"Wings that cannot fly; walls that cannot be passed. It even seems like a dream that I am who I am. There is only the charcoal world."—Series Commercial
In a small town somewhere, girls with wings and halos live quietly. They are not angels. They are Haibane, or "charcoal feathers." They are born fully grown, but they have no memories of any other lives. The nearby townspeople are not sure whether to worship or disdain them. The Haibane cannot own new things: they must scavenge to survive. Nor can they leave their town, which is surrounded by an enormous wall. And periodically, one of the Haibane is taken up, although no one is quite certain where she goes.
Haibane-Renmei is another short and enigmatic anime series from Yoshitoshi Abe, creator of the moody Serial Experiments Lain. Just as Lain was more interested in exploring the virtual terrain of the mind rather than the cyberpunk landscape touched on by its story, Haibane focuses far more on the psychological than the physical. The origins and purpose of these fragile, frustrated girls is certainly a key mystery to be solved along the course of the series. However, Haibane is really a coming-of-age story, focused around the psychological development of one young "charcoal feather" named Rakka.
Rakka is tormented by dreams of falling, and the knowledge that some sin dogs the fringes of her memory. In Volume 3 of the series (which encompasses episodes 8 through 10), she struggles emotionally with the disappearance of a close friend and learns a bit about the mysterious Touga monks who guard the wall that keeps the Haibane from leaving their town. What really drives Haibane-Renmei, however, is not the slowly unraveling plot at all, but Abe's attempt to balance philosophical ideas (sin and redemption) with the popular shojo theme of a girl trying to come to terms with her place in the world.
Although Pioneer clearly puts too few episodes per disc, given the prices they charge (obviously padding out this 13-episode series as far as they can), Haibane-Renmei is a beautifully rendered piece of work. The art direction has a lovely, almost Provencal flavor, and the animation is smooth. Although I must admit that I have joined this series late in its run (this is the third of the four volumes), I am curious to go back and follow it from the beginning. Yoshitoshi Abe's anime shows often bear repeating simply because their enigmas do not resolve themselves easily. Half psychodrama, half allegory, Haibane-Renmei looks like one of the gentler and more intelligent entries in the otherwise cluttered and congested anime landscape.
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