Director: Tomokazu Tokoro
Screenplay: Yoshitoshi ABe
Based on the dōjinshi manga by Yoshitoshi ABe
Voice Cast: Junko Noda (as Reki); Ryou Hirohashi (as Rakka); Akiko Yajima (as Kuu); Aya Hisakawa (as Kuramori); Chihiro Suzuki (as Hyouko); Eri Miyajima (as Kana); Fumiko Orikasa (as Hikari); Kazusa Murai (as Nemu)
[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS]
Haibane Renmei is incredible. Openly in the first sentences I'll confess it's an exceptional thirteen episode series, a incredibly fantastical premise but one which tackles exceptionally an adult subject, namely death and the afterlife. After the first scene of the series where she's falling from the sky, our female protagonist is literally reborn as an angel, without memories of her past but aware of this fact, violently growing wings from her back and being presented a freshly cooked halo that permanently hovers over head. Rechristened Rakka, after her dream, she has become a Haibane living amongst a whole home of female Haibane, and male and female children, in an abandoned old mill that's being provided to them as a home. The Haibane - the caring older sister figure for Rakka called Reki, the dozy Nemu who's the oldest of the Haibane, the cocky tomboy Kana, the boyish younger Kuu, the nerdy and kind Hikari - are clearly the dead, living in a form of afterlife that is peaceful but requires them to follow the rules of a council that looks after them, living in harmony with a town of mortals behind a wall neither group can leave from, the kindness and donations of the town keeping the Haibane in comfortable life.
The greatest virtue of Haibane Renmei is that, as thirteen episodes isn't a lot of time for a large scale story and is ill-advised for epics unless a sequel is possible, it's world is deep enough to have gone on longer but there're only two small character based plots in the centre of this series, bookending each other, the first being Rakka adapting to her new life, the later dealing with the emotional strife of the "Day of Flight", where a Haibane leaves gracefully from existence to (clearly) a higher plain of existence, leaving emotional turmoil if their remaining friends aren't able to cope with their departure. This is worse for a person like Reki who, starting off as the edgier, cigarette smoking big sister devoted to Rekka, is revealed to have deep psychological issues about her existence as a Haibani since she was hatched, coming to terms with the possibility of her own "Day of Flight" and how it may never happen to her if she cannot come to turns with her own baggage. As a result, concentrating on this small internal drama both allows the world to grow naturally whilst portraying a story with enough emotional depth to have an immense impact on the viewer.
The quietness of the show is understated to an extreme. While it cut quicker than I thought it would to an immensely downbeat drama soon into itself, the world of the Haibane is never presented as sinister or leading to the cliché of a morally dubious force being secrelty behind it, instead a timeless reality which has motorised scooters and a second hand clothing ship but feels like travelling to a rural town or a seaside community which has a sense of being closed, everyone knowing each other or at least with the rules put in place for the mortals and Haibane to interact a sense of public responsibility. Even the masked men who dictate the Haibanes' lives, whilst exceptionally restrictive in their rules, are ultimately out to help the Haibane live happily and being spiritually fulfilled, thankfully avoiding the cliché of them being villains for the protagonist to rebel against.
Instead of the clichés of fantasy, i.e. crow barring unnecessary action into a fairytale, the conflict is entirely personal drama, how Rakka has to adapt to her new life with questions but also the emotions of those amongst struggle with the baggage of lives they can no longer remember. Technically the show can be added to the "Slice of Life" anime and manga sub-genre which is exactly as it sounds, the ordinary lives of the Haibane who, whilst treated by the mortals in a way that could accidentally come off as patronising, as in one scene which leads to Rakka snapping in the midst of immense emotional pain, are just like everyone else in their community baring their unique social structure, working at the libraries or the clock makers and paying for their goods with notebook pages in place of regular money. Anything more than this is cryptic, the most blatant a book Nemu tries to complete as a gift for a colleague going on pregnancy leave which is explicitly the Christian mythology of how God created the world, thanks to Rakka adding how He rested at the end.
The religious content is so un-highlighted its ultimately more powerful for the subtle hints to it, imagining purgatory as actually a pleasant and wonderful place ifone has no emotions anxieties from the previous life, with friendship and idyllic countryside around them, but the travel to either heaven or reincarnation through the Day of Flight causing as much pain for the Haibane left behind as the death of a loved one would. Explicitly Reki is cursed with being sin bound, black wings when she birthed from her egg, caused by a sin that isn't necessarily a transgression but depending on your views as a viewer the result of how the person died, like suicide, or how they left their mortal life with a grave error committed. (Such as Rakka, also sin bound, realising she rejected someone in her previous life there for her, believing she was entirely alone, only to take a couple of episodes on a small journey of symbolic existentialism to cleanse herself of this error). Unable to learn why she is sin bound, and unable to remember her whole dream in the egg, trying to paint it to existence constantly, Reki's agony is played out as a literal dark night of the soul, Rakka trying to help but the emotions devastating in the final episode, literalising the agony in physical form for the pair, before closure is felt. As a result, Haibane Renmei becomes an exceptional take on grief and acceptance on a spiritual level but ironically at a more realistic level than a lot of anime melodrama, which is more fantastic than this despite Haibane Renmei having its central character possessing wings and halos.
It terms of the style and structure of the show, its helped by the original creator Yoshitoshi ABe having a pronounced role of the adaptations of his original work, the show a mellow and quietly told story with a light touch in terms of aesthetic, naturally timeless in terms of setting and colour palette. The music as well, particularly when it gets closer to the end and emotional devastation being restrained by characters, is impeccable from Kō Ōtani, electronic and folk influence felt throughout. Altogether it's now surprisingly how much of a sleeper hit Haibane Renmei was, still enjoyed and admired today, as within only a small baker's dozen of episodes it manages to tackle its theme with immense grace and subtlety, hints at a great fantastical tone which are greater because it's used to tackle realistic issues.