Haibane Renmei anime review

A young girl is slowly falling. She doesn’t know from where or towards what and then she wakes up. She doesn’t remember anything but the people around her are kind. They explain that she is a newly formed Haibane and her life is starting from this moment. The girl is given the name Rakka, after her dream. She is introduced to her new family, her new home, her new life and slowly educated on the rules that will now govern her world. It’s a strange world, with unknown dangers and odd regulations. It’s limited and closed off. It’s also a kind world, gentle, strict but loving. As Rakka slowly pieces together the mystery of her own existence, she finds herself entangled with the people around her.

Admittedly this is a pretty old show but it left a big impression on me. I have been wanting to write a post about it for a long time now since I never seem to hear about it anymore. It took me this long because I actually had to figure out how I felt about the series. Spoiler alert – I didn’t figure it out. This might get messy…

Haibane Renmei anime review
Speaking of messy

Although ABe was only responsible for the visual designs in Serial Experiments Lain, Haibane Renmei (in which he was heavily involved on several levels, most notably as the writer) does share a lot of elements with this earlier work. For one, it is visually striking and the character designs are unmistakable. Like Lain, the show has minimal movement and therefore the animation has aged very well. The backgrounds are simply stunning and if nothing else you should look up the artwork for the show, it is definitely worth it. The soundtrack is also an important element and adds a lot to the story. If you are they type who enjoys carefully chosen music cues, you will appreciate Haibane Renmei.

Haibane Renmei anime review town
Doesn’t it remind you a bit of Attack on Titan?

Am I the only one that finds it a funny coincidence that ABe’s two most prominent project start with a young girl falling? This should have been a random thought, it has nothing to do with my “review”.

 Haibane Renmei is a philosophical thought experiment in anime form. There is definitely some obvious religious imagery – the Haibane are grey winged angels after all – but the narrative itself never directly refers to any one religion and completely abstains from preaching or even offering moral guidance. There are no allusions to a God or higher power at all, in fact. Rather, layers of symbolism, both visual and textual, are slowly presented and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions and impressions based on personal experience. As you can imagine, your mileage will vary and Haibane Renmei is a very different series from one viewer to the next.

Haibane Renmei anime review
but YOU will love it, understood!?

The storyline, such as it is, follows Rakka’s exploration of her new environment while giving us glimpses of the other characters’ personal journeys in a more or less slice of life format. It progresses at a leisurely pace that can seem downright sluggish at times and impatient viewers will be tested. Moreover, again like Lain, this show doesn’t offer much in the way of answers or resolutions. It presents the audience with abstract questions and a nebulous setting and leaves them to do all the work of clearing things up. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it frustrating. If I had not watched this when I was up for the challenge, I would probably have been bored and unimpressed. Fortunately, I was in the perfect mood for it and it became a compelling and beautiful mystery.

 The Haibane are born from cocoons that mysteriously appear. They are always without any memories except for their last dream before awakening in Old Home (the name of the abandoned school house where all the Haibane live) and are named after that dream. We never know why they come into being, what they are or the significance of their dream. They also just disappear sometimes. It seems as if their very existence is transitory. I have a detailed idea about exactly what’s going on but I’m not going to share it because the point is to create your own theory.

Haibane Renmei anime review
You just have to have some faith

I also loved Glie, the town around Old Home. The design for the town is simply breath taking and to me Glie was almost a character onto itself. This town is surrounded by a tall wall and it seems most people cannot survive beyond its confines. Only the Toga (traveling merchants) are allowed beyond the wall at all. The Haibane themselves aren’t even allowed to go near it. Glie is also populated by ordinary humans who live peacefully alongside the Haibane.

There are all sorts of rules that regulate Rakka’s life. Haibane can and do work, but they are not allowed to earn money so instead their earnings are simply written down in a ledger (as the world becomes more and more digital, this seems to be the norm for most people now). Weirdly, they do not have access to tools or non-essentials, unless these have been thrown out by humans. So amicable symbiotic relationships have formed between the two. The show is full of these little oddities that remain for the most part completely unexplained. However, the Haibane are treated quite well and clearly loved and cared for. What does it all mean is completely up to you.

