Haibane Renmei Complete Series (Cert 12)
4 Discs (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 311 minutes approx.
Once again MVM have raided their archives to revive a curious title originally released in the UK in 2005, which may have slipped under the radar for many, repackaged as a single collection box set, hoping to find a new audience.
This existential fantasy tale begins with a young girl falling through the sky with a crow trying to slow her downward trajectory to no avail. Whilst it feels real to her, it might just be a dream. Meanwhile a group of women with halos and small grey wings on their backs gather in a storeroom to witness the hatching of a large cocoon, out of which comes the girl who was falling through the sky.
She awakens in an old guest room, with no memories of her identity or her life except for the falling dream. The winged women around her introduce themselves as haibane and explain that the girl has joined them because she too will become a haibane. Shortly after her wings sprout and she is given a halo before being christened Rakka – meaning “falling” as per her dream – and begins her new life as a haibane.
From the creator of the trippy and often obtuse cult hit Serial Experiments Lain Yoshitoshi ABe, this 2002 series has its origins in a short doujinshi (self-published work) by ABe from 1998, which bears little resemblance to this version, notwithstanding that it and all subsequent reworked versions remain incomplete. Whilst it shares themes of existence and identity with Lain this show is fair easier to follow.
Because of the haibane possessing wings and halos we are led to assume that the setting of this tale is heaven or some sort of afterlife – ABe neither confirms nor denies this, avoiding religion or any theological ponderings altogether. Certainly the word “angels” is never used and while the name “God” is mentioned once in the final episode the ambiguity remains resolutely in place.
The setting of this tale is a town called Glie, part of a walled land the outside of which is forbidden to the haibane; they are prohibited from even approaching or touching the wall. An organisation called Haibane Renmei (Charcoal Feather Federation) oversees and enforces the rules by which the haibane must adhere: they cannot own anything new, must not possess money and must take a job.
Rakka lives in Old Home, an abandoned school near the countryside, and is taken in by Reki, the House Mother, a stern and often melancholic girl carrying a huge personal burden. Others included Kuu, a tombyish young girl, the sleepy Nemu, baker Hikari and the mechanic Kana. All haibane are either teenagers or young children and their main goal is to reach the Day Of Flight, the only time they can pass the wall, never to return.
It certainly does posit Glie as a representation of the afterlife or at least purgatory, with the Day Of Flight being the final stage of redemption. However humans, many of whom are adults, also reside in Glie and are not restricted by the rules. There is also a group of mysterious masked traders called Toga, the only ones who can pass between the walls, conversing via sign language with another masked man, The Communicator.
Much of the content of the early episodes is concerned with introducing this fascinating world with Rakka as the cipher for the audience. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to suggest the bulk of this series is largely a build up for the devastating finale, but ABe has created a unique and vivid, if vaguely explained, setting which requires such in depth exploration.
Redemption and spiritual salvation are prevalent themes behind this story although the sense that the characters are wrong doers never arises. Rakka develops black spots on her wings early on and learns from Reki that this means she is “Sin Bound” and will lose her wings and halo. In this instance “sin” is used as a nebulous term to describe the spiritual unrest preventing the haibane from reaching inner peace.
ABe relies on the journeys of Rakka and Reki to be the centrifugal force of his tale, which may appear dissimilar at first but converge in the final episode. Rakka as the neophyte haibane is an obvious focal point but Reki’s plight provides the emotional core, having a history within the walls opposed to one outside them which makes her the more fascinating case to follow.
Where the show might be off putting for some is in its laconic pacing and overall phlegmatic atmosphere, occasionally bordering on the soporific. The story doesn’t truly pick up speed until after a few episodes, demanding the audience settles into this world at the same pace as Rakka, yet it doesn’t drag as result. The world building is perhaps a bit too deliberate for a single cour series but the feeling of immersion engenders viewer empathy.
The artwork is suffused with a calming and subdued veneer to give the world its mystical feel while its aesthetic is one of a European heritage depicting simplicity and austerity. Despite being made in 2002 the economy of the animation, including plenty of still shots and static backgrounds, would date this as earlier, yet it suits and compliments the story being told.
Depending on how much you want to interpret any religious allusion or parallels, which ABe is insistent isn’t there hence the deliberate ambiguity, this is not a didactic series nor one which claims to provide any answers – it doesn’t even resolve many of its own issues. It asks many intelligent and probing questions and puts spirituality and existence in a unique light without being heavy handed about it.
Haibane Renmei might be too niche or look too dated to find a new audience among today’s shonen/fan service weaned anime fans but those craving something different with a uniquely told story should find this quietly sublime fantasy a suitably rewarding purchase.
English Language Dolby Digital 2.0
Japanese Language Dolby Digital 2.0
Original Japanese opening
Interview With Creators
Script Cover Gallery
Rating – *** ½
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