It’s a new year, which brings with it new games, new movies, and, er, old anime, apparently. Today, the old anime in question is Haibane Renmei, a 13 episode series from way back in 2002. I have, in my time, heard the series called a “masterpiece”, but I’ve also heard it called “pretentious”, which immediately sent me into a fit of Bartender PTSD. After recovering, I was a little worried. In my experience, series of this ilk, that have distinct “pretentious” and “masterpiece” camps in their viewership, will go one of two ways for the average person: either they land pretty much perfectly, and really resonate with you… or go over your head completely and you feel like you’re watching a load of boring mumbo-jumbo.
You never hope for the latter, but it tends to be the case more often than not for someone like me, who doesn’t consider themselves particularly deep or thoughtful. I watch anime (or play video games, or read a book) chiefly to be entertained, not necessarily to ponder life or the meaning of existence. But, with that said, I would never write off a show just because it maybe might not be my thing without actually giving it a try, so here we are. Enough dilly-dallying, and let’s get started.
As always, the review is provided in video format above and transcribed directly below.
With Haibane Renmei, I don’t want to explain away too much of the setting and the premise because a very sizable portion of the series is dedicated to simply building up the world, so to maintain that experience for a prospective viewer, I’ll try and keep this brief.
You have Old Home, an abandoned school populated by angelic, exclusively female beings called Haibane. By “angelic”, I mean they literally look like angels, but are otherwise just people. One day a cocoon sprouts, and a new Haibane is born (‘cause that’s how birth works for the Haibane). The group takes in the newborn, name her Rakka, hook her up with a halo and wait for the wings to grow in. Afterwards, she is introduced to her new life at Old Home, as well as the nearby human town of Glie, with which they coexist quite well. Other geographical and societal features include the high walls that encircle the entire area, the Toga merchants that are the only ones allowed to pass through said walls, and the Haibane Renmei, a church-like organization that oversees the lives of the Haibane (and communicates almost exclusively through a complex sign language).
Building World and Character
As I just mentioned, the early portions of Haibane Renmei are solely preoccupied with getting us familiar with the world and th characters. In the character case, this is primarily done through sequential one-on-one interactions with Rakka, in one of the most obvious but effective ways possible, being that each character more or less has their own episode. You get an episode with the baker, an episode with the clockmaker, an episode with the librarian, and so on. It’s not an uncommon way to get you acclimatized to a show’s characters because, generally, it works well. In Haibane Renmei’s case, each character episode follows the Haibane in question as they work their job and go about their daily life, which doubles as fairly effective world building since you get to see the inner workings of either Glie or the Haibane Renmei organization.
However, there are two individuals that don’t get neatly slotted into their own focus episode, one of which being, as you might have guessed, the newborn Rakka. Rakka’s initial function is as the audience’s eyes into the world. It’s an easy concept to grasp: as she learns about her environment, we learn right alongside her. At a point, though, Rakka begins to grow into her own. She becomes emotionally attached to her new family rather quickly, which may spell trouble down the line because, like everything, no Haibane’s existence is eternal. In addition, each Haibane, before being born, witnesses a dream (which in fact becomes the basis for their name, with “Rakka” meaning “fall”). Rakka’s contemplation of her falling dream, and its meaning, drive much of her thoughts and, at times, actions. Rakka even asks the hard questions that some would rather leave alone, like “why were the walls built?” or “what are the Haibane?” (neither of which get satisfactory answers, mind you, but that’s a complaint for another time).
From all that, you might gather that Rakka is not a particularly outstanding character, to which I would agree, but she worked and there’s another that picked up the slack: Reki (meaning “small stones”), the other Haibane who isn’t simply assigned to one of her own development episodes, and is instead implemented a bit more organically. I liked Reki right off the bat, if only because of the visual dissonance of an angel smoking a cigarette. Reki is the de facto leader of Old Home, and for a while seems to be level-headed and on top of things, which… doesn’t last forever. Reki is one of the longest living Haibane to occupy Old Home, and quite a bit of time is spent dwelling on her past. In fact, she’s one of the only characters whose past is elaborated on at all. Therefore, Reki, alongside Rakka, is the most central character to the plot (if you can call it that) of Haibane Renmei, with most of the climax’s drama revolving around her.
If you recall, Haibane Renmei is an anime from 2002. Of course, when it comes to its visuals, you’re not going to mistake it for a modern series, and there’s no particular “wow” moments, but the thing looks surprisingly solid. I certainly wasn’t cringing at shots or anything… well, ok, maybe once or twice, but that was the exception rather than the rule, which is great. Haibane Renmei is the good kind of old, as in, it looks old and feels old but was produced well enough at the time that it has aged well (except the 3D windmills. CGI always looks bad, as the new Berserk teaser can attest).
Haibane Renmei’s soundtrack is similarly pleasant, if a tad unremarkable. Pleasant enough that I have vaguely fond memories of it, but unremarkable enough that, looking at the notes I took while watching, the only thing written under the music section is the word “piano”. Well, I’m not wrong, there were some solid piano pieces, mostly calm, soothing songs as befitting of the instrument. The show’s opening theme, titled “Free Bird”, is one of those rare instrumental openings, which I like a lot if only because it’s a refreshing change of pace.
