#1 It’s confusing in the most interesting way possible
The first episode of Haibane Renmei is going to play a big role in whether you’ll drop the show or watch it till the very end. Whichever one it may be, it’s sure to leave you absolutely confused.
We kick off the anime with a group of girls with tiny angel wings discovering a large egg sac in the middle of a random room. They treat this as a special occasion and gather around to watch, clean up the room, and finish just in time for the egg to burst open and reveal a baffled teenage girl. Everybody makes an effort to make her feel welcome and, with a little help and a lot of pain, her very own wings pop out later that day. Her memories are gone, though. In fact, she isn’t even sure if she existed at all before suddenly awakening in her egg, nor do any of the other winged people she meets.
It’s the kind of anime that makes you wonder what in the world you just started to watch, but Haibane Renmei strikes a great balance where the weirdness and strange themes leave me interested as opposed to lost. With careful bits of explanation worked into this first episode, it already made me wonder about a number of mysteries surrounding this setting. I wanted to, at least, figure out what the winged people were all about and why they pop out of egg sacs. The episodes that followed after layered on many new questions and thus I was hooked.
#2 The rules of the city
The girls, referred to as “The Haibane”, live in a town surrounded by a giant wall, which is also inhabited by normal people. Nobody is allowed to leave the city, but masked strangers visit frequently to deliver goods. The problem is that nobody is allowed to speak with them, safe for the political leader of the Haibane.
Despite being so important for the town’s access to outside goods, the Haibane appear to live as second-class citizens. Everybody is fond of them alright, but a lot of rules are imposed on them that seem utterly arbitrary. They must all work, yet are not allowed to accept money. Instead their leader gives them books with coupons, which can be exchanged for items. These goods, however, must be second hand, as the Haibane aren’t allowed to accept new items.
All these rules are peculiar and added to that delicious mystery that the first few episodes tactfully established. The newborn Haibane, who takes the name Rakka, first feels like the town is a paradise and goes about her daily life surrounded by the friends who witnessed her birth. However, as more rules are revealed to her and she begins to delve into the mysteries of her people, her opinion on the life of the Haibane begins to shift. Perhaps this safe paradise is more like a prison, after all.
With all that said, I have to say that explaining it like this makes the story sound a lot like it may have inspired Attack on Titan in a number of ways. If that is the case, I have to add that Haibane Renmei did a much better job at handling its themes and feels more like a psychological drama with a strong focus on characters.
#3 Yoshitoshi Abe
Yoshitoshi Abe is an artist who largely focuses on manga and dōjinshi and he is also the brain behind much of Haibane Renmei. Not only is he remarkably prolific in those fields, he has also gained some fame in the land of animation for doing the character designs of Serial Experiments Lain and Welcome to the NHK, among several other projects. In more recent years, you might have come in touch with his work through the phenomenal light novel version of All You Need Is Kill.
Haibane Renmei is an adaptation of his most famous dōjinshi and thus he was put in charge of most of the anime’s production and story. That Abe was behind this shines through in his beautiful character art. I always have respect for anime that manage to make its characters look recognizable and detailed, without resorting to giving them obvious gimmicks like candy-colored hair or cat ears. The designs favor more sensible-looking characters that, nevertheless, still look unique and interesting.
#4 The way it depicts depression
While the initial few episodes had me wondering what earned the show its place in the genre of psychological drama, the story introduced a number of twists later on that hit really hard. Even more so because you have that contrast between the relatively joyful early episodes and the tenser atmosphere of the latter portion of the show.
While I want to avoid spoiling anything because this is some really good stuff, I want to at least make the point that the way Haibane Renmei handles its depressing story points is very admirable. All the characters are faced with the same hardships, yet you see everybody responding to it differently. For Rakka in particular, I could really sympathize, as all the twists and drama land right on top of her while she is already lost and confused to begin with.
It’s interesting to follow how these characters cope with everything happening and what they will do about it. There is enough variety so episodes aren’t 20-minutes of non-stop sadness and the symbolism used is often clever. This all culminates into a fantastic ending, for which I feel a reward is in order.