I like my anime full of fast paced action, bloody sword fights and bishonen. When I think of the anime I've enjoyed in the past, each series or movie has at least one of these elements with few exceptions. You would think that an anime drama about a group of young women with halos and small grey wings wouldn't be my thing. However, there is one other common element that spans everything I watch and read. Good characters. Haibane Renmei is all about the characters. Every one of them captivated me and made me want to pay attention to something I might have ignored otherwise, and I'm glad they did.
Haibane Renmei, which means "charcoal feather federation," is a thirteen episode series written by Yoshitoshi ABe (no, that's not a typo) and directed by Tomokazu Tokoro. The story centers around a young girl named Rakka who wakes up from a dream of falling and hatches from a giant cocoon. She finds herself in a place called Old Home where others like her live. She appears to be about fourteen years old, but she has no memory of her life before she hatched. With the help of Reki, Kuu, Kana, Hikari and Nemu, Rakka learns to adjust to life as a haibane.
While the story has a great number of fascinating philosophical metaphors that can keep you pondering long after the last episode is over, the main focus is on the relationships that Rakka develops with her fellow haibane, particularly Reki and Kuu. Reki is the protective older sister type who does everything she can to help Rakka while putting aside her own needs. Kuu takes the time to teach Rakka everything she knows about Glie, the town in which they live, and about the humans who inhabit the town. Through these two relationships, Rakka is able to discover who she really is. Reki and Kuu, in turn, learn quite a bit from Rakka.
I could spend probably several thousand words on the meaning of certain elements of the series starting with the haibane themselves. They aren't angels, though at first glance, it's easy to call them that and be done with it. So what are they? Why is Glie surrounded by walls no one is allowed to go near or pass through? What about the crows? The humans treat the Haibane like second class citizens, and everyone hates the scavenging crows. The setting is very deliberate. It's supposed to make you wonder, but there are never any concrete answers. Like Rakka, you know very little at the beginning and learn as you go along. By the time I got to the end, I felt that I had some understanding of the metaphors, but it wasn't something I could put down in words. I don't think it's necessary to know if the town represents some kind of purgatory, so I won't spend much time pondering it here. Any real answers would take away from the mystery and ultimately ruin the atmosphere of the show.
I don't tend to place much importance on things like quality of animation or music unless there isn't much else to concentrate on. However, it's worth mentioning that Haibane Renmei is beautifully animated, and the music is lovely. Hearing it on a second watching made me wonder why I hadn't tried to find the score before, and I don't tend to purchase scores. Voice acting is another of those elements that I usually ignore, but it's good here, too. I favor the Japanese voices over the English voices, though. Yes, I watch my anime twice so I can listen to both casts, and yes, I know how geeky that is. Shut up.
Haibane Renmei is a series with a lot to offer, and it rewards a patient and attentive viewer with a thoughtful and thought provoking story. I think that anyone who watches this will feel a certain connection with at least one, if not all, of the characters, and once you get that empathy, it's almost impossible not to love the whole thing. I wouldn't call it a tear jerker, but it's hard not to cry at certain points, especially on a second viewing.
Even without giant robots fighting, magical girls and angsty pretty boys, Haibane Renmei got my attention and kept it.
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