Review: Haibane Renmei

I like where this is heading.

Let’s see here…angels, little girls. Oh, and some really creepy scenes.

Background

Okay, so the story of Haibane Renmei was created by Yoshitori ABe (capitalization intentional) as a dojinshi project.  That never finished though and he transferred the story and characters to Haibane Renmei.  Okay, so that’s not really all that important, but I thought it was a really cool little tidbit of information.

This is ABe’s baby.  For those unfamiliar with ABe, he was the character designer for Serial Experiments Lain, for which this blog is named.  Haibane Renmei is the first work which really let ABe take the lead, which is about the only point the above comments on his dojinshi project actually comes into play.

The director for the show is Tomozaku Tokoro.  The company that made this, Radix, loves the chemistry between Tokoro and ABe; this anime came after the two worked out NieA_7 and Serial Experiments Lain (though Tokoro wasn’t the director in that).

This show has imprints of this relationship: the art and psychological edge still exist, though to a much lower edge than they did in Lain.

Story

The first notable point about the story is the utter lack of exposition.  ABe has mentioned this is entirely intentional to let fans write in their own background.  There is a lot of symbolism and hints of certain elements that can lead you down one path or another, the concept of a representation of Purgatory pops up a lot.  And, surprisingly, this isn’t the weirdest thing ABe has associated himself with.

Anyways, the base story takes place in a small village called Glie.  The town is very much isolated from the rest of the world, almost nobody ever entering or leaving the area.  Unique are the Haibane (approximate translation is of beings similar to angels).  Haibane are unusual beings, humanoids born from cocoons midlife.

Okay, maybe they are a -little- more than humanoid.

They have non-functional wings, making them very distinct from the local populace.  The Haibane are treated as guests in down and are donated area to live and leftover material and food to have for free, though they frequently return the favour by working in local stores.  It isn’t all fun for them though – Haibane are specifically stated to be reborn humans.  They died in their previous life and have come back with no recollection of their family, past life, or why they’re there.  And their current life is monitored strictly by a organization called the Haibane Renmei.

We primarily follow the life of the newest Haibane Rakka from her moments prior to (re)birth as she learns about, adapts to, and integrates herself into her new world and surroundings.

I have a huge love/hate relationship with the story.  Let’s start with the bad, since it dominates the front half of the story.  I’m not a slice of life type of guy.  At least, slice of life with no advancement.  As far as pacing goes, about 4 of the first 5 episodes are about as pure a nondescript slice of life as you’ll get; it’s slow, kind of monotonous and sprinkled with just enough fun and games to keep you going.  But it does go nowhere fast and, to those of us with limited time on our hands, this becomes a major stumbling block.

The second you hit episode 6 and on though, things go fast in a hurry.  I won’t bother to describe the spoiler-y details for you, but suffice to say that things don’t stay the same forever.  As soon as this starts, the aspects which made me love so many other shows kicked in: psychological aspects get represented and get represented well.  In the span of the next 8 episodes, there is almost no slowdown in this regard: we jump from issue to issue to issue.  The transitions between these short gaps are fluid and natural as we follow the progression of Rakka’s mind as she copes to the world around her.  All while building up for a climactic story without incredible amounts of the story being dedicated to it.  A climax in which it’s easy to turn beliefs of the show just for that one sequence alone.

So you kind of see the duality of the show.  You need to establish the characters first and this show presents a nice variety of characters.  But it’s also very short in length, 13 episodes, so even giving a basic understanding of each character becomes difficult to cram in without wasting screen time.  Unfortunately, Haibane Renmei got hit by this hard early and it actually had me take a one month hiatus from watching it (well, that and other projects).  But when the rubber hits the road, as the phrase goes, it just doesn’t stop.  I can compare it fairly heavily to Serial Experiments Lain in this regard, as both shows had weaker starting episodes, but got better and better as the number of episodes went on.

Characters

The characters of this show are its core.  Plain and simple. The show starts off with an ensemble cast.  We have Rakka, the newcomer, and the tall, dark, snarky, and somewhat brooding Reki as our two main protagonists.  Added to them are side characters, Hikari, Kana, Remu, and Kuu.