Haibane Renmei anime review
oh good, hooded black figures, we should get some answers now

So what about that mildly click baity title? If there is any prevailing storyline here, it’s the relationship between Rakka and Reki. It should be said that Reki is a wonderful character. Complex, intelligent, wonderfully fleshed out without becoming overly expositional. If Rakka is the protagonist and point of view character, Reki is the actual object of the story. Their growing friendship is the element that holds the story together. Although never sexual, their relationship gets very intense and intimate. It’s even clearly stated the Reki has a history of developing strong feelings for other girls. The ship practically writes itself (you’ll need to ask somebody else to write it though). I find it honestly baffling that with all the lists of anime with Yuri subtext out there, this show never comes up.

Haibane Renmei anime review
Did I mention Reki is a wonderful dancer

Did you read all of this and come out still not knowing whether you should watch Haibane Renmei? Like a lot of things, what you get out of the experience will depend on what you’re willing to put into it. It’s very slow and frustratingly vague. It could be obnoxious. Depending on your own experiences you may pick up on symbolism that I did not and find it unpleasant, preachy or even depressing. All I can say is I was left feeling optimistic and just a tiny bit better about…everything.

Random thought: This show made me discover Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World which I enjoyed a lot

Favorite character: Kana

What this anime taught me: It’s never too late to start over

Vodka can be mixed up with anything. Even more vodka

Suggested drink: Naughty or Nice (it’s morally ambiguous, you see)

  • Every time we see a mask – take a sip
  • Every time we see a cocoon – take a sip 
  • Every time a Haibane grows a black feather – worry
  • Every time we see a crow – take a sip
  • Every time Reki has a smoke – take a sip
  • Every time the Haibane share a meal – have a snack
  • Every time a dream is mentioned -take a sip
  • Every time there are feathers littering – take a sip
  • Every time we see train/track motifs – take a sip
  • Every time we see the Communicator – wonder

35 thoughts

  1. Ah! I thought I’d lost this! Long ago and far away, when I was a different person, almost a refugee, I discovered this bulletin board where people talked about the show that was about the only thing that got me through a really rough time.
    Behold: Old Home. http://cff.ssw.net/forum/viewforum.php?f=9
    (The Clock Tower does not allow replies; go to Reki’s Room for discussion.)
    The Random Neural Firings, RNFs, were my first efforts at writing commentary on stories, comics, and shows. i only got through episode seven before life started to catch up with me again, and my views have changed some since, but I think the RNFs may still be worth reading. Especially Eps 6&7.

  2. I don’t consider HR to be yuri, because to me, yuri implies a romantic or even sexual relationship between girls. And despite my longstanding desire for an image of the haibane sporting about in a giant birdbath, there’s simply no evidence that sexual or even romantic urges play a part in the social dynamics of Old Home. (The Factory, now, is another matter entirely. Don’t get me started on the reproductive implications of “factory”.)

    1. Oh I completely agree. However I’ve seen many titles with even less romantic context that regularly get associated with the genre and I was curious why people that would consider New Game obviously yuri not consider HR also yuri

  3. This was a recent watch for me, and in some ways I’m glad. I feel like this series taps into things that, at the time of its creation were more common, but which have become a rarity in more recent anime. I loved the subdued and very grounded animation style, as well as the mellow narrative. This is a very peaceful anime, with a wonderful sense of mystery, but as you say, it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. Instead the story provides the audience with raw materials upon which to craft their own meaning, and the balance is well struck.
    Thank you for sharing :-).

