Recently, I was talking with fisharson and Phazys about upcoming shows, and Umineko No Naku Koro Ni, the English title of which translates to “When Seagulls Cry”. Both noted that the title certainly didn’t seem quite as sinister as it’s predecessor, Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni (lit. “When Cicadas Cry”). I pointed out that, being a coastal city dweller myself, the long and somewhat mournful call of a seagull was incredibly evocative and very closely associated with the location, and I felt it was plenty appropriate. Still, fisharson wasn’t quite impressed – the most recent seagulls that featured prominently in animated media after all are the button-eyed sort in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. While certainly menacing to the fish, their design is such to elicit amusement from the viewer – certainly, couldn’t a better choice have been made for a horror anime been made?
That then led me to another train of thought – well, we are discussing a Japanese work here, so perhaps something is lost in translation? Perhaps the Japanese have a set of refined sensibilities regarding seagulls that we New World gas-guzzling ingrates lack? Maybe they are in fact some majestic totem animal, their cries heralding the coming of salt spray and divine-sent typhoons. fisharson commented that the word for seagull in the title, “umineko”, could be broken down into “umi” – sea, and “neko” – cat. Sea Cats? Very well then, perhaps not exactly the most menacing metaphor, but perhaps we’re just missing some cultural nuance, in which case we should sigh and resign ourselves to never understanding this inscrutable culture.
Nevertheless, after some further consulation, fisharson found that “seagull” actually more properly translates into “kamome”. I suggested perhaps that “Umineko” might then refer to some specific subspecies of seagull – that guess proved to be right on the mark. “Umineko” refers not to the North American Common Gull of which we are familiar, but rather the Southeast Asian Black-tailed Gull.
It seems the answer to our question was much simpler than we originally thought. Quite simply, the Black-Tailed Gull is a scary looking bird. Look at the blood red slashes around the eyes and beak, almost as if the gull was stained with blood. It looks appropriate enough for a horror/murder mystery sort of title.
That whole anecdote is something of a tangent, but it did serve to show how even familiar terms and names can change depending on the context.