December 12, 2010

Wonderduck's Favorite Anime Series Of All Time: Number Four

A favorite show should be one of those things that fits like a good pair of shoes or well broken-in jeans... comfortable.  You should be able to put on any episode and immediately sink into the backstory like you'd watched everything up to that point in a marathon.  Perhaps it's a seminal moment in your fandom, or something that made the whole concept of what a good anime could do click for you.  In short, a favorite show should be part of you as an anime fan.  Coming in at Number Four on my list is an epically grand story involving secret societies, spans multiple continents, and the whole of the history of Western Civilization, yet at its heart is about nothing more than two young women.

Who happen to be assassins.

NOIR is a 2001 anime from the production house BeeTrain.  26 episodes long, it was to be the first of a trilogy of unrelated series studying the "girls with guns" genre (the other two were Madlax, a lousy show, and El Cazador de la Bruja, a very good show). 

It turned out to be one of the best television shows of any sort that I have seen. 

Mirelle Bouquet is a young woman living in Paris, who just happens to be one of the best assassins in the world.  One day, she returns home to an e-mail that contains a picture of a girl and the message "Make a pilgrimage for the Past, with me."  Assuming that its a piece of spam, she ignores it until a piece of music plays.  She stops dead in her tracks, eyes wide with... not fear surely, but shock and perhaps unease.  It's obviously something deeply important to her.

She travels to Japan to meet with the girl in the e-mail.

Kirika woke up one day in a bedroom, knowing nothing about herself except what her student ID told her and the word Noir, no context provided.  She also quickly discovers that she is very very talented in the art of killing people, as she's attacked by a number of men in black suits.  Outnumbered, outgunned, and unprepared, she still makes mincemeat out of them.

But what is the tie that binds the two of them together?  We spend the next 25 episodes figuring that out, just as they do.  At no time during the show does the watcher quite get a handle on what's going on, but not because NOIR is confused or just throwing stuff out there.  This series is probably the best example of how to plot out a show I can find.  You go into the final episodes, when Kirika has to make a decision that'll be fatal for someone, not knowing which way she'll choose.  It was impressive at the time, and its just gotten even more so as time has gone by.

Mirelle and Kirika don't exist in a vacuum, of course.  The series' antagonist is a secret society called Les Soldats, personified by the men in black suits, and Chloe.

Where Mirelle and Kirika primarily use guns, Chloe is the master with a throwing knife.  While the other two are walking death on two feet, Chloe is frightening when she gets going... and the ultimate clash between the three is, by turns, the most thrilling and the most chilling fight sequence I've ever seen.

But that wouldn't be enough to make it one of my favorite shows on its own.  No, where NOIR leaps to the fore is with the entire package.  As mentioned, the series was broadcast in 2001 and as such is almost entirely cel animated, resulting in a graphical warmth often missing from today's computer animated shows, while retaining a high quality throughout.  It's obvious that this was a big-budget production; there's very little in the way of re-used footage (except in Mirelle's flashback to her youth, where it's entirely appropriate).  The musical score for NOIR is also top-notch, composed by Yuki Kajiura.  Indeed, the music plays a major role in the series, nearly becoming a character in its own right.  The styles used in the soundtrack are all over the musicial map, perfectly appropriate for a series that takes place in multiple locations around the world.

Some have taken issue with the decision by director Koichi Mashimo to make the series almost entirely bloodless despite the rather startling bodycount racked up by the cast.  He says, quite correctly in my view, that the amount of blood that would have been involved would have distracted from the story.  Rest assured that there is copious amounts of action, but it's always appropriate, never "just because."  Everything in NOIR is where it is for a reason... a reason that we do eventually discover, hidden behind layers of layers. 

I first saw NOIR probably in 2003 or early 2004, through one fansub group or another... some three years before I had broadband.  It was a time when it would literally take some 16 hours to download a single episode via dialup, yet it got me so hooked that I did it happily.  Over the years, I've come to realize that watching the series at a rate of one or maybe two episodes a day is probably the best way to do it.  Any more than that and you begin to get tired of the music we first heard when Mirelle first opened the e-mail from Kirika, which plays at least once an episode.  When the Duck U Anime Club screened the series, we discovered that four episodes was the most that we could stomach in one meeting, but we preferred fewer.  But prior to that, when I was first watching NOIR via those technically unsophisticated fansubs, I found myself anxiously waiting for the download to end every night so I could watch it immediately.  None of the shows that rank above it on my list of Favorites grabbed me hard enough to do that.

It's a little strange for this series to be one of my all-time favorites; it certainly doesn't mesh with my usual slice-of-life, lighthearted rom-com fare.  It's just that darn good in all facets.  Originally licensed by ADV and now by Funimation, it is technically out of print but you can still find it over at Robert's.  The thinpack set is pricey, but I can attest to it being from a time when ADV still included all bonus material in their thinpacks.  There are at least four easter eggs hidden on one of the DVDs, and full profiles and interviews abound on the others.

It's hard for me to overstate just how good NOIR is and just how much I like it.  If you haven't seen it, watch it.  If you have seen it, watch it again.  It's just that simple.

Coming soon in Wonderduck's Favorite Series Of All Time: "Wow, there's a shocker."

note: it only took me five years to get around to doing this review...

