May 13, 2006
In a small town in a mid-20th century Eastern European country is the "Old Home," an orphanage whose residents are known as Haibane, or "gray wings." The children are born from cocoons with no memories of their previous lives. They sprout flightless wings on their backs and wear glowing halos over their heads. They never venture beyond the city walls, and after an indeterminate span of time, vanish as mysteriously as they arrived.
The story begins with the "birth" of the newest member of the orphanage, Rakka, and follows her life at the orphanage as she tries to remember who she is and what she is doing there. Couched as a modern fable--never digressing to explain itself--Haibane Renmei slowly evolves through the exacting study of character into a thoughtful and moving exegesis on the Catholic concept of purgatory and the inextinguishable possibilities of salvation.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines purgatory as "place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions." The definition does not differ widely from the Mormon concept of "spirit prison," and echoes a similar belief in the post-mortal efficacy of "penitential works."
According to its writer and creator Yoshitoshi ABe [sic], the idea for the series arose from his own salvific experience. Though he does not identify a specific religion, if the metaphor fits, I say use it. But I found it especially telling that the burden carried by one of the main characters turns out to be suicide. By carefully documenting her unconscious desire for absolution and the self-imposed hurdles that stand in her way, Haibane Renmei tells a powerful story of personal forgiveness.
UPDATE: Daniel Cronquist's book on the subject discussed here.