To this day, I still don’t really know why I picked up the first disc of Haibane Renmei when I saw it sitting there in the store. I don’t recall ever hearing much about it beforehand, and a quick glance at the synopsis would probably have done nothing to really pique my curiosity. Perhaps it was the moody, ethereal artwork on the cover, or that Yoshitoshi ABe’s name appeared in the credits.
Whatever the reason, though, I did pick it up and subsequently found myself enthralled by the series’ world, almost from the first moment. And to this day, Haibane Renmei remains one of the most unique, thought-provoking, and affecting anime series I’ve seen.
Haibane Renmei’s greatest strength lies in its ambiguity. Now, much of anime loves to toy with ambiguity and engimatic elements, be it through shadowy character motivations, obscure philosophical/religious/cultural references and discussions, or half-explained technological deus ex machina. But oftentimes, these simply feel like attempts to instill more depth, substance, and style to a series than it really needs, demands, or supports. And so when all is said and done, the weaknesses only become more glaring, and the series more frustrating and underwhelming than anything else.
This is most happily not the case with Haibane Renmei.
The series’ main character — or at least the character who serves as the audience’s anchor throughout the series’ thirteen episodes — is a young, pensive girl named Rakka. Rakka is one of the “haibane,” angel-like creatures (complete with a halo and wings) who are hatched fully grown from cocoons. Though they live in their own communities, they are required to hold jobs in the human town of Glie by the Haibane Renmei, a quasi-religious order who watch over the haibane.
Rakka is born into this strange world with little to no knowledge of her past, and spends much of the series trying to figure out her place in the world, her nature as a haibane, and her relationships with both other haibane and the humans of Glie. Her questioning, and her anxieties, become even more insistent when Kuu, a young haibane and one of Rakka’s first friends, disappears one night. The other haibane claim that Kuu has experienced a “Day Of Flight” and has left them, but Rakka is left in deep depression.
Needless to say, countless questions arise within the viewers’ minds as the series slowly and serenely unfolds. Just what, exactly, are the haibane? Are they really angels, or something else? Why is Glie surrounded by a wall that the town’s inhabitants are forbidden to cross over? Does the wall protect the haibane, or imprison them? Who or what is the Haibane Renmei? Who are the Toga, the only people allowed to leave and enter the city? What, exactly, is the so-called Day Of Flight? And finally, what is the mysterious “Circle Of Sin” that Rakka becomes obsessed with as the series continues?
In addition to all of the questions raised by the series’ world, Haibane Renmei also explores some surprisingly weighty spiritual themes. The necessity of forgiveness and redemption, the nature of sin, the joys of community and friendship — all of these are explored, or at least hinted at, as the series unfolds. Folks unused to the existence of complex-yet-affecting narratives in animation might find themselves pleasantly surprised at such explorations, as well as how poignant they eventually become.
Few of the questions raised in the series are answered definitively, and oftentimes, the answers that are given only lead to more questions. But such ambiguity and vagueness is neither distracting nor annoying, nor does it feel like any sort of artistic cop-out on the part of the series’ creators. Rather, the questions serve to draw viewers even further into the haibanes’ world, giving them just enough to tease their imagination and ultimately requiring each viewer to draw their own conclusions.
The pacing, tone, and mood of Haibane Renmei is serene, even somber — which aids the viewer in contemplating the series’ enigmas. There are some humorous moments here and there, but the series maintains a fairly melancholy tone throughout — especially as Rakka struggles with the loss of Kuu and finds herself embroiled in another fellow haibane’s crisis. However, it’s to the credit of creator Yoshitoshi ABe (who originally created Haibane Renmei as a self-produced manga series entitled The Haibane Of Old Home) and director Tomokazu Tokoro (Hellsing, NieA 7) that the series never becomes too overwrought or melodramatic.
The series’ artwork and animation is simple, with minimal CGI, yet never feels cheap or unfinished. Indeed, it’s often lush and gorgeous (and don’t be surprised if the word “Miyazaki” comes to mind more than once). The series’ pacing is another plus, moving gently and giving the viewer time to settle more fully into the series’ unique world.
Adding to the series’ atmosphere is the music of composer Kô Ôtani. The soundtrack moves from folksy, vaguely Celtic and baroque tunes to more eerie, ambient pieces. Both of which work wonderfully, the former matching the series’ vaguely European setting and the latter adding to the mystique that permeates every episode.
Even though anime, in all of its diversity, has become increasingly popular here in America, and its popularity shows no signs of abating any time soon, it’s probably safe to say that most folks still have a number of preconceived notions about the artform. Namely, that all anime is completely (even hilariously) over the top, laden with violence, sex, and giant robots, and so on.
However, Haibane Renmei absolutely defies all of the anime cliches that Americans continue to perpetuate. And it does so with an incredible amount of grace, beauty, and mystery. I’ve watched Haibane Renmei several times now, and each time, I find myself drawn back into its unique and mysterious little world, captivated by Rakka and the rest of the characters and their relationships, intrigued by the themes and questions raised, and finally, deeply moved by its ending… even if I maybe understood only half of what really happened.