Haibane Renmei (video)
Publisher: Radix, 2002.
Length: 13 episodes (x 25 minutes) on 4 DVDs
Languages: Japanese (subtitled), English dub
Why should a list devoted to Mormon literature care about a Japanese
animated series intended for young teens that makes no direct reference to
Mormons or Mormon culture? Because this anime does as fine a job of
presenting the concepts of premortal, mortal and post-mortal existence as
anything I've ever seen. Eugene Woodbury opened the door with his review of
Scrapped Princess so I will step through that door to introduce another
fine anime worthy of your consideration.
The setting is Glie (Guri), a European town surrounded by a great wall and
home to three kinds of people--humans, Haibane and Haibane Renmei. The story
begins when Rakka, a young woman of about fourteen years, experiences a
dream of falling and awakes to find that she is encased in a giant cacoon
and about to be born into a new world. She emerges from the cacoon at Old
Home with the help of a older teenage girl named Reki and attempts to make
sense of her new world.
At this point, we explore the world as Rakka does. It turns out that she is
a Haibane (charcoal feathers or ashen wings)--like a human, but possessed of
grey vestigal wings. She soon receives a halo created by the Haibane Renmei,
a priestly class of humans who set and enforce policies for the Haibane. The
Haibane Renmei also broker relationships with the people in the town, paying
the bills for the Haibane and requiring that the Haibane take jobs serving
The Haibane are divided into two groups--those born at Old Home and those
born in Abandoned Factory. These two groups of Haibane remain separate by
agreement. There is a hidden history between the two Haibane groups that
involve Rakka's friend Reki.
The story explores the wary relationships among the three kinds of people in
Glie as each tries to understand their own role and history, and as they
attempt to progress in their lives. The town is surrounded by a wall that is
deadly for the Haibane--those who touch it become gravely ill and may die.
Only the Haibane Renmei's servants (the Touga) are able to enter and leave
the town (along with the crows), bringing in goods from the outside and
facilitating trade with the human merchants.
No one remembers their previous life, but the Haibane all have varying
degrees of memory of a transition dream they have just prior to emerging
from their cacoons. Those who remember much are considered blessed, while
those who remember little are viewed as damaged. A rare few of the Haibane
are "sinbound" and find that their wings are stained with black spots. The
mystery of how and why a Haibane can become sinbound--and whether they can
find redemption--is one of the elements explored throughout the series.
Rakka is forced to deal with her own limited memory of her previous life,
and suggestions are made that she might have committed suicide--with
repercussions that echo into her current life in Glie, and may affect her
transition to the next world. It turns out that Haibane have notably short
lifespans (not more than about seven years) before their "day of flight"
when they go alone into the forest and transition to the next stage.
When Rakka's close friend Kuu unexpectedly takes her day of flight, Rakka
struggles with hopelessness and doubt that leads her to discover more about
both her own past and the nature of the Haibane Renmei--including the nature
of her friend Reki's mysterious experiences with the Haibane at Abandoned
Factory. She explores the question of what it means to be sinbound, and is
eventually required to reconsider all that she has learned to discover the
key to redemption.
Haibane Renmei deals with some very familiar existential questions but
manages to do so in a fresh, clean way that takes advantage of the tropes of
anime to reach beyond the stale and pretentious exercises so common on
existential themes. The plot is gentle but well-paced, and moves deeper into
the core questions that it explores.
There is a decidedly Catholic feel to Haibane Renmei that starts with
halos and wings, and moves through monastic orders and mysterious rules from
an unknown source that simply describe how life will be. But the story
itself moves well beyond a simple depiction of purgatory and into a more
interesting, open-ended question about what the nature and purpose of life
Where Haibane Renmei borrows from traditional Christian imagery and
European settings, it also inverts many of the common symbols. The "angels"
are those who seek redemption during their short lives, not the humans who
seem content with their limited world. While ancient knowledge is handed
down, it's the responsibility of each Haibane to work out their own
redemption or be lost in an unknowable world governed by equally unknowable
Haibane Renmei may be exploring a concept of spirit prison or purgatory as
the transition between earthly life and heaven, or it may be a broader
metaphor for the pre-existence, mortality and post-mortal existence--the
author has explicitly left that question to the viewer and refuses to
comment on it. In either case, it's a beautifully presented story that takes
viewers to edge of despair before finding a well-earned hope.
This is also a beautifully animated series. The imagery is rich and
detailed, and the animation itself is clean and smooth with few of the
simple motion effects so popular in many fast-production series. This anime
was conceived and drawn by the same artist who developed Serial
Experiments: Lain and shows the same appreciation for well-rendered scenes
as its sister series, while addressing some of the same themes with more
polish and insight.
For those who have any interest in anime, strongly consider seeing Haibane
Renmei and giving yourself time to consider the questions and ideas it
raises. It's not Mormon doctrine by any stretch, but it is a story that
should resonate strongly with Mormon audiences and that encourages
consideration of deeply Mormon themes.
Haibane Renmei has provided me with visually and aesthetically pleasing
fodder that has led me to ponder some basic questions. It is virtuous,
lovely and praiseworthy, and I strongly recommend it.
© 2006 Scott Parkin