Two recent events make this an especially timely review. First, the 9th of October 2007 (just two days ago) is the fifth anniversary of the first episode’s original airdate. Second, there’s the sad news that Geneon Entertainment USA – a leading R1 anime distributor and the company that produced this DVD release – is winding down its North American operations. Unless production and distribution are properly turned over to another firm, this title’s R1 release may well go out of print within the near future, at least temporarily (which makes me glad that I managed to get my hands on a copy).
The first draft of this article included a rather lengthy and spoiler-riddled section setting out some of my musings on the philosophical/theological themes of Haibane Renmei. I soon realised that it might weigh down what should be an easily digestible DVD review, so I edited it out (although I still intend to publish it as a separate blog post). What’s left is a fairly spoiler-free, product-centred article that should be safe to read even for those who haven’t seen the series.
DVD BLURB (from the back of Volume 1)
“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.”
The large slipcase that the four DVDs were shipped in is breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity. There are no fancy doors or hidden drawers here: just five panels of thick, sturdy cardboard hidden behind the loveliest cover illustration I have ever seen on an anime artbox. Awash in soft tones and gentle shading, it depicts all six main characters – the so-called “Old Home Haibane” – strolling down a country road with a charmingly bucolic scene spreading out behind them. If this were available as a poster, I’d get it framed and display it in a prominent position on my bedroom wall.
Of the three sides, I like this one best. It shows Kuu (one of my favourite characters) playfully pushing a startled Rakka.
The spine features Hikari and Kana.
Moving on to the other side, the last two members of the group – Nemu and Reki – come into view.
The DVD jackets form an art gallery of fine illustrations in which each of the six “older Haibane” is portrayed once (except for Rakka, who appears on Volumes 1 and 2). I especially admire the way the images capture the mood of Haibane Renmei, which is itself quite difficult to represent in words. Happy, sad, hopeful and melancholic can all be used to accurately describe the series, and the same is true of the jacket art. Hauntingly beautiful comes closest to summing up what I think.
The thirteen episodes of Haibane Renmei are divided among the four discs as follows: four in Volume 1, three in each of the others. The main menu in each disc is animated, with a gently spinning halo as the centrepiece and the series logo (consisting of a haloed face with wings) serving as the cursor. Scene selection sub-menus are available for all episodes.
Set-up options: audio in English (default) or Japanese, subtitles in English.
Playback quality will of course vary depending on the equipment used, but I have no complaints with either the audio or the video. One reviewer writes that there appears to be a very subtle “rolling” effect in some of the earlier episodes, although he also points out that it’s generally hard to notice and that it seems to be gone by Volume 4.
Each DVD contains a fine selection of special features organized into neat little categories (such as next-episode previews and art galleries). The type of material included is generally the same across all four volumes, although the specific items in each category vary from disc to disc. In addition to the standard extras, the last volume also has a 2003 interview (subtitled in English) featuring series creator ABe Yoshitoshi and one of the producers (I think it was Ueda Yasuyuki). No groundbreaking revelations in that one, but much appreciated all the same for the light that it sheds on some matters.
The first DVD comes with a beautifully illustrated 14-page booklet featuring an introduction to the series, a walker’s guide to the town of Glie, character profiles (complete with images of Abe’s original character design sketches), and a “Haibane Topics” section with some interesting write-ups about the Haibane Renmei, the Communicator and the mysterious Toga.
Each DVD case contains a folded insert that reproduces the jacket illustration on the front and carries a list of chapter selections on the back. The insert shown above is from Volume 2.
Spread out within each insert is a lovely illustration depicting some or all of the main characters in various settings. The one shown above is also from Volume 2.
ANIMATION AND MUSIC
It’s easy to get at least one of these elements right and even easier to make a mess of at least one of them. I’m glad to say that Haibane Renmei succeeds on both counts.
The production values are outstanding. Watching this series, it’s easy to forget that the first episode aired half a decade ago almost to this day (five years before last Tuesday, to be exact). Backgrounds are fashioned out of rich, earthy colours in a manner of composition that brings to mind the landscapes of Kino no Tabi, although the present series is generally richer in detail and more realistic in style. The characters’ movements are fluidly animated, as are other less prominent elements such as the windmills near Old Home and the gentle up-and-down dance of power lines strung loosely by the roadside. There are no major CG elements save for the windmills – a factor that works to the series’ advantage as CG-heavy sequences tend to date very quickly.
Complementing the fine animation is Ootani Kou’s wonderful music. Stringed and wind instruments predominate in the classical-style score that gently weaves its way through the series, moving, swelling and fading to match the mood of each scene. Granted, there are a few awkward moments when the background music seems to clash with the events on screen (either emotionally or stylistically), but I don’t recall ever having felt that something completely different should have been used.
NOTE – While I stand by the assertion that this review is “fairly spoiler-free”, please keep in mind that “fairly” is the operative word here. The next paragraphs may contain some hints as to the general course of the story and perhaps even a few references to specific events, although I’ve tried to keep such hints and references as vague as possible.
Some reviewers believe that Haibane Renmei isn’t for everyone – and on the whole, I’m inclined to agree. For example, action junkies looking for bloody fistfights, sword duels and gun battles will find absolutely nothing of the kind in this series. (There’s a fair amount of blood in one early scene, but it has nothing to do with armed combat.) Haibane Renmei is by no means a difficult or pretentious show, but its dialogue-driven story and gentle pacing might require more than the usual dose of patience on the part of the viewer.
Another possible source of frustration is the fact that mysteries tend to appear in this series faster than answers can be found for them. Indeed, some questions are never satisfactorily answered even after the last episode is played. But in my view, this vagueness is partly what makes Haibane Renmei so intellectually stimulating. There are no absolutes; there is no “canon” as such; heck, even ABe himself apparently wants people to come to their own conclusions. Hence, there is no right or wrong: you can put in your two cents’ worth about the destiny of the Haibane, the nature of the Sin-Bound curse and what happens after the Day of Flight and no-one can say with absolute certainty that you’re mistaken.
In the end, no matter how cerebrally or emotionally involved one desires to be, the tale will likely strike a chord with anyone who has experienced the pain of loss and hopelessness, or the joy of finding redemption after a dark night of the soul. At turns desperately depressing and touchingly cheerful, Haibane Renmei ultimately rewarded me with an uplifting experience that I will be hard pressed to find in another anime series.
Final verdict: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Warning: May contain spoilers.