Posted by: Wonderduck at 02:27 AM | Comments (11) | Add Comment
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This is an absolutely excellent choice, and I understand it both being on the list and not being at the top. Great write-up, sir.

Kirika. The template for any number of "quiet young assassin girls" both in Bee Train sequels and elsewhere. Rarely surpassed, and it's a characterization that works better when you haven't seen it done thirty times already. If you come to Noir after seeing those others... well, detach the "oh god not this again" part of your brain. She may not have been the first, but still.

Chloe. An antagonist who manages to be devious, sinister, creepy, and an honorable opponent all at once. (I don't think I'm spoilering, here. All I'm saying is that she's a great character!)

Mirelle has the thankless job of being our main point-of-view character, the one with the least idea what's going on, and our vehicle for figuring it all out. She is what she is, eh?

I would say that even if Noir isn't a must-own series for anyone who's really getting into anime, I'd say it's a must-see. I watch it through every few years, and other than "no no no not 'Melodie' AGAIN" (see also: "ah, an action sequence must be coming up because the music says so") it's always a pleasure.

Posted by: GreyDuck at December 12, 2010 09:58 AM (7lMXI)

2 Noir is one of my favorite animes.  However, as much as I liked how they used the flashback of the watch scene, and how you slowly saw more and more of the scene, then in the end saw the same scene from another POV, I think they over-used it a bit. 

I found myself starting to tune it out after awhile, even though I knew that every couple episodes they'd reveal a little bit more of the flashback scene.  Maybe if they'd showed the flashback in fewer episodes, so I didn't have a chance to memorize it so well...

Posted by: Siergen at December 12, 2010 02:44 PM (Gqqsw)

3 I hereby register my prediction: #2 will be Azumanga Daioh, and #1 will be the Aria franchise.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 12, 2010 03:45 PM (+rSRq)

4 Great show. The dub has one of my favorite dark humor moments, when Mirielle tells Kirika, "You work is just so... garish."

The slow pacing adds to the overall feeling of malevolence that is always behind the scenes.

Posted by: skyhack at December 12, 2010 10:41 PM (R3PHF)

5 I thoroughly enjoyed working on this show. Not only did it come at the perfect time (right after I'd finished Excel Saga), but it was a show where the lack of dialogue really challenged us to make it count, as it were. We spent a lot of time talking about how to phrase this or that, so that we'd get exactly the same kind of connotation or ambiguity that it had in the Japanese. Shoko knocked it completely out of the park. (I do, however, take credit for the poetry.)

There were a couple of low-budget episodes (I'm particularly thinking of 16, the Hong Kong one... there were a couple spots in the fight scene where people were pretty badly off-model and without any of the usual fluidity or choreography that you'd come to expect from the rest of the show.) But overall it worked, and worked well.

The music was inspired. I'll still listen to the soundtrack from time to time. The best of Kajiura's work that I ever saw, to be sure.

Not EVERYONE loved it. But if you were going to like that kind of show, where you had mixed intrigue and gunplay, you never saw anything better than Noir. Even Bebop, which also had fantastic music and great production values, isn't quite as good.

And the hidden sock puppet theater... I still can't believe we actually filmed it and included it. Or more like, how in the nine hells did we get permission from the Japanese? (DID we get permission?) I actually hurt something laughing, the first time I saw it...

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at December 12, 2010 11:37 PM (mRjOr)

6 Looks like the Duck is out shoveling snow.

Avatar, that composer also did the music for Mai Otome, which I initially figured out before even checking the credits.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 13, 2010 02:01 AM (+rSRq)

7 Av, I had no idea you worked on NOIR... you guys really did a great job.

Steven, we only got about three inches, but the cold and wind is the bad stuff right now. 

I had to get to sleep early Sunday; today's the first day of Finals Week/Book Buyback at the Duck U Bookstore, and I need to get in early.

Posted by: Wonderduck at December 13, 2010 06:40 AM (vW/MM)

8 Nobody ever reads the credits...

Funny story about that. I worked for the university doing tech support while I was finishing up my degree. My co-worker AJ had some bootleg copies of Noir and was watching them, paused it at one point and asked me if I'd seen it. Coincidentally he paused it... during the credits... when my name was on the screen. I pointed...

Posted by: Avatar at December 13, 2010 05:03 PM (pWQz4)

9 I agree with Steven's predictions. I'm going to take a wild guess that the remaining series is Elfen Lied.

Posted by: Don at December 13, 2010 06:46 PM (utUGf)

10 I have to admit to being one of the heathens who don't like this series.  Love the music, and I'm not generally opposed to the overall storyline, but I felt as if I had seen everything in this show before, not just Kirika.  Most love the pacing; I thought it was incredibly slow and boring.  My first thought after finishing the last episode was, "That's it?!?"

Noir is one of the few series that I have to just flat out admit that I apparently just don't get it.

But great music.  Oh yeah.

Posted by: Ben at December 13, 2010 09:55 PM (gze3w)

11 A laconic story about fate, friendship and forgiveness where every single frame exudes melancholy...yet, where the closing frames still manage to convey some true hopefulness.  Its pacing and structure are clearly not for everyone, but to me, at least, Noir is one of the most moving works of fiction I've ever come across -- a stirring paean to the power of friendship.

Now we just have to hope that Starz doesn't ruin it turning it into a TV show!

Posted by: DP at January 01, 2011 07:14 AM (YvG5/)

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