Haibane-Renmei Vol. 1: New Feathers
A young girl finds herself among he Haibane
Cynthia Ward · September 23, 2003 | Television series may seem linear, but for half-hour shows, an episode is traditionally a loop, restoring the status quo by the credits. After a few years, Happy Days' Richie and Potsie look awfully grizzled for high schoolers. However, Lum, Ataru, and the rest of the Urusei Yatsura gang can safely attend high school for eternity, since animation transcends time, contract disputes, and death. Yet, as I watched New Feathers, the DVD containing the first four half-hour episodes of the animated Japanese TV series Haibane-Renmei, I didn't think of other anime shows. Nor did I think of sitcoms. I kept thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Both Haibane-Renmei and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are serious shows with fantasy content, but that's not why the comparison came to mind.

In the pilot, Buffy transfers to a new high school. The change signals that the storylines will be linear, not looped, and that the characters will change and develop. Nothing new here; dramas often employ season- and series-length storylines. However, when the male lead's best friend dies in the second episode, you realize Buffy the Vampire Slayer promises far more serious change than other TV series.

Haibane-Renmei: New Feathers opens with a girl falling from the sky, an obvious indication of imminent change. A crow tries to stop the young woman's fall, and fails... and the first episode starts. The young woman breaks free of a cocoon, in an even more blatant transformation metaphor. The episode is making a powerful promise.

Haibane-Renmei Vol. 1: New Feathers
Pioneer Entertainment, 2003
Originally released in 2002
Directed by Tomokazu Tokoro
100 minutes

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A small group of girls—the Haibane—awaits the cocoon's opening. Like the girl from the cocoon, they appear to be adolescents. Unlike her, they have halos and wings. When she wakes from post-emergence unconsciousness, she doesn't know where she is—or who she is. She can speak and reason, but, like the winged girls, she has no memory of the past. "Each Haibane is named after the dream she had in her cocoon," she's told. Reki, the Haibane's apparent leader, names her Rakka—"falling," "dropping"—a name as emblematic of change as her dream. Then Reki says Rakka's wings will be emerging soon....

"Are we not human?" Rakka asks. "Nobody knows what we are," Reki says. "For need of a name, we call ourselves the Haibane [Gray Wings]." Like Dorothy in Oz, Rakka wants to go home; but nobody knows where she's from, or who she is, and her own family wouldn't recognize her. Why, Rakka wonders, has this happened to her? "I'm sure I was nothing special. Just an ordinary girl."

Some viewers will see the Haibane as gays and lesbians awakening to their sexual identity. But when feathered wings agonizingly burst from Rakka's back, the metaphor proves more universal. Surely anyone who's survived the throes of adolescence will feel a thrill of recognition as new-fledged Rakka says, "I'm afraid that my body is turning into something else."

Rakka stretches her wings both literally and figuratively in episodes two to four. She discovers the Haibane cannot fly; their wings are too small. She learns the Haibane are caged socially; they must live in Old Home, an abandoned school that looks like a mental institution, or a prison without bars. The wingless enjoy privileges denied the winged, but neither are truly free: all are caged by the high, forbidding walls of Glie, and none save the Toga (mysterious masked traders who aren't talking) know what lies beyond the town walls.

Such a story arc has little to do with traditional TV plots, whether drama or sitcom; instead, Haibane-Renmei develops in the classic manner of the high fantasy novel. And Rakka, curious to know more about herself and her world than she's supposed to, has less in common with a TV series character than she does with a high-fantasy protagonist. Her quest mirrors our own journey through life, our struggles to find meaning in existence and to discern what lies beyond the wall of death. Yet the hero's quest transcends ours, as our own lives transcend those of sitcom characters trapped in loops.

Like Dorothy, like Buffy, like Frodo, Rakka will grow and change... and create change. I have seen only the first four episodes of Haibane-Renmei, but I predict that, in the great high-fantasy tradition of heroism, Rakka will not only discover the truth about her world, but destroy it—and create a better world.

And Haibane-Renmei will fulfill the profound promise of its opening.
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