Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 17th 2012
DVD - Complete Series [Anime Classics]
Devoid of memories, a girl finds herself falling, with only a familiar-seeming crow to accompany her. She awakens in a cocoon in an abandoned room in an old dormitory building, where she is greeted by several girls and young women who all have halos above their heads and small, charcoal-colored wings sprouting from their backs. They introduce themselves as Haibane and claim that the newcomer has arrived to become one of them. Indeed, shortly wings also sprout from the back of the girl who is given the name Rakka, who is helped through the traumatic experience by the older Reki, and soon she has her own halo, too. As Rakka gradually acclimates to life in Old Home, she learns several important things about her curious new setting: how both Old Home and the nearby town of Glie are surrounded by an imposing wall which none save a special group of traders may pass through, that Haibane cannot handle money directly and can only own or use things that are second-hand, that Haibane are required to work some job (but only at the oldest places!), that they are managed by the masked priest-like Haibane Renmei, and that Old Home isn't the only group of Haibane in the area. Rakka also eventually learns that being a Haibane isn't necessarily a permanent situation; most eventually achieve a degree of fulfillment which allows them to depart under mysterious circumstances in an event called a Day of Flight. For some, though, achieving such a degree of ultimate peace can be much more difficult than for others, and ever do the mysteries of both the past and present linger.
Yoshitoshi ABe developed practically a cult following in anime circles in the wake of his creation of Serial Experiments Lain, which stands as one of the most thematically and aesthetically innovative titles of the 1990s. Although this 2002 effort is not as “cutting edge” as Lain was, it does an equally effective and better-paced job of evoking a sense of mystery and discovery (both of one's surroundings and oneself) as it follows its young heroine through a strange new world. This time, though, Rakka does not have the sense of literal and figurative isolation that Lain did, thus allowing interpersonal relationships and a strong thread of sentiment to be effortlessly woven through the story. That is but one of the many reasons why this is such a highly-regarded title amongst long-term anime fans.
One of the greatest strengths of the series is the patient, smooth way its setting and mysteries are allowed to organically unfold. Many series struggle with pacing revelations about their settings, but here the process happens naturally, with viewers getting to follow Rakka on her journey of discovery and learn things as she does. Rather than dump out the specifics all at once, they come out gradually over the course of the entire series; in fact, discovery and achieving a sufficient understanding and acceptance about the way of things are two of the main points of the series.
As boring as that may sound, the mysteries are plentiful enough, and intriguing enough, to easily keep one's interest; this is not just your typical slice-of-life series where one is expected to be entertained (or not) by mundane occurrences and interactions. Sure, the series has some of that, but such content blends in amongst implications and revelations that often spawn further questions and mysteries. For instance, the Haibane only use old things that have been abandoned by other humans, such as derelict buildings and items purchased from thrift stores, but why? The Haibane use the effective equivalent of credit, but why can't they handle money? Some of the Haibane speculate on the requirement that the older ones work and the reason why the town exists and is surrounded by walls, but why can they only work in certain places, why is there a need for the town's apparent function, and what exists in the outer world? Is there really a deeper connection between the Haibane and the masked Haibane Renmei who oversee them? There are other mysteries, too (the special nature of the walls, Rakka's connection to the recurring crows, various details about what Rakka's job ends up being, and so forth), but the biggest mystery is, of course, the exact nature of the Haibane. The series heavily implies that they may be some kind of afterlife state for people who aren't ready to move on (a la Angel Beats!), but Abe's writing leaves that and many other points deliberately vague. In interviews he has supposedly claimed that he wants viewers to speculate on points like that, and speculate they will. He has made one thing clear, though: the vaguely angelic appearances of the Haibane are strictly a matter of aesthetics and not intended to make any religious statements. (That won't stop people from reading some religious undertones into the series' later comments about sin, though.)
But the series has much more in its favor than just the mysteries. The entire cast is charming and agreeable, from the high spirits of young Kuu and tomboyish Kana to the gentle dedication of the smoker Reki (who, unlike the other characters, has a prominent past within the setting) to sleepy Nemu and bright Hikari to the way that Rakka's innocent, emotional, caring nature expands as she learns more and comes to a greater appreciation for the world, to even the Haibane who inhabit Abandoned Factory. The connections that Rakka builds with other characters – especially Reki, which becomes critical to the plot in its later stages – are a treat, too. The first-episode scene of Rakka's wings bursting forth hits with an impressive level of intensity, which follows up with a sequence of incredibly heart-warming appeal as Reki helps her through the process. The next few episodes take a lighter tone which includes occasional doses of fluffy humor, such as the regular problems Rakka has with static electricity from her halo, which causes her hair to be unruly. The first appearance of the Day of Flight at roughly the series' halfway point marks a transition to more weighty fare, as that incident touches off a gradual emotional cascade which shapes the series' second half, generates even more intriguing new mysteries, and builds toward a beautifully-executed climax in the final episode which can pack quite an emotional punch without feeling gimmicky. In fact, the only significant flaw in the writing and pacing is the sometimes-awkward placement of the mid-episode and episode-ending breaks, and that is a factor that can easily be overlooked.
