Not Angels

RekiThis post is a tribute to perhaps my favourite series of all time: Haibane-Renmei. Now over 5 years old, it still continues to fascinate and affect me each time I watch it, and have felt the need for some time to put my feelings into words. Sure, I love to watch an action flick like Indiana Jones, or something satirical or scathing or just plain wrong like Family Guy, but this answers to a different part of my brain.

Haibane-Renmei was created originally as a self-published manga by a rising artist called Yoshitoshi ABe. More a light-hearted comic strip back then, the only similarity was with the angelic-like creatures that inhabited the world. Abe decided that he would make a 13-part anime using such creatures, but would set the mood to be darker and deeper.


It follows the story of a young girl who in the opening minutes of the first episode falls to earth. At the same time, a woman discovers a giant cocoon in one of the rooms of a run-down old school building. Dressed in second hand clothing, and spouting charcoal grey wings and a halo, she readies the room for the hatching with the help of similar beings. These are the Haibane, people born into a town with no idea why they are there, and only the most fleeting memories of who they used to be.

Once hatched and awake, the new girl is introduced to the group and asked about the dream she had. As is the custom of the Haibane, each one is given a name according to their dream; In the case of the new arrival, she is named 'Rakka' meaning 'to fall'.

And so the series charts Rakka's first year at Old Home, the name given to the semi-collapsed building that the Haibane use as their 'nest'. If it stayed as just that, the series probably would not have been very special, but its beauty comes from the relationships that develop between the Haibane, how they fit into the world and have to bend to the whim of the rules laid down by the Renmei, a sort of governing body of people whom the Haibane may only communicate via a designated intermediary.

In particular, the bond that grows between Rakka and Reki is the strongest. Reki is the 'house mother' to the younger Haibane due to her length of time in the world and her take-charge nature. As the series progresses we see that it is in fact Reki that is the focus of the story. Her mysterious cocoon dream was almost entirely wiped from her mind and the small subtle clues given in the dialogue of the first episodes only hint about the mysterious and deeply troubled past she keeps so well hidden.

Yet neither Reki nor the Renmei are 'baddies' - in fact there are no western-style 'baddies' in the series; it concentrates purely on the interactions and development between characters, wrapped in a storyline so tightly woven that it gains that often credited but rarely deserved simile of an onion, where you can peel back successive layers of story to find deeper threads in the narrative undercurrents. Despite being animated, the characters through their actions and reactions to the story become fleshed out, believable, complicated human beings with an admirable 'make the best of it' approach to their aimless situation - they come into being, spend an amount of time in Glie (the walled town containing Old Home) as poor second class citizens, and then mysteriously and without warning take their Day of Flight, where they leave the world forever.

So we get to see lives in miniature, where people are born, live, grow and die within a short time frame, and we also get to see the consequences of this overlapping and repeating cycle on the lives of the other Haibane, who build intertwining relationships that are then without warning cut apart without explanation. It is more than just 'following the adventures of someone adjusting to an unfamiliar situation' and instead provides a peek at a recognisable and repeating, replaying cycle of events. Centering in upon a crucial period in a story that could stretch thousands of years in either direction, it molds itself around the experiences of the viewer, and in doing so, encouraging them to reach their own conclusions as to what happened both before and after, rather than taking the approach of saying 'this is what it all means' and attempting to explain everything. Such themes cannot be easily fit into words and the interpretation of what happens will be different for everyone.

I should note that even though the series uses symbolism from various religions, these are only used to give a feeling to the show, and the story itself is not religious in tone or meaning, it is more a collection of themes revolving around spirit, loss, redemption and the threads weaved between people that are worn and snapped on the sharp edge between life and death. I certainly wouldn't have liked the series if it attempted to preach any religious doctrine - my personal attitudes towards organised religion are short-fused, yet the series still managed to grab a tight hold of me.


Unfortunately, Haibane-Renmei has been largely overlooked by the general public (mostly down to zero advertising, and there being no particular pigeonhole to sell it through in a western market), and has little to no chance of ever being shown on television, but has nonetheless affected an increasingly large group of people who have experienced it. Despite being quite abstract and occurring in a fictional world, the series touches such raw emotions because its themes can be universally understood and empathized with.
The group heading into GlieBut don't just take my word for it - a quick google search comes up with considerable interest on the net; both from anime sites and other people who have no interest in anime, have by chance encountered it, were moved deeply by it, and felt the need to show their appreciation. Just a few quotes:

'Beautiful, engaging, haunting and unique'
Anime News Network

' refer to it merely as anime seems somehow inadequate. It is a something delightful and moving, subtle and sweeping, humorous and unsettling, and begins speaking on a level not entirely visible of things not yet seen.'
Heroic Cinema

'It is much more of a spiritual and emotional journey that artfully plays on timeless themes of salvation, meaning, purpose, love, loss, and trust. In many ways it is a metaphor for our own experience: We come into this world from some unknown place, and try to figure out why we're here. Along the way, we have to say goodbye to people we love, knowing not where they are going, but certain that soon enough we ourselves will be following them, and having never really understood what anything was all about. And yet, we somehow find a meaning in all the confusion and sadness. I think that's what this series is about.' Review

'Can a television series qualify as great literature? In principle I don’t see any reason why one couldn’t, but few of them have any such ambitions. In any case great literature has to pass the test of time, and perhaps the medium hasn’t been around long enough. If one ever does qualify, it might well be this strange haunting story about people who have wings and halos, but who are not angels.'

'I usually don't like TV-series. I also don't really like anime, except for the films of Miyazaki. But Haibane Renmei is hard to classify as a standard anime.' ... 'On the surface Haibane Renmei seems like a fairly simple drama. This is because it's the impression the series tries to give us. On the first couple of episodes, there is an underlying uncertainty and darkness. As the series progresses in its 13 episode span, it becomes deeper and more thought provoking. It never spells out things clearly to the audience, and never answers all our questions. It remains wonderfully subtle, and after I finished watching it I thought about the series and its themes for several days.'
Review on IMDB

There are many more. Something intangible about the series has the power to grab the soul, but there are those who would watch such a series and be thoroughly underwhelmed by it. No guns, no explosions, no sex or violence, and none of the typical anime cliches like pneumatic flying robot women. Also, many people in the west still hold the opinion that something animated cannot possibly live up to such praise leaving it purely the domain for children and 'geeks', and maintain a safe distance from it. The series has to negotiate its way through all sorts of hoops just to get put in a DVD player.

I truly believe that this story should be experienced by as many people as possible; it was the first story in a long while to make me seriously think about what it was I was watching, and changed my opinion about Anime as a medium capable of telling as emotional, mature and beautiful a story as any example from literature, film or television.
The groupIf you have the time and the patience, do yourself a big favour and watch it.

Offical Site
- the english-language site by Geneon

Wikipedia entry
- a more in-depth synopsis

The Charcoal Feather Federation
- if you want to read further into various theories inspired by the series, this is a good place to go. The bulletin board is still abuzz after 5 years.

All pictures are acknowledged as copyright Yoshitoshi ABe.

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