animefringe august 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Haibane Renmei - Making Angels Real Again

Having gone from one extreme to the other with past series Serial Experiments Lain and NieA_7, Yoshitoshi Abe's latest work, Haibane Renmei, strikes that happy medium between the two while still offering up something truly unique and original.

Awaking from a massive cocoon with no memories of her past life, Rakka has become the newest haibane, a race of people with angel-like wings, in a village that no one is allowed to leave. Humans and haibane co-exist peacefully with one another, but no one seems to know or question why things are the way they are.

Further complicating matters are the various "rules" that the haibane must adhere to. While not being allowed to leave the village where Old Home, the haibane boarding home, resides is one of the big no-no's, the halo-wearers are also not allowed to be paid money for the work they do. Instead the Haibane write down the amount of money they have earned in their Charcoal Feather Federation notebook, which acts as a form of credit that they use to acquire items such as clothing and paper at the local thrift shop or food at the bakery.

Stranger still, the humans living in the village are also not allowed to venture beyond the town's walls. The villager's one main link to the outside world rests in the hands of the Toga, masked wise men who communicate only using sign language and are responsible for maintaining haibane/human relations and bringing in goods from the outside world.

All this brings us to Rakka, a girl with vague memories of a past life. Her cocoon simply appeared at Old Home one day and while it grew, Rakka dreamt of falling from the sky. It was this very first dream that from which her name is derived, just as the tradition has been for all the other haibane before her.

The day of her hatching, fully clothed no less, brought with it many new trials. Rakka was warmly welcomed into the Old House fold and given her halo, though it didn't exactly want to stay atop her hair at first. However, Rakka's wings decided to sprout much sooner than expected, forcing the chain-smoking Reki to play nursemaid as Rakka's budding wings painfully pushed their way out through her shoulder blades. It's a painful process to watch, but doesn't seem to be at all that excruciating to Rakka, who comes through the ordeal with a beautiful pair of charcoal colored wings.

From there, we witness the odd world around Rakka as it becomes ever more interesting and mystifying. Where this series progresses from there must be seen to be believed.

Interestingly enough one element seems to fight its way to the surface more than all the rest as early as the third episode. That element is simply the nature of the crows. Humans and haibane alike seem to detest the crows for being noisy pests and always scavenging for food, yet the haibane themselves are not too far removed from the black-winged birds in terms of the role they play in society. After all, the haibane can be likened to scavengers themselves as they try to find some good in another's trash, as they have become dependent on the spoils of the town. At the same time, let us not forget that the crow has also continually been a key design element in the openings of both Lain and NieA, and continues to weigh heavily on this series as well.

Bringing the mystical world of Haibane Renmei to life for North American viewers is the capable team at New Generation Pictures who have handled such shows as the vampiric hit Hellsing, the off-the-wall Amazing Nurse Nanako, and even ABe's previous work NieA_7. Carrie Savage as Raaka and Erika Weistein as Reki help to give new life into these characters by helping to clearly give their roles a definite age range that was somewhat lacking from the Japanese original. The solid performances and accurate dialogue help to draw out unheard depths to the story that watching the show only subtitled can leave behind.

Though Haibane will undoubtedly leave the viewer with lots of unanswered questions initially, it is also filled with a unique sense of wonder seldom seen outside of a Studio Ghibli film. From Rakka's problems with her hair sticking to her halo, to the excruciatingly painful portrayal of her wings sprouting, Haibane Renmei is able to bring the characters to life in a way that will stick with you long after the DVD has stopped spinning.