Sunday, July 15, 2012

Haibane Renmei 3: Temple -- The Communicator -- Pancakes

There aren't very many shows that can be described as "supernatural slice-of-life", but Haibane Renmei thus far is among them.  Its first three episodes are dedicated to laying out the life of the angel-like Haibane in the quaint locale of Old Home.  These episodes (and possibly the rest of the series, for all I know) are consumed with the quotidian and the almost banal.  It's world-building, but of a different sort than we usually see.  We still know basically nothing about what the Haibane are, or the world around them, or the mysterious and fairly ominous figures that run their nice little city.  But we know how they pay for things, how they raise their children, and what each of their hobbies are.

It's useful to contrast this with something like Game of Thrones.  In that series we get broad exposition about far-flung corners of the world and significant moments in history -- we have a much better picture of the world at large.  But zoom in and things start getting fuzzy.  After two seasons of Game of Thrones I still have no idea how the average person in that world lives, or at least not as much of an idea as I do of the ordinary lives of the Haibane after three episodes [1].  Haibane Renmei's focus points to a more sociological idea of fantasy, which imagines societies in the ways favoured by leftist historians that denounce the "great man" figure and focus on broader social trends and common experience.

Of course, the main difference is that whereas leftist historians are extremely critical of these aspects of society, Old Home and the village around it are thus far pretty idyllic settings.  There's work to do, but it's all pretty pleasant work, like baking and teaching.  (It's also work that's traditionally gendered feminine, although I'm not sure about the larger significance of this.)  Everybody is friendly and the worst conflict is a little mischief or childish misbehaviour, as at the end of the episode when we find out that Hikari has been using the halo mold in her baking.  The art style supports this mood, being full of thin lines and soft colours, creating a pleasant, nonthreatening, and sometimes soporific effect.

As newly hatched, Haibane Renmei's protagonist Rakka needs the world explained to her, which makes her a convenient proxy for the audience.  It's an age-old device, but it works well here.  But even for an audience surrogate Rakka seems strangely passive, constantly out of it and a little inept.  At first this makes her seem like just another hapless moe heroine, I would argue that this actually stems from the divide between her physical body and mind and her lack of experience.  We're used to thinking of the mind as developing naturally with experience, to the extent that we often fail to distinguish between the growth of the two, but Rakka presents the question of whether we can imagine a set of developed mental faculties without any set of memory or experience, newly pushed into the world.  This isn't a purely academic question either, as it raises a lot of the issues surrounding the fluid memory we know in the real world.  Rakka's strange combination of passivity, childlike curiosity, and frustration could just as easily belong to an amnesiac or an Alzheimer's sufferer.

All of the series's episode titles are triptychs, but they don't represent a rigid seperation between acts as they would in, say, a traditoinal Saturday-morning cartoon.  Instead they suggest a gentle flow from one story to another.  "Temple -- The Communicator -- Pancakes" (the title, not the episode itself) brings together three different things: the vaguely religious connotations of the series, the mysterious and faintly ominous Communicators which suggest a deeper mythology, and the genial adventures in child-raising that Rakka undertakes in this episode.  These conjure up disparate moods and disparate objectives, but in the actual episode they all appear to be of one cloth, belonging to the series's natural rhythm.  It's a magic trick that Haibane Renmei isn't afraid to brag about.

Let's start with the first part.  Japan has a complicated relationship with Christianity, greeting it with the same mixture of distrust, fascination, and incomprehension as it does most of Western culture.  Anime offers a good window into this.  There are fairly few portrayals of actual Christian religious practice -- the recent Kids on the Slope is all that comes to mind.  Instead, Christian mythology is taken and taken apart into material for fantasy.  Whereas American Christian fantasy mostly takes the whole mythos part and parcel, usually adding in its own interpretations (even something as irreverent as Dogma basically maintains the whole schema), anime has no compunctions about abandoning most of it and grasping the parts it likes into a completely new framework.  This can be seen in the jumble of Christian symbols within Evangelion[2] or Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne.  To be fair, the mostly secular Japanese culture largely treats Shinto and other Eastern religions the same way.  Some have accused shows like Evangelion of not really understanding the symbols they use, but this suggests a certain reverence for the symbols' original meanings that is disrupted by their repurposing within a genre narrative.

And so we have the angels in Haibane Renmei, who have wings and halos and live in a church but have no apparent link to the role of the angels in Christian mythology.  Is the town they find themselves in Heaven?  That would explain the generally warm atmosphere and lack of conflict, but if so it also suggests that Heaven is a very restrictive place and one that can promise contentment but not happiness.  The haibane still go to work, raise children, and have minor spats with each other -- it's just a bit more pleasant than the world we live in.  Given our experience of our fellow humans this seems to be the only version of a broad afterlife I can imagine.  So maybe the Christian mythology in Haibane Renmei is more closely tied back to its origin than it first appears.

This brings us to Rakka's interaction with the titular Communicator, one of the stranged mask men that seem to govern the haibane.  His title is somewhat ironic -- he is the Communicator because no one else is allowed to speak in his presence, only replying with a movement of the wings to signal "yes" or "no".  At the same time he hides his face, preventing anyone from reading his expression and discerning identity or information he doesn't want to divulge.  In the realm of silence, he does appear to be a mighty communicator, but it is only because of the norms that subdue all creation.  A neat metaphor for the state, the church, and really any other institution.

Of course, thus far the Communicators are presented as fairly benevolent rulers -- they accept Rakka as one of their own without much in the way of trial.  But Rakka was already a haibane.  Through this process of confirmation, the Communicator subtly transmutes an article of fact into an article of government approval, creating an appearance of generosity and acceptance while really simply tugging her identity into its realm of control.  (One could make an analogy between this and gay rights if one was really determined.)  This fits in with the general politics of the town.  They leave charmed lives, at the expense of their own autonomy and freedom -- none of them can leave, and their lives are rigidly expressed in official books.  This trade-off isn't as dystopian as one might think -- after all, we make a less dramatic but similar deal everytime we pay taxes.  But there's still something eerie to the Communicators and their obscurity, and I hope that Haibane Renmei isn't naive enough to make this setting utopian all the way through.

Finally we come to the pancakes, which make up a surprising amount of this episode.  The plotline consists of Rakka trying to convince the Young Feathers to eat rice, despite her own personal distaste for it, and then bribing everyone with pancakes to do it.  The main take-away from this is that Rakka is still in many ways a child, unaccustomed to the world around her.  But I'm not sure it raises above the cute-girl-does-cute-things genre that's become so common recently.  The main issue is the apparent lack of conflict or stakes.  Even in an utopian society there's friction between people and personal weakness.  The absence of any such thing in Gile is as eerie as anything else.

Next week: "You do not want this guy on top of you hitting you in the head."

[1] If this blog ever becomes popular enough to spawn a drinking game, trashing Game of Thrones as an aside will definitely warrant a shot.

[2]Same thing for a gratuitous Evangelion reference.

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