With such a surreal series as Haibane Renmei there has to be a careful balance of familiarity with the unreality the series requires to make it work. Part of that balancing act is to be careful to not explain too much - this is what shifts the series being merely clever to becoming a classic because enough room is left open for the viewer to engage with the story and interpret it for themselves. Consequently the musings resented below are merely my own take on the series and what it presents.
I want to start off with the technical aspects of the series. While the animation budget was limited in many aspects, you can see this in the various forms of visual time saving animation cheats that get used, one thing the series did not skimp on in the slightest was expressive animation of the face. In this anime, much like PatLabor : Wasted XIII, the faces of the characters emote clearly and allow you to understand their thoughts without aid of the now familiar visual lexicon of emotional icons that anime has. (teardrop for nervousness/tension, red hash for anger etc...) It is in fact done so well that one of the other emotive aids used often by anime actually becomes a little distracting.
Here I am referring to the audio work done in terms of gasps, sighs and other little non-vocal expressive utterances that get used to reinforce the action on screen. With many anime this is vitaly neccesary as the quality of the drawing doesn't permit unambiguous distinction of emotional state. This is no reflection on the artists working on such series as it has to be remembered most anime is produced to TV deadlines and budgets. Fine detail work simply hasn't been possible to do in the volume required for TV until recently where increasing computer assistance eases the workload enough to permit much more ambitious animation quality to be attempted. It has to be noted that even now many series suffer from an animation quality drop mid to late the way through their run on TV, with additional cleanup work being performed for the DVD release to correct such flaws.
But it struck me that such audio work was actually now serving to over-sell the actions and reactions of the characters. To my ear it became redundant and to an extant cheapened the story by making such reactions too easy to read. In essence almost distilling the tone of storytelling down to the level required for junior readers who often need a hand as they are still learning how to read such things. Now I am overstating the issue a bit with that but I hope you can see the point I am making - for such an intelligent show that has spent so much time preparing the visual work it struck me as odd that such care hadn't been spent adjusting the vocals to match the sophistication of the visuals.
It pequed my curiousity enough that I got in contact with Jonathan Klein the scriptwriter and director of the english dub. It turns out he was very approachable and quite interesting to talk with regarding the dub and the reasoning behind it. He has appeared on various discussion boards arguing that the English dub should really be considered to be a related but slightly seperate take on a series. This is something I agree with entirely as the langauges do require interpretation at times when converting between them - some concepts and grammar simply doesn't translate well directly between the two. It was with this in mind I had the following conversation (which has been edited down somewhat from the email exchanges to keep it relavent.) :-
(Philip Banks) One question though that I thought you would be able to give a unique and cogent answer to, why the need in English dubs to follow the Japanese tradition of over emphasising character movement & emotion? I speak of all the little gasps, grunts and related noises that serve to indicate a character's mental state and physical activity. I realise these are very much a relic left from earlier days where the animation couldn't be finely detailed enough to express emotional state through the imagery alone and you often needed a vocal cue to tie down what a character was thinking (much as the red hash symbol, teardrop and other visual shortcuts were developed.).
But it struck me that with such a detailed animation as Haibane Renmei the pressing need for this is greatly reduced and the need for vocal reinforcement of emotion could be reduced a bit more to realistic levels. Did you consider doing this or was it more that you felt you had to stay very close to the same level of vocalisation as the Japanese dub?
(Jonathan Klein) As for your question (which is a very good one might I add), my best answer for you is that I am a firm believer in being faithful to the original Japanese. That doesn't mean imitation, but I am so used to the Japanese style of the non-dialogue utternaces by the characters, I almost feel that if I ignore them in the English track when they are there in the Japanese track, I am doing the show a disservice.
(PB) I understand completely. Certainly I had been entirely used to it myself till I started showing various anime to my mother, who at the age of 64 is just now getting to appreciate and enjoy anime, and she brought it to my attention. It is something that you quickly learn to accept as a part of the medium.
(JK) But your point about the emotional cues being read from the faces are quite true. I find that many anime titles I do work on don't have that facial range of expression to allow for those elements to be read simply from the art itself. Haibane was probably one that did, and I'm sure many of the emotional elements would have been read just as well if there was no "gasp" or "ah?" and the like. But on the other hand if you listen to Haibane, the audio composition is sometimes so barren that these non-dialogue utterances by the characters, sometimes breaks the tension in an already tense and mysterious show. Texhnolyze and Paranoia Agent (the shows I am currently directing) also have those elements to them. But I believe that you'll find less of these utterances in Paranoia Agent than in something like Haiabane simply because I think Satoshi Kon understood what you meant and had the animators take to heart the idea of letting the facial expressions tell their emotion.
(PB) That makes sense although, as I have said, my tendancy would have been to subdue this as much as possible. I also probably would have dropped the echo off Reki's speech where she is describing the studio as her coccoon because it too felt like it was overstating the point a little too much. But then those are very subjective calls and if they are the biggest niggles I have - then well I really have little to complain about.
