On the surface, Haibane Renmei is as close as anime will ever get to literary fiction. This show is heavily symbolic, open to interpretation, and lacks much of your generic anime’s embarrassing contrivances or distractions. As such, Haibane Renmei is the ideal weapon if you want to convince your snob friend that anime isn’t all mindless entertainment, or to see if your otaku friend knows how appreciate anime as anything more than that.
Of course, this takes an extremely simplistic view of what makes something literary. Regardless, Haibane Renmei is anything but superficial. Its complexities are so layered that you’ll want to watch it at least twice before you try to properly appraise it: watch the show, read the theories, then watch the show again.
For the uninitiated, the Haibane are angelic beings who live in the mysterious, walled town of Glie. Although humans in their past lives, they cannot recall anything about who they were or where they came from. Their only clues are the cryptic dreams they have just before they are reborn as Haibane. (Seriously though, a summary won’t do it justice. You gotta watch the show.)
Okay, so if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the Haibane led unfulfilling lives as humans and died, for some reason or other. This is the precondition to them being reborn as Haibane. While many people like to compare Glie to Purgatory or Limbo, characterising it as a place where Haibane go to find themselves before they may ascend to heaven, I think that the religious imagery complicates more than it clarifies. In my opinion, Chizumatic still puts it best: ‘Glie is a second chance, for those who did not get, or who wasted, their first chance during life on earth.’
Glie is, simply put, an affirmation of the sanctity of life – that since we’ve already been brought into this world, it is our right to experience what life has to offer before we leave it. It doesn’t matter whether heaven follows or not. Even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t make the Haibanes’ lives any less valuable. They still need to make the best of what they have, and deal with the sadness of losing their loved ones.
That said, Glie takes on a very specific definition of ‘what life has to offer’. Sculpted as a quiet, early industrial village, it takes us back to the Good Ol’ Days where the labour is largely manual, businesses are privately-owned and there’s no such thing as computers or the stock market. Traditional values are also emphasised. Take the seven deadly sins, for instance. Measures are taken to protect the Haibane against a good number of them. They are given a set ‘income’ (greed), made to work for the town (sloth), are only allowed to consume used goods (gluttony), and live in a housing where all the older feathers are women (lust, assuming that homosexuality isn’t a thing).
At the same time, there’s one quirk that distinguishes Haibane Renmei from nearly every other story about life after death. Not only do the Haibane lose their memories, their new lives do not revolve around searching for the memories they’d lost. They still do, to some extent, because they need to remember their dreams, but just like how we need to put up with the show’s frustrating lack of answers, the Haibane need to learn to be at peace with the fact that they’ll never know anything more than that.
Here, I would like to introduce the concept of the noble savage. Popularised during the romantic movement, it revolves around the idea that human beings are innately virtuous, but lose their way when they are corrupted by the vices of modern society. It takes a sympathetic view of criminals, drug addicts and those who end their lives – these are simply individuals, no different from you or I, who were born into broken families and unfortunate circumstances; anyone in their shoes would’ve gone the same way. It also longs for the simplicity of primitive cultures and earlier times.
Haibane Renmei is a manifestation of the noble savage. Glie is a reset bag for the people who have fallen through the cracks in the dog-eat-dog world of ours. The idea is to give them an environment that would nurture their innate goodness, one where they do not need to worry about competition, shortage of food or unemployment, thereby allowing them to lead fulfilling lives. It is necessary to erase their memories of the past, which would otherwise corrupt them. Memories of apathy, perversion and wickedness – none of these have a place on Glie.
And thus, they live happily ever after.
Haibane Renmei is more so a subversion of the noble savage than a reflection of it. As the show progresses, we get the sense that many things are wrong with the world of Glie, despite its benevolent intentions.
Even in the kind of society that would make Marx green, inequality persists, just not of an economic form. Reki suffers the fate of being born all alone, and experiences enough despair to become sin-bound even before she can get her halo. While Abandoned Factory doesn’t look too shabby, it’s nothing compared to the kind of cosy, sheltered lives that the Haibanes at Old Home enjoy, and what makes this so bitterly ironic is that we don’t really treasure Old Home until we compare the two.
Moreover, what starts out as a rather conservative attempt to protect the moral purity of the Haibane becomes positively possessive. As Rakka struggles with her inner turmoil, she crumbles under the pressure to maintain an angelic façade. When a woman fawns over her as some sort of lucky charm, she realises how dehumanising the Haibane image really is. The idea that she can only ever be chock-full of love, that she’s not allowed to experience negative emotions such as despair, anger and self-loathing, doesn’t make her more of a human being – it makes her less of one.
Glie is not perfect. But why is that so? Because perfection isn’t a feature of the human condition. While Haibane Renmei acknowledges the influence of our backgrounds on the kind of people we are, and asserts that people aren’t necessarily bad because they choose to be bad, it nonetheless highlights the futility of idealising the noble savage. Sure, we could address our moral failings by telling ourselves, ‘I’m a shitty person because society has conditioned me this way, and I’d be a better person if I were born in a better place or time’, but what good would that do? How is that a strategy to deal with the present? How is it anything but wish fulfilment?
I’m the kind of vegan who tries to see humans as victims, not perpetrators, of the meat, egg and dairy industries. We are victims to tradition and mass media. Society perpetuates so many myths about the necessity and normality of a meat-based diet that most of us can’t bring ourselves to believe anything else. Imagine a world where none of us were raised on meat. At the age of 16, however, we are given the choice to consume meat, but not before being duly informed of the sheer cruelty of the meat industry, and its consequences on the environment and our health. At this point, we have no idea what a meat-based diet looks like. All we know is that meat is this odd thing that can be eaten, that is also apparently very cruel. We look at our pet cats and dogs whom we treat so lovingly. We are going to be eating animals just like them.
Would we accept the offer? I think that most of us wouldn’t.
Such a thought experiment comforts me, since I can draw the conclusion that humans aren’t all bad. They just lack the opportunities to express their goodness. But it remains a fantasy. Right now, we live in a society that is racist, sexist, homophobic and deeply speciesist. We are desensitised, we are corrupt. It won’t tell me what I should do about a society like that, and it won’t give me the courage to face it.
In the end, it is the Haibane who forget their dreams that suffer the most. These are the ones who take to Glie as a form of escapism. The riddle of the Circle of Sin comes to mind. It is self-defeating to aspire to be free of sin. We may only ask for forgiveness. Never mind that we have committed acts of cruelty in so many unwitting ways; the only thing that matters is how we make do with what we have and move forward.
This is the strategy that Haibane Renmei ultimately endow us with. Never underestimate the importance of giving people second chances, but never run away from the reality we are given, no matter how terrible it is.
For now, I can only hope that there is a Glie out there for the hundred of billions of animals that are slaughtered each year. They need it just as much as we do.