Haibane Renmei is an anime which lives and dies on the execution of its atmosphere. I wouldn’t quite call it an iyashikei, but it certainly shares elements with the genre, and like many iyashikei shows it focuses heavily on creating an atmosphere you can easily immerse yourself in. This atmosphere is used to great effect in exploring the show’s themes, and by focusing on it so heavily, the show is able to remain incredibly tonally consistent. What really makes it stand out though is that it’s consistent in spite of major tone shifts. It’s this ability to subtly change the atmosphere while maintaining the feeling of a coherent whole, that makes Haibane Renmei one of my favorites.
Haibane’s atmosphere ranges from outright depressing to incredibly cheerful, and it occupies every space in between those as well. The show begins as a relatively happy, iyashikei-esque exploration of the world, and that’s where I’ll begin as well.
The first episode foreshadows some of the show’s later darkness, but by-and-large the first five episodes are thoroughly upbeat. During this period the show mostly uses songs played with higher notes and at a quicker pace, while Rakka explores the world around her. We spend time getting acquainted with the town of Glie and the many Haibane within Old Home. This part works as a fantastic iyashikei, serving as a relatively simple and calm show which soothes the spirit. There are shadows lurking beneath, but they don’t need to be payed attention to, because the rest is just so cheerful.
This early, happy tone is very important, because it’s necessary to contrast with the darker elements of the future. Rakka is treated very kindly by the town and the other Haibane, and she’s very happy there, despite her lack of knowledge about her past life. This town is seemingly idyllic, and there’s no real reason for Rakka to feel bad at all.
Of course, Rakka can’t be happy forever. The world isn’t as perfect as it first seems, and Kuu’s flight makes that clear to Rakka. It’s at this point that the atmosphere makes a major shift, and the show becomes a drama as opposed to an iyashikei. In an iyashikei like Aria, Kuu’s departure would be seen as sad, but ultimately good, and to the other Haibane, it is seen that way. But Rakka is afraid of being abandoned, and this sends her into a deeply depressive state, one reflected by the show itself.
The music gets lower and slower-paced. We get more slow, panning shots of Rakka’s face and body, with little movement shown. It becomes winter, and the weather becomes consistently dark, even during the day, reflecting Rakka’s feelings. Reki reveals here that she is also depressed, or “Sin-Bound”, showing that she too is afraid of abandonment. Reki’s trust and care for her helps Rakka, but not enough to turn her around, and the show doesn’t become any brighter while she remains depressed.
This depressed atmosphere works well for the show while Rakka’s in this state, but it’s at its best when she falls down the well and finds the bird. Rakka makes it clear down here that while she can’t remember it well, she was just as depressed in her past life, and felt that no one would care if she dissapeared, something disproved when she realizes she knew the bird in her past. It’s this scene that makes me personally think that Rakka is in Glie because she killed herself, and only through proof that others care for her is she able to realize she shouldn’t have done so.
From here onward the tone starts to lighten up a bit, if only by the smallest amount. Rakka accepts that she has sinned by leaving behind the past world when she shouldn’t have, and in doing so her sin is negated. She’s realized that she is, in fact, deserving of the love that the town and the others provide her, allowing a little bit of their warmth to return to the show. Light returns as the sun begins to shine again, and the music becomes a bit more varied. Rakka even becomes capable of smiling once again.
However Reki is unable to accept her sin, and feels even more abandoned now that she’s lost her only Sin-Bound comrade. Rakka cares too much about Reki to let her stay like this, and this keeps the show from returning to the happiness of the first few episodes. Reki is unable to accept that she’s a good person under any circumstances, blaming herself for every moderately negative thought she has, as well as anything that could possibly be her fault.
It’s only Rakka who can truly save Reki in the end. The Abandoned Factory tries to forcefully cheer her up using fireworks, but even that has little effect. Despite seeing that others care, Reki still believes everyone will forget about her. She remains in the state that Rakka was in prior to her suicide. Reki is pushing people away because she’s unable to accept herself as anything but fundamentally bad, but this belief is what keeps her Sin-Bound. To escape the Circle of Sin she needs to accept that she has sin in spite of her actual value, but she can’t see herself as having any real virtue.
The atmosphere in her painting room is another high point in the series. An attempt at painting her cocoon dream, it’s a dark room with a tortured mural lain across it and little else within. This is where Reki goes when she’s ready to end her time as a Haibane, permanently accepting herself as Sin-Bound and unable to escape her past. Reki needs to ask for help in order to receive salvation, and she isn’t able to do so. She too killed herself — by train, in her case — and she too feels as if no one cares about her. She can’t imagine someone would come to save someone as awful as her. Only through persistence is Rakka able to get through to her, and in what is my favorite scene in the series and one of my favorites in all of anime, she finally begs for Rakka’s help.
All of a sudden, the happiness returns. All Reki needed to do was ask for help the whole time, and when she does she escapes the Circle of Sin, and the show itself can return to being happy. Reki asking for help is an expression of hope — in this case hope for salvation — and from this point on the atmosphere is entirely hopeful. Reki takes flight, and the others are sure to come find her and Kuu when they’re ready. And on a poweful final note, Rakka finds two more Haibane ready to be born into a world which can provide them the love that they need. Haibane ties its atmosphere into the mindset of the characters to an incredible extent, and that’s why I love it.