Soaring towards the ground, a lone crow flies frantically in pursuit of a falling girl. Clutching desperately to her white dress, the poor creature struggles in vain to slow her descent. Touched by the crow’s efforts, the peaceful girl lovingly embraces the concerned soul, assuring the animal that all will be fine and thanking it for the worry. The crow, now aware of its powerlessness, ascends back up into the heavens, allowing the girl to fall in tranquillity, awaiting her next journey. A journey of self-discovery. A journey of acceptance. A journey of forgiveness.
Self-discovery. Acceptance. Forgiveness. The driving forces behind Yoshitoshi ABe’s 2002 cult-classic, Haibane Renmei. A true gem of a series and a shining example of what the medium is truly capable of, Haibane presents the viewer with a narrative unbound by genre convention and is one created out of a genuine love and passion for artistic expression. Through its evocative atmosphere and setting, Haibane Renmei is a show that enchants the viewer immediately into its world. Awaking from her dream, the falling girl finds herself entrapped in a cocoon before eventually breaking herself free, with no recollection of her life before this event, or of any knowledge of this new world she finds herself in. Given the name Rakka, the other girls who find her, called the Haibane, inform Rakka that she is now a Haibane herself; an angelic being adorning a halo and a pair of wings. The rest of the series sees the newly born Haibane learn more about the world in which she has been placed into and seeking untold answers about the circumstances of herself and the Haibane at large. While Haibane Renmei may seem like a simple show at a surface level glance, it is deceptively so.
Haibane Renmei is a series that presents the viewer with many questions about the world and origins of the Haibane but provides very little answers for any of them, and this is certainly one of the main pieces of criticism I see many people have regarding this series. While perhaps it may have been interesting to learn more about the world and to have many of the mysteries the show presents us with explored, I believe in doing so would strip Haibane of one of its greatest assets. Its ambiguity.
Haibane is a series shrouded in ambiguity and this is certainly one of the most engaging things about Haibane’s narrative. The show respects the viewer’s intelligence and slowly drip feeds the audience small and subtle pieces of information as the show goes along, aiding in our understanding of what the Haibane really are, allowing the audience to piece together things for themselves. The ambiguity of the show is only enforced by the sense of history the show constantly protrudes from itself too. The Haibane often refer to old customs that they follow, simply because the previous generation of Haibane did so too, or of folklores and beliefs carried throughout the seemingly tranquil town the Haibane share with the humans. In the fourth episode of the show, Kanna, a fellow Haibane, informs Rakka of a book she found containing the work of an unnamed figure, and in the proceeding episode, Nemu writes a book as a gift to her friend about the creation of the world and how the Haibane came to be. The constant references to old figures of the past, or of days gone by cements the narrative with a greater sense of mystery, as the answers the audience, and by extension, Rakka seek, are buried by the mutability of time. It aids in enhancing the mystery of the show, and the viewer truly feels all the more alienated about the world and the true nature of the Haibane as a result, instilling a truly evocative setting, while aiding in Haibane’s inherently captivating nature, making the viewer wish to seek the answers they want all the more. It gives the series a kind of “magical” fantasy-like setting about itself.
This sense of history is also present in each locale the Haibane occupy. Each location, from the town, to the Old Home in which the Haibane live, are all run-down, old, and feel as if they have had years of unknown history behind them. As a result of the watercolour paint aesthetic used for the walls, it gives the show a “muddy” vibe, and just by looking at the different sites, can the viewer understand the level of history and decay each place has endured, which, again, aids in enhancing the mystery of the show.
Ultimately, Haibane’s purposeful ambiguity is used as a means to explore one of the show’s core themes of self-discovery, as the protagonist Rakka desperately seeks answers about the true nature of her circumstances and the world in which she has been placed into, much like the viewer who understands nothing about this world initially either. I would argue that Haibane’s lack of definitive answers about the functionality of its world and the mysteries it presents us with, parallels that of the real-life. Much like Rakka, we often find ourselves questioning the viability of what it truly means to be “alive”. What is it like when we die? What does it mean to “be”? What even IS life? Haibane manages to juggle these heavy themes of existentialism in such a way to never feel overbearing or to drown the viewer in nihilism either. It’s there for those viewers who enjoy such thematic exploration but used subtly enough that those who don’t care for such things to look past it if they so wish. But, even though Haibane Renmei requires the audience to piece things together for themselves, I wouldn’t put forward the argument that Haibane Renmei is an incredibly enigmatic series, as I’ve seen others argue from time to time. As I’ve already mentioned, the show drip-feeds the viewer constantly with small pieces of information, which not only acts as an incentive to watch more and keep engaged with the work in order to pick up on such things but allows the viewer to grasp what Haibane attempts to communicate. The ambiguity in the series serves an obvious function in not only theme exploration but in character drama which I’ll get into more a bit later, so in my eyes, I can’t really agree with the notion that the ambiguity is a “flaw”.
