Sunday, August 26, 2012

Haibane Renmei 10: Kuramori -- Haibane of Abandoned Factory -- Rakka's Job

Like a lot of anime series, Haibane Renmei takes a turn around the midpoint of its run, and (as with most other series that make this turn) it's towards a more dramatic and heavily serialized type of story.  This isn't always successful -- for example, Trigun was much better as a goofy episodic adventure series -- but when it's done well it not only makes the stories more consequential but disrupts the underpinnings of the lighter fare earlier on.  (Martian Successor Nadesico is a prime example of this although, as I'm discovering on my second watch-through it still has plenty of comedy episodes after the midway point.)  For Haibane Renmei, I especially welcomed this change, because the first half of the series is pretty soporific.

This change is instigated by the departure of Kuu, which brings into relief the strange metaphysical nature of the Haibane, and in turn provokes an existential crisis from Rakka.  In typical fantasy fashion, the rites of the Haibane are only exaggerated and literalized versions of human mortality -- we are here but for a short time, and then we have to leave, and it's impossible to know what happens next, if anything does.  Rakka has always seemed somewhat childlike, and her depression is akin to that first brush with mortality and the blind fear it brings.

Haibane Renmei is about supernatural beings that closely resemble angels, but only now does it touch on the subject matter of religion.  In addition to the question of mrotality, in the last few episodes we've learned that Haibane can be "sin-bound", unable to reach salvation because of an inborn curse.  How this actually works is a bit confusing -- in this episode the Communicator suggests that Reki can still fly over the wall despite being sin-bound -- but it's an obvious echo of the Christian notion of original sin.

Although by this point the story is basicall continuous, this episode still uses the series's signature tripartite structure.  The first part is an extended flashback to Reki's past.  We already know the broad strokes of her backstory -- that she was born sin-bound and went through a turbulent adolescence -- and this flashback doesn't really give us any new information.  What it does is shift our perspective.

Reki's process of hatching and being slowly brought up as a Haibane is parelelled darkly in Reki's story.  Whereas Rakka awakens surrounded by people, Reki hatches alone and covered in blood.

We then see Reki going through all of the stages Rakka did over the first seven episodes of the series -- meeting the other Haibane, being tested by the Communicator, and eventually witnessing someone leaving her -- but there's a darker inflection to each of these.  Whereas Rakka's process was marked by agreeable conformism and slice-of-life hijinx, Reki's is full of conflict[1].  This is most because she's easily identified as sin-bound, and thus stigmatized, but the meaning of the shift in perspective is more general than this.  It's a simple recognition that the cheerful narratives of growth that characterize most childhoods are not universal.  This is, I think, one of the more useful gestures fiction can make: sometimes, it's like they say, but sometimes it's like this instead.

It also highlights the darker side of the small world of Haibane Renmei, which has been subtly present the whole time.  Through no fault of her own, Reki is an outcast.  The mystical dictatorship and its unquestioned edicts make life easy and conflict-free for Rakka, but for Reki it sinks her life into incomprehensible suffering.  Even the two characters' names highlight their duality.  Despite being friends that care deeply for one another, they're also foils for each other.

The second part returns us to the present day[2], and is the most like what comes before.  Structurally, it acts as a bridge between one plot point (Rakka's sickness) and the next (her new duty as cleaner).  Thematically, it flows naturally out of the first part of the triptych.  Whereas the Reki we see there is a helpless victim, this Reki is not afraid to violently argue with the Communicator against the system and what she sees as injustice.  At the same time as this establishes continuity between the past and present (Reki's past leads her to act against a similar situation), it also establishes a potential discontinuity: if Reki has anything to say about it, the past won't be repeated, and Rakka will be saved.

Rakka is saved, in a manner of speaking.  Her fever clears up, but it's not clear what's responsible for this.  Given the way that Reki was talking about the wall-induced fever as a fatal affliction, this is an unlikely event, but the episode leaves it up in the air whether it was Reki's actions or blind luck that healed Rakka.  Or perhaps Reki's diagnosis was not as definitive as we thought it was.

For the most part what the middle stanza accomplishes is to flesh out the supporting characters.  The one who benefits most is Nemu, who up until now has been a benevolent matriarch-type, but is revealed to be... well, still a benevolent matriarch, but one who was at one point a bratty kid, and one whose benevolence leads to problems such as her own inability to communicate her feelings or, on a level that's more literal in-text and more metaphorical out of it, fly over the wall.  A couple of the Abandoned Factory Haibane show up, and they turn out not to be as tough as they look, although the rough-girl-shows-sensitive-side scene is one that's very familiar, especially to anime fans.  None of these characters are revealed to be much different than how we thought of them, but they do seem more real now.

The final third deals with Rakka's new job, ostensibly handed down as a punishment for her disobedience.  She is assigned to clean the inner walls of the temple, which is demeaning but also moves her closer to the central mysteries of the series.  There's been occasional emphasis on the Haibane's need for a job, with the idea of work as a neccessary way to define their identity, and this would seem to finally supply Rakka with such a job.

Interestingly, the outfit Rakka wears for this job heavily resembles that of the Communicator.  This would seem to foreshadow Rakka herself becoming a communicator or part of the system that's vaguely referred to as "the Renmei"[3].  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this development -- it seems a little too neat -- but it does certainly give new important to the series's title.

In short, the end is coming into sight, and now that we're beginning to see the larger shape of the series we can see not just the future -- what it would take to complete this shape -- but how the past episodes fit into things as well.  This is perhaps not the best format for a serialized medium, as it leaves earlier installments incomplete and contextless, but Haibane Renmei manages it better than most "puzzle shows" by putting the emphasis on character motivations rather than mythology.  More than anything else, this is the episode where the central characters took a definite step into reality.

[1]Maybe it's just the drama-addict in me, but I can't help but feel like Reki's story would make for a more interesting series.

[2]To give you some idea of how much attention episode director Koji Yoshikawa pays to form, the flashback ends almost exactly one-third of the way through the episode's running time.  The next two parts are less tightly wound, and what I've identified as the third actually happens in the middle of the second.

[3]Of course, everyone else who cares has already seen the end of the series, so my speculation is uninteresting as well as useless.

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