One day, a girl is hatched from a cocoon. However in Old Home, this is perfectly normal and a cause for celebration. Like all the other cocoon-born (or Haibane), she's a perfectly normal girl but with wings and no memory of how she came to be here. She remembers a dream of falling, so they call her Rakka (which means "falling"). She's fitted with a halo, which initially needs to be wired in place. She's told that she must work in the local human village of Glie, although she's not allowed money or possessions. She also soon learns that Old Home and Glie are confined behind an impenetrable Wall.
Haibane Renmei is odd, even by anime's standards. It doesn't feel like a story so much as a thirteen-episode transcription of a dream. It's laden with religious imagery, but the characters don't acknowledge this within the fiction. They don't see themselves as angels or any other kind of celestial beings. Nevertheless the imagery is thematically significant, since the story is asking the same questions that have been at the heart of religion since the dawn of mankind. Where do we come from? Where do we go to? Apparently the whole thing grew from a vague idea in the mind of the writer, Yoshitoshi ABe. The staff only had two episodes scripted when they started production. This series isn't plot-driven, but instead a subtle blend of atmosphere, mystery and wonder.
Haibane Renmei was sold to me as "the latest show from the makers of Serial Experiments Lain", i.e. director Tomokazu Tokoro, writer Yoshitoshi ABe and some production staff. Other shows they've worked on include Texhnolyze and NieA_7. All of those are serious and highly regarded, but not very interested in plotting. Frankly, they're a bit dull. An intelligent exploration of fascinating themes, yes, but not always very good at making me want to watch the next episode. Personally I preferred Haibane Renmei to Serial Experiments Lain. It's not even pretending to have a story, but just follows its likeable characters through their fascinating world.
In an odd way I respect Haibane Renmei for having the courage to be boring. Apparently it was hard to get money and personnel to make a show like this, without a conventional plot or focus. It's pastoral and dreamlike. It creates a lovely, intricate world of odd customs and ordinary people, painted in attractive earth colours. Everyone's so nice! Serial Experiments Lain has style, but this has charm. Both shows also give their little girl protagonist a thing about crows.
This show asks its big questions in an extraordinary way that's simultaneously down-to-earth and mystical. Its characters are just ordinary people going about their daily lives, but with wings and haloes. In particular I found the ending moving and probably irreproducible by anyone else ever. It leaves much unanswered, but that's the whole point. The significance of these huge, scary questions is that we can't help asking them, despite the fact that mankind's combined wisdom still hasn't been able to find a definitive answer. For some people who've had to face these issues recently in their lives, this show might really strike a chord.
If most anime is about storytelling, this is more like poetry. The more I think about it, the more depth I see (in a dreamily understated way). It's impressive. It's still a bit dull in the middle, though.