One of the very best anime that I have ever seen – Yuri or not – is Haibane Renmei, based on the doujinshi by Yositoshi ABe. Some time ago, Daniel Cronquist wrote a book called Set Apart, that references Haibane Renmei in the context of a discussion on religion. Okazu Superhero and Guest Reviewer Eric P. offered to take a stab at reviewing the book, in the context of reading it as an anime fan. I thought it might be a nice idea, and a change of pace for us here at Okazu – something a little different. So, thank you Eric, and take it away!
While the Haibane are not angels, they are still angelic in appearance with their wings and halos. Along with its themes of hope, salvation and redemption, when you watch Haibane Renmei, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities to Christian imagery and themes. I wholly agree that it’s a spiritual story, and had always thought the dreamlike world of Glie to be a kind of Purgatory, and the Haibane as souls of young people that died in another world and must live out a day-to-day life in this one as a way of being tried and developed before they’re ready to ‘move on’.
Yoshitoshi ABe said in an interview that while it may be a religious story it’s not attributed to any specific religion, and it was all something he made up as he went. Daniel Cronquist, the author of Set Apart, acknowledges this. He is a religious man who loves Japan and its culture, as non-Christian as it is, and even admits how Christian imagery is used very liberally in Japanese animation (Chrono Crusade, anyone?). However, he took a Christian standpoint in watching Haibane Renmei, insisting that there really is deeper meaning than ABe-san intended or realized, thus making the story make more sense with all its symbolisms and open-to-interpretation moments.
He shares in the Purgatory theory; even though it’s not the same kind of ‘Purgatory’ they teach people in Sunday School, it’s still a world that serves the same purpose. While the characters aren’t actively religious, they still ask themselves questions similar to what people might ask in prayers. Their flightless shade-of-gray wings represent their transition between purification and damnation, and the Day of Flight is much like that of death where those that remain should rejoice and not sink in despair.
He compares the Haibane to Christians, in which they are both set apart from the rest of the main world in their own world. Haibane must live and be content with hand-me-down materials, while Christians are supposed to live only on God’s love and try having simple lives dedicated to their faith. Haibane are born in cocoons with no memories of their pasts, which to him parallels a kind of spiritual rebirth through Christ. Haibane express unconditional, familial love towards each other as people of the Church should, and he sees life at Old Home to be similar to life at a monastery.
Cronquist writes a careful, chronological analysis of the series, but still somehow doesn’t really cover everything. This includes some aspects we casual viewers had always noticed, such as how Reki’s constant smoking represents her self-destructive behavior. He also makes no mention of the possibility of the Toga being Haibane that never took their Day of Flight, thus providing no Christian analogy of fallen/lost souls or whatever.
The one interpretation I couldn’t wait to read was about the Haibane’s dreams. I for one, had long suspected they held a clue to how the Haibane died (for instance, since Kana’s name means ‘River Fish’, she may have drowned). When Reki found out that she got run over by a train, that would indicate she committed suicide and explains her sinbound fate. So I was wondering what Mr. Cronquist would say that would make Reki still come across like a positive character, when all g Christian dogma states that suicide is an irredeemable, eternally damnable sin no matter what the mental/emotional circumstances are. What he proposes is the theory of the dreams not necessarily being about how they died, but their state of mind from when they died. Reki’s dream doesn’t signify that she committed suicide by literally throwing herself in front of a train, but that she just didn’t save herself when she had the chance and the train is a kind of metaphor. It’s a legitimate interpretation I certainly never considered before.
You may not be a Christian, and I know I’m not and never will be. As biased as this book may be, it should be noted that it was written by a true Haibane Renmei fan, someone who genuinely loves the series. For that alone, it still offers a very interesting read. You may or may not agree with certain points, you may not even feel like it gives you all the answers. But it’s still fun to read another fan’s unique standpoint on everything and it’s small and short enough to breeze through in one day. The one major downside is that there are no pictures or still images. While the reasons may be understandable, it’s still kind of a disadvantage for a series that got discontinued, and in which fresh copies are getting scarcer, seemingly beyond Mr. Cronquist’s knowledge when he tells readers to find this series at their local video stores. I for one can only hope, since this book came out rather recently, that maybe it could be the tiniest stepping stone (Reki’s ultimate namesake!) to creating awareness for Haibane Renmei, and maybe lead on the path to a future license rescue. I’d love it if that happened, whether it be because of this book or not, considering I still think to this day of Haibane Renmei as the best, most beautiful anime series ever made and deserves the opposite of being lost to oblivion.
Thank you for this review, Eric. Personally, I feel strongly that any discussion that starts from the premise that the creator “wrought deeper than he knew,” is a flawed and self-serving premise. But it sounds like an interesting, if highly questionable, book.