The paranormal things that lurk deep in Japanese culture have exploded through to Western audiences through horror movies, anime and even old traditional block prints depicting ghosts, demons and animal spirits. Among the most creative depictions of Japanese spirituality, connectness to nature and the supernatural world are the films of Studio Ghibli, most of which have recently been re-released in North America in wide distribution via Disney. If you haven't already, I highly recommend delving into these beautiful masterpieces of animation, especially Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2001), Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997), Pom Poko (1994), Kiki's Delivery Service (Majo no takkyûbin, 1989) and My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro, 1988), all of which draw strongly from paranormal themes including witchcraft, nature spirits and ghostly folklore. For those who think animation is strictly for kids, think again. These films are geared to wider, more mature audiences, offering deep meaning and complex commentary on contemporary issues through their adventurous stories. It should even appeal to people who aren't typically interested in cartoons.
A rarer find in the vaults of Japanese animation is the 13-episode Animax-Asia series Haibane Renmei. It aired in 2002 and was based on the self-published dojinshi novels Charcoal Feathers in Old Home by Yoshitoshi Abe (who also created a very spooky, surreal series called Serial Experiments: Lain). Haibane Renmei would appeal to fans of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner or those who enjoyed movies such as Memento and Wings of Desire.
The story begins with a young girl, Rakka, falling through the sky. A black crow tries to rescue her, pulling on her nightdress, to no avail. Before hitting the ground, she awakens to find herself inside of a massive cocoon. When she hatches from the strange womb, Rakka finds herself an unexpected place, a huge half abandoned institution called Old Home.
The teenaged girls and children who reside at Old Home all have small grey wings sprouting from their backs and haloes hovering over their heads. Rakka, herself, in a rather graphic scene sprouts wings of her own and is adorned with a halo. The following episodes methodically follow her adaptation to her new life, reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan's Number Six awakening in the surreal Village in The Prisoner. Just as Number Six had to report to Number Two with no knowledge of who Number One was, the Haibane report to a strange master, a man wearing a creepy mask who ceremoniously directs the Haibane. There always seems to be a greater purpose, but no one speaks of it, heightening the mystery. Old Home is also located near a European styled village surrounded by walls of which no one dares step outside. Although Rakka has an eerie feeling about her life before arriving at Old Home, she has no memories of her past.
The episodes slowly reveal the strange relationship between the wingless adult villagers, the master, traders from outside of the walls and the angel-like children from Old Home. Each of the older girls occupies a volunteer job to help out in the village in return for supplies and second-hand clothing. The villagers quietly revere and accept the Haibane (Charcoal Feathers), although they occupy very separate existences.
Angels are a popular theme in Japanese anime, and there are many parallels in Haibane Renmei to religious beliefs reflective of purgatory, confession, seeking purpose and the mysteries of creation. The mere existence of the Haibane is a mystery explored throughout the series, and by the midpoint of the series, there is a dramatic plot twist and Rakka becomes determined to find out why she has found herself in this situation and what lies beyond the walls surrounding Glie. It goes from a quiet series to something quite intense.
In addition to the superb exploration of the meaning of life and life after death in this series, the animation itself is truly stunning. There is a fine combination of southern European architecture blended with pastoral nature scenery. The drama and emotion of the series is further heightened by the tremendous, Celtic and classical influenced score composed by Kô Ôtani (who also did the music for the Gamera monster movies about a genetically mutated giant turtle. The dialogue may at times seem simple, but it does capture poetic expression of life and nature.
The full series is available on DVD.