Sometimes, earnestness and elegance can make you take an absurd imagine completely seriously; ditto for the story that’s built around it. Haibane Renmei’s (High-bah-NAY Ren-MAY’s) main visual, that of otherwise ordinary people sporting halos and tiny angel wings, might look ridiculous by itself, but the thirteen-episode anime transforms it into something wondrous and moving.
The viewpoint character is Rakka, the newest Haibane, and through her viewers understand the rules of her world. Haibane are “born” from cocoons in the city of Glie, and named for the dream they had before “birth”; Rakka is named for a dream of falling. She is provided with a halo, wings break from her back, and she must find her place at the Haibane nest of “Old Home”, an abandoned school.
Haibane live a mostly idyllic existence, but must take jobs in the town, and must only use discarded goods, except for their food. A wall also surrounds the town of Glie, which must never be touched and can never be crossed, since no one in town has any flying machines, and the Haibane themselves cannot fly.
Each Haibane is aware that they had a past life in the world outside, but that they cannot remember who they were. They all await their “Day of Flight”, in which a Haibane disappears for parts unknown. Rakka must overcome her own shock at a friend’s “Day of Flight”, and find it in herself to help Reki, a troubled older Haibane who has never taken the Day.
Although it is only thirteen episodes long, Haibane Renmei proceeds at a slow, leisurely pace. Nothing is loud or bombastic, and many things go unexplained. When the emotions cut deep, they are still subdued. It’s a sweet and intriguing experience, and weirdly soothing.
The exact nature of the Haibane is never explained, save that it’s likely they are not explicitly
Christian creations, since anime tends to use Christian imagery for special flavour instead of religious expression. However, that doesn’t mean that the Haibane cannot be tied to more general notions of sin and release.
A common theory is that the Haibane represent suicides and/or premature death, since suicide is likely not applicable to the “Young Feathers”, the gaggle of tiny toddler Haibane that also live in Old Home. It is thought that their new names have something to do with how they died. The “Day of Flight” is read as their ascent to heaven, perhaps after overcoming the “sin” of dying before their time, and the rules that Haibane live under are “punishment”. Or it is a morally neutral condition, and is simply the restoration of the natural order.
The soft nature of the series might make it hard to notice, but Haibane Renmei teaches some harsh lessons about grieving. That no matter how sad you are, you must accept that people are gone. Both Rakka and Reki struggle with the notion of the Day of Flight, but must learn to accept that it has happened, and will keep happening..
These theories still leave unanswered questions (such as why Haibane age), but that is one of the popular theories. However, Haibane Renmei is one of those works that leaves a viewer content to accept that some things will remain mysteries.
Nothing of what has been said makes Haibane Renmei a bleak series, but simply gives it an extra distinction. Just because a series says some pragmatic things does not mean that it’s bleak.
Another interesting thing about Haibane Renmei is that nearly all of the characters are female, including all of the main characters. Each of them are distinct and memorable, with very different personalities.
Old Home only houses women women and small children, but the Haibane of Abandoned Factory are co-ed, which means it’s not one of those weird things where only women can be Haibane.
Nor is it one of those other weird things, where a primarily female cast are really a set of “types” for the male audience to choose from, something that has become popular in recent years. Rakka and her friends exist “for themselves” and not for emotional titillation. The distinction is difficult to define, and ultimately relies on intuiting it.
Haibane Renmei is a good series. It’s got an interesting premise, a soothing atmosphere, and quickly became one of my favourite anime. I’ve heard it’s recently been re-released, so go check it out.