    1. I am honestly thrilled that so many people enjoyed this series. I loved it but of the people I’ve talked to – I’m the only one who seems to have enjoyed it

      1. Huh. I admit that prior to blogging I only ever knew one person who knew of and watched the series. She mentioned in passing that it was the only anime she ever recommended, and that alone made me curious.
        I think part of the challenge is how anime of late have become very flashy. Even the slice of life I’ve seen frequently feature exaggerated animation styles, which has its charm, but I’ve always been fond of contrast.
        I think by itself Haibane Renmei can feel a bit slow, but I like to create lineups, choosing 2-3 anime and watching 1 episode of each in a session, rather than watch several of one. I often try to pair titles that have different styles and pacing. I think I paired this with Gurren Lagann and…I don’t recall what the third one was. In any case, it was fun to alternate between mellow/grounded and over the top action.
        I also enjoy how blogging offers many opportunities to discuss a variety of topics with other passionate people. 🙂

  4. Wow. This sounds like a classic that needs to be loved more. I admit I’m still a bit confused after reading your review, but you did get me interested!

    Thank you for getting me woke, fam.

      1. I’m unfortunately very behind when it comes to shows that could be considered yuri if we move away from more “modern” series. I need to go check out some classics!!!

  5. I’m glad that you talked about this how. It’s such a hidden gem that more people need to know about it.

    Also, have you ever watched Texhnolyze? It’s another abe series, but you have to be in a positive mood to watch it because it’s depressing, depressing, and depressing. Did I mention that it’s depressing? Still a good watch if you are in the right mood.

    1. I haven’t seen it but I’ve seen and art book. Hmm I’m a little afraid it might be depressing…Do you think it’s depressing?

      1. It is certainly a bittersweet story. And I think it’s fair to say that in some ways it is about depression, even despair. Although ABe, its creator, denies it, many fans believe that at least some of the Haibane are in fact suicides. (I think ABe essentially channeled the story; he doesn’t know everything about it.)

        But it is also one of the things that got me over a particularly rough spot in my life.

    2. Texhnolyze is a great series. I feel that Abe doesn’t get enough credit as an anime auteur. It gets really depressing in that anime, but there’s so much depth and artistry despite getting really violent at several times.

      1. Agreed, that’s why I loved it when watching it. The thematic elements in the story are so strong and so interesting and yes, everything with Abe involved is great.

        1. Of course. The writing and animation were so strong in it. Kudos to being into Abe’s work. I feel like he doesn’t get enough attention compared to other animators or anime/manga creators. Too bad he hasn’t come out with anything in a while besides the All You Need Is Kill manga. I just hope they get Despera out of development hell and make it a real TV series. What’s your favorite Yoshitoshi Abe anime?

          1. That’s a good question, but I think it’s Texhnolyze. It’s a show burn kind of show, but it really captured my imagination.

            1. Good choice. I agree with it being a slow burn feel, but it really knows how to pace things brilliantly and it is a very creative show. Okay, what Abe work isn’t innovative or creative though? Haha!

  6. Great review on Haibane Renmei. Not going to lie, this is one of my favorite anime series of all time with the characters, plot, and the awesome soundtrack. It’s also the first thing I’ve given a 10/10 to on my Iridium Eye blog. I know it’s not for everyone because of its slow pace and it’s not some big action-packed anime, but there’s a ton of depth there.

    1. Thank you. It’s one of those anime I remember in quite a lot of detail even years down the line and I think back on it quite a bit. I enjoyed your review as well. And of Key – I’m always excited when someone else remembers Key!

      1. Same here. I still like even over a decade after watching it for the first time. Thanks for checking out my blogs. Good on you for knowing Key the Metal Idol. Boy, is that anime underrated. That’s one series I’ve wanted to see, but never got to until late last year. I’m glad it got relicensed.

  7. Ahhh! This brings so many memories! I remember watching this anime as one of the first few I’ve ever watched (before I even knew what anime was) and it left a deep impact on me. Honestly though, it really is a great masterpiece and if this review doesn’t clinch the fact that you HAVE to watch it at least once, I don’t know what will.

