Picture a bucolic city situated in something resembling central Europe, replete with all the trappings of a pastoral existence… but fully enclosed (as is a fair whack of the immediate countryside) by a massive stone wall, the law being that none of the inhabitants shall ever leave. The year is indeterminate, seemingly adrift sometime in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Imagine also that in an abandoned school dormitory on the outskirts of town, a group of young girls have taken up a quiet residence of their own apart from the larger population. It is not that they are being deliberately excluded; it is just that they are quite different from 'normal' people and have their own traditions to follow.
These are the 'Haibane'. Their own rules prohibit them from owning anything new (so they wear second-hand clothing and only use items that the cityfolk have cast aside) and from possessing money (instead they operate on a time barter arrangement with the town populace, working various light jobs to help defray the cost of the things they are given). Most striking, however, is their physical form; emerging already partially-grown from strange cocoons which manifest on the school grounds, they soon sprout vestigial ash-grey wings from their shoulder blades and don freshly-forged halos (which take a little while to stick in place above their heads!). No, they aren't actually angels… but as all recollection of their previous lives – save for the dream they had whilst waiting to hatch from their cocoons – has been washed away, they are left to wonder at their place in this curious new world.
And so begins the latest script offering by Yoshitoshi ABe, who has established a reputation as a rising star in the world of Japanese animé after the critical acclaim for his previous work on Serial Experiments: Lain and NieA_7, not to mention the buzz currently being generated by his character conceptual designs on Texhnolyze. (And no, 'ABe' is not a typo; it's just how he prefers it written.) The history of Haibane Renmei is quite interesting in that it had its basis in a doujinshi. Generally speaking, doujinshi are fan-penned, loosely-scripted amateur comics featuring the characters of a commercial manga or animé series. What most people don't realise is that sometimes established mangaka [manga artists] choose to create doujinshi of their own just to have a reprieve from the constraints/deadlines/saleability of a professionally-published manga series.
This is precisely what led him to create Haibane Renmei (variously rendered in English as the Charcoal Feather Federation [the 'CFF' seen in the series logo], the Ashwing League, the Greyfeather Alliance, etc. etc.). It was only after Yasuyuki Ueda, the producer who has helmed all of Yoshitoshi ABe's previous projects – as well as other famous series, such as Hellsing – took a look at some of the early drafts of the doujinshi that he convinced the artist to consider a full animé treatment. In the end, the production schedule turned out to be a bit more punishing than either would have liked, with the entire 13-part series recorded in less than half a year, airing in Japan between October and December of 2002.
MVM have just released the first R2 DVD volume of Haibane Renmei, containing episodes 1-4. While there's a lot of good things to be said for this intriguing little show, it's perhaps only fair to mention that it won't be to everyone's tastes. For one thing, this is an extremely gentle animé and one that takes its time laying the groundwork for what is to come… so if you're an impatient viewer, you may grumble that nothing much seems to be happening. Whilst the slow pacing and lack of any action set-pieces may be off-putting to certain audiences, my suspicion is that those willing to wait a bit will find their efforts duly rewarded in time.
Meanwhile, this first disc builds the necessary foundation for future events by establishing the show's core premise, introducing all of the key characters, and – via the usual device of 'the latest arrival' – sets the audience to pondering all sorts of questions about the Haibane themselves and their mysterious setting (the town variantly named Guri or Glie, depending upon whether you go by the original Japanese pronunciation or the English subtitles): for example, 'Just what are the Haibane?', 'Where do they come from?', 'Why are they sent to Glie?', 'What will become of them?', 'Precisely what is beyond the wall?', etc. Naturally this sort of show is rife with embedded symbolism, so it is incumbent upon the viewer not to merely take everything at face value, but to examine the hidden meanings behind seemingly mundane objects and events.
Anyway, it all makes for a peaceful and enjoyable watch, but by the end of the fourth episode – if you're anything like me – you'll probably be more than ready for the series to start answering (or at least addressing) some of the existential problems it has posed.
1: 'Cocoon / Dream of Falling from the Sky / Old Home'
A teenage girl dreams of plummeting from the sky, her solitary companion on the descent a crow that vainly tries to arrest her fall. What happens next is a blur. Did she really hatch from a giant, water-filled cocoon? What is this ragtag collection of females – some a little older than her, some a bit younger – that has come to welcome her into their home? Why can't she remember anything about her life before that day? Are those really wings sprouting from her back? And why does her new halo have to be held up for now by a cardboard crown?