What really stands out about this crowd is their ability to all have unique personalities, viewpoints, and lives (for the most part).  There is an incredible amount of depth in the characters for such a short series.  While particularly present in our main two characters, it also shows up in most of the side characters who get lines and more than one appearance.  And I will use the term “most”.  This is a feat within itself.  Of course, having so many characters, like in the story department, also hurts each individual character.  Quite a few of the minor characters, while not devoid of reasonable personality, are static and to not evolve to the story.  However, whether or not this is symbolic is worth thinking about, but it stands out as a weakness in character design.  Quite a few tropes are recycled as well.  These flat characters a pretty easy to predict and easy to master their system of life, almost as if to populate a world, but not give you enough uniqueness in that mindset to distract you from the real narrative at work.

Emotionally, this show hits really hard.  The characters are built to draw people in emotionally.  You’ll invest in seeing Rakka’s point of view and how her points of view come out.  We’re exposed to so much of this that it become easy to sympathize with her thoughts, whether they make sense or not.  And, of course, with our own private viewing of her and Reki’s minds, comes so much investment that the story draws us in.  Again, I’ll explicitly point to the final episode, and maybe the 12th, as major emphasis of this.  I didn’t honestly think that I cared about the characters that much until the last couple episodes.  It’s really a pretty interesting adventure to put yourself through.

Animation

I’m going to say this about the character design: I almost always love shows where ABe has artistic influence.  It’s unique.  You look at any of his projects and, almost without a doubt, you can discern where he had wielded power.  From the beyond spiky hair on some characters to the unusual detail in the eyes to some of the minor things I just would never think about, it’s always a pleasure to see ABe touched works if not only for their characters.  Extending this beyond character design, it’s amazing to see some of the stylistic choices in his work.  There are some pretty unique scenes in this show where it’s worth a second look to just see the little things he decides to add in.

And, of course, this kind of sparked how I viewed the rest of the work.  This unique character design really drives home the fact that this show is, at its heart, character driven.  The lack of actual explained universe and the focuses of each episode aid in this, but this becomes the final factor: the characters are drawn so uniquely and play on the show in background and appearance so well that it helps propel the understanding of the show.  Personally, that’s the mark of good animating.  As with any show of its era, you’ll see a bit of cop-out.  It’s not terribly noticeable, but not an incredible piece either in this regard.  Really, the best way to describe the animation is “functional” because of the purpose it really serves.

In some cases though, it becomes absolutely stunning.  It may do more with the story side of it, but there are some beautiful sequences.  Within the first couple episodes, you get the concept of angels juxtaposed to a blood soaked baptism into the new world.  This is but one example, but it’s one of my favourites and is an incredible piece of animation to behold.  To a degree, it’s almost a piece of art to watch.

The opening and closing, I’ve found, have been fairly non-noteworthy in terms of animation.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Sound.  There isn’t enough good things I can say about the sound.  I don’t know how many times I circled the world “piano” in my notes about the show.  The melancholic nature of the piano pieces in this show are used to incredible effect. Maybe it’s because I used to play the instrument, maybe it’s because Ko Otani (famous for his work in Shadow of the Colossus), but it just plain works.  I’m more likely to lean on the latter explanation though as the string instruments also work very well.  And to some degree, a lack of background music and sound is used to the show’s advantage as well.  The void of nothing being around is used through use of eerie silence.  The entire soundtrack is effective in this regard and stands out as an example of less being more…that you don’t need entire orchestras to make a beautiful and effective backdrop for your show.

There is limited sung music in this show.  The opening is a simple melodic piece of dominant string instruments.  While it certainly sets the stage early, it almost begins to fade into misuse and improperly preparing its viewer as the episodes dwindle down to the end of the series.  It’s almost a show where, despite the length, you might have wanted to have two different themes.  I’m not sure this is such a huge knock on the show, but it certainly felt out-of-place by the end.

Kind of cruelly, an excellent opening piece for the end of the series is used as the ending.   Blue Flow by Heart of Air is a sorrowful, vocals dominated song.  And it hits very much what the latter episodes look at.  I remember in my earlier episodes that this seemed way out of place…but it worked well at the end.  Unfortunately, the show really has to fight its music in this regard…the selections didn’t make sense, but they had the pieces there to make a great soundtrack.

