The trans resonance of Haibane Renmei

By: Iris Von Gonten November 16, 20220 Comments
The leads of Haibane Renmei

Content warning: self-harm, suicide, body horror, dysphoria.

Spoilers for Haibane Renmei.

Haibane Renmei is a timeless anime whose relaxed pace and quaint atmosphere belie a powerful exploration of adolescent depression, self-harm, alienation, and suicide. The series has been a well-loved little gem for twenty years now, and has been important to me for nearly my entire adult life. When I first watched it, I was nineteen and grappling with my own depressive spiral, and it’s held a place in my heart ever since. It’s been over a decade since that first viewing and I’m a very different person, going by a new name and new pronouns. And while I’m no longer a mark for a story about teen suicide, I’ve discovered that, in light of who I’ve become and what I’ve learned, the series resonates with me in an unexpected and beautiful new way.

Haibane Renmei follows winged children called Haibane who hatch from egg-like cocoons in a rustic walled purgatory and live out their days until they’re ready to fly over the town’s walls and begin their new lives. And while the series almost certainly wasn’t created as a deliberate trans allegory, it’s riddled with enough trans-adjacent themes and motifs to make it worth discussing in the same breath as Land of the Lustrous

Rakka looks at her wings in the mirror

The series’ use of transformation and body horror resonate with the physical experiences of dysphoria and transitioning; its depictions of mental health struggles, particularly self-harm and suicide, may find special meaning with trans audiences; it thematically explores names as potential sources of both trauma and self-actualization; and the characters of Haibane Renmei strive to build a safe community that promotes healing and growth. Yet I have never seen this two-decade-old series discussed through a trans lens, despite the wealth of potential it has to offer. That ends today.

To begin, the Haibane are born from what are described as cocoons but also resemble eggs. They had previous lives, but becoming a Haibane is as much a new birth as it is a transformation, marking their new beginnings. They are born without their characteristic wings or halos, however. The first episode features a viscerally painful scene of protagonist Rakka’s wings sprouting from her back. The process of transitioning can be incredibly fulfilling and worthwhile, but like any big change, it’s seldom clean or painless. Rakka spends the next episode wearing a wire frame to keep her halo from falling off and struggling to move her wings. She doesn’t adjust all at once, but for the most part her peers are patient and supportive as she makes her new body her own.

Rakka's bloody wings sprout

Midway through the series, Rakka becomes haunted by painful memories of her old life, compounded by feelings of loneliness and inadequacy as she struggles to accept the loss of a friend. Her grey wings begin to turn black against her will, marking her as “sinbound,” her inner feelings of unworthiness manifesting outwardly as a symbol of otherness and further compounding those feelings in a vicious cycle. What Rakka is becoming feels wrong, but her fear of abandonment, of being told she deserves these black wings, keeps her silent. Instead, in an unhealthy rejection of her body’s unwelcome changes, she turns to self-harm and begins cutting her blackened feathers. Her senior Reki, who is also sinbound, sees the signs, reaches out, takes Rakka’s scissors away, and convinces her to stop. She shares tips for dyeing her wings, for better passing and combating her dysphoria through presentation. But the underlying feeling persists that underneath her feathers are still black, that she’ll always be lesser, sinbound, not a “good Haibane”.

The series is set in the walled town of Glie, which is intended as a safe space for the Haibane to grow and, well, transition to their best selves. The town’s wall is meant to protect them from the world that hurt them, but it also serves as a physical reminder of that dangerous world; simply touching the wall before she’s ready to leave makes Rakka physically ill.

Rakka looks despondent

Glie exists to nurture these children and help them peacefully recover, but also to foster growth so that they can one day leave. The tension between protecting the Haibane and pushing them to become independent is reflected in how Kana and Kuu treat the crows who raid their garbage. Kuu wants to be friends and share with the crows, while Kana argues that sharing makes them dependent and keeps them from flying free. Both views are given weight and consideration, and either can be dangerous if taken to an extreme; people can’t grow if they’re coddled and spoiled, but everyone needs help sometimes and nobody deserves to be cut off completely. (Disclaimer: crows are not people, this is a metaphor, do not feed crows in real life.)

