Monday, June 29, 2009

Top 5: Anime

When it comes to creating stories based on internal conflict, few writers approach what Yoshitoshi ABe was able to do with Haibane Renmei.

Set in a purgatorial afterlife, the Haibane are reincarnated humans with a pair of vestigial wings and a molded halo. Upon arriving in a village called Glie, the Haibanes seek out menial jobs while keeping their dormitory (Old Home) from falling apart.

The majority of the story is told from the perspective of Rakka, the newest Haibane to arrive. Rakka struggles to adapt to her life, starting with the emergence of her wings. While many series feature characters with beautiful wings that sprout seamlessly from their backs, the Haibanes are granted no such respite. The first episode closes with Rakka's wings sprouting in a grotesque manner: her shoulder-blades swell and bubble, sharp wingtips poke through her skin, and with a scream her full wings burst out of her back in a shower of blood.

Each episode is slow and methodically paced, allowing the viewer to get to know each Haibane as a distinct person. Some are rule-followers, some are rebels, and each one has an experience Rakka can learn from.

What ABe captures most spectacularly, however, is the portrayal of death and its wide-reaching net. When Kuu, the most upbeat Haibane, moves on from life in Glie, it happens in a shower of light. Instead of being happy to see that her friend has been granted freedom from the town, Rakka cannot let go. She spends her time in Kuu's room, sweeping the floors, folding her sheets. It is a crushing moment, as anyone who has lost a loved one can attest to. That moment when you find yourself surrounded by their possessions, knowing that only hours ago a person cherished them--that is a feeling that hits hard. ABe pulls no punches, letting Rakka struggle with this knowledge that what once made a person happy still exists while that person no longer does. Just thinking about it puts a lump in my throat.

Haibane Renmei is, ultimately, a tale of personal growth and redemption. There are no villains, no heroes, and no threats against existence. What you will find are characters that learn and grow through conversation and the sharing of life experiences. It is a wonderful musing on mortality and making the most of the time we have.

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