Ten years ago the world of anime was experiencing a renaissance unlike any ever seen before in the world of multimedia. The internet bubble had expanded rapidly, allowing people from all over the world to connect in more ways than ever. These global connections helped spawn the growth of the anime industry as the ‘niche’ market in the US grew with the same rapidity as the internet.
So it’s no surprise that 2001 marked one of the watershed years of this renaissance, during which we saw around one hundred anime titles released to the airwaves with many of them on the cutting edge of the medium. Fruits Basket was a series whose characters and story drew a great many viewers who were captivated by Tohru and her countless misadventures with the cursed Shoma clan. Hellsing, with its dark vampire premise and extreme violence, debuted in October. And finally the CLAMP series Angelic Layer, with its compelling story and intriguing animation, ran from April to October. The list could continue but the year 2001 produced at least ten titles – including the three listed above and this one – that remain favorites of mine even after the intervening years.
Today’s review is of a title that helped form an integral foundation that the anime world still uses today. It’s a dark series, harkening back to the storied past of television and movies with its very name, a name that’s French for “black”. Within this series are girls… girls with guns in fact, and a shadowy organization set in the heart of mafia country. Now let’s embark on “a pilgrimage for the past” and enter the world of Noir.
The world of Noir is a world that uses the “film noir” convention of Hollywood. This convention is easily recognizable with the usage of femme fatales and scenes that involves a minimum of action but produce compelling plots that draw the audience in. We’re immediately introduced to our main character; the Corsican-born, Paris-dwelling Mireille Bouquet who’s a gun-for-hire with a dark and tragic past (what little of it we see anyway). In the first episode we meet her target, Kirika Yuumura, an amnesiac teenager whose only memories are of the name “Noir” and of her incredible skill at killing. The two quickly become partners, though Mireille swears to finish the job assigned to her once Kirika regains her memories.
Throughout the series we delve into the criminal underworld as we follow Mirelle and Kirika on their various assignments. The word Noir has meaning here; it’s both the name that Mireille and Kirika use to represent themselves as guns-for-hire and the mystical names of “two maidens who govern death”. Those who had taken on the moniker “Noir”, it is learned, were feared by all in the underworld and respected for their talents and abilities. Yet there are more shadowy figures than just Noir. A group called “Les Soldats” (“The Soldiers”) shows itself early on and becomes progressively more involved in events as the story unfolds.
It’s these three elements: Mireille’s dark and tragic past, Kirika’s amnesia, and the dark secret of “Noir” and “Les Soldats” that entwine and interact throughout Noir. As the series progresses the elements begin to mesh and interact in ways that are both expected and unexpected. A third female assassin, the knife-wielding and enigmatic Chloe, enters the story mid-stride and things only accelerate from there. At the climax of the series the three plot threads come together in spectacular fashion, revealing just how interwoven everything is.
For a series that wasn’t based off of any existing material, Noir is very well done once it finally builds momentum. It reminds me a bit of a steam train; things seem to have difficulty getting going early on but once the momentum is built up the series moves along smoothly.
Our characters struggle a bit to introduce themselves in the first two episodes. There are some irregularities in their stories initially and bits that don’t seem to do the characters justice. The plot is slow to get moving and we are left asking some basic questions about how we got here and what precisely is happening. However, once we get moving everything starts to settle into place and we are able to enjoy the ride nicely.
One of the highlights of Noir is how the characters grow and mature as the series progresses. They make decisions that aren’t always correct. Sometimes they do stupid things. It’s these little shortcomings that make them more human and that allow Mirielle and Kirika to grow on us. When the series arrives at its climax we see just how human the characters are. Tough choices and decisions must be made. The impacts of those decisions drive the story through to the very end, where we can look back and see that it is clear that everything led up to this moment. It’s an epiphany that makes us glad we stayed on for the ride.
Ryoe Tsukimura was the brains behind the concept as well as the script-writer. He was also involved in writing the script for most of Tenchi Universe, the creator of El Hazard, and the conceptual brains behind UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie.
