Wednesday, December 27, 2000

Haibane Renmei review

hat a divine series this is - in every aspect of the word. I finished watching Haibane Renmei I began enthusiastically recommending it to my friends. When one asked "So what makes it good?", funny thing was, I couldn't really answer it. There's almost no conflict or action in the series. There's no traditional good guys VS bad guys, no spellbinding magic, no science fiction - not a trace of computers, aliens or mecha. There are fantasy elements, but they're kept to such a small, human level that you can't really call this series a fantasy in the traditional sense. So what is Haibane Renmei?

It tells the story of a group of angel-like beings called Haibane. They're born from cocoons, grow wings, given halos, and have no memories of their past other than the dream each has in the cocoon. They all live in a protected city called Glie, where nobody is allowed to go beyond the walls. The Haibane are watched over and protected by a group called the Haibane Renmei. Haibane must each work to support themselves, and do their best to be a "good Haibane". It tells the story of one such Haibane - Rakka - coming into the world, and learning how to live in it. The supporting cast of Old Home (where they live) is equally essential. Towards the finale, much of the focus shifts from Rakka to Reki - one of the elder Haibane, who is a mother figure to those in Old Home. Then there's Kuu, Kana, Hikari, and Nemu whom all have very different, but likable personalities.

Haibane Renmei moves at life's pace. Slow and deliberately it moves through its stages - dealing with many humanistic themes along the way. Moving through seasons and emotions with dignity and grace. It would be very easy for fans of traditional anime to consider this series "boring", as it's certainly not exciting in any traditional sense. You really have to be in a certain mood to appreciate Haibane Renmei's charm.

Yoshitoshi ABe (Original Story, Character Designs) said when he began Haibane Renmei that he had no set idea where he was going with it all, creating the story in the moment. In this light, Haibane Renmei becomes like a stream of conscious meditation on life. He also said that while Haibane Renmei has a religious feel, it is not about any particular religion. It is really a type of spiritual and emotional journey. There are anime series that that are very much allegorical. Haibane Renmei works more like CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia in that it deals more in allusions than strict allegory. This means its more open to personal interpretations - and all the better because of it.

In a way, this series reminds me of the anime equivalent of Yasujiro Ozu's films. Ozu is a director who focused on regular people in everyday life confronting life's small, but meaningful moments. His films, like Haibane Renmei, rarely have any big emotion or big drama. It's all about calm reflection as we move through life. The viewer is never forced into the story or the characters. Rather, we're given time to relate these characters to our own life. Their moments of sorrow and pain, as well as joy and triumph has been our own. Their search for meaning has been our own. It's through this very human level that we're able to connect with the Haibane and share in their emotions. This makes moments like Rakka's monologue inside Kuu's room profoundly moving.

The animation is superb. It's easy to miss in such a quiet setting, but almost every frame reveals subtleties of the Haibane's world. They use a wealth of Earth hues - wonderful greens and browns - that provide a very warm and inviting tone. The animation itself is beautifully fluid as well. But it's probably the town itself that's best rendered. The world of Glie is so well conceived and drawn, giving a real sense of a heartwarming environment. The skies, for example, are almost always drawn like beautiful paintings - often reflecting the seasons. Beyond the animation, the direction and cinematography is superb as well. The ease at which the viewer can get lost in this beautiful world is astounding. ABe mentioned that previous to working on anime he was a Japanese style artist, and his works show it. I think more than anyone currently working in anime, ABe understands what a visually powerful medium anime can be. The music is equally as accomplished; consisting of mostly simple, elegant orchestral pieces. The infusion of music in the series is adeptly applied as well - entering at all the right times and evoking all the right moods.

If there are flaws in the series, they are almost too insignificant to mention. The voice acting is not the best (sub or dub), but the cringe worthy moments are kept to a minimum. The finale perhaps comes too suddenly, making it perhaps less dramatic than it should have been. I also felt some of the characters could've been better developed, and a bit more history and background given about them. I especially wish they would've slowly developed Reki's history, instead of saving it for the end. But all of these are minor grievances, and really not worth even subtracting a single star for.

I've seen Haibane Renmei three times, and each time I'm extremely saddened by the end. Not because the story is sad, but because theirs is a world I'd never want to leave. This series has a great, meditative "zen" like quality, and for those in the right frame of mind, you will become thoroughly engrossed in both the lives of its characters and the world in which they exist. You'll smile at their joys and triumphs, and you'll cry at their losses and sorrows. In the end you will be left with a wonderful feeling akin to a spiritual cleansing. The result is nothing short of divine.


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