The visuals also play into the overall feel of the series. While the artistic effort by Radix (Sakura Wars, Nazca, Silent Möbius) may have been fairly sharp by early 2000s standards, age and higher-quality TVs have made its shaky points – the occasional lapses in quality control, some roughness in places, heavy use of still shots in some late episodes – stand out more, and the series was not a visual masterpiece to begin with. Still, the less refined look actually works to the series' advantage, as it gives an old, run-down feeling which complements the old, warn, warm feeling that the setting evokes. The meticulous detail in the background art is often not evident unless one specifically looks for it: the carefully defined bricks and stones in walls, the cracks in the plaster, the rust on the CG-animated windmills (and this is one of the best examples of its era of smoothly integrating in CG elements), even the bones of a dead crow in the well scenes. A subdued, earthy color palette keeps the tone at just the right level of cheeriness, and character designs are memorable ones devoid of the carefully-tweaked moe style points which became prominent later in the decade. The rendering quality varies some, looking especially sharp in some scenes but less defined in others, and the animation, while not top-notch, is plenty sufficient to let the distinctive personalities of prominent cast members show clearly. Many series may look sharper, but few have a more fitting artistic style.
Though used sparsely in many episodes, the musical score nonetheless is used quite skillfully. Never is it allowed to come to the forefront; always instead does it linger just under the surface, providing only a light but fitting complement even in the most dramatic scenes. The graceful instrumentals heavily dependent on traditional European instruments (appropriate, as this is a European-styled setting) compose the bulk of the score and also work together to form the wonderfully appropriate opening theme “Free Bird” (no, not the Lynyrd Skynyrd version). Masumi Itou's closer “Blue Flow” uses fitting lyrics but is otherwise less remarkable.
Funimation has retained Geneon's original English dub (done by New Generation Pictures) for this release – a wise move, as the dub is an excellent effort by all involved. Though the English cast members aren't always perfect matches for the original Japanese performers, each is an ideal fit for her role and on-the-money with the performances, which is a bit of a surprise given that only two of the main cast members (Carrie Savage as Rakka, Kirsty Pape as Nemu) are long-time anime regulars. Kuu sounds just as childishly exuberant in English as she should, though, and Kana is just as cheerfully brash and rough-edged as one might imagine. The well-written script changes nothing more than it has to, allowing the dialogue to consistently sound natural.
Unlike many other recent Funimation rereleases, this one is still only available on DVD, and how much this one could actually benefit from a Blu-Ray upgrade is highly debatable anyway; even showing the DVD on an HDTV helps bring out the occasional artistic flaws, after all. The 13 episodes come on a pair of disks along with a number of Extras: an interview with Abe and director Tomokazu Tokoro, series trailers and commercials, clean versions of the opener and closer, an alternate “Special Ending” which features series credits set to alternate visuals and a light jazz song, and an extremely brief bit of bonus animation. The Next Episode previews are also listed separately in the Extras menu. Apparently not carrying over from the original Geneon singles are assorted art galleries and physical inserts, so this rerelease is exclusively aimed at newcomers rather than convincing established fans to double-dip. Funimation's advertising tag line for the release also hedges on being a spoiler, as the aspect of the story that it refers to does not become apparent until late in the series.
Haibane Renmei never does explain anywhere near all of its mysteries, with new developments being thrown out even in the final scenes. While that could be a point of annoyance for some viewers, the way the scenes at the end refer back to the scenes at the very beginning show that the series has told a complete, stand-alone story, and to go any further would be to force a different approach than the magic that is shown here. Knowing what is beyond the walls, what the nature of the walls is, and why everything works the way it does is ultimately not as important as seeing lovable characters satisfyingly complete their long and sometimes trying journeys while others carry on in their absence. At that the series has few equals.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Intriguing setting, charming characters, well-developed and highly satisfying story, good English dub.
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