Director Koichi Mashimo is a very well-known force within the anime world. Mashimoto was one of the founders of animation studio Bee Train, which was established under the well-known studio Production I.G. Mashimo was the driving force behind two other “Girls with Guns” series – Madlax and El Cadazor de la Bruja – and was also the director of all the .hacks as well as the Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE series. In more recent times, he’s been responsible for directing Requiem for the Phantom and Hyouge Mono.
Noir's color palette matched the film noir scenes very well, with dark and shadowy hues in appropriate places and bleached ones in others. There are not a lot of vibrant colors to be seen as the urban scenes present themselves with a feel of dirt and dust, while the rural scenes have a subdued picturesque quality to them. The characters are all drawn well and do not tend to fall into traditional anime girl stereotypes. It is clear this is set in foreign locations – Japan makes only a couple appearances – a quality which is exemplified by both the artwork and even the character designs. The only beef I have with the artwork are the “cut-away” scenes midway through each episode. They’re a bit too neon for my taste. It’s worth noting that this series is all hand drawn. No computer generation was used.
The music for this series was done by the talented and famous Yuki Kajiura. If you haven’t heard this name before, trust me, you will hear more of it in the future. Kajiura has a very unique and distinct style that is easy to identify after you have heard it a few times. One of the trademarks of her style is the use of piano and violin in the musical interludes and the repetition of basic musical themes (or phrases, if you prefer) that are expounded upon and modified as they go.
Another of Kajiura’s trademarks is the use of unique vocals in those periods where there is someone singing in the background. “Canta per me” is one such example. The song isn’t even sung in Japanese… it’s sung in Italian. “Salva Nos” is sung in Latin. Both of these musical bits, as well as Kajiura’s other interludes, give the series an authentic feel. When you listen to some of the tracks you actually feel as if you are at a café in downtown Paris near the Eiffel Tower, or out in the rolling hills of Corsica.
Kajiura has also scored a number of series including .hack//SIGN, my-HiME, Tsubasa Chronicle, and Madoka Magica.
As I tend to stick with the Japanese, you will not find commentary on the English VAs at this time. I may revisit later with an update however.
Kotono Mitsuishi voiced Mireille and I have to say she did a phenomenal job of it. It’s clear that the voice acting is one of the strong suits of this series and Mireille is one of the most complex characters among them. Yet Mitsushi did very well as Mireille, demonstrating the older woman’s doubts and frustrations, venturing into her past to reveal her character, and overall making the audience believe that Mireille is genuine. She covered the character’s emotions well, and my only regret is that there was no French or Corsican accent to go along with it. Mitsuishi has had a number of other notable roles, including Soifon in Bleach, Excel in Excel Saga, and Mitsuro Katsuagi in the classic Evangelion.
Kirika’s voice actress is another well-renowned and talented actress, Houko Kuwashima. She plays the teenager’s shy and conflicted parts very well, leaving the viewer completely convinced about the character’s emotions. It was a pleasant surprise to see some of her other credits and gave me better appreciation as to the wide range of talent she has. Flay Allster and Natarle Badgiruel are hardly shy or conflicted in Gundam SEED. To call Sango from Inuyasha those terms would be to risk a terrible and painful existence. And, lastly, one would hardly believe that the incredibly energetic Kagura from Azumanga Daioh could be as laid back and conserve energy like Kirika does.
Last is Chloe, who is voiced by Aya Hisakawa. Hisakawa is another veteran in the industry and she does well putting life into the enigmatic assassin. She gives Chloe the feeling of fanaticism as her obsession with Kirika deepens. There is no doubt that Hisakawa is good at working the intense characters. Some of her other credits include Skuld from Ah! My Goddess, Sailor Mercury, Rem Saverem in Trigun, and Maya Natsume in Tenjou Tenge.
Overall this is a series worth watching if you want to “make a pilgrimage for the past” (as it says in the series). Even though it’s now a decade old, Noir remains a classic that’s great for a first-time anime fan or someone who has seen the series before. Though the plot and characters take time to develop, there is plenty of action and a compelling storyline that will keep you busy. The artwork gives you the feeling you’ve stepped into a 1940s movie with Humphrey Bogart, and the top-notch music of Yuki Kajuira only reinforces that feeling. Add to that some very outstanding voice acting by three extremely talented women and you have a recipe for success.