Though it’s never stated outright, the Haibane are all there because they died feeling incomplete or unfulfilled, and at least some of them committed suicide. Trans children and teens are at an especially high risk of suicide due to lack of support and fear of rejection. Haibane Renmei never downplays the overwhelming isolation and despair its characters experience; by the time Rakka meets her, Reki has largely given up hope of taking flight and pushed away all her friends for fear of either being abandoned by them or dragging them down with her. But ultimately, the series emphasizes the importance of making the effort to reach out, and daring to hope that someone will reach back. The series recognizes and respects its characters’ traumas without denying their agency.

Reki laying on her back

Identity is another major theme throughout the series, made apparent from the first episode when the newborn protagonist takes the name Rakka. She can’t return to who she was in her old life, and her previous name died with her previous self. But names in Haibane Renmei aren’t so clean cut as real world chosen names: they carry their own weight for good and for ill. The older Haibane choose their names based on their cocoon dreams, which are implied to represent how they died. They hold on to vestiges of their pasts, and while Rakka never recalls her literal deadname, what memories she does recover are tied to feelings of pain and guilt.

Rakka eventually faces these feelings and comes out stronger for it. But importantly, no one forces her to share and relive her trauma for their benefit; Rakka reconciles her past and present selves on her terms. When Reki later confronts her own past and her feelings of being undeserving, her identity is directly tied to her name, which initially symbolizes her perceived failure and condemnation. But when Rakka reassures her that the person she has become is good, beautiful, and worthy of love, she discovers a new meaning for the name Reki, and that becomes her true name. Her cocoon dream represents both the end of her old life and the beginning of her new life, and it’s up to her to embrace the latter.

But a new name and a new life don’t have to be tied to past struggles. We can strive to create a world where people freely transition without shame and move forward unburdened by their pasts. Some Haibane begin their new lives as small children, and these “young feathers” reject the tradition of naming themselves after their cocoon dreams. Instead, they name themselves after their passions and goals, such as Hana, who wants to be a florist. Rakka aptly calls this “a dream for the future”. 

Reki embraces Rakka

The experiences and struggles of older Haibane are worth remembering and learning from, but each generation inevitably brings new ideas and perspectives. Traditions are valued and preserved, but no one should feel bound by them. The young feathers evolve and even outright defy existing traditions such as how Haibane choose their names, and rather than forcing the next generation into the mold that shaped them, the older Haibane accept this. Sometimes their elders even learn from them, such as when Hana teaches Rakka how to move her wings.

Still, change doesn’t always have to wait for a new generation, and the series consistently depicts communities improving when the people within them make the effort. The two Haibane residences in Glie, Old Home and Abandoned Factory, are initially at odds with one another. Old Home is an exclusively female dorm save for the young feathers, and broadly embodies tradition and nurturing, in contrast to the coed Abandoned Factory, representing rebellion and independence. But like any community, each dorm is filled with diverse individuals who can’t be so cleanly categorized. As the story progresses people from both dorms take the time to communicate and reconcile. The boundaries between the two become more permeable, and the line between the ideals they represent blurs. The good girls of Old Home have rebellious streaks, and the rowdy teens at Abandoned Factory have caring sides. Tradition and rebellion, binary and non-binary identities, can coexist.

Reki argues with a boy from the Factory

Glie is a well-meaning but imperfect institution, and the humans and Haibane living there can’t help but reflect the outside world even as they take refuge from it. And that’s kind of okay. The wall is another boundary that’s less absolute than it seems. The crows who freely fly over the wall carry the most treasured memories of the Haibane’s past lives, even if some of those memories are painful, and the walls themselves are built on the legacies of the previous Haibane who eventually flew out into the world again. 