As Momo, the creator of Metacritic for Anime once said, “If you can’t see the value of ambiguity, then you’re gay” which is the ultimate checkmate argument!
Haibane’s use of ambiguity also gives the narrative a strange sense of pervasive uneasiness. The second episode of the series, while starting off itself pretty calm and relaxing, reveals things to the audience about the nature of the Haibane and their rules that result in this aforementioned unease. We learn that the Haibane must live separate from the humans, that the entire town is enclosed in a giant wall in which nobody may enter or leave, and the Haibane must stay away from said wall, and that the Haibane are only allowed to use items that no longer have any use to humans, hence the reason as to why they resort to second-hand clothing stores for any necessary items. As a viewer, we never learn the exact reasons as to why the Haibane are treated as such, or why they have to abide by such rules. There’s a constant sense of looming danger or paranoia lurking in the air, which only grows in intensity as the narrative develops. The overall sense of uneasiness is achieved by making the viewer feel nervous somehow; afraid of some over lurking power or threat that they can’t explain, and thus we seek comfort naturally in Rakka, who shares in the same circumstances as we do, allowing the viewer to grow a greater sense of attachment to her as a result of such.
One thing that I certainly appreciated more during my re-watch of the series was just how much thought was put into the first half of the show regarding the heavy use of foreshadowing for future events. The earliest parts of the series offer the audience small yet important subtleties that play a larger role later on, such as in the second episode when Rakka innocently asks Reki what her dream inside the cocoon was, whereupon everyone present at the table goes strangely quiet and the mood becomes much more hostile, cluing the viewer in that despite Reki’s seemingly kind front, she is ultimately a troubled person. Or in the case of episode four when Kuu’s boss asks Rakka if Kuu is going to “disappear”. While the viewer would take this line in the literal sense initially, it takes on a whole new meaning later on in episode six when one of the Haibane takes their Day of Flight; a process in which the Haibane moves on from the world and goes, supposedly, beyond the walls. And there are plenty of other examples of this as well. The use of foreshadowing not only indicates thought put into how the narrative is structured but also makes it more rewarding for a viewer to experience as they piece things together, enhancing the level of engagement with the work at hand.
I’ve seen many people remark that the show only begins to be of any true value in the second half of the series, where the aforementioned Haibane takes her Day of the Flight, as the narrative henceforth centres more so around a continuous drama, and the themes of self-discovery, acceptance and forgiveness are explored in more depth during this period too. However, to make such a claim would be silly in my eyes. The first half of the show is devoted to establishing the world, and the customs of the Haibane, all the while adding layers of characterisation onto some of the cast in their own standalone episodes. During episodes four and five, Rakka accompanies two different Haibane who befriend her, in their work to see what job would be best suited for her, and in both instances, the viewer learns a substantial amount about how the world in which these characters occupy functions, as well as their outlook on it too. Kana’s work involving the fixing of clocks has obvious allusions to the mutability of time, a pervasive concept throughout the narrative, and she even projects some level of introspection into her life as a Haibane too. Nemu, working in a library in episode five with extremely old books that are practically falling apart, once again aids in the sense of history the show permeates, but it also provides the audience with Nemu’s creation story about how the Haibane came into existence, which of course alludes heavily to that of religion, something that is explored much more in the latter half of the series. While certainly the earlier parts of the series still retain that level of uneasiness I mentioned before, the show is still somewhat light-hearted for the most part, depicting each character as being incredibly cheery, all of which seem perfectly happy going about their daily lives. This is what makes the sudden shift in tone in episode six all the more hard-hitting, as the mood built and established early on, is flipped entirely around, ramping up the sense of unease even more, and making the events felt upon Rakka all the more impactful as a result. Without the first-half’s build up, the latter part of the series would not nearly be as effective.
The show also exhibits a plethora of symbolism as well, with perhaps the heavy use of crows being the most prolific example of such. Acting as a direct parallel to the Haibane, the crows in this world are said to carry important things, as they are the only creatures capable of flying over the walls and into the outside world. However, the crows also possess an inherent danger about themselves too, due to the colour of their wings, which in turn factors into the narrative as we learn that a Haibane who comes into contact with the walls will be surely punished. The crows can be seen as a metaphorical representation of “the truth” of the world, due to their ability of flight and their freedom, which is interesting to think about when we consider the most of the Haibane’s general disdain for the creatures. In episode two, Kanna remarks that she “hates crows” which could be taken at face value as in a couple more episodes we see her fighting against them as they keep pulling out all of the trash from the furnace, creating a mess, but also as a statement of her fear of the unknown as the crows can be seen as holding the “truth” about the world. Most of the Haibane in the series seem perfectly complacent about their role in the world and do very little in actually finding their true purpose, with the exception of Rakka, whose opening dream sees her embracing a crow into her arms, and therefore embracing the idea that she is not afraid of seeking the unknown, as she does do in the show. But the crows also act as a means of acceptance for Rakka in the latter half of the series, as one aids her in her quest for self-discovery, which is used to provide the viewer with hints about how Rakka originally ended up in this world, and what the crow in her dream was attempting to accomplish. As such, the crows embody the idea of self-acceptance and forgiveness and help to develop Rakka’s character in the seventh and eighth episode in creative and interesting ways.
