Review: Haibane-Renmei (2002)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

All stories are myths. All myths are stories. I think in this day and age we’ve forgotten the origin of stories, their true nature, or if we haven’t forgotten we at least take the understanding for granted. We go to movies and read books and buy DVDs and we want to know it all — why this happens, who did what. We don’t like loose ends, unfinished tales, ambiguities. We don’t give a moment’s thought to the fact that storytelling is not a one-way deal, it requires our participation, and we don’t think about where our stories once came from, from the places deep within ourselves and our cultures, where imagination was not merely a form of visual stimulation but spoke to the soul. Once upon a time, our stories were myths, and had a power beyond their mere entertainment value. Once they taught us the meanings of the world, unravelled the mysteries of life, helped us understand the unseen, and they didn’t once tell us how to do it.

To discover that this spirit of storytelling — the true spirit — is not dead, is a fine discovery indeed.

The Webster’s 1913 Dictionary (according to says this of the myth:

  1. A story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; an ancient legend of a god, a hero, the origin of a race, etc.; a wonder story of prehistoric origin; a popular fable which is, or has been received as historical.
  2. A person or thing existing only in imagination, or whose actual existence is not verifiable.

I would like to add, after watching the first volume of Haibane-Renmei, a third definition currently missing from this list. It would simply read:

     3.  Yoshitoshi Abe

For Haibane-Renmei is a story in the truest, most ancient sense of the word, a modern myth that we can look to not just for pleasure but for some glimmer of individual understanding. In fact, to refer to it merely as anime seems somehow inadequate. It is a something delightful and moving, subtle and sweeping, humorous and unsettling, and begins speaking on a level not entirely visible of things not yet seen. To think that it began life as a series of small vignettes without any real narrative, published in a doujinshi (self-published manga) would come as a surprise, except that when you see it, it is this delight in small things that shines through, this exploratory creativity which lends Haibane-Renmei its magic.

Yet as with Abe’s other projects (Serial Experiements Lain, where he worked as character designer, and NeiA_7 where he was co-creator as well as character designer) there is an underlying tension; not necessarily menace as such, but mystery — the sort of darkness that is unsettling only through the absence of illumination. The first volume goes a long way to establishing this subtext of almost-disturbing mystery, with crows and masks and dreams and walls, but never does it relent in the delight and wonder which is the overall feel of the story. And this perhaps is Abe’s greatest talent; to be able to balance light with dark, so that rather than dominating they compliment naturally, in a way that recalls stories of old, told long before the moving image was even a fledgling invention.

It is this sense of natural balance that carries through Haibane-Renmei, into almost all aspects of its production, with colour and sound contributing heavily to the overall mythical quality of the story. It is no accident that Abe was also involved somewhat in these aspects of production. In the artist’s own words, too many strong colours means you “cannot tell which one is the main one, resulting in a less memorable image” (Hairston, Animerica, Oct 03), and it is an approach to art which seems to have stained his storytelling also, to viewers’ benefit. One gets the impression, as subtle and subdued as it is, that when something happens in the small, quiet town of Glie, that the effect will be both visible and memorable, and that not only the characters, but the observer as well will be forever changed.

This is not something that could be thought of as undesirable as the opening song Free Bird by Ko Otani soars into its distinctive refrains. The darkness lingering on the edge of awareness is as inevitable and natural in the context of myth as the story’s inherent charm. Without that tension, there would be no tale, no lesson, and ultimately the viewer would neither feel for nor learn from the characters and their story. Yet with so little – hints revealed in gentle increments – Abe is able to let the viewer care, and let them make their own meaning, and brings back to the art of anime the soul of the myth.

9.5 Grey Feathers and Baked Halos out of 10.
Bookmark the permalink.