This is about Haibane Renmei. It’s also not really about Haibane Renmei, not really.
Let me explain.
Haibane Renmei is a generally highly-regarded, extremely pretty and artistically significant entry in that genre of media about sad looking girls suffering as a metaphor for some big ideas. It’s safe to say it’s not my cup of tea and I say that as someone who doesn’t even drink tea. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and atmospheric and thoughtful and poignant and everyone I know has a crush on someone in this story, even the people who aren’t massive lesbians.
What’s more interesting to me about the story of Haibane Renmei, which I want to remind you I described as beautiful and atmospheric and did not, in fact, say anything bad about, so please don’t get mad at me, is the story about how it got made.
In 1996, a Japanese doujinshi artist, operating under the pen name AB, produced a story called Charcoal Feathers In Old Town. AB was at the time, 25 years old, and an avid consumer of online media and adapter to early technology. He produced webcomics, and took his amateur comics to amateur comic conventions, where he could show them to people who were interested. People turned up at these convention spaces to buy and consider amateur comics, comics that were being produced by people who could speak to a work even if they didn’t own it, people who could either create their own cheaper stories than a big-name Manga production studio, or people who could, yes, admittedly, draw characters they liked doin’ it.
By 2002, AB’s work, Charcoal Feathers In Old Town had been revised and reiterated and been made into a production anime called Haibane Renmei. Between those dates, AB became known as Yoshitoshi ABe, the capitalisation a deliberate homage to his routes in the doujinshi circuit. He also made Serial Experiments Lain (another entry in that same genre) and TEXHNOLYZE, an anime with a lot of gore and cyberpunk and also a challenging name to actually say aloud.
This is not a remarkable story.
It seems it, to those of us working in the Amateur Production mines, twenty years later, when the internet as a talent hothouse has only brought about the scholarly consideration of an ‘attention economy’ that strangely enough doesn’t work except by monetising the attention of the already rich. But this is a garden of talent, audiences, observation, and creation that works in a cultural space where the standards between success and failure aren’t the gap between Never Getting Any Audience versus Working At Disney. Part of what works here is the presence of an audience.
The things you can think to make are informed by the things around you that you understand as being made. I speak to this having come from a space where our creativity was actively and aggressively curtailed. Growing up, I knew dice belonged to some games, and I even tried taking those dice out of those games to use in other games, but this was seen as a misdeed, and I was punished for that. I was raised to think that music was composed by a small collection of people, in one window of time – a century, mostly, with the latest contributor to the musical canon being Fanny Crosby, who died in 1915.
Friends of mine visited Japan this year. Each one of them remarked, in utter awe, at the availability and commonality of craft stores and products presented in their particular fields of interest. This matches with other friends visiting the country, in the past, who found collecting models and figurines or books were all easier in Japan, and friends who were into voice acting or theatre found the culture of people engaging with those things was also very different when they visited.
If I wanted to learn how to use a guitar, right now, I would talk to my dad about borrowing one of his – then I wouldn’t ask him for help, but that’s me and him, not anything about the culture at large. Then I’d look it up on Youtube and wait until there was a time when Fox was out of the house where I could discretely see if I felt like I was wasting my time. Then I’d keep learning how to practice until my practice was at a point where I could trust myself to practice in front of other people, which means I’d only be practicing on those days when Fox was unavailable. But that’s me, that’s my now.
What if I wanted to get into cosplay? Similar process, but I’d be going to stores I don’t know. I’d be checking out Spotlight or second hand stores for stuff to work from. I’d reach out to friends in the field, but if you didn’t have my friends, I guess you’re absolutely hooped. If I wanted to get into animation, I could look up tutorials, make some stuff on the internet, and then, eventually, move to America.
In the culture I’m from, there’s just not the same resources, the same cultural infrastructure, for pursuing these interests. If I wanted to go and play football every weekend, even if I was bad at it, there would be plenty of sources that I could reach out to; if I wanted to brew beer in my home or learn how to mix electronic music, I could immediately think of resources that are obviously present and available in my area, even though I’ve never gone looking for them.
There’s this fairly famous anecdote told mocking modern art, where someone puts something random in an important space in an art gallery, and then people walking past discuss what it might mean and they’re inevitably impressed with how great it is, and it’s meant to represent the idea that these people are pretentious or stupid assholes, what are they doing caring about something I didn’t care about much. It’s so old an anecdote, my dad has told it, and I know for a fact it never happened to him because there’s no way he was ever inside an art gallery.
It talks to an idea of art that’s just wrong, though, because art is not the artwork put down, not in its whole and sum. The art is also how the audience engages with it. It needs an audience, it needs to convey something to the people who look upon it. The artist in this anecdote didn’t try very hard, but the audience was still able to find resonance – which is much more remarkable than telling them they ‘shouldn’t’ feel anything about it.
This is the thing I think about, when I think about Haibane Renmei, a series that I have seen bring beloved friends to the brink of tears.
I wonder how many other people’s favourite thing has been made, and lies waiting in the world, for someone to find it, and convince them to check it out. I think about my friend’s books, and how hard it is to get people to read them. I think about my other friend’s games, and how hard it is to get people to play them. And yes, time to time I think about my own work, and wonder what I can do more to be more worthy of an audience.
It’s hard to avoid thinking about it, sometimes, when I see people become very successful, and know my own work just never is going to appeal or engage in the same way. I don’t have that audience, and I don’t connect right with them.
No real moral.