One of my pet peeves is when people imply that a work is good solely because it's allegorical. Pompous assholes will come up with something like, "If you didnt like Haibane Renmei, it must be because you didnt catch all the symbolism!" and then end their argument right there, as if people can be entertained with empty metaphors alone. This is obviously absurd.
Ok, you say. If you’re so smart and symbolism isn’t what makes Haibane Renmei so freaking awesome, what is?
…good question. I’ll get to that later.
The story won’t be grabbing anyone at first; the beginning consists primarily of mundane world building. At this stage, the show is rather easy to dismiss. Nothing important seems to be happening, and one wonders if the entire show will continue in the same mild, slice-of-life vein.
Only after the series has taken its time to set up shop does it begin to shine. Observant viewers will begin to notice how the seemingly disparate symbols in the show – Reki’s cigarette, the crows, grey wings, etc. – all tie together into a single coherent message. Two of the characters begin to deepen past the meaningless smiles and docile attitudes, and the story begins to shift from the expository themes of rebirth and friendship to the show’s true focus: redemption. All of this culminates into the final episode, which is one of the most masterful pieces of drama that I have ever seen.
Haibane Renmei certainly can’t be considered a classic from its animation. While the character designs and backgrounds are clean-cut and generally eye-pleasing, motion is often choppy and there’s nothing in the series that anyone could remotely consider “eye-candy.”
For that matter, while the music fits well with the series and the voice acting is fine, there’s certainly nothing awe-inspiringly awesome in the audio.
Just like the story, the characters are forgettable for the first few episodes. All of them have a sort of bland and pleasant small-mindedness that makes them difficult to actually care for. At this stage, few people will actually dislike any of the characters, but fewer still will love them.
However, the eventual development of the two protagonists - Rakka and Reki - is almost unparalleled. In most series of this nature, the characters often take a backseat to the high-falluting storyline (see: Texhnolyze, Boogiepop Phantom). However, even as the series begins to allegorically add themes like lost innocence and personal forgiveness, the characters remain loveable on their own terms. For this reason, Haibane Renmei has some of the best characters ever conceived in an anime.
In the end, what makes Haibane Renmei so great isn’t the symbolism, but how the anime combines this symbolism with its excellent character development to create a powerful human fable. Haibane Renmei delves deeply into the true nature of forgiveness and personal salvation, and returns with some of the most thought provoking material to ever be put in an anime. That said, many people may dislike the show.
I have already talked about the first “flaw” of the show – the deliberate pace of the exposition. This is NOT a series that should be watched with a short attention span. Furthermore, if you commit yourself to watching any Haibane Renmei at all, you should commit to seeing its entirety; because of the revelations of the final episode, it’s entirely possible that your opinion may change near the very end.
The second major complaint that I’ve read is that the show concludes with too many loose ends. However, these so-called plot holes are not accidents, but purposeful omissions. In my opinion, the details that are not explained are either irrelevant to the show’s purpose or would be cheapened by a simple explanation. Like all truly great works of art, Haibane Renmei requires the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions on the show’s actual meaning.
Overall, Haibane Renmei is a wonderful anime. Come for the thought-provoking existentialist themes, stay for the beautiful story.
ARTSY ANIME SERIES
Full list of the review series can be found on this page, 3rd post from bottom:
Haibane Renmei (HR) is a one of a kind show. Never before or never after has there been a show of self acknowledgement walking hand in hand with a slice of life show. All other shows are bleak and tragic if they head for the former or easy going and aimless is they head for the later. Yet HR did the unthinkable and managed to find the perfect balance amongst these two very different concepts.
The main characters are all women with feathers on their backs. They are not angels of any sort. They just appear out of a cocoon one day, without any recollection of who they are or what they are doing there. They are all living in a city, along with other normal people and since they have nothing to do, they are used as helpers in various areas. This setting is further complicated by the fact the entire city is isolated from the rest of the world and the only people coming in and out are weird dressed priests.
