I’m glad I took the time to watch Haibane Renmei. That might sound like a strange thing to say but, given how limited my anime-watching time’s been this year, it’s better to watch something that’s “great” rather than just “alright”.
Haibane Renmei, recently licensed by MVM Entertainment, was first broadcast in Japan in 2002 but its art, story and soundtrack are just as beautiful 14 years later. The anime is based on the doujinshi by Yoshitoshi Abe, but as the story was superseded by the anime it was never completed.
Our story opens with a girl falling from the sky and emerging from a cocoon with no memory of her name or where she came from. Nicknamed “Rakka”, wings burst forth from her back and she begins her new life as a Haibane, a group of young women with small grey wings and bright halos. Together, they live in Old Home and live in harmony with the humans in the nearby town of Grie. A great wall surrounds the people and only tradesmen are allowed to venture into the world beyond.
Overseeing the lives of the Haibane are the Haibane Renmei, a group of mysterious masked men, who assign the Haibane roles in their society and encourage them to grow into “good Haibane”. This is not a world where you can simply ask questions or expect any answers, but it doesn’t seem that Rakka has been recruited into anything as sinister as a cult.
What Haibane Renmei might lack in plot, it makes up for with endless possibilities and open-ended questions. The world-building in this series is rich and sublime. Where do the Haibane come from? What lies beyond the wall? How did Old Home and Grie come into being? These questions won’t be answered directly, or at all, by the end of the story but that doesn’t mean it simply leaves viewers on a cliffhanger or that the ending is rushed. It’s up to you to make up your own mind and imagine what it all means.
The cast is fairly small but just as rich. Rakka develops from a meek newborn Haibane to a driving force in their other girls’ lives; the seemingly strong and stable Reki is weighed down by her own past; Kuu initially appears childish but is actually more mature than her peers; and the tomboyish Kana offers some light relief when times are particularly bleak. Even the humans living in Grie and the mysterious Haibane Renmei have their own personalities, albeit not too well-developed, and add another layer to the mysterious world the Haibane live in.
Without giving too much of the story away, Haibane Renmei touches on a number of philosophical themes, including rebirth, sin, death and the afterlife. Yoshitoshi Abe himself said that the series is not religious (the halos and wings of the Haibane were purely aesthetic choices), so perhaps “existential” would be a better category to file it under.
Clocking in at just 12 episodes, Haibane Renmei is one series you won’t quickly forget. It’s beautiful in its simplicity but cannot be faulted for its art and engaging themes, and therefore scores a worthy 9/10.