Yoshitoshi Abe’s ‘sad,’ immaculate style is the key to everything in Haibane Renmei – the character designs, as in Serial Experiments: Lain, are made for melancholy and modernist ennui. They’re slightly rounder and softer than is typical for anime, and more introverted: Most anime hair goes out, but these characters have hair that goes straight down. Everything points inward.
In Haibane Renmei, the first series Abe wrote and designed visually, the inwardness creates and limits the show’s appeal. External conflict isn’t the main concern. His characters have passions and desires, but they’re subdued. The wild and flailing histrionics that mark much of the medium are only present here in small amounts, and they have a sort of apotheotic release.
Renmei takes place in a strange town where no one can leave save for birds and the members of a mute religious sect. And it isn’t just people who live there – there’s Haibane, young people with wings, who live in the abandoned parts of town. Where they come from and what purpose they serve is a mystery to everyone. Apparently, they come from the air, first as little seedlings, then as big cocoons.
As the show starts, Rakka, the newest Haibane, is getting used to her new life. The other Haibane, especially Reki, sit with her as wings grow out of her skin (a riveting piece of animation).
The “Old Home” (their abandoned schoolyard) is languid and easy-going. The Haibane work in town, but they can’t accept money. Reki stays behind to raise the kids (which is confusing, since the Old Home Haibane never consorts with boys. Assuming they sprouted, why did Rakka come out as a fully formed adolescent, and these children much younger?). Life and the series move at a slow, uneventful pace, with the rhythms of Old Home life punctuated now and then by the shadow of the mysteries that hang over the place.
Haibane Renmei is cryptic. If you expect any great payoff, you’ll be disappointed. By the end of the show, you don’t know why the Haibane do what they do, why the town is isolated, or why they’re there. In fact, we know less, since their own speculation is open-ended and largely contradictory.
If that matters to you, Haibane is going to be one long, boring trip. I enjoyed Haibane for what it is: a bittersweet fantasy where the protagonists don’t know what’s happening to them, or what their purpose is. Futility is all, yet they persist in muddling through. It’s a lot like life, but less depressing than my explanation makes it seem.
Much of Haibane‘s interest lies with the characters, which on the surface are fairly typical anime folk, only less so: Rakka is the main character, and thus a boring blank slate; Kana is the loudmouth tomboy; Hikari is the flighty, pretty one, etc. But they don’t act in bold, hyperbolic strokes (the anime style); they use a veneer of politeness to hide their true selves. Hikari is selfish. She doesn’t know it, but her thoughtlessness is a drag for others. And though she has the front of mild introversion and ever-present politeness, Rakka is impatient, dissatisfied, and ready to reject anything she has for vague desires. None of this manifests itself directly, and the development of the characters (though not deep) is a cut above most series.
Abe is that rare thing in anime – a clearly recognizable voice. Hopefully, he gets more opportunities to show it, and doesn’t get shackled to the unreliable stories of Chiaki Konaka, who wrote Serial Experiments: Lain (yay!) and Texhnolyze (boo). The most underutilized tool in animation is understatement (particularly in the limited form of anime, where stylization has divested so much of its power), and Abe can do nothing but. I want more.