Haibane Renmei (Volume 4: Day of Flight)
With 'Day of Flight', we find ourselves at the final volume of Haibane Renmei, and it is genuinely an emotionally-compelling trio of episodes which concludes this excellent series. Furthermore, this fourth DVD volume begins with the focus of the story arc already transferred definitively from Rakka to Reki. (This unique 'dual-focus' narrative isn't something I would have anticipated after viewing the first few episodes, where it initially seemed the storyline would mainly concern itself with Rakka's development. The transitioning from Rakka alone at start to Rakka & Reki in mid-arc, to Reki alone at the very end is very gracefully handled and Yoshitoshi ABe deserves kudos for this successfully implemented structure.)
With Rakka's own existential crisis positively resolved on the preceding volume of Haibane Renmei, the script now turns its attention fully to Reki's even more dire circumstances. Naturally the episodes continue to tell the story from Rakka's perspective, but each and every scene here is constructed with Reki's fate held firmly in mind. On a related note, I'm forced to recant my modest grumbles about the 'unnecessary' Abandoned Factory segments on disc three; the denizens of the other Haibane nest have a key role to play in the events leading up to the end of the show, and in particular without Midori and Hyouko there would be no chance for Rakka - and through her, the audience - to comprehend what has led Reki to this dark pass.
It's of course difficult to discuss this final stretch of Haibane Renmei without straying into the realm of serious spoilers, so I'll just close by reassuring everyone that the series does in fact end as strongly as it began, and that I can't imagine anyone not feeling an emotional catharsis as those last credits roll. Although I believe I have avoided ruining the show for anyone in the 'Episode Guide', feel free to skip down to the 'Picture/Sound' section if you'd like to avoid any taint of foreknowledge.
11: 'Parting / Darkness of the Heart / Irreplaceable Thing'
When Rakka brings Dai (one of the male Haibane 'children' of Old Home) to live at Abandoned Factory, the visit provides her with an opportunity to learn more of Reki's past. Speaking at some length with Midori - who has up to this point always seemed unusually antagonistic towards Reki - Rakka begins to understand that many years back, Reki inadvertently caused the ongoing schism between the two Haibane nests in Glie. Returning to her duties at the Renmei shrine, Rakka has a heart-to-heart with the Communicator over Reki's situation. There she learns for the first time quite how precarious it is, with Washi informing her that if Reki doesn't achieve her Day of Flight by winter's end, then her time as a Haibane will be over and she will have to live out the rest of her life as an outcast, cut off from normal society in Glie.
12: 'Bell Nuts / Passing of the Year Festival / Reconciliation'
As the Passing of the Year Festival approaches, both the Haibane and the 'regular' residents of Glie venture out onto the streets to purchase 'bell nuts' to present to friends and acquaintances, these painted colours which are each associated with a different emotional message. (For example, red means 'thank you for taking care of me', yellow connotes with love, and white would signify 'thank you and goodbye'.) Reki deliberately presents Hyouko with a bell nut a good week in advance of the festival, and when questioned about the timing simply states that she doesn't have much time left and walks off. In the wake of her departure, Midori and Hyouko finally explain to Rakka precisely what Reki did that not only created the rift between Old Home and Abandoned Factory, but also started her on the spiritual downward spiral she's been pursuing during the intervening years.
Rakka makes an interesting discovery in the depths of the Renmei shrine and confronts Washi about it, at which point he decides she is ready to learn her true name (and presents her with a sealed box containing Reki's true name as well, to give to her after the festival). However, the night of the festival there is a more pressing matter to which Rakka must attend if Reki is to receive Hyouko's reply to her earlier bell nut message.
13: 'Reki's World / Prayer / Epilogue'
It is the morning after the Festival and the only one up is Reki, who is saying her silent goodbyes to the sleeping Haibane of Old Home. However, when Rakka awakens and follows Reki into her studio, she discovers that the latter has painted the entire room in the stark phantasmagoria of her cocoon dream. As the final hours of Reki's life as a Haibane begin to run out, she still cannot bring herself to ask for anyone's help, and when Rakka presents her with the box from Washi containing her true name, it only causes her despair to deepen as she recalls the details of her prior death. Forcing Rakka from the room, Reki prepares to face her own dark fate as the former frantically tries to find a way to save her.
The technical aspects of volume 4 are naturally very similar to those witnessed on the previous three discs. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation remains crisp and devoid of encoding defects (e.g., macroblocking, rainbowing, etc.). The quite reserved and naturalistic palette is still one of the strong points of the animation, as are the very appealing character designs (which, as I've probably noted before, unmistakeably brand Haibane Renmei as a Yoshitoshi ABe production). Similarly, there's nothing wrong with the dual-language audio on this DVD: both the original Japanese soundtrack and the English dub are presented in clear and dropout-free Dolby 2.0.
The disc menus are the same as ever, but the special features list on this final instalment of Haibane Renmei opens with the rather exciting-sounding special ending. Alas, those expecting something along the lines of an alternate ending (or even an extended coda) to the story will be disappointed, as the 'special' ending is merely a longer version of the end credits scroll, presented entirely in English and with an odd song (also in English) playing underneath. As with the previous DVDs, there is of course a line art gallery on offer (very generously appointed with 40 screens of artwork), but where volume 4 easily pulls away from its predecessors is with the unexpected script cover gallery (featuring 13 images of the 'doodles' penned on the covers of the various script books, each done by a different member of the original Japanese production team, right down to some of the voice actors) and the informative interview with the creators (clocking in at almost eleven-and-a-half minutes). Finally, there's the obligatory 4-minute montage of trailers for other MVM releases.
I simply can't recommend Haibane Renmei strongly enough, and my overall score for this final volume is not only an acknowledgment of the strength of these concluding episodes, but a reflection of the quality of the series as a whole. Whilst not quite perfect, this is an amazing production which also provides an interesting comparison/contrast with Yoshitoshi ABe's more famous animé, Serial Experiments: Lain. While both series are fairly short (13 episodes each) and feature a young female protagonist trying to puzzle out a metaphysical conundrum in order not only to help a friend but to further their understanding of their own place in the universe, Lain seems slightly more belaboured and Haibane somewhat less rigid. Both series feel rather slow-paced compared to most current animé offerings, are philosophical at their cores, and leave a number of key elements open to disparate interpretation by the viewer. And yet whilst Lain relies heavily on modern technology as a defining motif, Haibane is comparatively pastoral and timeless, and in the end feels much more universal. All in all, Haibane Renmei is a stunning, heart-wrenching, and very intelligent show which deserves your attention whether or not you're a big animé fan.