As I said, the story manages to be both easy going and yet highly mysterious at the same time. Half the duration is spent on getting to know the characters as they slowly adjust in the city and find something to do, something to work with, even someone to love and care for. At the same time it is a journey of self acknowledgement, as they try to find out who they are through their inborn talents and desires. The entire story is about learning and getting wiser, while at the same time having a good time with the people all around you. And to be honest, there really are answers to all the questions in the story; it just takes for the viewer to look for them and not expect them to be spelled directly to him with some explanatory monologue. There is no such thing in this series; all the talking is there just to further colorize the characters but never to reveal the mystery. Plus, despite the various allusions to Judeo-Christian religions, all the aesthetics have mostly to do with philosophy and spirituality and not faith or God; don’t make the mistake looking for things that are purely artistic and not direct allusions.
Even the production values are made to make you feel special. Everything is shown with soft colors and a subtle style of maturity, nothing too moe or shonen. Although all the characters are drawn with simple characteristics, their mannerisms and facial language are done exceptionally so to know how they feel all the way. Nobody stands out immensely and to be frank this is not a show focusing too much on specific characters. Although we mostly see the world through Rakka’s eyes, the plot involves many others who interact with one another to further bring life to the setting. The most tricking feature is the form of the city, detailed and common-looking at first but still has many undertones of mysticism, such as the priests, the scriptures and the wall that surrounds it.
Despite its unique feel, HR is not a show everyone can appreciate. Since it is not following the usual formulas it is not a show for mass viewing. Action fans for example will find it boring as hell. Slice of life fans will most likely find it too confusing and miss its underlying messages. Even mystery fans will consider the scenes where the characters are just working or eating to be dead time. I myself thought of all the above from time to time. As whole though I must admit that entertainment aside, the planning of this show is exceptional, unlike anything else out there. I can’t even seem to wish for something to have been done better, since everything works fine for what it shows, how it shows it, and how long it lasts.
Bottom line, I recommend this show to everyone, not necessarily as something entertaining, as much as different and poetic. If you can see past the clichés you are so used to, you can really see it for the jewel it is.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 7/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well-done)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (basic but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 1/2 (basic)
SOUND SECTION: 8/10
Voice Acting 3/3 (rather mature and fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 3/4 (not great but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 9/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 1/2 (slow)
Complexity 2/2 (rich context)
Plausibility 2/2 (vague and confusing but it’s there)
Conclusion 2/2 (solid)
CHARACTER SECTION: 9/10
Presence 2/2 (strong)
Personality 2/2 (rather basic but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (simplistic but it’s there)
Development 2/2 (strong)
Catharsis 2/2 (definite)
VALUE SECTION: 8/10
Historical Value 2/3 (quite famous)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high if you don’t mind the slow pacing)
Memorability 4/4 (extremely well-thought off to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 7/10
The slow pacing may be a bother at times but overall it is great.
While I will try to remain unbiased as possible, there will still be a large element of bias present in this review since this anime is one of my top favorites.
The story is very slow-paced, so if you are looking for something that's constantly full of action or drama, this may not be the show for you. It's easy to drop this show after the first few episodes because the beginning largely serves to set up the rest of the story, but is not as memorable as the rest at first glance. I would highly suggest that anyone considering dropping the series watches it to the end however as the story does pick up eventually and is one of the best I've seen. While somewhat preachy narration can take detract from the show a bit at times, the series uses symbolism to artfully analyze topics that are taboo to or very poorly represented in many other shows. Some metaphors are immediately obvious, others you might not catch until you've seen the series a few times over. It doesn't explain more than it needs to, but rather gives the viewer the liberty to fill in the gaps with their own experiences and interpretations. The setting also has some loose inspiration from the novel Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World which is an interesting read, but largely separate from the plotline of this series.
I'm honestly torn on whether to give the animation a high score or a low one. Backgrounds have almost the appearance of watercolors, but don't have the level of detail that many shows include and the animation itself would greatly benefit from more frames/a higher frame rate since movements can be rough or jerky at times. However, I still found both the art and animation very pleasant to look at and think the muted colors are very fitting for this series.
The soundtrack to this series is very pleasant and calming. The music always fits the tone of the moment and sets the scene instead of standing out unnaturally. The entire soundtrack can be found on YouTube and is great to listen to while writing or working on art since it is very melodic and peaceful and isn't too distracting.
