Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t seen this anime mentioned that often in yuri circles. Perhaps that’s due to the serious subject matter, the religious overtones, or maybe people are just unaware of it, but as it turns out, a touching and deeply emotional bond between two girls is what you have to look forward to~
A dream of falling to the earth is the only thing that Rakka remembers. After emerging from a cocoon, Rakka finds herself amongst Haibane, angel-like beings with halos and wings that reside in an abandoned dormitory dubbed Old Home, on the outskirts of a town called Grie. One of the many rules that apply to Haibane is that they are prohibited from touching or even going near the massive walls that surround Grie, and only the monk-like beings known as Toga are allowed to enter and leave town. With no idea who she is, where she is, or why she’s there, Rakka adjusts to her new life in Grie and slowly comes to discover more about the Haibane, as well as herself.
Just reading the synopsis should be enough for you to realize that this show doesn’t seem like your typical anime, and it most certainly isn’t. Really great character-driven stories are hard to come by in anime, and having one that deals with serious themes like sin and atonement is especially rare. That probably sounds intimidating to a lot of people, though, I wouldn’t say that the religious/spiritual allusions are particularly heavy-handed. Yes, those themes become hugely important later on in the series, but you won’t really find religious imagery, references to God or worship, or many things that would make you feel like the series is preaching to you, so don’t be scared off by that. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get back to the story.
After the first episode, the story focuses more on the slice of life aspects for a few episodes and we get to know the other residents of Old Home a bit better, but around the midway point, the story takes on a more serious tone, and from this point on, I felt like the series just got better and better. This continues until the final episode, which is probably one of the most memorable anime episodes I’ve seen in quite a while. The seemingly effortless worldbuilding, slow-burning narrative that keeps you interested, drama that doesn’t really feel forced… the storytelling is just very well-done, so it’s a shame that this anime isn’t more well-known.
Even as the final scene fades to black, there are still many questions left unanswered, and while that may sound like a negative to some, I think it’s great that the show retains its sense of mystery and intrigue throughout. Drawing your own conclusions as to what exactly is going on was part of the enjoyment for me, though, I could understand if others were frustrated at the lack of definite answers. For me, that’s one of the only knocks I could see people leveling at Haibane Renmei‘s story, as well as some confusion arising from some critical plot points. Overall, it’s hard for me to find much wrong with the narrative, as I think this is a textbook example of how a well-written story can transform an anime into something special.
With a thought-provoking story comes a need for strong, believable characters. Enter Rakka and Reki. Well, it’s not that the supporting characters aren’t strong, believable characters, it’s just that so much emphasis is placed on those two that they’re really the major draw here, but before we get to them, let’s briefly talk about the others. Nemu, Kana, Kuu, and Hikari are the other Haibane you’ll often see around Old Home, and there’s a distinct feeling of family between them, Rakka, and Reki.
Nemu is the oldest among them, and aside from her longstanding friendship with Reki, her sleepiness belies her sincerity and kindness. She’s very much a motherly figure to the young Haibane of Old Home, and we get to see how her and Reki came to be friends, despite some growing pains.
Kana is the tomboy of the group, not to mention being the most rambunctious resident of Old Home. In an anime with an otherwise reserved cast, Kana provides some comic relief and helps keep things light and easygoing.
Aside from Rakka, Kuu is the youngest of the supporting cast, and her upbeat personality makes her quite cute. Though, she is also capable of some surprisingly grown up thoughts as well. Okay, I have a confession to make… it wasn’t until episode three that I discovered that Kuu was a girl, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it wasn’t until episode four that I realized that Kana was a girl as well. In my defense, they both look (and sound) very boy-ish, so it’s not my fault! 😀
All right, that’s embarrassing on my part, but it is interesting to note that all of the supporting characters are female. Not all Haibane are females, mind you, as some of the “young feathers” are boys, and a Haibane we meet later on is also male, but the main group is purely female.
Last but definitely not least is Hikari. Much like Nemu, Hikari is sweetness personified, and she actually seems far older than her presumed age. Other than the main duo, she was definitely my favorite character, and it’s not just because she’s blonde with glasses. But now on to Rakka and Reki.
As the newest Haibane, the story mainly follows Rakka as she starts her journey towards understanding how she came to be on this strange, new world. We see her character grow and have to deal with many issues, and this all serves to make her an even more endearing character that you can’t help but feel for. The exact same thing can be said of Reki, and as the story unfolds, we see their character depth shine through like a beacon.
Since Rakka’s emergence from her cocoon, Reki had always been there to take care of her, be it by guiding her along the path to becoming a Haibane, or just by looking out for her and trying to protect her from anything that could do her harm. In the first half of the series, you might need some yuri goggles to really appreciate their relationship, but their situation really picks up later on in the series as things take a turn for the dramatic. There isn’t a kiss or another overt sign that their relationship is necessarily romantic, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that their journeys bring them to a state that could easily be considered a form of love.
And it’s not the first time that Reki had a strong attachment to another girl, so it’s really nothing new to her. So even if subtext is all that we really have to go by, the relationship between Rakka and Reki is something that is extremely fulfilling and is one of the absolute best things about this show, hands down.
Haibane Renmei first debuted all the way back in 2002, and by those standards, there were some very nice visual aspects to this anime. In particular, it’s the background art that stands out as something that I think received a lot of love from the artists. The characters themselves aren’t quite as impressive as the backgrounds often are, and there are a few moments here and there where it’s pretty easy to spot some lapses in detail that remind you of how old this show really is, but by and large, the visuals are most certainly not a problem for this anime. Like the general tone of the anime, the color palette is also sort of drab and dreary, which adds to the melancholic mood quite nicely. All in all, the look of Haibane Renmei stands out as a bit unconventional, yet is very effective in injecting life into the mysterious world of Grie.
For an anime as mentally stimulating and visually striking as this, it’s fitting that the music would follow suit as something quite exceptional. Composed mainly of stringed instruments as well as the piano, the score may not be something you’ll specifically remember long after watching, yet it definitely adds a lot to the atmosphere and is a perfect compliment to what the show is trying to accomplish. At times wistful, ethereal, and personal, the music may be mostly understated, but it’s very effective. Lastly, the voice acting of Reki and Rakka’s seiyuus—especially during the more emotionally charged moments later on in the series—is very nice. I wouldn’t go quite as far as to call any one aspect of the audio truly “great”, but across the board, I think it’s consistently very good and still worthy of some praise.
No matter how you look at it, Haibane Renmei is a rare treat the likes of which we anime fans don’t come across very often. It’s not the most exciting show—and it’s definitely not for everyone—but those who enjoy great storytelling, complex characters, and a unique, yet mysterious setting should definitely watch this. Add in a beautiful relationship between the two main characters, and even yuri fans have a reason to take notice of this delightful gem.