Movie: Ask me about anime that looks good and I'll show you the wonders of Samurai 7, Gankutsuou, Gunslinger Girl, and The Place Promised in Our Early Days. As me about anime as art and I'll show you the subject of today's review, Haibane Renmei: Complete Series, a series that started off as a few sketches in the world of creator Yoshitoshi Abe as Charcoal Feathers in Old Home. Here's a look at the four disc set that revisits the story in the best way possible; as a complete set.
The story takes place in a semi-contemporary setting that appears to be in the near future Earth after something happened to fragment society greatly. There are small pockets of humanity scattered throughout the world and the focus of the series is one such town that is surrounded by high walls with the only outside contact by a small group of merchants that travel from place to place, delivering needed items and supposedly taking others away as payment. The town was called Glie and the merchants are called the Toga (I bet they have great parties). The Toga speak using a form of sign language and the deal directly with the leader of the community, a man called the Communicator. The special thing about Glie is that it is also home to a group of beings called the Haibane. By appearances, they are angels complete with small wings on their backs and glowing halos that look much like my own.
The story here was one of the most deliberately paced shows in anime as the protagonist, a newly arrived Haibane named Rakka. The story is told through her more than anything as she seeks answers to the questions that propel her forward. Like the other Haibane (and the community has a lot of them), she fell to the location and developed in a cocoon. Upon hatching, she is indoctrinated into the society of Glie, learning that all her needs will be covered though she is expected to work as payment. There are few rules in the community and Rekka learns many of them through one of the Haibane that have been in the town the longest (7 years); Reki. As the show proceeds, the viewer learns that the Haibane will eventually reach appoint where they will ascend or be cast down to the outskirts of the town to die a peaceful death. Typically though, the "angels" know when they are to move onto the mysteries of the afterlife or whatever fate awaits them and are programmed to follow some kind of built in instructions. If this sounds a bit odd to you, don't worry because the series started off as the equivalent of a strip in a fanzine (called a dojinshi); about the last place anime is supposed to come from.
As Rakka and Reki interact, it becomes apparent that something is going on between them but it isn't until the last part of the final episode that this becomes clear (and even then, there is a lot of interpretation to be had by fans). Looking very attractive, the series relied more on the look and style of the anime than on the story, character development, and other aspects modern anime sells itself with. Sounds weird, huh? In any case, here's a look at what the rear DVD covers had to say about the four original volumes in the set:
In a long-forgotten walled town, humans coexist with the Haibane, angelic-like beings of unknown origin. Rakka becomes the newest Haibane, after she awakens from a strange dream and finds herself hatching from a massive cocoon. With no memories of her previous life, Rakka struggles to adjust to her new surroundings, however burning questions remain in the back of her mind. What is Haibane and what is their purpose? What lies beyond the huge, forbidden town walls? Thus Rakka begins her wistful journey of self-discovery and wonderment.
Wings of Sorrow
Rakka works with Nemu at the library to find her place in life and renews her curiosity about the outside world. Kuu, a younger Haibane who is normally bright and cheerful, helps Rakka to find her place in the Old Home, but then becomes subdued and her halo begins to fade! Rakka's worries become a desperate search when Kuu goes missing- is this somehow related to the "Day of Flight"? Overwhelmed with sadness, Rakka is further shocked by a revelation about Reki's past!
As winter approaches, Rakka is still depressed as she struggles getting over the loss of Kuu. Falling deeper into sadness, Rakka discovers the connection between her and the mysterious birds and seeks to touch the forbidden walls of the town. Unfortunately, she soon falls ill with a deadly fever. While nursing Rakka, a pensive Reki reflects upon her own troubled past and pays a visit to the Communicator, who warns her that she doesn't have much time left as a Haibane.
Day of Flight
Amidst the Passing of the Year Festival, Reki begins to distance herself from everyone and prepares to face the bitter darkness that will soon engulf her, resigned to her fate as a cursed and unforgiven Haibane. With little time remaining, Rakka painstakingly attempts to set into motion a course of redemption that may provide salvation and help Reki achieve her "Day of Flight." Can Reki be saved after all, especially when she doesn't even want to save herself?
Here are the episodes on the four DVDs for those wanting to keep track:
1) Cocoon/Dream of Falling From the Sky/Old Home
2) Town and Wall/Toga/Haibane-Renmei
4) Trash Day/Clock Tower/Birds Flying Over the Walls
5) Library/Abandoned Factory/The Beginning of the World
6) End of Summer/Rain/Loss
7) Scar/Illness/Arrival of Winter
10) Kuramori/Haibane of Abandoned Factory/Rakka's Job
11) Parting/Darkness in the Heart/Irreplaceable Thing
12) Bell Nuts/Passing of the Year Festival/Reconciliation
13) Reki's World/Prayer/Epilogue
So, aside from the very interesting look of the series, what else did I enjoy about the show? Actually, I'm still trying to digest a lot of what took place, which lends the series a lot of replay value. It was a cute tale full of religious overtones but it never got too preachy for me and the use of the angel metaphors added a dimension that sparked some debate between myself and a couple of friends that were patient enough to watch the show with me (in order to provide some feedback for me). I appreciate Geneon following the current trend of re-releasing older titles in boxed set form at a lower price too since this was a show I couldn't justify buying previously without having more to go on about it (the critics never said anything about the show that interested me and this was a great disservice to all of us given the complexities the show addressed. I'm going to give it a rating of Recommended although I'm sure some of you that want action or fighting shows will hate it while those that like the more delicate type of show as this is thinking I'm being far too hard on it.
Picture: Haibane Renmei: Complete Series was presented in anamorphic widescreen color with the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I thought the colors were exceptionally used to convey something beyond the words employed and the artistry of the animators allowed freer reign than in most anime releases from the last ten years. There were no compression artifacts and the individual covers to the volumes were very representative of the show's episodes. I sat through the initial viewing all at once and saw no visual defects at all. In short, you'll have to see it to understand how great it looks.
Sound: The audio was presented with the usual choices of a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track in the original Japanese or the standard English dub. Each track had something to offer though I thought the flow of the Japanese track worked best. The dub was well done and seemed to work well with the visuals though so don't sell it short. There was a fair amount of separation between the channels and the dynamic range made me wish to have a copy of the audio CD that was released on the excellent, if understated, score.
Extras: For me, the best extra was the 16 page colored booklet that discussed the terminology, the main characters, and the setting with some information from the producer of the series as icing on the cake. I also really appreciated the lengthy interview of Yoshitoshi Abe and his assistant that went into great detail as to what he was looking to achieve with the series. I think he succeeded for the most part and this was a good way to learn more about the show but it had a lot of spoilers so watch it after you see the show. There were a number of creditless opening and closings, artwork, trailers, previews of the episodes, a special ending, and a short feature called Hane Haeterun. This was definitely the way to sell the series and while more extras would've been nice, the complemented the show fairly well this time.
Final Thoughts: Haibane Renmei: Complete Series was one of those series that made me wonder about a lot of things, essentially supporting the questioning of things held dear and societal mores. The replay value was solid and the artwork fantastic in this appealing set of thirteen episodes displayed on four DVDs. The pacing was deliberate and the story understated but I found myself drawn into the world of the Haibane Renmei more than I was when I took my first look so long ago. It may not be on the top of too many lists of best anime but it certainly offered a breath of fresh air for those of us looking for something way off the beaten track.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk