Haibane Renmei

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Monday, March 3, 2014

They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve found myself enjoying anime series that are slower paced and have a good deal of mystery over the past few years. This is one of the main reasons I decided to check out Haibane Renmei, as the series seemed like would be able to mix slower paced slice of life with a good deal of mystery and fantasy. While it initially seemed as though this would be a mellower slice of life, there were a surprising amount of darker elements lurking under the surface that made the 13 episodes stand out a bit more than I was initially expecting.

Haibane Renmei begins with an unnamed girl falling from the sky. She is seen to be holding a crow that appears to be trying to prevent her from falling. The scene then transitions to a very old looking building, where a girl with wings that resemble an angel’s finds a cocoon growing in an old storage room. When the cocoon opens it reveals the girl from the first scene, and she is told that she is now a Haibane. Haibane are named after the dream they had while in the cocoon, so the girl is given the name Rakka (falling). Right from the beginning the series there is a considerable amount of mystery, as Rakka doesn’t remember who she is or what happened to her and it isn’t explained just what the Haibane are or why they look like angels. Despite the whimsical feel, there are some darker elements present early on as the process of a Haibane growing their wings is actually quite painful and the scene that shows this is slightly uncomfortable to watch.

After these initial sequences, the storyline focuses around Rakka, Reki (the girl that found her in the cocoon), and the other inhabitants at Old Home. Old Home is simply a bunch of old buildings that the Haibane are allowed to use, as the rule in town is that they must all hold a job but can only use things the villagers have discarded. The entire town is surrounded by a giant wall, and the only ones allowed in and out are known as the Toga. What’s particularly interesting early on is that the self-contained town allows the viewer to focus on the little details, and they have the same amount of information available as the main character. Early on the emphasis is on Rakka’s attempt to adapt to her new role and experience the job roles that the other Haibane hold, and this is what led me to believe that the show would end up being a slice of life with a dash of mystery and symbolism thrown in.

However, at around the halfway point the storyline takes on a much darker slant. One of the Haibane that Rakka had grown close to, Kuu, goes through her Day of Flight. This is when they have reached the time period where they are allowed to transcend beyond the wall. However, some Haibane become what is known as Sin-Bound, where their wings turn black and they are unable to reach their Day of Flight, potentially destined to fade away and live life in isolation. When Kuu’s Day of Flight occurs, Rakka becomes very depressed and also becomes Sin-Bound around the same time, leading to some very depressing and dark scenes where she questions the nature of the world she is in and even attempts to mutilate her feathers. At this point Haibane Renmei transitions from a fantastical world filled with mystery to one that leaves the viewer wondering if the self-contained town is a paradise or prison for its inhabitants.

If you’re hoping to discover exactly what the Haibane are or what purpose the Toga really serve, you’re going to come away disappointed. This is the type of show that likes to leave more questions than answers, and it presents viewers with a tight and cohesive character drama that has some religious symbolism and plenty of moments that will have you questioning elements of everyday life. The unexplained mysteries that were present throughout the world of Haibane Renmei made me enjoy watching it, and the drama that unfolded as Rakka stumbled along helped to drive all of the elements forward. I could easily write a whole review on what I think different elements in the series represent and how they tie together, but being that the sense of discovery and surrealism made the viewing enjoyable to me it seems better to let viewers figure it out for themselves.

Despite the fact that the emotional elements and world left an impression on me, there weren’t any characters in particular that I believe I will be remembering for years to come. Although there are quite a few characters presented over the course of the show, the main focus is on the relationship between Rakka and Reki, both of whom are Sin-Bound and have gone through some harder experiences than the rest of the cast. There is a bond between them that seems to signal a type of everlasting friendship, but individually neither one stands out as having a personality that someone might fondly remember. The rest of the cast is similar, as each one has their particular quirks and a specific job that they perform in the town, but it’s unlikely you’ll remember them months from now. If you’re looking for a truly character driven show you may want to look elsewhere, but the main cast does do a great job of driving the narrative and thematic elements as well as feeling like they could be real people (if you ignore the wings and halos of course).

While the animation may look a bit dated considering that the series originally aired in 2002, even for the time that it came out studio Radix went for a fairly muted approach. The overall look and feel of the town and the characters gives off more of a European vibe rather than a traditional Japanese one, and the level of detail that went into the environments makes it seem like this could be a real location. Characters look fairly realistic and there aren’t too many exaggerated facial expressions or chibi character models, which fits with the overall tone that the show is going for. The softer look suits Haibane Renmei well and helps to make some of the darker and disturbing moments stand out more, but at the same time the lack of any major flashiness keeps this from being a series that truly sticks with you. Other anime has had particular character designs or backdrops that are still fresh in my mind even months after I had finished them, but there wasn’t anything in particular here that I expect to have that same impact.

The animation may be fairly subdued, but the sound was an area where Haibane Renmei really shined. Both the opening and ending themes stand out, as the opening is a powerful piano piece by “Kow Otani” while the ending is a softer piece by Japanese singer Masumi Itō. Piano plays a significant role in the background music, and this is one of those anime where music is used to add to the mood of a particular scene and really enhance the drama. The voice acting is also well done, with the actresses behind Rakka and Reki stealing the show due to the level of depth they bring to the performance. Haibane Renmei has a voice cast that has been a part of quite a few other anime series, so it’s pretty likely that you’ll recognize a few character voices as you make your way through. I’ve mentioned this in several of my other reviews, but music in anime can sometimes really enhance the overall plot and feel or be completely throwaway, and here it was definitely an important element.

Haibane Renmei is the type of anime that creates an intriguing world and lets viewers interpret many of the details for themselves, while also providing some engrossing drama and thematic elements that look at human nature and spiritual beliefs. It’s a series that I enjoyed making my way through, even during some of the sadder moments, but at the same time it doesn’t quite have that spark that would have made it one of my favorite anime’s. If you’re in the mood for something different that will make you think, and that is able to mix whimsical dreamlike fantasy with some much darker ideas, give this one a watch.


Leave a Reply