(JK) Reki's reverb over that line about "this room is my coccoon", my rule of thumb was to match the Japanese sound effects, esepecially in that scene, because I wanted to show that this was no longer Reki's room, it had become another world (her dream). I think that was the intention of the Japanese and I thought I should follow it.
(PB) As I said it is a subjective call. For me that the dream had become reality had already been established by the maleable nature of the painting and the very explicit reference Reki makes to this being her coccoon - or that she really hasn't left it despite being in the town of Glie for seven years. Certainly given that the Japanese audio does indeed do the echo as well it makes sense given your stated preference to follow it closely.
I just feel it is an equally over-stated moment in the Japanese dub too, it surprises me that given a style of story telling that is traditionally understated that they chose such a blatant emphasis.
Now I have a great deal of respect for Jonathan's work and certainly he and the cast must have been doing a lot right because this is pretty much the only anime thus far I got sufficiently emotionally involved with that I was moved to tears by the series end. But it does mark one series where I would have liked to see the English version be a little more adventurous and move away from echoing the Japanese audio track so closely. I think while you would have some more zealous anime fans complaining that the dub differed too much you also would have had a better dub aestheticly speaking. It is a very minor point though and I am most appreciative of the time Jonanthan took to explain his reasoning.
This leads me nicely to the contemplation of what Haibane are. Reki offers the most clues in this regard as her story shows that Haibane are clearly the animus of someone who has died. I hesitate to use the word soul because that has quite a few historical and religious connotations that I don't think strictly apply. Not that the series makes this easy, the wings and halo give the series a superficial Christian bent which again it would be a mistake to rationalise the series as. The major reason I have a problem with comparing it too closely is that Christian mythos ties very closely to individual redemption as its primary goal. It is a very singular and individualistic notion that you must make the choice to accept your creator to then have the mistakes, or sins, you have committed in life be absolved.
Haibane Renmei isn't about absolution nor is it about the redemption of self. Indeed the Communicator's central riddle emphasises that the concept of self redemption is inherently mistaken and the central thrust of the story, as exemplified by Reki, is that redemption is through the forgivness of others as they help you overcome your own faults. Those who try to redeem themselves alone end up trapped unable to fully understand their dilema or even to recognise that they have one. It is very much a series that affirms the need of social connections and of finding your place within that social grouping. In this respect it is a very Oriental tale where social harmony is a much more prized factor in life.
Why do I say that it is about social redemption? Well several key clues are dropped throughout the series. The earliest has to be Rakka's observation that the town and its inhabitants are all interconnected and supporting each other in obvious and unobvious ways. As Kana observes the townfolk almost seem protective of the Haibane and careful to ensure not only their well being physically but also mentally by letting the Haibane do jobs around town rather than be indebted to the townsfolk. At the same time the Haibane are kept from doing much other than fairly light work. No workaholics here - my suspicion is that this is deliberate to give the Haibane time to contemplate their existance as well as simply spending time with other Haibane. Kuu, Reki, Kana and Nemu all have plenty of time despite working for various interests and hobbies. (Reki painting, Kana doing up the clock in the Old Home Clocktower, Nemu preparing the book for her Librarian friend and Kuu in collecting things and spending time amongst the windmills.)
The deliberate structure of the town can also be evidenced from incidental dialogue by the townsfolk including the observation from one that they aren't supposed to interfere in Haibane matters much. We also have the interesting rule about only being allowed second hand items. Some might see this as relegating the Haibane to second class citizens and indeed the AnimeOnDVD review mentions as much. There is some truth to the thought but it serves a much simpler purpose - to remind the Haibane that their time in Glie is limited. Literally they are allowed second hand goods because they are second hand people, ones who haven't resolved some key issue in their psyche that caused problems for them in their last life. The second hand nature of the goods they can use serves to remind them to not get too comfortable because their time is limited - they need only make do till they are ready to move on.
A second good indicator of the deliberate town structure is series of Walls surrounding town. Dangerous in and of itself the Walls serve as the protector of the town and create a safe haven for the Haibane to exist in. We get told in episode twelve that the Wall collects the thoughts and memories of the townspeople throughout the year, which are released in the passing of the year festival. But we also know that the Wall condenses out some of those thoughts in the kohaku, or material that is used in the fabrication of halos.
It shows the self-reinforcing design of Guri. All designed to feed the thoughts, feelings and emotions of the town back in on itself - not just to the Haibane but for the townsfolk as well. The Haibane are regarded as blessings on the town too remember.
It all points nicely to a very social outlook on the afterlife and indeed on the point of life in general. Yoshitoshi ABe himself has been quoted by fans as saying that no particular religion was the basis for his work and I tend to believe him. Yes there are christian overtones, shinto overtones and buddhist overtones as well. Enough that you can make allusions, I've seen the series compared with the concept of the seven deadly sins and each Haibane representing one of those sins, but I think to do so misses the simple truth of the series - we aren't meant to be alone and it is how we relate to others that defines us.
Which is a very simple and sweet sentiment.