Haibane Renmei‘s first episode begins with a long shot of Rakka falling through the sky, then moves into a close-up – this establishes the mystery of the show rather well, since there is no known location to be seen until the very end of the opening credits (when the town of Glie appears). Rakka is currently suspended in the air, without any real direction, her only companion a raven; she asks herself questions and ponders her situation, emphasizing the confusion of the scene. She happens to be in the same boat as the audience – the fantastical nature of the shots, as well as Rakka’s own confusion, make this a unique sequence, as even the central character is completely new to the experience, and has no knowledge of the town she is about to enter.
The world of Haibane Renmei remains curious throughout the series; yoshitoshi ABe deliberately kept things rather open-ended to allow audiences to come to their own conclusions regarding the show’s aesthetic (much like with Serial Experiments Lain before it). One can, however, understand Glie as a purgatory-like environment – Rakka’s descent into the town may indicate entering a new world from a previous existence, something that can be supported by the appearance of the Haibane, who are angel-like in appearance (i.e., wings and halo) and have no memories of their lives prior to Glie. What makes them unique is that they have actual knowledge of living somewhere else before; I’ll touch that on a later scene, but it sheds some light onto the opening scene. Rakka’s journey into Glie begins austerely, as if she were experiencing a dream; however, as she discovers, her identity in her new environment (including her name) depends on what she experiences here.
When the episode shifts to the Haibane residence, the show utilizes long shots, medium shots and close-ups in order to convey a sense of familial closeness; Rakka’s official entry into the world comes here, after being “reborn” into a cocoon, where Reki discovers her. The already-established Haibane (Reki, Kuu, Hikari, Nemu and Kana) all contribute to ensuring Rakka’s safety before her “birth” into Glie – this helps show the care and attention the other Haibane take when welcoming a new Feather, as they all had to go through the same process upon arrival here. This sequence also establishes the general atmosphere of Glie, at least the portion of Glie inhabited by the Haibane – the house they live in is rather large, and many rooms go cluttered, which foreshadows the relationship between the Haibane and the world around them, as they can only afford second-hand clothes and other necessities through their work (they do not receive payment for their work, instead receiving goods).
The cocoon shown here certainly symbolizes rebirth – Rakka must break free from it on her own, and she does so with a torrent of water flooding the room. Everything here gears up towards her cocoon’s breaking; the Haibane clean the room and talk excitedly amongst themselves, awaiting Rakka’s arrival, much like a family welcoming a new member. It all contributes to the warm atmosphere of the scene; the town of Glie appears to be a small one, vaguely European in design, and the Haibane residence looks rather charming in its architecture. One can note, in the above screenshots, how dimly lit things are here – when Reki walks down the hallway, her halo is visible first, before she enters the frame, the halo illuminating a somewhat small, sparsely decorated space that looks old and worn. The perception of the Haibane living an austere life is foreshadowed here; nothing overtly “new” can be seen in these shots, and dust and clutter make for a rather confounding, non-symmetrical space.
This scene, where the Haibane gather around Rakka to welcome her into the world, utilizes more open shots; Rakka has more room now, as compared to the rather cramped quarters of the cocoon, to take in the environment and actively speak with her fellow Haibane. Reki becomes the central figure here, as she remains behind to consult Rakka and help her adjust to her new surroundings; in addition, she gives Rakka her name, an important hallmark if at least for the fact that it gives Rakka a new identity here. As explained, the Haibane are aware of a previous life, but no memories exist to remind them of that life – for that reason, Glie becomes their home, and they live together in this dormitory-like setting, forbidden to leave town (more on that in a later episode). These shots indicate a rather calm, nurturing atmosphere – Rakka feels welcome here, and Reki does whatever she can to make her feel welcome in her new room.
That comforting atmosphere soon gives way, however; Rakka’s wings soon grow, in a rather painful display where they break out of her shoulders, blood splattering everywhere. This scene contains close-up shots that heighten the tension, as well as quicker cuts; the world seems scarier for Rakka for a moment because she did not expect such a turn, but it only lasts for a moment. It comes as a surprise precisely because the previous scene showed a calmer side – the Haibane have wings and halos, much like angels in Christianity do, but now does the show reveal how wings are formed. It may be symbolic of the ongoing struggles of life in general; Buddhism emphasizes the trappings of a material world, and Glie seems to be a sort of purgatory for lost souls. The pain Rakka feels is but temporary – she quickly adjusts to it, and by the next day, she has fully recovered. Scenes such as this inform viewers of the travails of humanity; anime such as Sailor Moon made explicit the constant struggle between humans and their environment via a Buddhist mindset (which speaks of enlightenment achieved through discarding the fetters tying us to a material real), and Haibane Renmei elaborates upon this theme by showing a world that seemingly exists outside the boundaries of the material.