Although the cast is largely female, I highly applaud the show for not sexualizing any characters or character designs in any way. The only two characters who undergo significant development are the two mains (Rakka and Reki), but most others still have a place in the story and dialogue is largely realistic. Minor humor is included in interactions between charactes where it would logical in the real world, and when characters say something intended to be funny or cheerful at a clearly innapropriate time, the impact of or pain caused by their words is clear. There are plenty of mudane conversations, but the lines are blurred between when these words are sincere and when they are just a mask used to pretend that everything is alright.
This show is more than simply the sum of its parts. This series is not something that you would necessarily watch for fun, but it very realistically represents the build-up of pain and suffering for those who are afraid that they have no one. Many anime show you tragedies and expect you to make the emotions yourself, this series shows the emotions and lets you apply them to what is significant to you.
The story of Haibane Renmei was created by Yoshitoshi ABe as an original manga, which was never completed but ended up becoming this anime in 2002. I know that ABe has also worked on Lain and Texhnolyze, so I gotta say I'm really impressed with everything that he's done. This series in particular is my favorite amongst the aforementioned works, though, and I'll never forget the first time I watched through it.
Haibane Renmei begins with the figure of a girl falling through the sky. It seems dark, high above the clouds, and the girl's brown hair and simple white robe are blowing in the strong wind as she descends (dress blowing around sounds like fanservice - don't worry, there's really none of that at all in this anime!). The girls' eyes open, and as she takes in her surrounding she states in confusion that she has no idea where she is or even who she is. This is admittedly a pretty cliched way to start - we've all seen the amnesiac protagonist a thousand times before. But, as the story continues, it will come to take on an extremely unique and interesting turn. One difference to this setting at the beginning is that, although she can't remember, the girl is not very scared or worried. She feels anxious, but at peace. As she falls, a crow appears by her side, flying close and then into her arms. She holds the crow, the only sense of other life in the bleak sky, and asks it if it is worried about her. The crow takes flight, seemingly trying to stop the girl's fall by pulling on her robe. The girl is greatful, but knows that there is nothing the crow can do to help, and the bird flies away into the sky. Below her, the girl begins to see light, and then the clouds open before her and she sees a magnificent sight: a large town spread out on the ground beneath her.
So begins the story of Haibane Renmei. I could write for a very long time and describe the entire plot, but I don't want to ruin anything (without indicating spoilers, at least). If there's any genre to put Haibane Renmei into it would be around Slice of Life / Drama. There is really no action of any sort, and the plot is mostly character driven. However, before getting into those strong parts of the series, I'll of course quickly go over the animation and sound.
Having been made in 2002, Haibane Renmei's animation will of course not stand out when compared to most of today's works. I'm not a big critique of animation at all, though, and I think the series' art still holds up to this day. I found its use of color to be expecially great - certainly with the characters and also with the environments. Some of the Haibane, especially Rakka at the beginning, have some really amazing contrasts with their lighter clothes and wings with their bright halos and darker hair colors. The art style for all the characters in the series took on a very refreshing "less anime" type, with smaller eyes of simple shades and, (thank god), no ridiculous chibi features in comedy parts (of which there were rather few). In general the anime had a very, very slightly blurred feeling to it that took on perfectly the state of the peaceful world. Well, sometimes peaceful. SPOILER Reki's paintings were also one of my absolute favorite parts of the art. Her final work that took up the entire room set the mood just as well as the Haibanes' troubled words did END SPOILER. One thing that I remember was that one episode had somewhat lacking animation at times, but it really wasn't so noticable that it was distracting in any way. I remember the series also trying to dip a bit into adding its own special effects. This pretty much never works. Any CGI looks very out of place in normal animation, and I remember some of the light effects looking like this. Thankfully it was seldom, but I've seen this happen quite a bit and I can never really understand it. Overall, I really liked the animation. Setting the mood for such a story was vital, and Haibane handled it just about as well as I could have hoped it would.