What really ties the show altogether and gives the series emotional weight are indeed the wonderful cast of characters, all of which manage to be insanely lovable. Each occupant of Old Home has great chemistry, and you really feel as if these characters truly do like one another, with plenty of wit and banter thrown between them, all of which is adorably charming. There are also plenty of cute moments between the cast too which made me develop a big dumb smile on my face, such as when Kana wakes Rakka up early in the morning by pulling on her halo, as Rakka flails her arms up and down; a moment that always made me laugh, and there are plenty more of this in the show, giving it a real sense of character and likability. While some of the members of Old Home get some level of screen time and development, such as the aforementioned Kana and Nemu, some of the cast are completely neglected, such as Hikari who doesn’t really add much to the plot, or Kuu, who, while certainly playing a larger role, is used more so as a means to kick-start the drama in the second half. The crux of the narrative and its emotional weight relies on the relationship between Rakka and Reki and each of their respective inner turmoils and character arcs.
To begin with, their friendship is one that feels completely genuine, as Reki seems to sincerely care about the well-being of Rakka, as she constantly looks after her. After learning about Reki’s own past, and the hardships she had to endure, does the viewer understand her desire to be there for Rakka, as a fellow Haibane did for her when she was younger. As such, when the roles are reversed, and Rakka has to help Reki, does it take on a greater sense of sincerity and emotional engagement. Reki’s journey of self-acceptance and learning to finally forgive herself for her past mistakes is easily my favourite element of the entire show and consistently had me engaged throughout. I believe the reason as to why her arc and struggles are as effective as they are being because she is just simply an extremely likeable person. Her earnest love for the other Haibane, her kindness, are all things that help the viewer feel sympathetic towards her character and lends itself naturally to give her more emotional weight. Rakka, likewise, is a strong protagonist for a series such as this. Like the viewer, Rakka understands nothing about this world, and therefore we experience the world through her eyes. Everything Rakka learns, we learn. Everything she experiences, we experience. This is what helps drive the emotive insecurities of her character in the latter half of the show even more, as the viewer shares in the pain and sense of alienation she feels as being apart of this world. Rakka’s character arc is all about learning to, like Reki, come to grips with her sin, and learning to forgive herself for what she did in her previous life. Both characters are extremely strong and are able to hold the show together by themselves, emitting boatloads of heart at the same time.
While watching the series, however, it becomes apparent that the show was made on a pretty tight budget! The show often looks really rough around the edges, and plenty of times the character designs were completely off model or simply looked ugly in some scenes, despite how good the designs actually are for the show. In plenty of the accompanying artwork pieces, the character designs themselves look damn beautiful! Even in the few sequences in which the animation gets more fluid, such as in episode four when Kanna and Rakka are riding on a bike to get to work on time, or episode seven when Reki is walking with all of the children from Old Home, the art often takes a hit as a result, and looks bizarre. However, that’s not to say that the show is without merit in the visual department. As I’ve already expressed, the water-colour paint aesthetic used does a good job at moulding each locale and is one that I personally love. Moreover, there were a few scenes that were beautifully crafted. Take for example the scene in the first episode in which Rakka grows her wings. It’s a disturbing, visceral sequence, as the wings penetrate and pierce through her back, and has some unique shots too, such as the one where the wings, concealed in darkness, protrude outwards. Mixed with the music, the scene is perhaps one of the most unique and memorable in the entire show, as well as perhaps the medium at large. Speaking of music, Haibane Renmei boasts one of my all-time beloved soundtracks and is nothing short of what I would consider beautiful. Each track wonderfully enhances the scenes that they’re utilised in and adds onto the show’s overall sense of ambiguity and mystery. Free Bird may perhaps be my favourite piece of music from any anime ever; it’s truly a wonderfully memorising piece of art.
To conclude, Haibane Renmei is a beautiful show and one I have come to love upon re-watching. While certainly, I had enjoyed the show after my first viewing last year, it was only until now was I truly able to appreciate Haibane and was completely engaged with the entire work, even almost tearing up at the show’s cathartic ending scene. Haibane Renmei is a stunning example of what anime is capable of, and a true testament that you can create something so wonderful with such a seemingly simple concept and idea. Attempting to communicate my thoughts and newly found love for this show is something I find hard to properly articulate, as Haibane Renmei evokes such raw and genuine emotions in me. It’s truly a show with a lot to unpack and discover, and I barely even scratched the surface level of what the show deals with as well as the plethora of other themes the anime dabbles in too. Haibane Renmei is a series I give the highest of recommendations to and I believe is the epitome of drama, representing universal themes in a mature and interesting manner. Life is neither pure white nor pure black, but a beautiful charcoal grey.