Sunday, August 3, 2008
On the Wings of Angels, Part III: Help from Nearby, Part I (Haibane Renmei)
Let's face it: It's common in fiction to have the main character be the person who needs his or her friends to face a problem. That doesn't mean that supporting characters in a story aren't allowed to have problems of their own or allowed to be three-dimensional. It's just that most storytelling revolves around how our hero is in a pickle and how the others have to get him or her out. But isn't it interesting when a story decides to have the main character's problems be the basis of helping someone else with a much worse problem?
"Haibane Renmei" tells the story of a young girl named Rakka (Carrie Savage) who starts her new life born as a Haibane, which means "Charcoal Feather," in a place called "Old Home" headed up by Reki (Erika Weinstein) along with her fellow "older" Haibane, Nemu (Kristy Pape), Hikari (Hunter MacKenzie Austin), Kana (Zarah Little) & Kuu (J-Ray Hochfield). The Haibane themselves are mystical humanoids who have wings and halos but are not angels, so go figure that one out. They live in a walled-off town named Gile where every Haibane works in the community for the appreciative majority human populous. That is until their "day of flight" comes and they are allowed to leave the town and its walls.
When I look at Gile, it reminds me of Judgment City from Albert Brooks' 1991 film, "Defending Your Life" for a couple reasons. Gile, in itself, is not a nasty urban town where everybody's rude and stupid. The town and its inhabitants are mostly really friendly and accepting of the Haibane. Haibane don't even have to pay cash to the townspeople; instead, they inventory each transaction in a little book given to them by the Toga (the guardians of the town). Some Haibane don't get along as well between each other, but that's really the extent of the nastiness of that community.
Like Judgment City, Gile seems to function as a sort of Purgatory. Only the Toga are allowed to enter and leave the town at will and if a Haibane tries to leave the town before their "day of flight," they get punished. Rakka, herself, gets a hardcore fever at one point for just even touching the walls (the walls are really cold).
Also, like Purgatory, every Haibane has a personal and metaphysical quest they must follow based on a dream they have before they are born. When they understand the dream, they can understand an important part of themselves. Unfortunately, if you become lost in your quest and become spiritually despondent, you become sin-bound, and if you remain so past your "day of flight" you are never allowed to leave Gile. It reminds me of the idea presented in Richard Matheson's "What Dreams May Come," where you create your own heaven or hell in your mind and it follows you into the afterlife.
In the case of Rakka, her pain extends from deep feelings of worthlessness. After a fellow Haibane and good friend, Kuu, takes her "day of flight," Rakka takes it really hard. It pushes her insecurities back into the limelight with a vengeance. She begins to wonder if she was ever really important in another person's life, both in Gile and in her previous life which she cannot remember too well. Eventually her wings start blackening and she becomes sin-bound.
Personally, I know exactly what Rakka was going through. I spent an entire year of my life confronting that particular demon. Sure, I was appreciated and liked, but would it really matter if I just disappeared off the face of the earth? I would be lying if I didn't actually say no to that question when I was fighting my mental strife. It almost consumed me sometimes.
When all seems lost though, the dream starts piecing together in Rakka's mind. In the dream, which is the first scene in the anime, she is falling from the sky with a crow. While the crow tries to pull her back up, Rakka shakes her head and says to the bird: "I know... you can't, but thank you anyway." It showed her that even something as abstract as a bird can represent someone or something always trying to reach out to help you; even in the most isolated of places. Sometimes you can save someone, sometimes you can't, but you always have to try. In my case it was four somethings (all works of art) that saved me from true despair: François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Green Day's "American Idiot," and the Season Four Raven Arc from "Teen Titans." Though it's a demon that confronts me still, it isn't as draining and intense as it once was.
This discovery from Rakka is not the end of the story, however. Rakka's exact problem is actually a much more deeply rooted problem in Reki. Despite her pleasant attitude lies a very broken woman. Reki feels her own sense of worthlessness after when her original caregiver dies and her failed attempt to escape the walls with a fellow Haibane, Hyohko, results with the two of them never being allowed to come near one another again. Not only that, she has spent years and countless sleepless nights trying to figure out her dream through painting, but it always fails. Even when she saw Rakka start on her path to being sin-bound, Reki knew exactly how to treat Rakka's blackened wings, because she lives with it every day.
It all comes to a head when Reki's own "day of flight" is coming and she is still in her own private hell, refusing to forgive herself and letting someone help her. Rakka then realizes that the crow in the dream is her and she must save Reki from herself. The most emotionally powerful moment in the series is when Reki is about to disappear into that hell for good with her demons holding Rakka back when Rakka yells in desperation: "Just call my name! Please! Say that you need me!" Quietly afraid, Reki finally says softly, "Rakka... please help me." At that moment, Reki's demon finally breaks and Rakka saves her from the hell tearing her asunder.
Reflecting back, I'm reminded of U2's song "One." The song is usually misunderstood as a simple love song. In actuality, the song is a prayer for spiritual unity despite difference. As The Edge stated in "U2 by U2:"
"But on another level there's the idea that we get to carry each other. 'Get to' is the key. 'Got to' would be too obvious and platitudinous. 'Get to' suggests it is our privilege to carry one another. It puts everything in a different perspective and introduces the idea of grace."
Rakka and Reki both realize that they are never alone; if there's just one person that truly cares about you, when you need help, they will reach out to you. It proves that despite how strong we appear, we should never be afraid to ask for help.
On a personal side-note, I'd like to give special thanks to Arinahime for recommending this anime to me and I am very grateful.