Haibane Renmei (review)
Fall 2002 (12 episodes) (title literal translation – Charcoal Feather Federation)
A young woman bursts out of a giant dandelion puff in the Haibane house, Old Home. She awakens stricken with amnesia, unable to remember her own name. But it’s explained to her that this is normal for newly emerged Haibane. Reki, the unofficial leader of Old Home, names the confused newcomer Rakka (the Japanese word for “falling”) because while she was in the dandelion cocoon she dreamed she was falling through the sky.
This is tradition and something of a rite of passage for Haibane—followed by bestowing her with a halo, and then the small wings that soon sprout from Rakka’s back. However, even after that ordeal is over, the mildly comfortable walled world of Grie she finds herself in holds secrets that may be too dangerous for none to know but a select few—the hermetic Haibane Renmei.
It’s a difficult setting to immerse yourself in at first, because like Rakka we the viewers are also just plopped in with almost no context about what’s going on. On some level, you have to go into this series knowing that its power lies not in storytelling, but in emotional impact. There are few anime that make you feel for the heroine with greater power than Haibane Renmei. After the opening confusion has worn off and Rakka starts to get settled, we are introduced to a segment that’s very slice of life as the town and the habits of this closed-off culture become apparent. But things are definitely not as simple as being reborn and finding a way to live happily. Some come into this world with tremendous burdens to overcome before they can achieve the peace they have been promised.
Flying in the face of all the niceties that generally dominate much of the series, the whole setting has an interesting bit of Orwellian vibe to it with the censorship of all information of what lies outside the wall. However, there’s never an indication that there’s some kind of dirty conspiracy, but a genuine safeguard to protect the town’s inhabitants from…well…from something ominous to say the least. And although this world is very clearly all about supporting the Haibane, it somehow manages to revere them with a sort of melancholy neglect. This mixture of conflicting impressions and feelings is what gives Haibane Renmei a very unique aura that you can only truly understand by experiencing it.
Where the show missteps is in its inability to fill in the large number of missing pieces. Initially I had the idea that this series was a fanciful interpretation of the Roman Catholic view of purgatory—a sort of halfway house of purification on the afterlife’s path to heaven. The imagery of the angel-like Haibane was certainly inspired by western religion, but at the series’ conclusion I didn’t feel like that intent was made clear. It’s more like the characters’ goal is not finding redemption or spiritual cleansing, but a journey of rediscovering their true selves after becoming lost on the twists and turns of life’s winding path. Interestingly, Angel Beats parallels a lot of the general broad strokes of Haibane Renmei in its overall concept and themes, and anyone who likes a good philosophical conundrum is going to enjoy this beautiful anime immensely.
Speaking of beautiful though, the music is a perfect match to the slow and peaceful setting with melodies that conjure an image of floating gently and putting a flutter in your heart when the moment is right. But then things get serious and the mood darkens; the light and airy steps turn into a dreary dirge that help you to feel the weight of the circumstances. All the same, I think it’s only a fair warning to note that Haibane Renmei is starting to show its age a bit. And while it has a very artful style for 2002, there are a few very stiff moments in the animation that remind you you’re watching something that’s 10 years old.
Really, so much of the story goes unexplained that it’s hard to reach any kind of definite consensus about exactly what’s going on. And for the most part that’s alright. It’s a brave creative choice on the part of the writers to leave so much of the setting blank for the interpretation of the viewer. Perhaps like the Haibane themselves you have to let the mysteries of the world stay hidden and enjoy living peacefully. In that way, this may be the anime that epitomizes the slice of life genre more than any other—with the notable exception of Kino’s Journey. But maybe the logical side of my brain just can’t shut itself off, because I was left wanting something more concrete after getting my emotions put through the ringer.