Some stories are about small, simple questions: Will the guy get the girl, defeat the bad guys, and live happily ever after? There’s nothing wrong with that, as many of the best movies are precisely that simple. Then there are stories that are about great, unanswerable questions, not so much to get an answer but to make us wonder: Why are we born? Why must we die? Where did we come from before all of this, and where will we go afterwards? Why are we even here at all when it all just vanishes anyway?
Haibane Renmei is firmly in the second category, and all the better for it because it tackles these huge questions in the context of a story that has all the simplicity of a children’s book. At the same time, the simplicity of the story is deceptive: there is so much more going on inside it than a single viewing will reveal. It also does not answer all the questions it brings up, and I think that is quite deliberate, since only a fool or a saint would assume they had absolute answers to such questions. Like Wings of Desire or 2001 or any of the other great movies about man's place in the universe, it inspires more reflection than certainty, which is exactly the idea.
Haibane takes place in a town named Guri, which outwardly resembles one of the many towns in Middle Europe that have remained unchanged through the centuries, with many tall, older buildings brooding over the shorter, newer ones. Life is quiet and unhurried, the weather mild. The extraordinary thing about Guri is that many of the inhabitants are Haibane — young people who look and act human, but have small wings and a halo, much like the classical depiction of angels. They remember nothing of their life before coming here, but retain their personalities. The other odd thing about the town is that no one, human or Haibane alike, may leave — except, that is, for the mysterious Touga, the traders who come and go through the giant wall at the edge of town and speak only in sign language.
The story proper opens with the arrival of one particular Haibane — a young girl with perpetually messy hair, named Rakka (“Falling”). Like all the other Haibane, she “arrives” by being born out of a seed pod, a giant globule that just springs up out of the ground in one of certain buildings in town. When the pod bursts open, there are other Haibane there to receive her, to guide her into this world and help her learn her place. Like all the others, she’s confused and scared; she has half-remembered dreams from being inside the pod. Dreams of — what, exactly? Her past life? Is this the next world, or something akin to it?
Rakka receives her wings (in one of the story’s more traumatizing moments) and her halo — although, like with a few others, her halo doesn’t “take” correctly and she has to strap it to her head with wire to keep it from slipping to one side. The Haibane live communally, with a loose hierarchy based on age. Among the oldest is Reki (“Stone”), Rakka’s own minder, a somewhat distant and reserved woman — not bad, just somewhat closed-off, and as the story progresses we realize that the whole thing is as much about Reki, the veteran, as it is about Rakka, the newcomer. Every now and then a Haibane will feel a calling of sorts, and will be drawn out of the world just as abruptly as they were thrown into it, in a burst of light reminiscent of fireworks in slow motion. No one knows where they go.
Reki, one of the oldest of the bunch, presides over the other Haibane like a disenchanted mother hen.
The Haibane live according to a fairly strict code. They cannot earn money for themselves; instead, they are given ration books to obtain used clothing and furniture with. They must work, and make themselves useful to others — like penitents, or medieval stoics. Some welcome their work; others shun it and find ways to have others make excuses for them. Rakka slowly finds her place in this world, but her greatest obstacle becomes Reki: For all of her solicitousness in return to the woman who helped her so much, she remains…diffident, detached, even sad.
Each of them, as it turns out, has a difficulty to overcome. With Rakka, it’s her feelings of helplessness and unworthiness, something she will overcome with care and discipline. But with Reki, it’s a sense of acceptance — something she still cannot feel as being real despite all she has done for her peers. She paints her pictures, guides the other Haibane, provides advice and perspectives…and yet, at the end, still feels hollow. Her bitterness seems to only have been made worse by Rakka’s flowering; doubly so when Rakka proves she can support herself without Reiki’s help. This provides the turning point for the story’s final acts, which I will of course not discuss here.
For all of the togetherness promoted by their work and lifestyle,
Rakka has trouble breaking down Reki's distant exterior.
The larger answers of what’s actually going on do become clear in time, but only up to a point. One of the beautiful things about the show is how all the clues are simply put into place, but never forced down our throats: it’s only after it’s all over, and we’ve had some time to reflect on it, that the real significance of what is going on comes into view. The whole thing works both as allegory and as a story in its own right, so that even if we don’t know what it “means,” it’s still immensely satisfying as drama. That said, I have my own theory about what the Haibane are, and their purpose, and I would encourage you to skip the next paragraph if you would rather not know right now.
As I read it, the town is essentially a kind of waiting-room in the afterlife, where those who have died too young to be judged in their lifetime have come to finish what was never properly concluded. (This explains why the Haibane are all relatively young, even if they stay in Guri for quite some time.) Here, they can work to prove themselves as being worthy of ascending to the next world for real. Those that do not suffer a fate described in the story itself: they lose their wings and haloes, and become one of the Renmei, the watchers at the edge of town who guard against any from leaving on their own.
Haibane was created by Yoshitoshi ABe [sic], the same man responsible for the look-and-feel of the remarkable Serial Experiments Lain and the enjoyably oddball NieA Under 7. Haibane is somewhere between the otherworldly concerns of the first and the goony everyday drama of the second. His artwork here is simple but lovely, evoked more for mood and texture than detail, and his directorial style is similarly unobtrusive. He trusts his story enough not to force its hand, and doesn’t indulge in gimmickry — save for the surreal moments at the story’s climax, which are part and parcel of what’s going on. The show develops in an unhurried way, sneaking up on the viewer, building its case casually, and by the end it becomes amazingly moving.
If the show has a flaw, it’s only that it’s too short — only 13 episodes. The wrap-up in the last few installments also seems terribly rushed, as though they had planned for more and weren’t allowed to continue — but this only lends a greater aura of mystery to the whole thing. The more you think about it, the less Haibane Renmei seems like an allegory for one possible afterlife and more like an allegory for life itself: We come into this world unbidden; we exist for a time and do our best; and then, just as abruptly, we leave. Why? No why, the show seems to be saying; life is just like that. What matters is not that we get absolute answers to our great questions about life, but that we ask the questions in the first place. The answers for everyone will always be different. The asking is what matters most.