In case you haven’t heard of it, Haibane Renmei or Charcoal Feather Federation is a 2002 anime series animated by studio Radix, and created by Yoshitoshi Abe. Some of the same staff from Serial Experiments Lain, another psychological show with similar artwork, were also in the staff of Haibane Renmei. This is an obscure anime that not a lot of people know about. The depth of the story and its themes and symbolism are remarkable. So I’ll to present some of the symbolism here for you, as well as looking at the theme of sin in the show. Warning: there may be spoilers.
(I don’t own any of the images used in this post. Credit to original creators and fan artists.)
“Feed them like that, and what’ll you do if they become dependent and can’t live outside this town?
There are rules for crows, too. You can’t spoil them. Birds, well– in this world, they’re the only creatures allowed outside the walls. If, by feeding them, we create a place where they can survive without any struggle, they’ll inhabit only this town and maybe they won’t fly freely anymore.
Maybe the crows would be happy, but…I would pity them.”
~Kana from Haiabane Renmei episode 4
The crows in Haibane Renmei can represent several things when carefully considered, including death and “free spirits.” Also, the crow Rakka encounters symbolizes someone who cared for her in her past life. First, consider death or spiritual passing-on. Crows, as free-flying birds, are metaphors for the soul’s freedom from the body following death. The soul is no longer bound by the pain of mortal life or by unresolved memories, greivances, or regrets. (I don’t believe in “souls,” technically, but it’s all part of the spiritual fantasy world of this show, and I like it.)
The way that crows and birds represent free spirits is fitting. Main character Rakka is one: she’s curious, she likes to explore, she wants to know the answers, and she shows interest in going outside the walls all throughout the series. Furthermore, Rakka is easily saddened by restrictions, and eventually becomes desperate and outraged about the strict and depressing rules and natural order of the Haibane world.
Rakka is fascinated by crows, and is spiritually very closely tied to crows, as you will know if you’ve seen up through most of the series. The crow who tried to help Rakka in her dream was a metaphor for someone who tried to help her in her past life, but who she ignored. This goes back to crows symbolizing the dead or those who have passed on. The crow who tried to help Rakka died, and it’s possible her companion in her past life did, too.
Besides spending a lot of time watching crows, Rakka tries to feed them. She isn’t only fascinated by the birds in a physical sense. She also wants what they have: the unattainable freedom of being able to fly, crossing over the walls. However, other Haibane regard the crows as pests, dirty scavengers, and rogues. That’s similar to how people think of those who are different: free thinkers like Rakka and Reki who question things. Crows also symbolize wildness, as you can tell from Kana’s quote at the start of the section.
“Here, everybody, even little Kuu, has a job and is living by their own strength.
Yet, the truth is, everybody is supporting each other in ways not apparent to the eyes. That’s only natural, but I don’t think I realized it until I came here. Is it ok for me to be so happy?”
~Rakka from Haibane Renmei episode 5
Put aside the crows, and let’s take a look at the symbolism of the walls around Grie, together with the rules of the Haibane world. Birds are symbols of freedom, and tying them down would be tragic. Instead of roguish crows, perhaps Haibane are like dependent pet birds living in a cage. It’s easy to think for the first 9 or 10 episodes that Haibane are much like prisoners. It seems like cursed or “sin-bound” individuals are the ones who try to leave the walls or reject normality. With harsh restrictions and curses apparently placed on them, the Haibane seem at first to be tragic creatures, controlled and kept captive by the Toga Elders. The walls and the rules at first symbolize unreasonable constraints.
Even if the walls are unreasonable restrictions, they are necessary. Haibane are beings whose souls will fly freely once again when they have fulfilled their purpose in their world and come to terms with their past lives. “The time of flight” comes for Haibane when they have remembered their cocoon dreams (which is how they died), laid the past to rest, and attained contentment. On a Haibane’s day of flight, they are free to go over the wall, fly upward, and “pass on.” So, if a Haibane goes near the walls before their time, they are rejecting their world and becoming “sinners.” The walls exist so the Haibane stay on the path that will lead to happiness.
As the series progresses, Rakka learns that she shouldn’t run away from or reject the town of Grie and its rules. She shouldn’t get swallowed up in the sadness and unfairness of the black feather curse. She must follow the rules because, for her kind, that’s the only way to reach peace and freedom. The walls are not tyrannical restraints. They are protection, community, and safety. If a Haibane leaves the walls, they become light and their spirit passes on. If they have reached fulfillment and satsifaction with their lives and memories in Grie, then passing on a positive thing. However, passing on is essentially dying for those who approach the wall without coming to terms with their existence. Their souls will not be able to fly freely. For this reason, it’s only natural to confine the Haibane within the walls until they are ready.
-The Riddle of The Circle of Sin-
Before I cover the riddle, I just want to point out something about the “sinfulness” of Rakka, and of characters in general in the world of Haibane Renmei. When first watching, I thought the walls and the rules were there just to keep the Haibane restrained, to teach the lesson of obedience. But they’re actually in place because a Haibane will die if it goes beyond the wall. Similarly, I thought having black-spotted wings was a punishment from the Toga, to teach the Haibane not to be “sinful.” In reality, though, their wings naturally become spotted with black if the Haibane don’t remember their cocoon dreams. It’s a natural phenomenon. I think the wings are reflective of a Haibane’s emotional health, rather than showing a tendency to be sinful.
Rakka has the “sin-bound wings” because she cannot remember her cocoon dream, and/or because her emotional health isn’t good. After she remembered her dream while in the well, and talked to the elder, Rakka was no longer “sin-bound,” but simply sick as a natural reaction to touching the walls. The Toga Elder confirms this in episode 10. The actual reason that Rakka was “sinful” was that she ran away from Old Home and wished to go over the walls, which means she eschewed the care and sense of community others gave her, ignoring the safety set in place for her own good. She was hurting herself, and by doing so, hurting the people around her. Something about being reunited with Reki and the others in episode 9 changed Rakka and freed her from sin. And that brings us to the riddle.
In episode 9, the Toga Elder that talks with Rakka introduces the riddle of the circle of sin. I’m sure many others have blogged about this, and there’s nothing much I can say that hasn’t been said. All I can do is explain it in my own words, which I find fun. The riddle is the statement, “To recognize sin is to have no sin.” It seems paradoxical. To be sinless, you must recognize your sin, Rakka thinks. But recognizing your sin means the sin is there. So she’s not sinless. What’s the deal? The answer to the riddle is that you can’t become sinless on your own because you can’t forgive your own sin. It’s required to have another person there who will recognize your sin and forgive it. Only then you are sinless: when someone else acknowledges your sin.
Rakka’s sin was two-fold. She was “sin-bound” in the metaphorical sense because her wings were blackened due to not remembering her cocoon dream. She began to heal after remembering her dream and the crow. Rakka was “sin-bound” in the literal sense because she hurt and abandoned the people at Old Home and put herself in danger. After she was reunited with Reki and company, they acted as “other” needed to recognize sin. They acknowledged the sin, and Rakka became free of sin.
Kuramori, Reki and Rakka needed each other to in order to become free of sin. Kuramori forgave Reki for trying to climb the walls and getting Hyohko injured. Reki forgave Rakka for running away on her own and putting herself in danger. It was also necessary for Rakka to forgive Reki, because she committed an even bigger sin by refusing her time of flight, shutting herself away, and saying she regretted her life at Old Home. Rakka pulled her out of the manifestation of her cocoon dream, and forgave her. Thus, they became free of sin and their wings healed.