Only just released on Monday, this second volume of Haibane Renmei ('Wings of Sorrow') was a welcome arrival when the postman brought it round the other day. I popped it in the DVD player that same night and have been organising my thoughts for the write-up since. And for those of you who read my review of volume 1 and may be wondering, yes, things are finally beginning to 'happen' in this show.
Which is not to say the tempo of the series rises above adagio during these 3 episodes… just that for whatever reason I personally was left with the impression that a lot more ground, story-wise, was covered on this disc than on its predecessor. Those impatient viewers out there will be pleased to discover that with this volume Haibane Renmei has left the 'introductory material' phase and is starting in on the meat of the show. Similarly, any who felt that the protagonist here was being let off too lightly – that is, that there weren't sufficient obstacles for Rakka to overcome – should be relieved to hear that things start to go very badly for her indeed.
Without giving too much away, I can reveal that Rakka's connection to Reki deepens (in particular, the two of them having in common a negative experience which the rest of the Haibane have not suffered) and that any lingering doubts over whether this pair constitutes the core foci around which the entire story revolves are now quite assuredly brushed aside. Furthermore, the first episode on this disc continues to explore some of the metaphysics of Glie, and does so in such a way that we simultaneously gain some insights into how the Haibane (both old and new, in this case represented by Nemu and Rakka) understand their own existence), which I thought was very nicely done.
Going further than this will entail entering spoiler territory, so I'll reserve that for the 'Episode Guide' section. If you'd like to remain blissfully unaware of any further plot developments until you watch this DVD, please skip down to 'Picture' now.
Episode Guide (and Potential Spoilers)
5: 'Library / Abandoned Factory / The Beginning of the World'
As the final stop on Rakka's 'spend a day at the workplace of each Haibane and discover what kind of job suits you' tour, we end up at Nemu's: the town library. Paradoxically, whilst the one thing the Toga do bring in large quantities to Glie are used books, they have been carefully chosen – or perhaps their universe is merely constructed in such a way – so that none of them reveal any details about the world beyond those imposing walls. However, in Nemu's tireless explorations of the stacks (which those of you familiar with this character will recognise as an ironic construction), she once turned up a badly-ruined text entitled 'The Beginning of the World'. Although far too damaged for more than the chance phrase here and there to be legible, Nemu and her supervisor whiled away many hours pondering how the missing sections might have read. Now, as the latter prepares to go on maternity leave, Nemu has a surprise in store for her 'boss'… but one that cannot be completed without Rakka's assistance!
Almost as an aside, we are introduced to the 'other' Haibane nest in Glie… a ragtag group of kids living in an abandoned factory at the outskirts of town. Unlike Old Home, Abandoned Factory is co-ed… and despite what she might pretend, there seems to be some sort of history lingering between Reki and one of the boys there.
6: 'End of Summer / Rain / Loss'
The definitive turning point for Rakka comes in this episode. As summer draws to a close, Rakka's old harbingers, the crows, visit her more often, as if to warn her of some grave and imminent change in her life. Meanwhile, her 'mentor' Kuu – a blonde-haired girl who was the last Haibane to be hatched before Rakka, and who (despite being physically her junior) had taken the latter under her wing (so to speak) – seems to lapse into a period of placid introspection, spending even more time than usual away from her fellow Haibane. What isn't immediately apparent to Rakka – though it is clear to the audience – is that Kuu is quietly saying farewell to her life as a Haibane. However, this isn't something Rakka is emotionally prepared for, particularly as none of the others at Old Home have ever bothered to explain to her that when a Haibane is ready to move on, there comes a 'Day of Flight' on which she makes a journey to the engirdling city walls and vanishes forever from Glie.
7: 'Scar / Illness / Arrival of Winter'
With the disappearance of Kuu and the subsequent explanation by Reki and the others that the Day of Flight can come abruptly to any of them, Rakka's world is thrown into disarray. Lacking any assurance that the friends she has made will even be around for her in the coming months or years, and furthermore concerned about what the Day of Flight might entail for her personally, she lapses into a deepening depression… and one not improved by the fact that she spends most of every day visiting Kuu's now-vacant room at Old Home. And as winter fast approaches, a new concern strikes her: she seems to have become afflicted with a disturbing illness which taints her once-pristine grey feathers with patches of black lesions. In desperation, she tries to trim away the diseased sections of feathers with a pair of scissors, but every day the blotches spread to other parts of her wings… and in the end it is sharp-eyed Reki who works out what is going on and moves to intervene.
As before with volume 1, the episodes on this DVD are presented in an appealing 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation with almost no issues to speak of. Only very occasionally can you even detect a faint grain to the print, with most scenes being completely rock-solid. The palette is distinctive, colours well chosen and saturated realistically, with the only potential drawback in this department being black tones which tend to only go as far as a very dark grey. I saw no evidence of shimmering, pixellation, or macroblocking anywhere. A very nice transfer.
This bilingual disc offers Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks in both Japanese and English, and – as usual – I concentrated on the original language track for my primary viewing. Speaking of which, the Japanese voice cast for Haibane Renmei, whilst admittedly not precisely being littered with luminaries, does nonetheless have some seasoned professionals in its ranks. For example, the key role of Reki is played by Junko Noda, who has breathed life into characters as diverse as the Goddess in Gokudo, Mitsune Konno throughout Love Hina, Mayo Sakaki in Fushigi Yűgi Eikoden, and Tashigi in One Piece. Probably slightly better recognised would be Akiko Yajima (voice of Kuu), who played Takami Sakuragi in Geobreeders, Anna Respighi throughout Battle Athletes, Rickert in Berserk, Kohaku throughout Inu Yasha, Relena in all the incarnations of Gundam Wing, Mai in My My Mai, Mitsuru in Revolutionary Girl Utena… and yet another 'cute little kid that could be male or female', Mannen in Prétear. And rounding out the 'known VAs' list is Hikari's actress Fumiko Orikasa (Yuzuki in Chobits, Ruki Makino throughout Digimon, Onizuka's love interest Azusa Fuyutsuki in GTO, Victoria Seras in Hellsing, Chiaki Komatsu in – another of Yoshitoshi ABe's works – NieA_7, Miss Valentine in One Piece, Kim Hotaru in RahXephon… well, you get the idea. Compared to these three, the rest of the cast are relative unknowns, but they deliver good performances regardless.
The disc menus are substantially the same as before, and the special features included on volume 2 differ not in overall number but in type. Whereas last time we were given a creditless opening sequence, this DVD offers a creditless ending. In place of the original Japanese opening, here we have a pair of TV commercials that aired on Japanese television (never fear; they're also subtitled in English). Beyond this, the extras are the same as before: an art gallery of production sketches (44 this time), the original episode previews as broadcast in Japan, and some trailers for other MVM releases.
This really is a heartbreakingly beautiful little animé series. Now that we've passed the introductory stages and Rakka is discovering the darker side to her existence, there is a mounting emotional and psychological tension which belies the seemingly-placid pace of the show. I challenge anyone to watch Haibane Renmei through episode 7 and not be fully invested in what happens to Rakka and Reki next.