Released by: Madman Entertainment.
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 (anamorphic)
This series opens enigmaticly with a young woman seemingly falling from the sky, a crow tries briefly to stop her fall but she plummets further before blacking out. Emerging from a giant coccoon she finds she can't remember who she was or how she lived beyond the dream of falling she had. Aided and comforted by the fellow Haibane who welcome her to this world she grows her wings and is given the halo that befits her status as a Haibane and makes the first uncertain steps into the dreamlike world they inhabit.
If it weren't for the wings and halo one could be forgiven for thinking this to be purely a slow moving character drama. But as an old adage goes 'still waters run the deepest'. The slow pace here is largely a settling time with more going on that you realise that gives us all time, including Rakka the aforementioned newly born Haibane, to adjust to the world the Haibane inhabit. Living within the environs of a walled town they live to a very restricted set of rules that is governed by the Haibane-Renmei organisation.
What these rules are, why these rules are and how they are important for the Haibane is a significant part of the story. So it is important to spend the time learning them and seeing how 'ordinary' life is for them. However this process is slow moving with little obvious plot occuring. That isn't to say it is boring, the very oddness of the world and the interaction of the Haibane provides entertaining viewing - especially as you sort out how the relationships work.
This is a deceptively simple and slow moving start to a series that lays the groundwork for it to go places but isn't itself intensely dynamic. Given the level of oddness surrounding the world these Haibane inhabit it is quite understandable that the introduction would need to be a long one but it could be offputting for some. If the visual look appeals then I say for those people who find the start too slow that you have to at least try volume two where the setup begins paying off and the pace picks up. Make no mistake though, this isn't a guns and violence or similar high octane title. This is very much a quiet character drama where the interest and excitment of the story comes from seeing what happens.
On the more technical side, and I am watching the R4 version of this series, we have little to complain about. An anamorphic transfer gives the series room to compose scenes dramaticly, something it often exploits. The transfer itself is bright and clean with no hint of aliasing or MPEG related artifacts. The only complaint to be had visually is that the animators didn't always handle characters moving into or out of a scene gracefully at times. Occasionally such rapid movement looks a little clumsy but it is a minor and slightly niggly point. What the animation gets right consistantly is expression, characters act in this and none of the more conventional anime visual lexicon of emotional shortcuts is used.
On the audio front we get only a 2.0 track for both languages but given the largely dialogue based nature of this series that isn't to its detriment. What is a little disconcerting is the adherence to anime norms of slight overacting when it comes to expressive gasps, breathing and the like. Both tracks do this and from conversation with the English dub producer it was intentionally copied on the English track to keep it close to how the creators made it. It however is a little distracting because the animation of people is sufficiently good that you don't need extra audiable over-cueing to know what they are doing or thinking - simply watch their faces and body posture. It ends up slightly detracting from the core drama of the series by overselling things.
This is a staple of anime so probably won't bother many people. But as anime becomes able to support higher quality animation levels routinely I expect this to become a bigger issue. Underlying it all is a strong musical score that never intrudes but supports the series well. Especially strong is the opening theme which hits perfectly the right note of melancholy and happiness that the series needs.
Menu wise we have nicely themed menus, especially cute is the feather motif use for selections, but without the the annoying and overly flashy transition sequences. It is all tastefully done, slightly plain but straighforward and quick to navigate.
Finally some reviews have talked about the seemingly inconsistant interchange of the words ring and halo to refer to the halo like object that floats above the Haibane's head. This is not a translation error as the english producer himself has confirmed on various bulletin boards - the original Japanese script refers to the halo in two distinct ways so this is a deliberate attempt to capture that in the English dub. Overall it is an extremely well done dub bar the issue I mentioned above about expressive gasps - even this can't be held against it as it follows the Japanese dub quite closely in this too.
If you liked 'Serial Experiments Lain' or 'Boogiepop Phantom' then this series stands an excellent chance of being of interest to you. It is also worth revisiting the start of the series after watching it through to see and appreciate just how much foreshadowing was going on here to the story's overall arc.