If I talk about anime forever, this show will probably always be the most unique that I ever get the pleasure of taking a look at. Beyond that, it’s got a charm to it that isn’t all that common, even in anime.
Released in 2002 by Studio Radix, this 13 episode anime is based on a small collection of dojinshi works by Yoshitoshi ABe, the character designer of Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze, and illustrator for Welcome to the N.H.K. If you are even a little familiar with those projects, then you already know, Haibane Renmei is something different, special, and beautiful.
ABe first began self publishing what would eventually become Haibane Renmei in 1998 with a short tale about people with grey wings and halos. In 2001, he reworked the idea into a 24 page story called The Haibane of Old Home, with a second issue following in 2002, along with a couple of collections of art work and ideas. In total, there was enough for about one and a half episodes of an anime.
Despite that, the concept was picked up for a series, and ABe again reworked the entire thing into the story of Haibane Renmei. The story follows the arrival of a new Haibane into the walled town of Glie. Named Rakka, for the dream she had while she was still in her cocoon, most of the series follows her as she tries to find her way in the world she has awaken in.
Within the story, Haibane are angel like creatures with small grey wings sprouting from their backs. Nobody knows where the Haibane come from, only that they appear one day as a plant like growth that becomes a cocoon. While in the cocoon, the Haibane has a dream that is meant to foretell their purpose, and after they hatch, they are given a halo which hovers above their head on its own.
Rakka soon befriends several other Haibane, especially Reki, the motherly figure who cares for the youngest of the Haibane, and often acts as counselor and guide to the rest.
The town of Glie itself is rather strange. Surrounded by a massive wall that appears to be made of a single piece of stone, no one is allowed to leave. Only the Toga, mysterious robed figured, ever come or go, and they only speak with the Renmei, a strange order of monks that watches over the Haibane. Large wind turbines provide power, but no one seems to know who built the town, or when, much less what the world outside the wall is like.
Despite this, the townspeople are pretty happy and outgoing. The Haibane are instructed to serve a purpose, and in return, have their needs met. What purpose is up to the Haibane themselves. One, Kana, works on restoring the towns old clock tower, while another, Nemu, works at the local library.
Haibane tend not to be around for long, so the towns people rarely get overly attached to them. Nemu is the oldest of the Haibane, having lived in Glie for nine years. Eventually, every Haibane has their Day of Flight, when they vanish from the town, in a pillar of light. Typically, this is done away from town, and alone, for reasons no one really knows. The Haibane are just drawn away, and vanish.
The series raises a number of questions, but makes no real effort to answer any of them, ABe preferring for people to sort out what it all means on their own. The most popular theory is that Glie is a bit of a purgatory, a place between Heaven and Earth, where souls who are not ready to reincarnate go to sort out what is holding them back. Much of what is established in the series seems to support this, as Reki has frequent nightmares involving being run over by a train, and Rakka always has a lingering sense that she failed someone, often symbolized by a crow she recalls seeing in her cocoon dream.
What it all really means is, of course, beside the point. At it’s heart, Haibane Renemi is about life. The story begins with Rakka’s “birth” into the world, and follows her as she struggles to understand what the world even is. Slowly, she gains knowledge and experiences, becoming like a child, then a teenager, and finally, and adult. Many important milestones most people experience can be seen symbolized by the shows narrative.
When one of the other Haibane has her day of flight, Rakka is left desolate and struggling to understand why they are just gone, and why no one seems to care. Many people experience the death of someone they know at some early point in life, and the questions that arise from it are frequently struggled with by most people.
In that same vein, Rakka often struggles to find what she can do to be useful. The struggle to find our place, to figure out what we are good at, what our talents, gifts, and skills are, is pretty universal. As is her long struggle with trying to understand what sin means.
Within Haibane Renemi, sin means something a little different than it does in most religions. Here, it is mostly used as a metaphor for things we’ve done wrong, regrets, past mistakes we wish we could undo, and the like. It is easy to become trapped in the cycle of trying to figure out what to do, how to handle it, and how to move forward. It is difficult to learn how to forgive ourselves, and in so doing, free ourselves of the cycle, or the sin.
As one of the Renmei puts it to Rakka at one point: “To recognize one’s own sin is to have no sin. So, are you a sinner? Perhaps this is what it means to be bound by sin. To spin in the same circle, looking for where the sin lies, and at some point losing sight of the way out.”
Basically, Haibane Renmei is an allegory for life. A rather beautifully executed one at that, that culminates in the acceptance of adult hood, and the passing of that mantle from the one who has done the guiding, to the one who will do so in the future. As a parent would to a child.
To put it another way, it’s deep, yo.
I can say yo! Hush you.
The animation for Haibane Renmei is fully half the beauty of the series. Utilizing muted earth tones and soft lighting, coupled with gentle, frequently slow moving animation that is fluid and never feels rushed, the series is a pleasure to watch. It creates a sense of warmth, and relaxation, while being welcoming. Basically, it’s just plain pretty.
The character designs, done by ABe himself, are all unique and easily distinctive. You know what show they are from just by glancing at them. At the same time, they have a feeling of genuineness to them, as if they could be real people, while still being distinctly anime characters. It really is some of Abe’s best work, and Reki is one of my favorite character designs in all of anime. There’s a warmth to her, as well as a strength, and a sense of loneliness and fear, all of which radiates from the design.
Haibane Renmei was directed by Tomokaku Tokoro, who also directed Hellsing Ultimate, so let that sink in for a minute. The same guy who made Hellsing Ultimate, the uber violent gore fest, also directed this sweet, simple, soft, gentle little anime about life. Really, this guy deserves to be handed a ton more work.
With Haibane Renmei, he takes a very light touch, allowing the camera to frequently linger on some of the more beautiful backgrounds, or on the characters as they talk. He avoids frequent cuts and pans, allowing things to happen in a way that feels natural, as if we are there, watching it all unfold. He takes a similar approach with lighting, letting it be natural, but warm, giving everything a bit of a soft glow.
The music was done by Kow Otani, the legendary composer for several Gamera films, as well as the video game Shadow of the Colossus. He also composed the music for a lot of anime, including the famous Outlaw Star, the 1995 Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, and psychological horror fest Another. With Haibane Renmei, he goes for the subtle approach, with soft lyrical scores that almost vanish into the story, becoming such apart of it, it’s hard to recall them. Yet, without them, the show would not be the wonder it is.
Some time back, I talked a bit about his work on the opening credit, with a piece titled Free Bird. Click over there to hear it, and you’ll have a solid sense of what the music for the whole series is like. In a word, gorgeous.
Actually, it was the very first OP I covered in my Striking The Right Note series, way back in June of last year. I still sometimes catch myself humming this song, and it was what made me want to talk about opening credit sequences to begin with. It tells a story, all by itself.
Overall, Haibane Renmei is a very unique viewing experience. There’s no action, and really, it’s very little beyond characters talking to each other. But there’s a sense to it all, a weight, a feeling of importance that is often missing from many productions. Not just anime, but in general. That subtle feeling as if this is something you need to sit up and really pay attention to. That feeling permeates every frame of Haibane Renmei, making it one of the most rare and beautiful of productions of any kind.
One made entirely with heart.