If you do plan to watch this show, watch the English dub.  It’s absolutely amazing.  I went about 3 episodes with both sub and dub listened to and the dub blows it out of the water, chases it into the air, and blows it into space.  The names for the main cast don’t really stand out.  I mean, Carrie Savage is probably the single name you’ll recognize, with Stephanie Sheh and Wendee Lee being good names, but with extremely limited and minor roles.  Despite this, it really does work so much better than the original Japanese voices.  As a bit of a background, I remember Savage most as Shima Katase from Stellvia of the Universe.  Her voice roles are very similar, but she suits Rakka extremely well in this show.  Much like how I kept circling “piano” for music notes, I have listed Carrie Savage doing an excellent job about once per episode.  She found an excellent mix of softness, emotion, and almost child-like wonder.

Side characters are selected near perfectly and ultimately trump their Japanese comparable at the job, especially in the emotional range category.  Unless it’s unnamed characters or a male character whose name will be withheld they aid in immersion, something that I can’t say about voices all too often.  Another odd choice, at least for most of the show, is Erika Weinstein as Reki.  Erika had a fairly short career as a VA.  But withhold judgment on that selection until the end of the series.  I basically had to rewrite my critique of her because of a couple monologues that she delivers perfectly in it.

Synergy

The show tries to create one giant juxtaposition of the beauty and tranquility of Glie and the Haibane against the somewhat discomforting spoilered elements of the show.  I’m not sure this works terribly well.  The biggest element that goes in its favour is the excellent hybridization of the animation and the soundtrack.  The way each character faces, from the angle to the direction, in comparison to the soundtrack seem to dare you to interpret them, the same way that your teachers would (or will try to in the case of younger viewers) dare you to interpret why the curtains were blue in this line of this novel.  Whether or not it’s there, the soundtrack creates the space to interpret the animation seven ways to Sunday.  It’s quite lovely, but isn’t something that is replicated anywhere else in the show.

Why to Watch

The show is a soundtrack, animation, and psychological wonder.  These three elements are drawn forth by two well-formed, dynamic protagonists.  From this, a powerful emotional front is built and presented to its viewers.  If you want to ride such a wave, this show is an excellent starting point.  Oh, and it’s short at 13 episodes.  Oh, and the show is freely streamed by Funimation.  Though it’s only in sub for all 13 episodes.  A sample of the dub is provided, which I suggest you try out before making a decision as to buy it or not.

Why Not to Watch

The show is strictly drama/slice of life.  If you don’t like either of those elements, it’s tough to get into.  There’s no action in any sense of the word.  There’s minimal comedy.  It’s very much a show which needs you to put heart and soul on the line to really get a high level of enjoyment out of the show.  I find myself pretty detached, but was emotionally drained after the last episode.  Very few shows are capable of that for me.  If you’re wanting something light and fluffy, it’s certainly worth skipping this.

Personal Enjoyment

As mentioned before, I love ABe influenced work.  The animation is almost enough for a watch on its own.  There’s no doubt that this, my love of the psychological, and the beautiful piano were enough to keep me satisfied once the ball got rolling.  Whether or not it had a strong story or finale, it would have ranked high in my enjoyment.

Summary

Key to looking at Haibane Renmei is its characters, its sound, and its psychology.  Your primary protagonists are extremely deep and will drive the show in terms of both plot twists and drive to watch through their psychological elements, while the sound is excellent and easily keeps you in the moment.  The show builds slowly to start, but almost has the “boulder on a hill” effect where the momentum never releases until you get to the bottom.  That, combined with the art of ABe, will be its main selling points to any prospective viewer.

Overall Rating

I ended up giving Haibane Renmei 7.06/10.  Under my rating system, would be a very solid review and is a recommended watch…especially since you can watch it all legally for free.  While the scores were fairly balanced, the animation, soundtrack, and characters led the way.  Story and the opening/ending side of music were somewhat lacklustre, but this was mostly due to how I calculated these scores.  Certain elements of each component worked well, but the whole suffered because of certain style choices, such as what I feel about the appropriate choice of opening and ending.

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One response to “Review: Haibane Renmei

  1. Pingback: Review: Eden of the East | Lain's First Law

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