Haibane Renmei is an older anime series that’s not all that well known nowadays. I started watching it maybe a couple of years ago, but didn’t finish it. Recently decided to give it another shot, and I’m glad I did. It’s one that’s worth digging up from the dust of the forgotten.
What is ‘Haibane Renmei’?
In this series, the haibane are people, but also different from normal people. They are born into the world by hatching from giant cocoons. They wear halos and have small, seemingly useless wings growing from their backs. They live by certain strange rules that normal people do not have to live by. The story begins with the arrival of the newborn haibane, Rakka.
The story primarily focuses on Rakka and the older haibane Reki, as they both struggle with similar problems. Reki often takes on a motherly role with the younger haibane, but her own past and her uncertain future take the main stage as the story goes along, and it is Rakka who must help her friend.
Why Haibane Renmei is almost Christian …
So, main characters who have wings and wear halos. Yeah, right off the bat, there is a not-so-subtle hint of some strong Christian symbolism in the story, even if I think that these wings and halos have more to do with popular artistic renderings of angels then with anything biblical.
And these parallels and symbolisms don’t stop there. One episode mentions a lost account of how the world began, and what little is known about this account is a clear reference to Genesis 1.
Even the lives these haibane live and the rules they must live by can give the impression that they are somehow separate from the people of their town, even as they work and to some degree live among them. Or, to put it another way, they are in the town, but not of the town.
About midway through the series, a theme is introduced that becomes more important as the series nears its end: the idea of a haibane being sin-bound, a condition revealed by that haibane’s feathers turning black.
The Communicator, a strange figure who is something like an overseer of the haibane, offers Rakka an explanation of what he calls “the circle of sin.”
This figure says, “One who recognizes their own sin, has no sin.”
Rakka even takes it a step farther: “If I think I have no sin, then I do become a sinner.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that some anime stories take the idea of sin seriously, but this may be the first one that I’ve seen where something that is at least close to repentance for those sins comes up.
But as good as even this may be, it still comes up short. If recognizing my sin means I no longer have sin, then how did that happen? Who has, in essence, washed my wings of the dark stains of my sins, and made them clean? Who made the laws that I broke, thus making me a sinner? All the Communicator can tell Rakka is that she has to find the answers for herself, which is almost like he’s saying that he’s just as lost as she is.
… But not quite
I guess this “not quite” began in the previous section, but that could also have been a false trail. It’s the end of the series that leads to the real “not quite.”
The twelfth episode could have ended the series on a good note, but there is a thirteenth. It’s one of those episodes that’s not an easy or simple one to watch, but that may make it all the better, and it’s failings all the worse.
In this story, Reki says:
“Ironic, isn’t it. If only I close my heart and pretend to be nice, everyone says I’m a good haibane. They just don’t know how dark and impure my heart is…Only when I was being useful to someone could I forget about my sin! And the only thing I was thinking was that maybe God would come and forgive me someday!”
You’d be hard pressed to find even a Christian story that so plainly, even bluntly, speaks of the way original sin has saturated mankind
Yet the way to salvation in Haibane Renmei is rather weak. Reki earned her salvation, earned forgiveness of her sins, freed herself from the curse of being sin-bound, by taking a difficult path and being kind to the weak, until this pretense became her true nature? But after showing so well her selfish motives, this seems like a cop-out.
Mankind seems to want to hold out some hope that we ourselves can win our own salvation, that we can make ourselves right with God on our own terms, and that God is ok with that. We rarely want to ask why any of that should be true, or how it could be true.
But if our hearts really are dark and impure, and if we live lies and pretenses, and if we do good for selfish reasons, then how can we earn any kind of forgiveness?
This is Haibane Renmei’s great weakness, where it fails: it shows us the vanity of putting hope in ourselves, then tells us to put hope in ourselves anyway. And if other people are just like us, then we would be unwise to put our hopes in them, too.
If we have sinned, then we have sinned by breaking God’s laws. If we have broken God’s laws, then we should be punished. How, then, can we be forgiven?
We can be forgiven and find salvation only if God is the one who is punished for us, and only if God is the one who gives us the forgiveness and salvation we cannot earn. These things have happened in Christ, who sacrificed himself for us and offers us forgiveness, salvation, and righteousness as gifts.
Still, you should see this series
Haibane Renmei has fallen into obscurity. This is understandable, yet also sad. It’s not a series with big action scenes and fights, and it’s not even a romance. Yet I think if someone will give it a chance, it’s likely they will not come away unhappy, even if they are like me and not completely happy with the show’s overall message.