Haibane Renmei (Volume 3: Free Bird)
As we move into the third volume of Haibane Renmei, we find that the events of the previous disc have set in motion a domino chain of cause-and-effect for both Rakka and Reki, and it's unclear whether either will get to enjoy a 'happy ending' come story's end. In particular, Kuu's Day of Flight has only recalled to Rakka's mind the events of her life before the day she appeared in Old Home. Whilst she cannot actually remember what happened, she becomes convinced the situation was very similar… with the loss of a close friend causing her first to become disconnected from those around her, and finally to misdoubt that anyone would miss her if she too were gone. It is this eerie 'echo' of her pre-Haibane existence which now seems to have seized Rakka, drawing her onwards towards a choice… will the same dark cycle repeat itself, or is there a way for her to break free from it?
Similarly, there is a choice – equally parlous, but of greater urgency – ahead for Reki. It is only on the very last episode of this disc that we learn for certain something that has only been hinted at up until now… that Reki does not have much time left to achieve her own Day of Flight, and that her days as a Haibane are soon to be over. The narrative flow is particularly well constructed in that it is Rakka's arrival which starts the chain of events which now appears to be forcing Reki to break out of her own personal spiritual stalemate. Whether Reki can succeed in overcoming her trial (and whether Rakka has a more direct role to play in that, rather than merely acting as catalyst for the process) is something that remains to be discovered on the final volume of Haibane Renmei.
Whilst it's true that the rest of the Haibane (with the possible exception of Nemu) do not receive much in the way of character development in these three episodes, this is forgivable partially because they already have been reasonably fleshed out in the first two discs, but moreso because there was rarely ever any doubt that Rakka and Reki are the crux of the drama here, and both of them are greatly expanded upon over the course of this DVD. In particular, the tenth episode makes great strides towards exploring Reki's backstory and – for me, at least – succeeds in shifting the focus of concern from Rakka to Reki. (Whereas before I merely wondered if Reki would be OK, now I find myself worrying strongly that she won't.)
8: 'The Bird'
With the onset of winter just around the corner, Rakka's depression at the departure of Kuu waxes on apace. Unable to reconcile her feelings either for her missing friend or for her own existence as a Haibane, she continues to distance herself from the others at Old Home. Alone one day in the woods, she feels that the birds are leading her on towards something… and discerning an unknown object at the bottom of an old well, she attempts to climb down to investigate. Alas, she falls in and finds that she cannot escape. Revisiting the dream she had in her cocoon, she sees new connections between herself and the birds… but in the background Reki and the others search frantically for her.
9: 'Well / Rebirth / Riddle'
In the end Rakka is rescued from her predicament by two passing Touga, but loses her way as she attempts to find her way out of the forest and ends up at the massive wall that encircles Glie. Believing that she hears something emanating from it, she touches the wall just before Washi, the official 'Communicator' of the Renmei, discovers her there. As he leads her out of the woods, their conversation touches upon several key points, and he leaves her with a riddle known as the 'Ring of Sin' which does not comfort her. As she sprained her ankle in her fall down the well, Washi lends her his staff and leaves Rakka at the forest's edge, where her fellow Haibane find her. But shortly after they get her home, Rakka falls seriously ill… apparently an inevitable consequence of having touched the wall.
10: 'Kuramori / Haibane of Abandoned Factory / Rakka's Job'
The first part of this episode is constructed around a long flashback to the time when Reki's cocoon hatched at Old Home. We learn of her somewhat sinister initial appearance ('sin-bound' like Rakka, but her wings were tainted with the blight from the very start), the fact that the only person who was willing to treat her normally was Kumamori, and the fact that Nemu blamed Reki when Kumamori fell ill whilst gathering the necessary herbs to treat Reki's wings. Returning to the present day, Reki travels to the temple in the hopes of getting help for Rakka, but Washi merely reminds her ominously that she herself does not have much longer as a Haibane. In the end, Rakka is summoned to the temple to atone for breaking the rules (venturing into the forbidden woods, touching the wall, etc.), but her punishment takes an unexpected form.
Nothing has changed as regards the audiovisual presentation of Haibane Renmei. The picture quality is still more or less pristine, presented as a beautiful 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen print with no encoding issues as far as I can discern. Similarly, both the original Japanese soundtrack and the English dub are recorded in crisp, clear Dolby Digital 2.0 and suffer from no dropouts or distortions over this trio of episodes. There's not a lot of bass response or left/right directionality in either language, but this show doesn't desperately require either, and the main thing is that the vocal performances are competent by either cast of VAs.
Volume 3 revists the peaceful, static menus of the previous two DVDs, underpinned as usual by the gentle strains of the show's theme music. Special features include a mix of old and new, with the creditless OP/ED segments being replaced with a promotional trailer (just over 3 minutes in length) and a new programme advert (15 seconds long) from when Haibane Renmei was just about to air on Japanese TV. Otherwise, the extras menu is the usual, featuring an art gallery (40 images), the original episode previews as broadcast in Japan, and some trailers for other MVM releases. (And just to confirm, MVM's still doing a good job of remembering to offer optional English subtitles on all of the foreign-language special features.)
Make no mistake, Haibane Renmei is still a very slow-paced series, and if I would flag up any fault with the show, that would be the one. It unfortunately does require greater-than-average patience to watch, because – at least in my case – I am always eager to see what will happen next. Sometimes the lingering, introspective nature of these episodes seems designed solely to frustrate my desire to learn what will become of these characters whom I now care so much about. That said, this disc is full of strong material for both Rakka and Reki, and the only scenes I could suggest trimming are some of the ones involving the Haibane of Abandoned Factory. (But with my luck, they'll have a key role to play on the final volume and all this will have been necessary groundlaying.)