The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Haibane Renmei

Title: Haibane Renmei aka Charcoal Feather Foundation
Company: Triangle Staff
Genre: Drama
Format: 13 episodes
Dates: 10 Oct 2002 – 19 Dec 2002

Synopsis: A girl dreams of falling from the sky and awakens in a strange cocoon. She breaks free and meets strange angelic beings with gray wings and halos, the haibane (“ash-gray feathers”). Soon, she grows a pair of wings and receives her own halo – now she is a haibane too. As she has no memory of her life before her dream, she is named “Rakka” and soon learns to live in her new world, a valley surrounded by a huge wall where everybody is friendly towards her. But her new life has many strange rules and regulations, and nobody may ever cross the wall separating the valley from the outside world. Why did Rakka become a haibane, and what is the mystery behind her new companions?

The Highlights
Symbolism: Complex yet non-intrusive.
Mood: Wonderfully calm, emotionally deep.
Music: Beautiful.
Side characters: Rarely fleshed out.
Ending: Might give too few answers for some.

Winged girls with halos on their heads living in a run-down mansion. A huge broken belltower nearby. Flocks of blackbirds everywhere. A mysterious forest and a forbidden wall. Wow… what a world that Abe Yoshitoshi (famous for his Serial Experiments Lain mystery drama) creates in Haibane Renmei. Rarely have I seen so much religious symbolism within a single decidedly non-religious series (there’s not a single act of god worship or ancestor worship in all the 13 episodes), and it’s hardy intrusive, too. If you want to, you can try to link it all to Christian traditions, but you will also understand the message behind it if you don’t.

The series works best if you just lean back and enjoy it. And there’s much to enjoy. During most of the series, the entire mood is serene and calm and with hardly a hint of action or conflict – and you will still find it all very entertaining. There’s hardly that trademark wacky “anime humor”, but everything is presented with the same understanding smile your grandparents always gave you when you told them about your latest adventures. It’s just so very easy to lose yourself within the world where haibane and humans live side by side and lead their lives in peace and mutual help.

It would be false to say that there is no conflict at all, however. There are two major dramatic plots, one within Rakka and one within her best friend Reki, and both are handled with a level of emotional depth that I haven’t seen anywhere since Takahata‘s masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies. While neither of them is a tear-jerker like Fireflies, both will make you really care about the feelings of the protagonists and the people around them. They revolve around life and death, loss of hope and loss of salvation, and again, while you can try to see religious connotations within them, you don’t have to. On a simple emotional level, both plots will reach you whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Pagan or atheist.

While the graphics are mostly good and sometimes outright impressive in their mixture of cel art and CGI rendering, the music is absolutely masterful. All the compositions, from the opening to the ending, are of a beauty that simply outshines lesser works. For a series of only 13 episodes, it is very diverse and always fits the mood perfectly. Compare this to Kanno Yoko‘s compositions for Cowboy Bebop or Kajiura Yuki‘s .hack//SIGN – it’s every bit as good with the added bonus that it never sounds out of place.

Had the seiyuu provided the same quality in their work, we’d be talking true greatness. Unfortunately, aside from Reki (and to some extent Rakka), most of the voice actors are only capable of generic emotions and staple cookie-cutter characters. It wouldn’t be right to blame just the seiyuu, though – the script hardly gives the characters aside from Rakka any time to show more than their most basic personality. Because of this, it’s very difficult to understand why Rakka would grow so fond of young Kuu, one of the girls with only three or four scenes and hardly a memorable one… and yet she becomes the single most important thing that shapes Rakka’s behaviour and character. Aside from Rakka and Reki, the other girls just do not receive enough attention.

Also, while Haibane Renmei is designed to make you think by offering you mysteries to tickle your brain, it does not provide answers to these riddles. You won’t find out what is behind the wall, and there are no hints towards who decides which people become haibane and which not. In my opinion, these questions do not need answering, but some might be put off by the fact that there is so much mystery and so little revelation.

All in all, Haibane Renmei is almost a masterpiece and, by far, Abe Yoshitoshi‘s best anime up to now. The quiet plot will soothe and relax you, the drama will make you sympathize with the suffering of Rakka and her fellow haibane, the music will take you on a journey to a faraway place, and the ending will leave you warm and cozy as though you were tucked in by a beloved person late at night. Thoroughly and utterly enjoyable from the first glimpse of Rakka falling until the final look over the small valley where humans and haibane live together.

The Rating: 9
9/10

Reviewed by: Taleweaver

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