But her first lesson in life as a Haibane comes as the others bestow upon her a new name. As none of them remember what they were called in their previous lives, the tradition is that each is named after some aspect of the dream they had in the cocoon. So, in short order, she is introduced to house leader Reki ['pebble'], Nemu ['sleep'], Hikari ['light'], Kana ['river fish'], Kuu ['air'], and a number of the younger children who swarm her bedside as she tries to recuperate from the hatching. After a brief consideration, Reki announces to the newcomer, 'Then we'll call you Rakka, as in "falling".'
2: 'Town and Wall / Toga / Haibane Renmei'
It is the morning after Rakka's wings have grown, and the Haibane of Old Home take her down into the village to get some clothes of her own. Whilst there, she learns of the various traditions which govern the interactions between the townsfolk and the Haibane, as well as – rather ominously – the fact that the only beings permitted to pass beyond the engirdling city walls are the birds and a mysterious group of travelling merchants known as the Toga. And they are not permitted to speak to the inhabitants of Glie (or vice versa), their sole point of contact being an aged mystic of the Haibane Renmei named the Communicator, who wears robes of office which conceal his identity and who negotiates with the Toga solely through sign language.
3: 'Temple / Communicator / Pancakes'
The time has come for Rakka to be properly accepted into the order, and for Hikari to return the halo-forging mould that is loaned out to Old Home every time a new Haibane is hatched. However, the path to the Renmei temple is quite treacherous, and as verbal communication is not allowed on the grounds, part of the initiation requires that she be able to respond to the Communicator's questions by precise control of her wings… something she hasn't quite mastered yet. Things are a slightly different flavour of chaotic back at Old Home, where Reki is trying to convince the younger kids to eat their carrots. In the end she explains that the Haibane try to pitch in by doing small jobs in town and suggests that Rakka go visit each of the older girls' workplaces in turn to decide what she wants to do. So off she goes to see Hikari at the bakery… not realising that the latter has a secret she's been hiding there!
4: 'Trash Day / Clock Tower / Birds Flying Over the Walls'
Next it's Kana's turn to bring Rakka into work with her, but before they can leave the school grounds, there's some chores to be done. As the two of them haul out the trash, Kana notices the lingering crows and tries scaring them away, which provokes Rakka to ask what harm there is in the birds scavenging off their scraps. Kana's response is surprisingly deep for someone her age, and only causes Rakka to wonder more about the strange place in which she now exists. Afterwards Kana reveals that she is mechanically-inclined, working as she does for the local clockmaker, and that she has quite a grand project in mind.
Being a quite recent (2002) production, it probably comes as no great shock that Haibane Renmei received a full anamorphic widescreen treatment. Presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, we have here a really gorgeous transfer with few problems at all to sully it. The character designs are pleasant to the eye (with several being unsurprisingly reminiscent of ones from Serial Experiments: Lain), the animation fluid, the lines sharp and devoid of aliasing (although I did detect some very minor shimmering in certain camera pans), the background free of macroblocking, and the palette extremely naturalistic. In fact, the colours in this show may even come across as slightly muted compared to your average animé programme, just because the production team obviously opted against the more usual unrestricted 'cartoony' palette and chose a more limited part of the spectrum to work from. It gives this series a very earthy and warm feel, which is quite relaxing to watch.
Nor are there any problems to speak of in the audio department. A bilingual disc presented in both Dolby Digital Stereo Japanese and English, neither soundtrack is a letdown, which is frankly pretty rare in animé. For my primary viewing I watched the entirety of this DVD in Japanese with the (bright, bold yellow) English subtitles running, but I also spot-checked the English dub and it seemed to be spot-on as well, with decent voice acting and appropriate casting, so that's always a relief. From a more technical standpoint, this is a dialogue-driven show so there's not a lot of bass or left/right stereo directionality in play, but both audio tracks come across as crisp and clean, with no dropouts and a good balance between foreground conversation and background/incidental music.
As if to perfectly match the mood of the series itself, the disc menus are extremely placid – just simple static screens with a brief music clip beneath the main menu. Still, they get the job done well enough even if no great effort was expended in designing them.
Onward to the special features, which on this first volume include: a creditless opening (a pretty standard animé extra, with all trace of text excised from the intro animation), the original Japanese opening (much more rarely included, and certainly a welcome addition here), an art gallery (containing 30 production sketches, always good to see), the original episode previews for episodes 2-5 as broadcast on Japanese television, and finally a handful of trailers for other MVM releases.
While Haibane Renmei is certainly off to a very soft start with this first volume, it already feels like it will grow into something very special. I love the concept of the Haibane and the walled town of Glie, and already have some pet theories of what's 'really' going on here, but further clarification will have to wait until I see more of the series. In the meantime, if you're the kind of person who is willing to be patient with a show that wants to take its time getting to its destination, then I'd say this one definitely deserves a look. (I'm certainly looking forward to the next instalment from MVM.)