Haibane Renmei

My pal John Torvi up in Calgary keeps me up-to-date with the latest developments in the animation scene, and he has sent in this report concerning Pioneer’s new DVD release of Haibane Renmei, a Japanese anime series that’s getting rave reviews across the board. Here’s John. –Doug

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By John Torvi

I am fortunate in my volunteer work at the Quickdraw Animation Society to be able to peruse some of the stuff that is coming through our video library before it goes on the shelves for the membership. Found another gem–the Japanese TV series entitled Haibane Renmei (2002). Wow. A unique environment filled with mystery, beauty, betrayal, anguish, guilt, and redemption. You might as well check all your cultural references at the door though. You wonít need them.

The story concerns itself with a walled city in which haibane (angel-like creatures) are born into this world via cocoons which appear in an abandoned dormitory, the living quarters of the haibane. Not much explanation is given as to what haibane actually are, but it is suggested that they once had another life outside the wall. Haibane experience dreams within their cocoons before they “hatch” and based upon the imagery of the dream they are given a name. The haibane that hatches in the first episode is called Rakka which means “falling” for she had a dream where she was falling. We see this strange world through her eyes and her experiences.

The haibane live with humans within this walled area, and regularly help people. They are given jobs, for which they receive no pay but rather are given a notebook in which they record the amount of work they have done and use that amount to purchase items. They are only allowed second-hand items. There are many rules like this that haibane have to follow for their own protection, such as not going near or touching the outer wall, not approaching the “toga” (an outsider who trades goods with the people of the walled community), and not speaking unless permitted to when engaging the “communicators” (a group of wise priests who act like intermediaries, judicators, and council for the haibane).

Much of why this is so is never explained–to the actual benefit of the story. There are a lot of holes, things left out in what I would call “appropriate” places. This really gives the story a sense of mystery and wonder. Thereís a strong sense of an old civilization with a long history of co-existing with the haibane, and a deep undercurrent of meaning. All of the reasons why I like the Myst adventure game series, why I love Miyazaki movies, and why I enjoy Satoshi Kon’s work is all here. Thereís a magical mysteriousness to it all. Yet, there is also an original voice to this series.

In the extras on the DVD, the seriesí author, Yoshitoshi ABe, claims the story deals with redemption and his ideas of the divine: becoming human through relating with others; themes of acceptance, identity, forgiveness, closure, and wounds that are difficult to mend. The muted earth tones are understated and ethereal and really add to the dream-like quality of this series. The animation is on par with other higher quality anime TV series, and is complemented with excellent backgrounds and the subtle use of effects. Itís a deeply rich environment, handled maturely by a relatively young artist.

The Western imagery is not a literal translation though–the angels in this piece are not guardians, they do not fly, or pronounce heavenly decrees. They struggle. They hurt. They experience. Rakka at one point rails against a human who considers the haibane as good luck charms for the human population, saying that they should “stay happy” for the humans’ benefit. I think the reason why the Western angelic imagery is so successful here is because it gives a sacredness to the haibane experience, that what they are going through in this walled city is very important to them and those around them.

It is suggested, though not directly, that the haibane are people who have died and have left things undone. The world they live in is a way station between two worlds. It gives them the opportunity to deal with the emotional issues that they have before moving on. In this way you might draw similarities from the series to Hirokazu Kore-edaís After Life (1998).

The series does ask for a little more time commitment than a two-hour movie would, but this gives a lot more room for character development. One might think that with all of the magicality this might be suitable for kids of all ages, something like Miyazakiís Spirited Away. However, as a friend of mine put it, what appears to be a light story, really has some darker undercurrents to it.

Itís a series that will inspire conversations with each viewing.

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