A young girl emerges from a cocoon to find herself in an idyllic, yet enigmatic town which seems to be a sort of afterlife. She has no memories of anything before this, apart from the dream she had of falling while in the cocoon. The girl finds herself among a small community of winged beings named Haibane, who inform her that she is one of them. She is given the name Rakka, which means “falling”, as all of the Haibane are named after their cocoon dreams. Soon, she sprouts wings too, and is given a halo, which somehow hovers over her head. (Even if it does cause strands of her hair to stick up messily.) The scene where Rakka gains her wings is strangely cathartic. It’s bloody, and it’s obvious that Rakka is going through great pain, yet this is accompanied by beautiful music, with Reki, the second-eldest Haibane, staying by Rakka’s side the whole time to help and soothe her.
This scene gives you a good idea of what Haibane Renmei can be like. For the most part, it’s calm and gentle, but it’s never the sort of series to deny the existence of darker things. It’s not that the world Rakka finds herself in is a dystopia disguised as a utopia; the town genuinely is a nice place to live in. However, there are some aspects to the setting that are puzzling, and even unsettling. It is never explained what is beyond the walls of the town, or why the Haibanes can never leave. There are strange taboos they have to abide by, and while they coexist peacefully with humans, there seems to be a sort of distance between them. In some ways, it reminds me of real life, in that we are brought into a society that we did not choose to belong to, with rules and boundaries so rigidly constructed that we can never break them. The difference is that we enter that society as babies, and are brought up to take all of that for granted. The Haibane may have no memories of their past lives (if they even had past lives), but all the main characters are old enough to already have formed ideas of what is normal. The town itself is like what you’d get if you applied the idea of mukokuseki to a setting rather than to a character. It would be hard to place it within any set time period or culture; it’s the sort of vague place where you know that something isn’t right, but there are too many familiar elements to pinpoint what it is.
Haibane Renmei is the creation of Yoshitoshi ABe, one of my favourite artists thanks to his character designs and other work for Serial Experiments Lain, the greatest work of fiction ever made. (I am a little bit obsessed with Lain.) Both series have many things in common, though I’m afraid that after Serial Experiments Lain, I found Haibane Renmei slightly disappointing. ABe’s designs are beautiful, as always, but his detailed artwork doesn’t translate well to the style of animation used here. Compare the two images below:
While the animation is still nice, it looks a little flat when put next to the original artwork. The animation used in Lain wasn’t perfect either, but its use of darkness and shadows gave it more of a texture. Haibane Renmei is a far more light-hearted series, with most of it taking place during the daytime, so visually, it loses that sense of depth. And while it is slow-paced, it never quite reaches the same level of subtlety as Lain. While I mostly enjoyed its combination of slice-of-life humour and the supernatural (I found it kind of similar to Xxxholic), it sometimes resorted to anime conventions that kind of took away from its tone.
The creators of the show were apparently influenced by Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. (Which happens to be the first of his books that I read.) Half of the book took place inside the protagonist’s mind, in a walled fantasy world constructed in his dreams. The other half takes place in a dark, slightly futuristic world that reminds me of Serial Experiments Lain. This makes me wonder if maybe the connection between the two series is more than just a stylistic or thematic one. Crows are used as a motif in both series, Rakka and Lain are similar in both appearance and personality, while Hyoko and Midori are basically just older versions of Taro and Myu-Myu. Maybe Haibane Renmei is just an alternate reality created by Lain Iwakura. The only problem with that theory is that Alice seems to be absent from it. Reki, the older, caring character who develops a strong friendship with Rakka, is in some ways similar to Alice, but then there are other ways in which they are different, and I cannot imagine Lain wanting to exist in a world without Alice. Unless, of course, the crow is meant to be Alice.
While it has its flaws, Haibane Renmei is still wonderful. (The final episode is especially good.) It’s also commendable for its depiction of female characters. Most of the main characters are young women, all of whom are treated as people rather than objects. Some of them are quite androgynous, but are still comfortable in their femininity. The tomboyish Kana is just as much a girl as the more traditionally feminine Hikari. In fact, it’s never even treated as an issue or anything, with the other characters seeing this as totally normal. So, while the world we are presented with does seem to be in some ways a problematic one (if I found myself there, I’d probably start to feel like everything is pointless), living there also has many positive aspects, too.