Anime Review: Noir

Noir is the first Kōichi Mashimo’s trilogy of three “Girls-with-Guns” animes, on the theme of, well, girls with guns, and a bit of philosphy.  Well-liked in some sections of otakudom, I went into this series with some reservations, as I loathed its spiritual sequel, Madlax and I was indifferent to the few episodes  I saw of El Cazadour De La Bruja. Were my fears unfounded? Read on to find out.

The Basic Plot

Mireille Bouquet, an Italian assassin, and Kirika Yuumura, an amnesiac Japanese schoolgirl, is suddenly brought together in mysterious circumstances. Kirika seems to have a link to Mireille’s unpleasant past, and immediately after meeting, the pair is attacked by hitmen. Kirika proves to be exceptionally good with a pistol, and they wipe out their attackers, but the question remains, why? Who arranged this, and wants them dead? Adopting the name “Noir”, the pair decides to form a murder-for-hire partnership, with the aim of finding the answers. However, regardless of what answers these may be, they will spell the end of Kirika. For reasons known only to her, Mireille has promised to kill Kirika once everything’s been cleared up, but will she be able to pull the trigger?

No, this series isn’t Dirty Pair

Every now and again you run into an anime that is full of good ideas and production values, makes a good impression, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential. The result? A watchable anime that doesn’t have any glaring flaws, but nevertheless is riddled with mediocrity.  I liked Noir at first. It was interesting, and nicely animated. However, the many niggling problems with the series wore me down, and by the third quarter, I had lost patience. As a reviewer this means I must spend the next 1300 odd words explaining the bad side of the series, but remember, its not all bad. Its just the bad takes a lot of explaining.

The first and most significant issue this anime has is pacing, and I suppose this is due to the way it treats its concept. It’s an anime that could have been played as pure brainless entertainment, and nobody would have minded, but the series takes itself seriously. Noir attempts to apply logic to events, and unfortunately, hired killings played logically are far from the fast-paced and action-packed impression you are likely to get from the DVD box. If an assassination is going well, the girls would not even be noticed and it would only require one silenced firearm and some prior planning to get the job done. The only way you can get an action sequence is if things don’t go to plan, and they often don’t, so the anime has to do other things to hold your interest lest the series gets repetitive. Initially, this involves focusing on the victims, their guards or those close to them. There is some solid characterisation when the series does this, although this makes the series episodic. This story device slowly gets phased out in favour of the “Soldats” plotline, which is in the grand tradition of evil secret societies manipulating the world like the Illuminati is supposed to be doing right now. While this means that Noir is a good deal more intelligent than you may expect, it’s also a good deal less exciting than your average girls-with-guns anime. In fact, it’s often dull, and perhaps it shouldn’t have taken itself so seriously.

A lot of the blame for this lays with the animes other big issue, self-censorship, which afflicts the action sequences badly.  There is evidence of creativity and of a good attention to detail in the combat, so Noir gains some credibility here, even though it recruits from the Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy for its mooks. Unfortunately, the combat is oddly bloodless, and people almost always die without a mark on them. This is very jarring; guns don’t cause visible injury despite regularly blowing holes in inanimate objects. Now, a lot of animes tend to stop just short of being explicit with firearms, usually stopping at the “corpse in a pool of blood” level, but Noir refuses to go that far, and ruins the realism and feel of the scenes.  I’m not really a gore hound, but I find it very strange that a series routinely kills a dozen people an episode, it’s about assassins, to have the same attitude towards blood as daytime TV. I never thought I would have to criticise something for not being violent enough, but there you go.  Sadly, the soundtrack also conspires to ruin the mood, such as with its damn annoying “jaja-ja-ja-jar” music that sometimes plays. The anime isn’t really about the gunplay, so this isn’t a fatal failing, but it’s a crying shame that the anime looks like its been digitally edited for broadcast on Cartoon Network. Noir’s combat sequences do have periodic flashes of excellence, the conscious decision not animate to consequences of firearms makes them a bit farcical at best, and strangely bland at worst.

Definitely not Dirty Pair

With Noir being lacking on the action front, how does it do on the characterisation front and the plot front? The answer is average, but by no means terrible. Usually, if the regular cast is only going to be two characters, though later expanding to four, those characters should be fairly complete individuals, and this does hold true for Noir. Mireille and Kirika have fairly well-defined personalities. Mireille is probably the better of the two, and comes across as a professional and pragmatist, but a tragic past prompts some development for the character. Kirika is stoic, and often emoutionless, so I am a little indifferent towards her, but she is responsible for the better action sequences. Unfortunately, the sense of dullness and lethargy mark this aspect of the series too, meaning that development is slow. The recurring villains are of a similar quality, competent but lacking a wow factor. The knife wielding Chloe is basically insane, though not homicidally, and is an interesting counterpoint to the leads. Altena, the big bad, is essentially a priestess in a less than liberal religion, but she does have a fairly atypical trait for a villain, a motherly attitude.  It’s by no means a bad cast, but I have two observations to make. The first regards Chloe, who suffers very badly from the animes self-censorship. A knife-toting loony is good deal less threatening when the series refuses to let any blood be spilled on screen, and Chloe comes across as more of a child who has found a pack of magic knives then a believable killer. The second, with its near total absence of recurring male characters and an implied, and eventually explicit, love triangle between three of the girls, Noir has an obvious lesbian angle to proceedings. This was probably intended to be a major theme, but self-censorship affects this aspect of the series as well, reducing it to background noise. While this tread does become very important in episode 25, it just isn’t explored in the other episodes, and is generally so vague and subtle as to almost not be there. There was definitely a missed opportunity or two, and I find myself wondering what exactly Mashimo was trying to achieve. I can only assume he wanted to leave things open to interpretation, but I would find that a bit of a cop out. Despite all this criticism, the characters are competently handled, and the redeeming part of the series.

The plot and story of Noir is a touch more conventional than the elements discussed above, but it also has plenty of conventional flaws. The upside to it is that the plot as a whole was reasonably executed, and had some actual surprises to it. The downside was the foundations for the plot, the actual events of any given episode, were pretty weak at times. Noir feels like it would have worked better as a 12 episode anime rather than a 26. The episodes of direct relevance to the whole evil conspiracy are pretty good, but there’s a lot of filler in this series, most of it forgettable or weakly written.  There are a great many examples of the old “contrived coincidence” device, with the leads bumping into people of direct relevance to their mission by chance, or their enemies apparently finding them with zero effort. The anime also tends to use flashbacks and scenery shots as padding material.  Did the anime really need a tea party episode? Or that two-parter set in China with the notably bad gunfight? Probably not, and I know the director is capable of more. Mashimo directed and scripted The Irresponsible Captain Tyler, which admittedly is a very different show, but also a much better and more creative show. This guy even did a Dirty Pair movie, so presumably he knows how to handle action too. What happened to that talent? As animes go Noir is watchable, but that’s about it, and ultimately the plot that it builds isn’t worth the wait. What is the point of an anime about a pair of international female assassins, if the whole enterprise comes across as dull and uninspired?

Conclusion

With its pretty European locations, solid production values, and attractive character designs, Noir looks good.  Initially strong, I enjoyed it far more than I did Madlax and El Cazadour, though I found myself going off the series as it progressed. There’s nothing overtly awful about the anime, but it comments the sin of blandness. There was little to hold my attention, nothing to love, and little to hate. Noir fails to exploit its good concepts and ideas properly, creating a very unexciting and uninteresting viewing experience. I also found some of the creative decisions utterly baffling. With all this in mind, either avoid or watch with patience.

5/10

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