In a mysterious land where nobody remembers his or her previous life, strange creatures called Ash-Wings (humans with halos and little flightless wings) are born in an abandoned school on the outskirts of a town blocked off by a wall. These Ash-Wings have formed a society and live in harmony with the people of the town, doing their daily tasks and coping with the unfortunate position of being outsiders. When one such Ash-Wing named Rekka is born, things start changing. Rekka deals with her strange new surroundings, and the Ash-Wings deal with Rekka.
You know how when you go to the grocery store and you need orange liqueur, and they have both Grand Marinier, for 24.99 a bottle, and the generic grocery store brand, Triple Sec, for 4.99? See, if you’re just using it to cook (many fine berry-related desserts require a few tablespoons of orange liqueur), you may as well just get the generic brand and save yourself twenty dollars. If it’s the flavor you’re after, and you’re a person of discerning taste, then there’s no question; you want the Grand Marinier. For the purposes of this introductory paragraph, let’s say that something like Ai Yori Aoshi is to the anime world what the generic Triple Sec is to the world of orange liqueur. It gets the job done, but it isn’t especially pretty, or refined, or special. It’s something you’d use when you need a quick fix. Pioneer’s release of Haibane Renmei is the Grand Marinier; it’s a refined taste, classy, and certainly not for everyone. What we have here is a truly mysterious, charming, enchanting and altogether high quality anime series. It’s also one of the most original productions in recent memory.
Haibane Renmei is based on a doujinshi by Yoshitoshi ABe, an extremely popular anime auteur; his worlds are abstract and unique. Haibane Renmei is no exception, and is probably the best of Abe’s work. The show is, no doubt, full of mystery. There are big questions to be answered and the relatively slow pacing of the show can become maddening when the viewer is wanting only answers, but the show makes you wait. There is no instant payoff in Haibane Renmei; you are forced to watch the story unravel piece by piece. It’s a highly mature and well-developed bit of screenwriting, and should be appreciated by adults everywhere. Folks looking for a more traditional anime would do well to look elsewhere; there is almost nothing traditional about Haibane Renmei.
Starting with the character designs for the show, this entire production is unique. Abe’s character designs became famous and incredibly popular with his first big production, Serial Experiments Lain. Here, his technique is a bit more refined; In Lain, the title character was the only one designed to look interesting at all. While this was probably done on purpose to alienate her from her surroundings, in Haibane Renmei, Abe designs the adults with just as much flavor as he does the children. All of the characters in Haibane Renmei are unique and fun, and each bring something to the table. The backgrounds, painted in subtle earthtones, are beautiful paintings that truly complement the look of the series. This is as close to the original doujinshi as they could possibly get, and it’s truly a sight to behold. Aside from a few moments of awkward animation and digital panning, the production values here are good enough. The overtly iconoclastic aesthetic of the series does a good job covering up any shortfalls in the production budget. Make no mistake, Haibane Renmei is a totally mellow affair. There isn’t much excitement to be had, but there’s more to entertainment sometimes than just bombast and showboating.
That said, this series is certainly not for everyone. Every time a question is answered, another ten questions pop up, and none of those are answered until all of the old ones have been explained. It can be obnoxious at times, but the show rewards those with patience. This first DVD has very few answers in it. You’ll find out a lot about Rakka’s new world and the traditions and customs behind the Haibane and their interaction with the world around them, but the bigger picture remains totally obscured. If you’re not into that sort of thing, skip this series. You need to be patient; viewers who find the show’s visual flair particularly appealing will have the most fun with the show, since they spend a lot of time showing the Haibane going through their daily routines. At times it gets a little too quaint (how many times do we need to see them sipping tea from little coquettish teacups?), but the overall effect is calming and mellow, and yet still captivatingly mysterious.
The dub is a marvel. I was honestly expecting the absolute worst from this. The cast for this show is almost entirely female, and nine times out of ten, English-language ‘anime girl’ voices are completely generic and poorly acted. This time, the age-old rule is broken; the voice cast for Haibane Renmei is excellent. All of the voices are distinctive. This show absolutely required believable, laid-back voice acting; I am extremely pleased to say that not a single voice (with the exception of some poor acting and line delivery on a few of the children, and a couple of clumsy line readings by a smattering of the main cast) missteps. Reki, the Haibane’s surrogate mother figure, is voiced with serious skill. Her line delivery is note-perfect and natural sounding. Kuu, who was perhaps the biggest candidate for a screw-up of Utena-like proportions, sounds natural and not forced, which is a miracle considering the character’s overly enthusiastic personality. Most impressive is the voice for Kana, which has just exactly the right mix of spunk and tomboy. It’s one of those rare cases when the English voice is absolutely dead-on, an equal match for the Japanese voice. Dub fans will find a lot to love about this dub, and those who find English voice tracks to be a grating annoyance might begrudgingly find themselves, for once, agreeing that perhaps dubs aren’t so bad after all.
This DVD also comes with a beautiful pencil board, and if you get the version with the box (which happens to be one of the most tastefully-designed boxes on the market right now), you get an extra pencil board with some fantastic artwork and an indispensable full-color booklet with a complete character guide. Pioneer really went all-out to make this ‘special edition’ special, so if you plan on buying the whole series, don’t skimp on the box version.
If you’re an adult (or perhaps a mature teenager) with discerning taste, you’re going to like Haibane Renmei. This show has class and style, and is one of the most unique releases of the year. Yoshitoshi ABe does not disappoint; he continues to bring new concepts to the table, and so far, they have been executed flawlessly. Don’t miss it.
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ Beautiful, engaging, haunting and unique
− Slow pace and confusing story may turn off some viewers