Oh, man… Where to start.
Well, let’s get the personal stuff out of the way first: I suffer from a myriad of mental issues - depression, social/generalized anxiety disorder, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and sensory processing disorder (basically - my senses are always on high alert, meaning I’m far more easily irritated by sensory input like bright lights, certain textures, and most of all noise). I bring those up because they - mostly the depression and anxiety, admittedly - inform why the When They Cry franchise is so special to me.
For Higurashi: When I first discovered Higurashi, it was via the anime, probably in early-mid 2010 or so, shortly after I dropped out of school due to my depression hitting me like a train. The concept - the whole time loops thing, and the mystery of this weird little Japanese village - drew me in, and I ended up watching through the whole thing.
At the time, when I finished watching Kai and saw that last scene focused on Rika’s calendar, saying July 1st, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t rightly explain why - and I don’t often cry at fiction in general! I’m pretty emotional, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, but it just takes a lot to make me shed tears for some reason. It wasn’t until years later (like, last year or the year before, I think), when I read the manga of Minagoroshi-hen, that it finally clicked, thanks to this piece of narration from Rika:
"It’s like watching the same video, over and over. Every time you watch it, you’re less surprised by what happens, less moved. You lose all the emotions connected to it…"
Whenever I talked about what depression felt like for me, that was exactly how I’d describe it - not as any sense of sadness or anything like that, but just a complete disconnected from the world around me. The more I thought about Higurashi with that in mind, the more I realized how much Rika’s journey paralleled my own - culminating in her “recovery”, by reaching July. The fact that I’d gone into it just looking for a bit of a scare made it that much more moving. Suffice to say, while my heart is pretty solidly devoted to Umineko now, Higurashi’s always going to have a special place on my bookshelf, too.
For Umineko: Same as above, really, though from the start I kinda felt I’d run into something like that. As I made my way through the first few Eps, I did start to feel some of the same patterns emerging - Battler’s despair at the end of Ep2, and eventually Ange and Maria’s stories in Ep4. Even though I was still flailing about trying to understand “magic” and everything at the time, Ange’s conclusion towards the end of Ep4 on Rokkenjima was just as moving as seeing Rika tearing a page off her calendar.
And then those red truths at the very end hit - and despite watching the anime, I was absolutely not prepared. Please kill me quickly. I wish I’d never been born. While Higurashi’s “depression” reveal (as I’m calling it) was a huge blow on its own, just this in Umineko was already so much stronger - because it was coming from someone who I never would’ve expected it from. Up until that point, I was still floundering and trying to find some solid motive to ascribe to Beato… and then, suddenly, there she is, screaming out. Suddenly, I understood that the depths of her final question - “Who am I?” - were much deeper than I could’ve anticipated.
Having said that, when first reading through Chiru, even though I had a sense that there was “someone else” hidden behind Beato, and that that “someone else” was the one begging for her death, I was just as lost and confused as before. The meanings of Battler’s realization in ???5, Ange and Featherine’s discussion about “furniture” and the love duel in Ep6, even Yasu “becoming” a witch, leaving Shannon alone, and then creating Kanon for her - all of that went over my head. It wasn’t until Bernkastel’s game in Ep8, where she explicitly says that Kanon disappears if Shannon dies, that the pieces started to snap into place, and that moment of comprehension finally hit.
Another thing I deal with from time to time that I didn’t mention earlier is gender dysphoria - I was assigned male at birth (and consider myself genderfluid), and honestly, most of the time I don’t really mind that too much (though I do hate having facial hair with a burning passion), but sometimes it just feels… so unbearably wrong, to the point that I just can’t function. Finding that Yasu not only was a character with the same issues, but that the only way the reader would know (pre-manga, at least) for sure was by reading through the story again to see where she peeks out, to decipher the meaning behind all of those conversations that seemed relatively innocuous earlier… It hit really close to home, and it’s part of why Umineko is a reading experience I’ll never forget.
TL;DR for both - To me, Higurashi and Umineko are both about inviting the reader to explore their capacity for empathy. Higurashi does it fairly straightforwardly, through Rika, Shion, and Takano, while Umineko takes it a step further, telling you that you have to make the effort to discern what’s really happening yourself, which makes the eventual moment of understanding all that much more powerful (and yes, I vastly prefer the VN over the manga for that, though I do appreciate the extra clarification the manga offers in some places). The fact that its key characters (Rika for Higurashi, Yasu for Umineko) are ones I myself can relate to so strongly to begin with just make it that much more special.
Also, since I can’t go without mentioning it: The fact that I can pick any chapter in any Episode of Umineko and I’m still basically guaranteed to find something new in there somewhere (some tidbit about Yasu, about the nature of the forgeries, about the rest of the family, etc.) is truly incredible to me. I aspire to one day be able to write a multi-layered story that feeds into itself the way Umineko does.
(yeah concision and I don’t really get along, whoops)