The questions that everyone repeats when starting a new anime is: "Sub or Dub?" In most situations I would say sub, and Haibane Renmei is no exception. I have to give credit to the dub, though. If you really like watching anime in English, I would say that you would be fine watching through the whole series with the dub on. As for the music, Haibane Renmei made me think at times of one of my favorite bands - The Durutti Column. The soundtrack throughout the story is filled with so many amazing piano and string songs, both calm and sometimes tense. In many of the peaceful situations this music was perfect for capturing the mood, and the one in particular that I can remember well is the exhilarating piece that plays as Rakka and Kuu happily rush into town. My other favorite song is, of course, the opening. It is part of the song called Free Bird, and I believe that full song has lyrics to it, but the opening was chosen to omit these words. I still think it would've been great even with lyrics, but I like the way it was kept. I find myself calmly humming along to it every time I watch an episode, no skipping this one! I didn't love the ending theme, but it was a nice little tune to finish up with.
Now for the really important parts. I'll try not to go overboard on these, and I'll try to avoid spoilers (not gonna work fully though). As far as the story goes, Haibane Renmei is not quite like anything I've ever seen before. The one anime I can compare to it is ANgel Beats, which was made years after Haibane but had quite the similar story idea, and I found it to be absolutely nowhere near as good as this series. That's not to say that the idea is 100% original, because for some reason people will always want to point out some small detail that may link a series to an older series, and will then state that the older series was better because it did it first. You know, like what I just did with Angel Beats. Time to get to the story elements, though, where I can say just why I think it is so much better. From the very beginning, the story starts to present itself in a very slow way. This is because there is no real reason for our protagonist, Rakka, to be rushed. She is not threatened by the world after arriving and has no desire to leave. The main goal seems to be simply observing and acclimating to her new environment. Because of this, the first 5 of the series' 13 total episodes are much slower and closer to Slice of Life. After this is when the story really begins to pick up, though, and the rest is more of a Drama. If one is having trouble with the pace of the beginning, I would recommend at least waiting for the series to pick up a greater speed, though the series might not be right for you. As is obvious from just seeing an image of a Haibane, there is a strong amount of religious symbolism. I mean, they're figures with halos and wings, and Rakka is in her own angelic white robe at the beginning. Now, I am not religious at all, but this series has nothing religious that it actually tries to force-feed you. That is what I think was extremely important: keeping any of the series' points from going overboard. There are multiple times where a god is discussed in the story, but it is certainly not saying that there is a god and that anyone has to follow him. It merely brings up the concept of god as a benevolent figure that the Haibane think about and question. With this calm side there are also the main themes of the whole series that I think were strongest: sin and forgiveness. I can't say a huge amount on where these themes come into play without talking about the whole story, but not just Rakka faces the questions and other people and Haibane that have an effect on the world. SPOILER I would consider Reki, not Rakka, to be the most important character of the whole series. Rakka was the protagonist, but it was Reki's problems that she needed Rakka and the other Haibane for, her problem that was by far the most haunting when she was weighed down by her lack of forgiveness and guilt. If there's one thing that could be taken the most from Haibane Renmei, it's the importance of forgiveness - letting it allow you to move on with yourself. It sounds kinds lame, but it actually makes me think more about this issue when it arises END SPOILER. The series is rather short, but I really don't think it needed more time when it had finished. I would have liked to have continued watching, of course, but it's as important for a series not to drag itself on as a series not having enough time for what it wants to accomplish. The depiction of those main themes, along many others: The Wall, the crows (and lack of other birds?), the people compared to the Haibane themselves, the Toga, lots regarding life and death, and more... all lead to this series that will leave you with more questions than answers at the conclusion. I'm glad that not all series do this, but with series such as this I would much rather continue to think and question exactly what was going on and what everything meant. This has kept the anime in the back of my mind for rewatching, and I will probably do so soon. Out of all the other themes, the subjects of the crows and the Haibane was the most interesting to me. I take a great interest in birds, and having the symbolism of the crows and the Haibane's wings has always been a point of great thought. It hints towards more of Rakka's troubles and the main themes, especially during the time spent in the forest.
