The trouble with people who have fantastic ideas is that I’m not one of them and the law is on their side should I choose to rip them off. Conceptually Haibane Renmei is far too cool for school. It looks great and the initial premise of the series is so far out there that like all good fairy stories it makes you sit up, take notice and want to believe.
Usually when you watch something for the first time there is a period of adjustment as you bring yourself up to speed with the characters and scenarios that the storytellers expect you to take for granted as the core narrative begins.
With Haibane Renmei we start with a blank slate, as does the central character, a young girl who falls from the sky with no memories of herself, her past and how she came to be in this situation. From here she awakes inside a giant and frankly disgusting cocoon in one of the rooms of a derelict building that is the home of the Haibane.
From the cocoon the girl is born into Haibane society as its newest member. She is given the name Rakka and starts to learn what it is that she has become.
To put it frankly the Haibane are a community of angels. They have fiddly little wings; cute halos and they live in a commune on the outskirts of a seemingly idyllic town. What initially seems like an innocent celestial Marxist experiment soon takes on a darker undertone as we realise both the angels and the townspeople are in fact forced to live within the confines of a huge walled compound from where they are allowed to have no contact with the outside world.
The Haibane are locked in a contract with the local temple by which they exchange labour for a system of receipts that allow them to buy only second-hand goods. Communication between the Haibane and their religious leaders is limited to sign language and bell ringing. None of this is explained or even especially dwelled upon in the first series, we simply join Rakka on her voyage of discovery as she starts to integrate into this new and confusing reality whilst trying to remember exactly where she had come from in the first place.
Haibane Renmie is both beautiful and engaging. The ideas and characters alone deserve attention and respect but there is something lacking in the flow of narrative. For such a strong idea there is a lack of urgency to the story and I was left feeling that so much more could have been done with it. The promotional literature that came with the review copy claims that this is on the same level as the work of Hayao Miyazaki the creator of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Haibane Renmie may be in the same stylistic ballpark, but doesn’t quite come close to Studio Ghibli’s anime classics.