Um.... wow. A rather interesting person (David R) at one of the local anime stores recommended this title to me. Which I am in his debt for, because I enjoyed this rather a lot. I can see the similarities to Niea under 7, but that doesn't detract from the power this title wields. It's not going to be the easiest one in the world to write a synopsis for though.
The series begins seemingly within a dream, a dream of falling, but the falling isn't scary. Part of the reason for this being that the person falling, a young girl in a simple white robe, has no memory of anything. Who she is, what she's falling towards or even how she reached this state. Skills she remembers, she seems to have retained all the things she has learnt, but nothing about her as a person, not even a name.
And so she is reborn, fully formed, into a small group of individuals who call themselves the Haibane (ash wings) for a definitively non symbolic reason. They are all marked in a very visible way, each of them has only fragments of a dream as memories, and they all live together but as outsiders from the wider community. It turns out the town itself is also odd, totally ringed by a wall that is never crossed, by rules that seem to have some secret intent, and by a faith that guards the way things are. The task of the lead, named Raka after her dream of falling, is to find her place as a person, as a Haibane, and as a friend in this strangely dreamlike yet manifestly real world.
A review is effectively, to at least some extent, a spoiler. I've done by best to reduce this effect in the synopsis above, because I have great respect for this title. On the other hand a review has some value because people are so different, my treasure is someone elses tedium. It was this title that made me consider that fans fall, broadly, into two camps. One camp wants entertainment, while another wants meaning. One expects energy, event and excitement while the other is willing to accept stillness, expression and suggestion. This title is definitively for the second group, it is a title about people and meaning. In short the action quota is firmly in the negative.
Those who do find character drama interesting simply must give this title a try. It really is one of the most impressive pieces of work I've seen in a while. The first, and most important reason, is quality and depth. This is hard to bring out in a review, there's no one thing I can mention to demonstrate it and it's hard to capture in words. However there is a wonderful solidity to everything. It's so easy to believe in the superbly realised characters, in their lives which are often mundane but also tinged by the strange world they inhabit, even the world itself just seems to have an immense depth. As if you could open any door and find more stories and characters within it. This goes beyond craft and skill and into the realm of art, the creators of this piece seem to have invested themselves fully in the expression of this story.
The context of the story is also a superb foundation for the character work. The Haibane are clearly marked as being special, almost mythological, creatures. There is no doubt that they have an important task to complete. But they are at the same time entirely mundane, burning the toast, being lazy or selfish, having flaws and dreams. The community that surrounds them is also masterfully ambiguous. With strange rules, such as the fact that Haibane cannot have money or own anything that is new, I was fully expecting them to be discriminated against by outsiders. But it doesn't work like that, the normal people are kind but always aware that the Haibane are separate. Even the rules, the wall, the priests and the many rituals of these people can be either restrictions or protections depending on how they are seen.
The world sets the stage, the nature of the Haibane provides the power, but there is also a strong story arc. Something relatively unusual in these strong character pieces. But something allowed here because the world is not entirely real, and as such it's free to have the dark magic of fairy-tale and myth hidden in the shadows. The characters cannot entirely settle into the comfort of routine, there is a pressure and there is something important they must do. Even if the first step is discovering what that is and how they can. And the resolution of the story is not entirely separate from the character giving power to both. And the stories are powerful, intensely depicted, but they're also not malicious... there is no "enemy" needed in this story. The conclusion, when it comes is both very satisfying while actually being surprisingly ambiguous, which is quite a trick. And then there's a second arc to the story, which has been building in the background of the first, which is even better.
In short this is superb stuff. Extremely likeable characters, intriguing world and a dramatically powerful story. Superbly written, designed and directed. It's also very well animated. The characters look great, move well and express themselves with great clarity. Even a character in a full face mask, we never get to see his real face, manages to have a huge dramatic presence. The world is very well brought out, detailed enough to be real and capable of being both beautiful and cold. A lovely touch for the ambient helps a lot, clouds, light, rain and wind all give life to the scene we watch. The voices are near perfect, including some wonderfully mature voices (Whoever did Reki is a maestro) and the music and ambient sound is superb. The songs would be strong in themselves, but when matched with the vision and story, they carry even more power.
A young girl is reborn (rather literally) as a Haibane. As one of these people she has intelligence and character, but absolutely no memory of her past. It does seem that she has reborn with a purpose though, a secret both within the world and herself that she must master. It's a character and story driven anime, wonderfully animated and realised, so if you can cope with drama you might well find this a very rewarding experience.