Friday, November 2, 2018

Why I Loved Haibane Renmei – And You Might, Too


A somber-colored world of mystery, like a passing dream that fades into bright, cheerful smiles upon waking. All seems well; all seems right.

But these smiles are not all true; some hide deep-seated fears and troubles just beneath the surface.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

A young girl named Rakka wakes to find herself in a giant cocoon. She has been reborn as a Haibane, a being nearly indistinguishable from a human except for their tiny angel-like wings and floating halos.

The Haibane live in a walled-off world, forbidden from ever leaving. It’s said becoming a Haibane is a rebirth, but no one knows why the Haibane are born or who they were before, as these memories all disappear.

Despite all this, things seem pleasant enough in Rakka’s new home, the town of Glie. She meets cheery new friends and learns the in’s and out’s and do’s and do not’s of being a Haibane. Haibane must lead highly-structured lives as dictated by the shaman-like people called the Toga.

But between trying out various part-time jobs and spending time with her friends, Rakka discovers a darker side to the life of a Haibane: Rakka, as it turns out, is “Sin-bound”: tied to some sin she committed in her previous life. Sin-bound Haibane must learn why they are here and make amends... before their time is up.

I love Haibane Renmei. And if you like dream-like worlds with mystical elements, you might too.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Psychological, Slice-of-Life, Supernatural
Year Released: 2002
Studio: Radix Ace Entertainment
Licensed By: Funimation
Director: Yoshitoshi ABe
Episodes: 13

What You Might (or Might Not) Like About... the Visuals

Haibane Renmei has a muted color palette, its desatured colors resembling games built by Team ICO such as Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian. As with these games, this limited color palette leaves the world feeling misty and dream-like. Although this keeps in theme with the show, some viewers may find the desaturated colors to be off-putting. The dated Standard Definition does not help, either.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

The character designs are also hit-or-miss. Some characters strongly stand out with memorable designs that explain a great deal about them. However, most look bland, including the protagonist Rakka, giving the impression many of the cast are just background characters from other anime.

Like poor Rakka here. ...Stop looking at me like that!

What You Might Like About... the Audio

The soundtrack, written by Kow Otani, is charming and memorable. It’s almost folksy, which also adds to the show’s charming slice-of-life moments and helps display what kind of world we’re stepping into. The ending theme is also hauntingly beautiful, working well alongside the visuals to set up the show’s themes.

What You Might (and Might Not) Like About... the Writing

Fortunately, the characters are better-written than their designs. Each character in the relatively small main cast is a distinct person, often characterized by one defining trait that helps set them apart from the others. Rakka bonds with each character individually, giving you a good sense of who everyone is. Hikari is the bespectacled responsible one, Nemu is a bit lazy and easy-going, Kana is the tomboyish rambunctious one, and Kuu is the youthful ray of sunlight who brightens everyone’s day. Reki is the most-developed of the group, stealing the show almost from beginning to end with her well-rounded personality and air of somber mystery.

Haibane Renmei, 2002 Radix Ace Entertainment

That said, with this kind of a simplified cast, most of the show has a slice-of-life feel, with much of the viewer’s questions about the overall plot being pushed to the latter half of the show. However, even those who aren’t the biggest fans of slice-of-life (such as myself) can rest assured that there is in fact overarching narratives to this tale... it just takes a while to really get into the meat of them. So if you’re a viewer who wants to get to the thick of the tale right away, this might not be a show for you. For those of you who don’t mind a slower pace, however, you’ll be able to enjoy the charming characters as they show and tell you more about their unique world.

The worldbuilding in Haibane Renmei is truly where this show shines. Combined with the mystical visuals and soundtrack, the rules that govern the Haibane’s lives and the Toga that enforce them are simple yet compelling in a minimalistic way.

What also helps sell the mystique of Haibane Renmei’s world is the ambiguity of its writing. There are many elements of the show that maintain their mystique. For instance, it’s never outright explained what Sin-bound Haibane are, but the strong implication at the end results in a surprising—and very relevant—conclusion.

This isn’t a show that will give you all the answers, which I enjoy... yet this lack of answers is also one of the greatest things I find frustrating about Haibane Renmei. The show does not explain some of the worldbuilding elements Rakka herself brings up. Who was Rakka before she became a Haibane? Where is her family? Did she have anyone close to her who still exist outside the walls? None of these questions are ever explained. However, the emotional payoff at the end of the story does help to mend some of these wounds. Still, if you’re someone who needs to have all these kinds of questions answered, Haibane Renmei is not the story for you.

The Conclusion

Despite its shortcomings in visual design and some questionable writing choices, Haibane Renmei stands out due to its mystical qualities. From the desaturated visuals to the ambiguity in its plot, every aspect of the show adds to its mysterious, dream-like nature. Its worldbuilding, though limited, is fascinating and almost single-handedly overshadows many of the show’s lesser elements.

This is a story for someone who enjoys delving into strange and interesting new worlds, meeting new people and experiencing strange and fantastic dreams. In fact, Haibane Renmei encapsulates the best parts of a dream: the almost weightless and otherworldly quality, the strong emotions experienced, and the fact that despite it only being a fantasy... there is something intrinsically real that can stay with you long after you’ve finished.

