other way.

 

*Which does not matter, because to somebody who isn't solving things, there are a tremendous amount of scenes of "awesome music is playing and this character might be doing something amazing" when they actually are not (Battler's the master nothing-doer while looking awesome). This works to amaze inattentive people anyhow, so Umineko's not so bad even from this perspective.

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1 hour ago, Mr Poltroon said:

Not to discount your initial premise or the entire post, because I think what I will say won't disprove it or anything, but I'm somewhat willing to bet that the majority of people that read Umineko for the first time do not fit into the pattern you have described.
Many, including myself, who are fans of the mystery genre are not actually interested in solving the mysteries. The interest is in having characters be smart and do it all for us so we can be amazed. This particular type of reader is often kicked in the shin by Umineko which does not actually bother to solve its mysteries, and even when it does, it does not do so correctly*. Indeed, the novel itself dedicates many of its scenes to giving the readers clues and trying to get them to actually think and try to solve the mystery. Many of the scenes where meta Battler is alone introspecting or talking with someone else as an aside of the main plot it can often be them encouraging him to try and solve things or explaining why it's not an impossible task.

My guess is most readers fall somewhere in the middle between this and what I described above. I don't think we are very far apart on this actually and I admit I kind of failed to highlight the battle of wits aspect. It is definitely one of the things that make up a major part of the charm of the mystery genre. I'd still argue the fun in this kind of confrontation lies in the reader knowing the playing field and having a grasp on the basic rules and trying to figure out which "loophole" or which possibly tiny part of the puzzle the opponents are going to use to corner each other (I'm seriously jumbling metaphors here). It isn't just the "smart" part, it is that the solution is something you could found out yourself. The "ah, so that's what that clue was about" moment is very important imo. For example, a VN about Einstein fighting other leading scientists over the interpretation of certain aspects of quantum physics could be fun in its own way, but it would be very different from a Sherlock Holmes story.

Edited by alpacaman

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Unironically this is why I've often described Suba Hibi and after reading Umineko, Umineko as well as the VN equivalent of literary works like Infinite Jest and Ulysses. Not because the themes or writing styles have anything in common with those books, but because all of them are works that are long and demand you think about them after you finish reading them. They play around with your expectations, but reward you for patience (as well as severely test your patience). I saw it said best on a thread on 4chan a while back, and I'll attach my screenshot of what that Anon said:

Spoiler

vDcVAuz.png

 

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I don't know if I would go as far as the anon in my praise of Umineko. I agree with the general sentiment that Umineko has a narrative complex enough to hold up even when compared to some of the best pieces of literature though. I heavily disagree with his point about using the original sprites though.

On 10/22/2020 at 7:41 PM, Mr Poltroon said:

On the topic of my own replay, I leaned heavily into the mystery-solving aspect for my readthrough because I didn't try to solve anything my first way through, and by the end the game does give you the key pieces of info to put things together. Still, most of the more abstract scenes I do "ignore" from a mystery solving perspective even now, choosing to read them purely as character moments. I don't have it in me to try parsing them in any other way.

If I interpret Umineko's message somewhat correctly this approach qualifies just as much as reading "with love" as my attempts at decoding its symbolism does, because you're acknowledging the work and passion Ryukishi07 put into coming up with so many elaborate murder mysteries.  I feel a bit unhappy with the way I framed my argument around the terms "right" and "wrong" and how I used them in the context of Umineko because it comes across as if I'm trying to scold people for enjoying the mystery aspect of the VN, so I edited the paragraph after the Steins;Gate example to explain more precisely what I'm trying to get at. I hope the new version makes this clearer. I also put the "wrong" in the title in quotation marks.

Edited by alpacaman

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Umineko is first and foremost a tale about how the public view on a tragic event can hide one own's feelings, which I think is more important than an objective truth.

The plot about Yasu is secondary to me. I read Umineko expecting something like Higurashi, but I found something different. Basically a deconstruction of Higurashi and the mystery genre too.

I'm glad I read it.😅

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I can't say I fully agree with this interpretation but a big part of what makes Umineko so amazing imo is it has room for so many possible messages you can derive from it without them getting arbitrary. It's like the game has a choice system, only the choices happen in your head while the text stays the same and the aspects your brain focuses on determine which route you pick. I guess every story has this to some degree but I don't know any other piece of media that intentionally plays with it to this degree. I think that is also what Beatrice being the witch of infinite possibilities is about. That while you shouldn't disregard objective facts, there is always some uncertainty in the space between them and it's this small space where "magic" happens, where your feelings come in. Umineko tells you to treasure this ambiguity. To apply this to a non-fictional example , evolutionary scientists should try to do their work with the aim of finding out more about and highlighting the wonders of nature and not to disprove the bible. On the other hand Christians shouldn't try to disprove a scientific theory that is 99,999% proven and try to use the remaining .001% to bring the 99,999% down to zero, but rather see this tiny fraction as where god's will manifests itself (being able to accept that others might fill this residue of uncertainty with something else than you would is also important).

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On 10/23/2020 at 9:07 PM, alpacaman said:

I don't know if I would go as far as the anon in my praise of Umineko. I agree with the general sentiment that Umineko has a narrative complex enough to hold up even when compared to some of the best pieces of literature though. I heavily disagree with his point about using the original sprites though.

Lol, yeah I disagree about the bit about the original sprites too. Although they are great for memes

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