Haibane Renmei

[This review includes reworked material from my review of Vol. 1 of this series. To read the original review of Vol. 1, please click here.]

Even when a show is championed by critics, there's no guarantee that it will be a hit. Though I've been hearing about Haibane Renmei for a couple of years now, the chatter's only been coming from folks I know and respect in the anime reviewing community. With a script from the creator of Serial Experiments Lain, Yoshitoshi Abe, I knew it would likely be intriguing. So why was the buzz so low? Perhaps it's because Haibane Renmei is everything that more brutish anime fans won't touch...it's quiet, contemplative, slow, with nary a robot in sight. Like its predecessor, there are more mysteries than answers throughout the whole of the program. And yet, despite how much I enjoyed Lain, there's more sense to this show, more wonder and awe. If Lain was a melancholy dive into the recesses of the Internet, Haibane Renmei is a gently compelling piece of sunlight that has touches of both sadness and joy.

A young girl is falling...falling...ever falling, with a raven as her only companion. Where is she? Why is she in this cloudy descent? Suddenly, she finds herself scraping at a wall of goo that, when broken, leads into the real world -- at least, that is, the real world of the Haibane. Like humans only with halos and small wings on their backs, the Haibane hatch from cocoons. Our heroine, whom the other Haibane name Rakka, is now one of them. She can remember how to talk and how to ride a bike, but any memories of the past before hatching from the cocoon are gone.

As Rakka starts to get used to this strange new world, she learns that the Haibane live in the outskirts of a city. No one leaves the walls of their town; only a group of traders are ever allowed in. The Haibane live a simple existence, working for those in the town willing to take on their services. One works at the bakery; another minds the "young feathers" who sometimes hatch at an early age. Though their appearance is different from the humans, no one seems to mind them. There are lots of little rules to their world, but all seems well enough...no crime, no problems, just a day to day satisfaction. Rakka starts going to work with each of the other Haibane, and she grows fond of them. Still, she wonders what her life used to be, and what lies beyond the walls...

From my perspective, Haibane Renmei is a unique show not because we haven't seen its components before, but because they've never been put together quite like this. The simplicity and realism of life is not that far from shows like Piano or Boys Be..., yet the angelic figures are striking, having a relatively mundane existence despite being creatures with no history and a lot of questions. The show moves with such grace and elegance that I didn't mind that it took a long time to introduce the characters and their roles. It's deliberate in its measured approach, which continues throughout the series.

Part of the reason for this has to do with the musical score, which is absolutely beautiful. The music for Lain was a key ingredient; the opening and endings set the tone. All the more here! I couldn't help but listen each time to Haibane Renmei's closing theme, both haunting and beautiful, and the instrumental piece that opens the program is also impressive. Though I didn't notice the music within the show itself very much, it works to establish a sweet and melancholy feel. Animation freaks will not be quite as impressed. The artwork is consistent and the models stay on target, but it's not particularly detailed. There's a slight fuzziness from time to time which I believe to be the intent of the creators, but it might annoy some folks.

But is a show with no answers worth watching? In the case of Haibane Renmei, it is. Ultimately, without spoiling some of the key moments, the show is a voyage, one of redemption and one of acceptance, one of conquering fears and past sins and realizing forgiveness. Many of the questions that rose in the first volume are never answered in any clear way, but it winds up being OK. For part of the story of Haibane Renmei is about dealing with a world we didn't create. The angels never really learn why they are in their town, and they do not learn why they eventually go off into the woods to disappear forever in what is known as their "day of flight." They do not learn what is beyond the walls. But in a very real way, this is a metaphor for our own human existence. As a Christian studying to be a pastor, I do have a specific set of beliefs that inform me as to who I am and where I am going, and they give me at very least a spiritualized history of salvation and human destiny. But in a very real sense, we do not understand much of why we are who we are, born into the stations in life we have, and we have only the slightest notions of what waits beyond the walls of our own mortal existence. Haibane Renmei does not answer the questions of its characters' existence, but it describes that existence in such a way that both they as characters and we as an audience can appreciate it. Ultimately, Haibane Renmei may look like a story about angels, but it's really a story about us.

And even if all this sounds too theological or philosophical or heady, you should watch this show because it is so very well told. It's in the small touches that the show succeeds. It's in the static electricity that keeps Rakka's hair permanently attracted to her halo. It's in the gal who uses a halo maker to help her bakery make donuts. And it's in the yearning gaze of Rakka who wants to know the answers to all her questions. It is simple enough to be appreciated by a child but complex enough to send the mind spinning. It is beautifully subtle. And subtle, frankly, is just not seen enough in anime.

There are very few shows as special as Haibane Renmei in the world. This is a work that I wish would break beyond the barriers of the animation world because it is touching and personal, far beyond the average. It may not work for those who want anime to fulfill their every stereotype, but for me, this was a blessing...one that can make you believe that angels with tiny wings might just fly.

Haibane Renmei -- mild profanity, mild themes young children might find scary -- A+