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All photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws. Unless otherwise specified, all are from VRV.org.

Haibane Renmei and all related names and terms are the property of Funimation.

Review format adapted from Curtis Bell's Iridium Eye. If you're bored of the usual flicks on Redbox or Netflix, check out Iridium Eye for a medley of movies and shows I can guarantee you've never heard of.

From Him, To Him

9 comments:

  1. I wondered when you would review this anime series.

    Even though I'm one of the biggest fans of this show let alone the works of Yoshitoshi ABe, I do respect your review. ABe-sensei is not one who makes his works easy to spell out, so I can see how some people can be disappointed by not having everything explained. I could talk about a notable fan theory about where the Haibanes really came from and how their names relate to them, but it would make the show a lot darker in hindsight. Funny you mention Shadow of the Colossus since Otani would score the music in both this anime and that video game. The world-building, character development (especially Rakka and Reki's friendship), music, and the unique nature of this anime really hooked me when I first saw it as a teenager. I hope ABe gets to work on some anime again because it's been way too long since Texhnolyze or even Edge of Tomorrow (it's an adaptation of a manga he co-created).

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    1. I had no idea Otani created this soundtrack, as well! I just found out he did another one of my favorite anime soundtracks, Little Witch Academia. Call me a big fan!

      I certainly hope the downsides to this anime didn't downplay the things I personally loved about it, which included all the good things you mentioned, Curtis! I was really happy you'd recommended it to me. ABe-sensei's ambiguity in his storytelling was really refreshing to me, as most of the stories I'd enjoyed recently were quite obvious. It's nice to have something that keeps that mystery to it, even if I would have liked a few things to be a little less mysterious! I certainly do subscribe to those fan theories I believe you're referencing, but I'll keep them a secret for those viewers who may want to check the show out for themselves. ;)

      One last thing: Reki is easily one of my favorite characters--not just in this show, but of the anime I've watched. I'm almost sure I'll end up writing a separate piece on her someday that will have spoilers for sure! I really related to her.

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    2. Oh, yeah. It's weird because Otani doesn't get as much love in composing anime like Joe Hisaishi, Yoko Kanno, Yuki Kajiura, or Kenji Kawai to name a few. It is surprising because he's done some big name scores like Outlaw Star, Gundam Wing, and even Eyeshield 21 of all things. I didn't know he scored Little Witch Academia even though I haven't seen that anime. The Haibane Renmei soundtracks were the first anime soundtracks I've ever bought and owned in my life and I still have them to this day.

      Not at all, so don't worry about it. I'm happy you enjoyed that anime series and you're another friend who discovered it and really liked it. ABe's work is so cerebral, but I don't feel like he's being pretentious more often than not (okay, it did show in Lain, but that's another story). If you know about some of those theories especially those involving the origins of all the Haibane characters, then I understand keeping it a secret.

      Speaking of ABe-sensei, I just found out that he just started a new anime series right now. It's called RErieD which is going on and it's a collaboration between him and Takuya Sato who is the director of a little anime called Stein's;Gate! Yes, this collaboration is happening. I thought you would appreciate that.

      WOW! Reki is easily one of my favorite female anime characters and easily top 10 favorite anime protagonists. She's such a brilliantly complex character and her character development tugged at my heartstrings so much. Her character became even more relatable to me during my last year of college given some of my experiences that unintentionally paralleled her's. A Type Casting/Character post about her would be freaking awesome!

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    3. Whoa, hold the phone, that's an epic collab! Gonna have to add RErieD to my list ASAP! Thanks for the tip! :D

      Oooh, a post just for Reki, you say? I think I can make that happen... ;) Keep an eye out for it in December!

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    4. Yeah, I was shocked that ABe was involved with a new anime series. It's been 15 years since Texhnolyze, and no, I'm not counting Welcome to the NHK or the Edge of Tomorrow movie even though he did the cover designs for the original books of the former and is a co-creator of the manga that the latter is based on (yes, Tom Cruise was involved in an adaptation of an ABe work). Sorry for the misspelling. It's RErideD.

      That would be very cool. Just sayin'.

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    5. That's insane! I'm glad to see he's working with anime again. I've heard so much praise for his work. Really excited to see RErideD, and thanks for the correction!

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    6. Yup, and that makes me happy especially since the Despera project has been in developmental limbo when collaborator Ryutaro Nakamura died (he was supposed to be the director). Him, ABe, and Chiaki J. Konaka were like the three musketeers of experimental anime when they worked on Lain and Niea_7. Nakamura is a good auteur, too. I mean I did like the original Kino's Journey anime and I'm not even touching the remake from what I've heard about it.

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    7. That's so sad to hear! Despera certainly sounds interesting. I hope things smooth out so the anime adaptation can be released at last.

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    8. Very much so. I remember hearing about Despera years ago and I felt sad about the news of Nakamura's passing. I've heard rumors that they have a replacement director, but it's not confirmed if it's the case or if they actually found someone (Konaka would work if he wanted to be the replacement since he does have that track record). I do hope an anime adaptation exists and the original manga can be released in America.

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