    Though I’m curious to know what actually happened after the ‘departure’ or does it actually just symbolise the afterlife? I never could figure it out.

    1. I have met quite a few people who didn’t like this. I personally loved it and I would tend to agree with you and say everyone should watch for the introspection if nothing else…

      No tricking me into giving away my theory! Nice try though.

  8. The story is pretty universal, and that’s why I’m glad the setting has no in-world explanation. I’ve never once had a single theory about this, so I’ve read some interesting ones. For me, the city makes its own kind of sense and I feel no need to import meaning. I’ll need to re-watch this one day.

    Also, how do the halos float? My theory is electromagnetic fields (based on the initial effect it had on Rakka’s hair). I do have theories for the unimportant stuff, you see.

    1. And how do those halos get “fixed” to individuals? Is it some new form of quantum entanglement? Why does it take an adjustment period?

      1. ‘how do those halos get “fixed” to individuals?’

        A possible clue: There’s an early episode (02? 03?) where the homemade “halo holder”, a bit of wire twisted around the halo and attached to a headband, falls away from Rakka’s head. Just before that happens, Rakka feels weak and sick, so Reki puts her to bed and prepares some tea. Watch closely, and you’ll see that when Reki picks up the discarded holder, the wire is still twisted: it apparently slipped through the halo itself.

        Even stranger, in the first ep, you can see a bright patch on the ceiling above Rakka’s head; it looks very like light reflected from the surface of a body of water. Indeed, very like the watery patch seen in the opening, when she falls into the realm of the walled city. After the halo floats by itself, that patch is never seen again.

        Moreover, when Kuu says goodbye to Rakka, her halo dims for a moment. Then when the girls visit the departure altar, they find fragments of the halo, now dim and dull.

        And remember that the halos are formed from glittering flakes recovered from the walls inside The Wall.

        I think the halo protects the haibane from the forces outside the wall, the same forces that result in the pillar of light at the moment of flight. And I think its ability to escape the wire of the holder indicates that it is not entirely material–and indeed, that escape reflects the eventual fate of the Haibane themselves, when, on their day of flight, they escape the Wall that rings Glie.

        1. Fantastic. And very pretty interpretation. I really like it. Being a boring person I was thinking about some types of magnetic/static fields or quantum entanglement but yours is much more poetic and fitting with the series

      2. Thanks for your reply, Irina–made my night.

        One more thing, about the adjustment period, and about Rakka’s static problem with the halo and her hair: Hikari tried to use the halo mold to bake cakes with. I read this as a possible subtext on the consequences of contaminating the sacred with the sensual.)

        Hikari’s little plans do seem to attract unintended consequences. She’s a bit light-headed. 🙂

        1. That’s an interesting take. See I always thought the Haibana are for lack of a better word – tainted? as in not sacred at all. I should rewatch the show. I’m working on theories that I came up with year ago.

          1. I was referring to the halo mold as a sacred object. (Speaking very loosely here, given that ABe has disavowed a religious, or at least a Christian, meaning for the halos themselves.)

            I also need to correct a minor error on my part–I think the watery reflection that the halo cuts off is indeed seen again at least once more, when Reki falls down the well. Where, incidentally, we hear the sounds of the airlock doors deep in the walls sliding open and closed.

            Strange place, that well.

            Thanks again for your post, and for giving me an opportunity to talk about one of my favorite stories in any medium.

            1. Yes, i understood you were referring to the mold. I meant that everything associated with the Haibane is imperfect, mold included, molted substance poured into it to make the halo, included.
              This said I am not Christian and have had no religious upbringing so theological references are likely lost on me. It was just the impression I got.

  9. Great post!. I haven’t watched this series myself, but I like the fact that it seems to combine a lot of genres, most notably supernatural and psychological. The visual do indeed look very cool, and I don;t mind somewhat older animation styles in the first place. Will see if I can find this one somewhere. And it’s nice that a series makes you feel optimistic at the end: and I guess that is something we can all use from time to time 😊

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