Haibane Renmei Vol. 1

Even when a show is championed by critics, there's no guarantee that it will be a hit. Though I've been hearing about Haibane Renmei for a couple of years now, the chatter's only been coming from folks I know and respect in the anime reviewing community. With a script from the creator of Serial Experiments Lain, Yoshitoshi Abe, I knew it would likely be intriguing. So why was the buzz so low? Perhaps it's because Haibane Renmei is everything that more brutish anime fans won't touch...it's quiet, contemplative, slow, with nary a robot in sight. Like its predecessor, there are more mysteries than answers in this first volume. And yet, despite how much I enjoyed Lain, there's more sense to this show, more wonder and awe. If Lain was a melancholy dive into the recesses of the Internet, the first volume of Haibane Renmei is a gently compelling piece of sunlight that has touches of both sadness and joy.

A young girl is falling...falling...ever falling, with a raven as her only companion. Where is she? Why is she in this cloudy descent? Suddenly, she finds herself scraping at a wall of goo that, when broken, leads into the real world - at least, that is, the real world of the Haibane. Like humans only with halos and small wings on their backs, the Haibane hatch from cocoons. Our heroine, whom the other Haibane name Rakka, is now one of them. She can remember how to talk and how to ride a bike, but any memories of the past before hatching from the cocoon are gone.

As Rakka starts to get used to this strange new world, she learns that the Haibane live in the outskirts of a city. No one leaves the walls of their town; only a group of traders are ever allowed in. The Haibane live a simple existence, working for those in the town willing to take on their services. One works at the bakery; another minds the "young feathers" who sometimes hatch at an early age. Though their appearance is different from the humans, no one seems to mind them. There are lots of little rules to their world, but all seems well enough...no crime, no problems, just a day to day satisfaction. Rakka starts going to work with each of the other Haibane, and she grows fond of them. Still, she wonders what her life used to be, and what lies beyond the walls...

From my perspective, Haibane Renmei is a unique show not because we haven't seen its components before, but because they've never been put together quite like this. The simplicity and realism of life is not that far from shows like Piano or Boys Be..., yet the angelic figures are striking, having a relatively mundane existence despite being creatures with no history and a lot of questions. It's a mystery exactly what is going on in this world we're presented, but the show moves with such grace and elegance that I didn't mind that it took a long time to introduce the characters and their roles. It's deliberate in its measured approach, and despite that not a lot happens, the 100 minutes contained on the disc felt like all of 30.

Part of the reason for this has to do with the musical score, which is absolutely beautiful. The music for Lain was a key ingredient; the opening and endings set the tone. All the more here! I couldn't help but listen each time to Haibane Renmei's closing theme, both haunting and beautiful, and the instrumental piece that opens the program is also impressive. Though I didn't notice the music within the show itself very much, it works to establish a sweet and melancholy feel. Animation freaks will not be quite as impressed. The artwork is consistent and the models stay on target, but it's not particularly detailed. There's a slight fuzziness from time to time which I believe to be the intent of the creators, but it might annoy some folks.

But where is the show going? I don't know, and in this case, that's exceptional. The first four episodes play their cards closely to their chest, as it were. Will the secrets of this town be revealed? Your guess is as good as mine. But it is so very well told that I can hardly wait to see the rest. It's in the small touches that the show succeeds. It's in the static electricity that keeps Rakka's hair permanently attracted to her halo. It's in the gal who uses a halo maker to help her bakery make donuts. And it's in the yearning gaze of Rakka who wants to know the secrets that may never be answered. It is simple yet also subtle. And subtle, frankly, is just not seen enough in anime.

I don't know if Haibane Renmei will be able to keep me captivated for another three discs, but I hope to find out soon. It's moved to the very top of my Netflix queue. Even my wife, who's not a big anime fan, found herself intrigued enough to want to watch more. It may not work for those who want anime to fulfill their every stereotype, but for me, this was a blessing...real angels or not.

Haibane Renmei Vol. 1 -- mild profanity -- A