Production Studio: Bee Train
Was this provided by the publisher? Yes
More Info: Anime News Network
Mireille Bouquet is an assassin for hire in modern-day Paris. As far as her profession permits her to, she lives her life in relative peace. This all changes one day, when she receives a strange message from an amnesic Japanese girl named Kirika Yumura.
Kirika presents Mirelle with an unusual proposition. This time, there’s no target, no specific person to hunt. Rather, Kirika asks that Mirelle join her on a quest to reclaim her lost identity. Mirelle reluctantly agrees to take on the girl’s request, after Kirika presents a memento from the assassin’s childhood.
Taking on the ancient designation of “Noir”, Mireille and Kirika embark upon a violent journey into their past.
Directed by Koichi Mashimo as part of his girls-with-guns trilogy (the two successors being Madlax and El Cazador de la Bruja), Noir‘s 26 episodes originally aired in 2001. Eight years later, Mashimo would return to once again tell the story of amnesic killers in the anime adaptation of Phantom – Requiem for the Phantom, and the parallels are clear to see. Thematically, Noir is firmly rooted in the genre its title hints at, featuring organized crime, mysterious (and mostly tragic) femmes fatales, and a rather pessimistic outlook on the world.
The series begins with a strong first episode that does a great job at establishing the premise, style, and two main characters. Despite the stellar introduction, though, the show’s first half suffers from slow pacing. The problem is intensified by the recurring, extensive use of flashbacks to scenes from previous episodes and Mireille’s childhood memories. While the latter are indeed relevant and slowly expanded upon, the sheer repetitiveness can be grating on the nerves. Though flashbacks are also a common staple of film noir, it is obvious that Noir was intended for weekly consumption rather than binge watching.
What the first cour excels at is using the stories of throwaway side characters to mirror the protagonists’ dilemmas, hinting at and foreshadowing possible future plot points. Taking on assassination assignments and following possible leads, Mireille and Kirika cross paths with several figures of tragic political backgrounds: the German Cold War spy who lost his family to a personal feud, the Czechoslovakian Foreign Legionnaire whose only talent is killing people, the victim and perpetrator of an ethnic cleansing. These are people defined by tragedy and turmoil, dispersed by wars, who lost both their loved ones and country to the merciless flow of history, a recurring and vital theme for the main characters’ fates.
This not only adds substance to the overall bleakness some of the show’s characters choose (or are forced) to inhabit, while opening the floor for difficult questions. Concerns such as the justification or futility of revenge, the eternity of sin and the possibility of atonement become important towards the story’s finale, making the reveal and consequences of Kirika’s and Mireille’s connection all the more satisfying.
The second cour proves to be the stronger half of the series. The pacing is still elegiac, but the storytelling is more focused and consistent.
Atmospherically, Noir is a very solid show, managing to exude melancholy and cynicism at the same time. That said, though, Bee Train’s decision to completely omit blood in the face of the show’s dark themes and high body count, is baffling. I’m not advocating the use of gratuitous violence, but it’s unnecessarily challenging to remain immersed in the narrative when it is impossible to tell if a character might be unharmed or mortally wounded. This is especially frustrating, since the subject matter excludes younger viewers by default.
Aside from the themes, the series’ style also showcases traditional characteristics of film noir, from dramatic lighting full of strong contrasts and long shadows, with characters often partially obscured by darkness, to the frequent usage of Dutch angles causing visual suspense and uneasiness.
The different locations Mireille and Kirika find themselves in, from Japan to Paris, to a mountain village in the Pyrenees allow for a seemingly limitless selection of beautifully painted backgrounds. The fact that these scenes are often picturesque and idyllic makes for great contrast with the violence about to take place there. Night scenes are nicely illuminated and especially pretty to look at.
Character designs are pleasant and varied, at least for the more important characters, with distinctive features and believable emotional expressions.
In scenes with low lighting, though, lines can become fuzzy and imprecise, as can be seen in the close-up of Mireille below (at the bottom of her nose and chin). This is likely to be a problem intensified by the Blu-ray’s sharpness and a lot less noticeable in the old DVD release.
The strong contrasts between light and dark lead to a few peculiar issues. Whenever someone is standing under a tree in broad daylight, for example, the shadows cast are so harsh that characters suddenly look like they are suffering from an incurable skin disease.
Missing kneecaps (or any other visible joints) in long and medium shots are another minor visual issue that affects Mireille in particular, leading to awkward running and walking sequences when seen from afar.
Though Mirelle embodies the sexy femme fatale down to her attire, the fact that neither she nor Kirika (or their relationship) is overly sexualized is a welcome relief. Not counting the shootouts themselves, fan service in Noir is wonderfully absent.
The action and assassination scenes, while effectively animated and well choreographed, can get repetitive over time. It’s apparent that the scenes were created with little strategic planning, and mostly play out in the same way, as Kirika proves herself to be the perfect weapon again and again. Witnessing dozens of nameless male henchmen die from incompetence when facing the much more able female assassins, the emotional involvement and sympathy for the “victims” in these scenes are likely to stay rather limited.
Fan service is not the only front where Noir keeps things subdued and tasteful. Noir is a surprisingly quiet character piece. The series has a complete lack of explanatory monologues, and dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. Important scenes can play out in almost complete silence, making the voice actors’ work challenging. Both the Japanese and English cast do well at putting as much restricted emotion as possible into their performances.
Within such a quiet series, the music becomes all the more important in conveying what the characters themselves cannot express. The ever-brilliant Yuki Kajiura (The Garden of Sinners, Fate/Zero, Puella Magi Madoka Magica) was certainly up to the challenge. She managed to blend ominous chanting with techno beats, juxtaposing relaxed French coffeehouse pieces and powerful ballads without breaking a sweat. Among several standout tracks, the hauntingly beautiful pocket watch “Mélodie” takes the crown.
The special features on FUNimation’s Blu-ray release include the original Japanese trailers and music videos for the main characters, as well as textless versions of the opening and ending. Two episodes come with commentaries by the English voice actresses and producer, while the accompanying DVD contains interviews with both the Japanese and American cast talking about their acting experience and approach to the characters. The definite highlight is a sock-puppet version of Noir, voiced by the original English actresses who clearly had a blast recording the short segment, as did the sound engineer.
While not perfect in every aspect, Noir succeeds as an atmospherically rich show with an interesting premise and satisfying conclusion, providing just the right amount of closure a subdued series like this is able to offer. Before reaching the end of its characters’ journey, the story manages to touch upon big themes such as the wish to be “normal” and the question of what such a state might entail, if it even exists. The truth of the world might be bad, but human interaction, as faint and fragile as it may be, is never truly futile.