Anime Review: Haibane Renmei

In the town of Glie, the Haibane, a group of people with angelic wings, eke out a living with whatever work they can find. The arrival of a new Haibane, Rakka, is met with occasion since the entire community must help integrate her into life in Glie. To Rakka, though, the world is very unfamiliar. There are walls she cannot cross, and her fate is tied to the mysterious Haibane Renmei, which seems to govern the town. Eventually, Rakka must learn to appreciate what it is to be a Haibane, and solve the mysteries of her past.

Plot

This time, I’ll avoid putting too many words between you and the bottom line. I consider Haibane Renmei to be the best dramatic anime of all time. The story weaves together tragedy, existential thought, and a detailed fantasy world into a uniquely elegant tapestry. Most importantly, it is an earnest exploration of the human condition – of what makes and shapes our lives – that yields deep, meaningful insights.

Haibane Renmei avoids many of the pitfalls of serialized anime in terms of presenting its story. Right from the first scene, we have the arresting image of Rakka falling, and a mysterious crow trying to save her. This is a prelude to one of the major story threads of the series, where she must reconcile with her unknown past. For the first few episodes, we are gradually introduced, alongside Rakka, to the world of Glie and its workings. The fictional setting is so detailed – complete with its own history, laws, and folklore – that the introductory episodes feel purposeful and necessary. It also establishes the alienating quality of the town, which better helps us understand why Rakka’s relationships with the other Haibane are so important to her.

Looking past the surface of this intricately crafted world, we can see how it has been tailored for the story. The transient nature of a Haibane’s existence forces the question of mortality on an emotionally vulnerable Rakka, who doesn’t yet know how to handle her feelings of loss when she first learns of the “day of flight.” It also raises the question of the meaning of the Haibane’s existence, or whether there is any at all. The subject is analyzed through several different viewpoints, quickly revealing its complexity. Glie is a place where life is more or less static, so how can a Haibane make her mark?

There are strong indications, actually, that Glie is some form of afterlife. Accordingly, another major theme in the second half of the series concerns the nature of sin and atonement. This boils down to a more basic issue: the relationship between action and intention. Which of the two bears meaning? Director Tokoro Tomokazu fills the series with such difficult questions, but works them in subtly enough that they reinforce the story without dominating it (to see what I mean, see Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which puts too much emphasis on its own philosophical drivel). These questions are always studied through multiple perspectives, usually contrasting Rakka’s naivete and ignorance with the experience of another character. The revelations are hard-earned, as they should be, sometimes providing comfort, other times causing malaise.

Every time I watch the series, I’m impressed by the way it balances its intellectual musings with fine dramatic writing. The two are treated with equal care and respect, and are used to supplement each other. The consequences of the Haibane life cycle have an especially pronounced impact on Rakka, raising the previously mentioned notions. Haibane Renmei never forgets about the humanity of its characters, and as a result, the tragedy in its story hits deep emotional chords. There is real value in Rakka’s struggle to understand her existence because it is so pertinent to our own lives.

In all honesty, it’s very difficult to fault a series as good as this. I suppose the directing style is sometimes too innocuous for the seriousness of the topics featured. For one, there are a few lulls in the plot that could have been streamlined to keep the narrative moving. Also, the mystery about the wall and the role of the Haibane Renmei could have stood a little more scrutiny. However, these flaws are insignificant in light of the overall quality of the series.

The story’s development is organic, shifting between moods and feelings, playing on our sense of wonder and even terror. This diversity, the series’s greatest strength, allows it to be enjoyable and thought-provoking on so many levels. With an unmatched dramatic proficiency and strong philosophical undertones, the series is an ideal display of the potency of the anime medium. Haibane Renmei, in the most profound sense of the phrase, is true art.

Characters

The cast of Haibane Renmei is limited to a handful of prominent figures, all of whom shape Rakka’s growth in key areas. The Haibane are featured as a familial unit, somewhat separate from the human inhabitants of Glie. As such, they share a definite camaraderie. Rakka is quickly induced into their circle, and it’s easy to see why she grows dependent on that bond of friendship. When one of those bonds breaks, we get to see more of who Rakka is and who she will become.

The most important Haibane in Rakka’s life is Reki, who becomes a maternal figure for her. Reki is a complex individual whose actions arise from unknown motivations. She seems straightforward enough at the start of the series, but once Rakka becomes “sin-bound,” we see that she has been scarred by a traumatic event in her past. The effect of her past on her relationship with Rakka takes center stage for the conclusion, the resolution of which is quite compelling from a character standpoint.

Kuu is another important Haibane, although her role is much less revealing of the Haibane’s condition. The mark she leaves on Rakka is fundamental to the progression of the story, even if her initial significance is understated. Kuu, unlike Reki, has gained an acceptance of the semi-limbo that is her life. Reki, in contrast, is constantly trying to do more for her community – whether this is an act of atonement or selfishness is ambiguous. In their distinct ways, they contribute to Rakka’s understanding of Glie.

By having a character-driven narrative, Haibane Renmei provides a large amount of exposition without making it feel forced. Apart from being parts of the story, the cast is depicted as a functional component of the fictional setting. That is to say, their lives have a continuity independent of story events. For much of the series, the Haibane are shown not to be anything extraordinary. It’s a reminder of our imperfection as humans, possibly hinting at the idea that death (if we take Glie to be the afterlife) does not change our essence.

In addition to Kuu and Reki, Nemu, Kana, and Hikari form the core of the Haibane at Old Home. Their personalities are more drawn from stock characters, but I wouldn’t say they are extraneous to the story. Haibane Renmei‘s characters are unequivocally humane, and are integral to the show’s dramatic presentation. In a manner of speaking, they are the story. As such, the viewer comes to rely on them as much as Rakka does, creating an empathy that transcends the limitations of the medium.

Technical

The visual style of the series is quite stark, using the moodiness of the autumn/winter boundary to make Glie look isolated and foreboding. Old Home, though, looks cozier in order to show the tightness of its community. Certain locales take on a very definite aura, such as the field of windmills or the underbelly of the wall. With a very earthy color palette, the visuals sometimes look a little too drained of warmth.

ABe Yoshitoshi’s character designs are rather ordinary, as they tend to be. With the exception of the Haibane Renmei’s Communicator, the characters look fairly unremarkable. The idea of setting the Haibane apart as winged humans (the core of ABe’s original concept) invokes the image of the Christian angel, which introduces the possibility of Glie as the afterlife (that is, even before the story is set into motion). Otherwise, this concept does not solidify until close to the ending.

Otani Ko’s soundtrack is very folksy and in line with the homely aesthetic. It meshes well with the Haibane lifestyle, which is sustained by thrift merchandise and relative simplicity. You could almost call some of the melodies Americana because of the old fashioned quality of the sound. Other pieces, including the opening music, are sweeping and haunting. Along with the well-timed use of ambient noises, they play a large part in establishing the moods of various scenes.

The last part of the technical production, the voice acting, is also very refined and professional. I found little to complain about, but there weren’t any standout performances either. Hirohashi Ryou does a commendable job as Rakka, with a delivery that conveys a troubled innocence. Noda Junko sounds natural and at ease as Reki, with a voice that is very recognizable out of the female-dominated cast.

Despite the good quality of its production, it’s all frustrated by the DVD transfer, which makes the video look slightly washed out and blurry. This is a common problem for anime DVDs of the time. I wish Geneon would consider remastering and re-releasing the series to do justice to its visuals.