The main cast of characters in Haibane Renmei are the female Haibane of Old Home: Rakka, Reki, Kana, Nemu, Hikari, and Kuu. Some of the other important side characters are the Haibane Hyoko and Midori, though they are not seen until a bit later on in the series. The main introductions to the characters' lives begin in the first few episodes, and they are all welcoming to Rakka and help her learn about her new experiences. Some of the past tensions of certain characters arise, though, and these important parts have an impact on the events that take place. My favorite character, as to be expected, is Reki. The first thing that was really interesting about her habit of smoking. It was strange and somewhat humerous to see an angel-like creature with a pack of cigarettes, and they are an important part of her character. The general attitude of the cast throughout the series is one much closer to the good side of human nature than the bad, and this take on our nature and the, I guess, Haibane nature, is refreshing but taken in a realistic way. The characters are certainly not perfect angels, and their interactions set up the most important parts of the story. If there is one complaint I have about the cast, it is that Rakka is not exactly in the role that one might expect her to be in. After the first watch Igladly accepted this, but it threw me off a little on my first watch early on in the story's new developments. Along with this, some of the other Haibane did not have as important of a role as I might have expected them to have had by the end. Specifically, I guess SPOILER Hikari and (somewhat) Kana END SPOILER. These were not huge issues, but I wish they had had more of a role at certain times.
Well, I did end up writing a decent amount. I only stopped because I'm getting tired and I did limit myself from going into too much detail and analysis. This is the TL;DR part if you wanted to skip to it. I would highly recommend Haibane Renmei. It leaves a lot to be questioned at the end, but with so much to think about I found it to be a very successful anime in that sense. The characters are a solid cast that may surprise you with the role they fall into, and the animation and music almost always enhance the tone of the show in its many calm and occasionally very tense moments. It is one of the more unique anime I've seen, and certainly amongst my top 10 and maybe top 5. My other recommendation with this series would be Serial Experiments Lain. These 2 anime are quite different, but both were worked on by ABe (though only character design in Lain, I believe) both are absolutely amazing. On a humerous side note, I actually named my town in Animal Crossing Glie - so if you see a Glie by Mayor Lime, that would be me. Now, I must get back to thinking about the crows and Haibane, since writing all of this his taken my mind straight to the subjects.
Watching this series take flight was an extremely rewarding experience.
Haibane Renmei is a beautiful anime and I really do recommend you watch it. Respect to most anime, it deals with completely different themes. Salvation and redemption, self-discovery and spirituality. You get plunged in a world that's mysterious and dense with symbolism. And it's clear that the Haibane Renmei world has indeed been thought out in detail by its authors, there's a sense of purpose and meaning behind everything, it's inherently consistent. Even though there are things that are not explained, you never really understand exactly what haibane are, and what's beyond the walls, and what happens to the haibane who leave for their first flight and how they ended up there in the first place and so on and so on... but somehow, it doesn't matter. The story isn't about the world behind the anime, it's about Rakka and Reki. While I was watching it, I was forcefully reminded of a book written by Murakami Haruki, Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the earth; they have in common the city behind the walls, the alternate world, the mystical atmosphere ...
In the first episode, you see a girl born from a cocoon. The night after she's born, grey wings sprout out from her back and she gets a halo, that initially needs a holder to stay in place on her head. We learn that she is a haibane, blessed creatures who live in a city sorrounded by walls that cannot be breached or even approached by the haibane, thus being effectively confined within the city. There is an organization, the "haibane renmei", that takes care of all the more material aspects of the haibane's day to day life, but everything surrounding it is shrouded in mystery. All haibane when they are born have forgotten their past and their names. The only thing to guide them and give them some clues about who they are and where they are directed is the dream they had in the cocoon, so it becomes extremely important to remember that dream and understand what it means. The girl is named Rakka, because while she was in the cocoon she dreamt of falling, and we follow her in her everyday life, as she gets to know the world she is living in and the other haibane that share her life. It's a slow-paced anime, but that doesn't mean it's boring, and the more the story goes on the more dramatic it gets.
If you read any of the other reviews, you stumble quite a few times across the adjective "thought-provoking" - and I can't help but agree. And even though so many questions remain unanswered, the message is clearly there. Beautiful in its simplicity.