Beginning life as a short-lived dōjinshi before being adapted into an anime, Haibane Renmei (2002) is a story about loss, pain, and redemption couched in Christian symbolism and a complex mythology. Set in the walled off town of Glie, the world is populated by humans who live in the town proper, the Haibane, angel-like humans with wings and a halo, and from outside the walls, the Toga, a group of mute traders who is the only group that can move in and out of the town freely. For bookworms the show is replete with references to the work of Japanese author Haruki Murakami. From the concept of a walled off city, animals as guides towards epiphany or transformation, the site of a well being an important setting, and the magical realist aesthetic all make Haibane Renmei a cousin to Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
The show opens with a ball of light exploding like a mini-Big Bang followed by a Rothko-esque green-blue background that suddenly reveals the figure of a girl, naked and falling. Her eyes open and, at the site of the ground below her, struggles and flails about. This is Rakka, our audience surrogate in the show, and we are witnessing the beginning of her birth. On the ground, a young woman, Reki, most likely in her early twenties smokes a cigarette while walking through the dusty halls of Old Home. She is the first to sense Rakka, though not in her human form, but as a big daffodil-like tuft, encased in a cocoon. The other’s soon arrive, little children called Young Feathers, and the older kids, the Old Feathers, all of them Haibane. After a few beats, Rakka is born, not to fanfare, but with a muted comic beat, and when she awakens the narrative takes its time to introduce us to each character and the world that we will be spending 13 episodes exploring alongside Rakka. As far as character motivation or need their isn’t one overarching thing, except maybe the concept of the Day of Flight, when the lucky few Haibane who have overcome whatever internal struggle they are going through, and leave Glie for what one possibly assumes is heaven.
Yoshitoshi ABe, having had success early on with the avant-garde cyberpunk masterpiece Serial Experiments Lain (1998), is clearly more interested in character than plot. So much time is spent on the small daily rituals that take up most of our day, just hanging out with friends, or being consumed by nagging that one can’t help assume that maybe ABe was trying to tell us something about our own lives. How we move through life afraid, ignorant of what lies outside but with the help of those we care about and just small acts of kindness we may be able to transcend our own ego to be something better than we are.
Visually, the anime relies more on the images to expand the world outside and also create mood and atmosphere. The story changes from light-hearted to sentimental, comedic, and even melancholic just by a character’s silhouette or even the lighting in a frame. The appropriation of religious symbols like a halo, angel’s wings, and even snippets of the Book of Genesis might make a person assume that the show’s merely copying Christian theology and using these symbols as decoration, but ABe is actually doing the opposite. He uses Christian iconography as a secret language, undecipherable to anyone in Glie, but throughout the 13 episodes in the series he places little nuggets of information, evidence of a larger and much more ancient world that is outside of our purview.
After finishing with the series a feeling of catharsis will hit you, Rakka and the characters come full circle, but nothing is wholly answered. Narrative ambiguity about what and where Glie is and the origins of the Haibane are never answered. And while theories about the land of Glie being a literal Purgatory and the Haibane being victims of suicide are intriguing the show lends itself to innumerable interpretations. Yoshitoshi ABe has kept mum about what any of it means, and as anxious as I am to get a solid answer I fear doing so may diminish the work.
Haibane Renmei is not as well known or popular as Yoshitoshi ABe’s other works, but for anyone who appreciates the slice-of-life narratives of anime like Mushi-Shi (2005, 2014) you can’t go wrong by giving this series a try. Its sincerity and earnestness is never forced, and while the story moves at a slower pace it never bores. ABe mines the human experience and deals with the heady topics of guilt, suicide, and redemption all while not pandering or resorting to trite moralizations. If “to err is human, to forgive divine”, Haibane Renmei makes a case for forgiveness and acceptance as being the first step to recovery.