And that’s all I got for “The Good”, which might not seem like much, but if you think about it, it is. I said the world and the characters are both good, which they are, and those are arguably the two most important features of Haibane Renmei...but that’s not to say it doesn’t fumble on other accounts.
At the outset, as Haibane Renmei established its world, I had several questions that I assumed would at some point be answered. What are the Haibane? What are the walls? What’s outside the walls? What’s the deal with those crows? Who are the Toga? What are the Renmei? Why does every episode has three titles for some reason? What time period is this even supposed to be? Yeah, don’t expect to learn anything at all. Not one of those questions is answered in any fashion.
I don’t care about the small stuff, like how or why the halos stay up, but it’s a little irritating that the bigger questions behind the Haibane go without even a hint of an answer. Sometimes these questions are even posed directly to the characters (usually by Rakka), and the invariable response is either “I don’t know” or “that’s just how things are”. In other words, everything, too much of everything, is implied. Nothing’s ever told to you, so no one knows for sure exactly what’s happening here; everything beyond the immediate scope of the story is guesswork and speculation. Presumably, this is because the Haibane Renmei series exists more as a device to highlight its themes, message and subtext (be they whatever the viewer infers) rather than to tell an actual compelling story in its own right. For some people, that might be a massive plus. For me, it’s not. That’s just my tastes.
More Than A Little Slow
As such, earlier I had good things to say about Haibane Renmei’s setting and characters, but made only passing reference to the “plot”, because most of the time... there isn’t one. At the beginning, you have four or five solid episodes of world and character building before anything really happens, then a few more thrown in by the end, adding up to easily over half the series just being about, well, life. That is, the life of the Haibane. If you need a conflict or an in-depth story to pull you along from episode to episode, you will not find that here. The plot is so threadbare that it’d only disappoint if you have any real expectations for it. There are a couple character arcs spread out over an episode or two, sure, but there’s a distinct lack of much overarching narrative. It pretends to ignore this with fleeting moments of change or progress, but they rarely affect the dynamic of the whole show in any meaningful way.
I’m not even sure what genre I’d call this. Drama? There’s only one or two episodes of real drama. Fantasy? Technically, I suppose, but nothing happens with the fantastical elements besides the fact of their existence. Slice of life? That might actually be the most accurate, because the majority of the show is just the lives of these Haibane, living out the day to day routine, and no matters what happens along the way, by the end of the final episode, they go right back into it.
My problem is that slice of life usually works by being about some form of real life, which inherently doesn’t have a storyline to it or big existential questions that need answering, so you can be satisfied with just endearing yourself to the characters. So then, when you try to make a similarly aimless show in a more fantastical setting, it can seem more boring than it otherwise would, because the setting is incongruous with the content. It’s hard to care about the minutiae of the Haibanes’ dull daily lives, when several bigger and far more interesting questions, primarily about the world of Glie, are being hung right over your head (and since those questions are never answered, they’re always hanging right over your head and therefore your attention is always somewhat preoccupied with them, right up until the end).
I suppose this is all a roundabout way of explaining how, during Haibane Renmei, I got kind of bored. More than once.
Haibane Renmei is a quaint show. I have a distinct feeling that the series is a very subjective experience, and that aspects which were negative for me, may very well not be negative for you. This is my review though, so in my case, it’s hard to hate it because there’s not much to find fault with, but at the same time it’s hard to love it because there’s not always a whole lot there.
Haibane Renmei feels kind of like one of those anime that works better on a subtextual level than a textual level, meaning that depending on how deeply you’re willing to think about the themes and analyze the symbolism, and put aside shortcomings as far as a grounded, actual show is concerned (as is the case with, for example, Paranoia Agent), your enjoyment could be quite high (in other words, if you’re the opposite of me.) A layer of subtext is fine and dandy, I’m all for it, but I need the show itself to be at least somewhat interesting on the surface level for me to care about those messages. Contemplation of loneliness and guilt and sins just for the sake of it, in a relative plot vacuum, isn’t intrinsically appealing.
If you want a calm, laid back look at the lives of these angels with a big dash of sentimentality and thought, and that’s all you want, I think you’ll have a good time, but if you need any kind of actual drama or excitement beyond very fleeting moments, Haibane Renmei becomes a bit harder to recommend. Did I like it? Yeah, sure. Did I love it? Erggh… no.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, Haibane Renmei is awarded a B rating. Honestly, I’d have a real hard time recommending it outside of a very specific subset of people, because of how deliberately it’s paced, the perceived amount of abstract literary devices thrown around and how unconventionally the story progresses and wraps up (i.e. for a lot of the time there isn’t a story).
Nonetheless, if that strikes your fancy, Haibane Renmei is currently available for legal streaming both subbed and dubbed (though I cannot comment on the quality of the dub) from Funimation and Hulu. By all means give it a try, but if you’re not feeling it by the second or third episode, you won’t.
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