Story by Ryukishi07; Art by Yoshiki Tonogai. Released in Japan as "Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen" by Square Enix, serialized in the magazine Shonen Gangan. Released in North America by Yen Press.
So clearly once I was past the evil scary abuse story, it was clear sailing, as I read these volumes incredibly quickly. This is not to say that they're filled with happy sunshine by any means, but the "Time Killing" arc, for many reasons, was probably the best I've seen to date.
For a start, we don't have Keiichi and his paranoia as the protagonist, focusing instead on a young detective from Tokyo, Akasaka, and his visit to Hinamizawa in 1978, when the Dam Project protests are still in full swing, to investigate a kidnapping. While there, he ends up going around the town with a 5-year-old shrine maiden, Rika Furude, and learns that many things here are not what they seem... least of all Rika. Akasaka makes an excellent hero for this arc, being young and naive to the ways of Hinamizawa, but not naive or foolish himself. He does many badass things here, showing off that he's a great cop and saving the day. Sadly, this is Higurashi, which means he also suffers great personal tragedy and is unable to prevent the events of 5 years later that slaughter the town.
As for Rika, she's the real surprise here. As I noted, it can be hard reading this series when you know about the plot in advance (even though that's how 90% of Japanese readers, who had already played the games, would be reading it). So it wasn't until I saw these two volumes, which are filled with Rika, that I realized how little she'd appeared until now. The first three arcs focus on Keiichi and his relationship with 3 of the 4 girls in his vaguely datesim life - Rena, Mion, and Satoko. We're led to expect we'll get another arc with Rika as the focus, which we do, but it doesn't involve going over the same events.
(Oh yes, did anyone else notice the Mion/Shion twin switch AGAIN in Chapter 4 of this story? Even when they're very minor characters? It's almost like the author is trying to tell us something...)
What's more, Rika is quite ambiguous here, even for a five-year-old. This is the last of the so-called 'Question Arcs', designed to lay out the mysteries of Hinamizawa for the reader/player before the longer 'Answer arcs' show us what's actually going on. That said, this arc in particular gives us much food for thought. Rika's prophetic capabilities are quite sinister, complete with a different, far more adult voice, and it's initially implied that, like many soothsayers, she's working to make sure that her prophecy comes true. Of course, in the best twist in the book, that is not the case. The penultimate chapter features Rika telling Akasaka of her own death, five years from their present. She is the one who knows what's going on, who knows that they're redoing things over and over. And what's more, here she pretty much says straight out that she doesn't want to keep dying. It's powerful stuff.
But she dies anyway. We're nowhere near the end of Higurashi, and unfortunately this is an Akasaka who did not heed her warning to return to Tokyo. Assuming the warning meant he'd be killed by the village (a good assumption considering that the village then tries to kill him), we think that he's managed to beat it once he's saved the day and found the missing child. His own personal tragedy that follows is a nasty gutpunch. However, despite all this, this is probably the first arc of Higurashi that doesn't end in total bleak despair. Yes, Rika and all her friends and fellow townspeople are horribly murdered, but Akasaka lives on, along with his daughter and detective Ooishi. And his stubborn determination to never forget that girl and what she told him won't mean much here, but would be really relevant if, say, reality kept resetting itself every few years. Which, hey, it is!
This arc was helped immensely by being much shorter in the original games, meaning that it doesn't suffer from as much compression as the three before it. It feels just about right for two volumes long. And the story it tells, as the author notes, was originally just "a way to kill time" but ended up giving the reader some incredibly useful information to try to figure out what's going on here. Great stuff, very much recommended. Next up we get to the first 'manga-only' arc of the series, which takes place not in 1983, or 1978, but in 2006...