It’s okay to want to feel safe, but hiding away forever and quietly wallowing in trauma and dysphoria won’t help anyone. Even as they take refuge and take the time to transition into their new lives, the Haibane don’t stop living. They each bring a unique experience and perspective, and even as they sometimes hurt each other, they do their best to leave behind a better town than the one they arrived in. Rather than a cloistered place for Haibane to quietly wallow in their trauma and dysphoria, Glie is a place for them to keep living messy, complicated lives as incomplete people who always keep growing.

child haibane gathered around Nemu and Reki

There is a character in Haibane Renmei called the Communicator, the only person allowed to speak to traders from outside the town’s walls. They oversee the induction of each Haibane into their community and offer wisdom about the town, the wall, and what it means to be a Haibane, but they aren’t one of them. When Rakka asks what will happen to Reki if she fails to take flight, the Communicator says that she’ll cease to be a Haibane, but won’t go back to being human either, and describes the life awaiting her as “peaceful but lonely”, and that is definitely the Communicator’s backstory. 

This is one aspect of the series that, viewed through a trans lens, becomes a touch unfortunate; the notion that transitioning has definite criteria and deadlines is completely false and discourages closeted late bloomers from ever trying. Even if this wasn’t the original intent, it was the major roadblock that made me hesitant to write about this subject. It’s a narrative device to give stakes and tension to a story set in a fairly safe environment, and it’s also an untruth that’s deeply, sincerely felt by many closeted and transitioning trans people.  The Communicator’s characterization may be a problematic mess, but it’s also a complicated writing choice worth digging into.

the masked Communicator

While the Communicator never fully transitions, they never fully detransition either. They weren’t able to complete their journey, but the steps they took and the feelings and choices that brought them to Glie were real and remain a part of them. They keep a distance from the townspeople and Haibane, but their wisdom and experience are respected.  They’re not living their best life and believe they never will, but they’re the one who teaches Rakka that the cycle of sin holding her down comes from within. And as the series progresses, the boundary between the Communicator and the Haibane is yet another wall that starts to come down, as Rakka and Reki start having full, open conversations with them. Maybe they’ll be content with those small connections after cutting themself off for so long, or maybe their life in exile is another tradition worth questioning. The Communicator’s depiction is rooted in a flawed and outdated idea about personal growth, trans and otherwise, but there’s no malice in this character. Whatever they say their fate is, I’d like to believe there’s hope for their own cycle of sin to be broken one day.

At the end of a Haibane’s journey is the Day of Flight, where they leave town and find a new beginning. To a trans person, this usually means living openly as their true gender. In the world of Haibane Renmei, there is a clear divide between those who have taken flight and those who haven’t, and once a Haibane leaves, the only way to see them again is to go to the other side. And like everything else in the series, this may be an oversimplification but there is an emotional truth to it; to those who are figuring themselves out and learning to live as their true selves, the openly trans people out living their best lives can seem like they’re living in a different world. The Haibane who stay behind may be happy for their friend taking that big step, but sometimes watching others take flight brings feelings of envy, loss, abandonment, and loneliness. If the person outside the walls is their best, truest self, should the wonderful person they were inside the walls be forgotten? And what if we’re “not good enough” to go where they’ve gone, see the world they’re seeing? But ultimately we can only keep moving forward, and treasure the journey along with the destination.

the Haibane observe a column of light

Whatever the authorial intent, Haibane Renmei is a raw mass of powerful emotions that I found to be extremely trans. I could have gone on a dozen  tangents about various characters and scenes, from Kuu’s gender-neutral presentation to the all-important question of whether Hyouko has transmasc energy or boymode energy. Maybe I’m projecting my perspective and experiences onto a piece of media that speaks to me, or maybe the emotions associated with transness are more universal than most cis or trans people realize. Either way, Haibane Renmei has held a special place in my heart since before I knew what being non-binary even was, and revisiting it now from a new perspective has only enriched the experience and made me want to share it all the more.

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