Review for Noein: Collector's Edition
Noein is one of my favourite anime shows, and in my opinion, one of the finest shows of the mid-2000s. It’s directed by Kazuki Akane, and I think it’s the pinnacle of his career as a director. Given that he has also directed the fan favourite Vision of Escaflowne, the pure fun Heat Guy J, and the underrated Birdy: The Mighty Decode, that’s probably a fanciful opinion on my part, but given my long-forgotten Physics degree, you might forgive a little bias. I still had to scratch my head at the announcement that Noein would get a Blu-ray though. Just like the recently released Gankutsuou, it’s a show from that period when television anime was made in native SD, so the best that you can hope for on a Blu-ray is a decent upscale. On the other hand, the original DVD releases did have their issues. Manga Entertainment in the UK were going through takeover pains at the time, having just been sold to Starz from IDT, and they had a habit of dropping the two-disc single volume releases (with DTS audio) halfway through for a boxset collection without DTS. They also had this false economy at the time of using dubtitles to save on BBFC costs, anathema to many anime fans. Manga US on the other hand, who were still a going concern when it came to physical media, gave Noein the release that anime fans expected, but chose a giant yellow font for the subtitles, a quarter the way up the screen, obscuring quite a bit of screen real estate. Hopefully a Blu-ray release will rectify both of these issues.
Noein has something of an X-Files feel to it with a soupcon of Sliders, all set against the coming of age drama of a group of school friends in the seaside town of Hakodate during summer. For friends Haruka, Yu, Miho, Ai and Isami, the hardest question has to be what to do over the summer. That, and Yu is stressing over being forced into university by his overbearing mother. Rumours of ghostly apparitions inspire Miho to suggest a ‘fright night’, but no one is prepared for what phantoms they will see. The gateway across time and dimensions is opening up, and wraith like figures are coming through searching for the Dragon Torque. They need to retrieve it to save their own world from the deadly Shangri-La dimension, but the Dragon Torque just happens to be embodied in Haruka. The weird thing is that Haruka finds one of the strangers, Karasu to be oddly familiar.
The 24 episodes of Noein, plus the extra features collected from the original US 5-disc DVD release, are presented across three Blu-ray discs here from All the Anime.
1. Blue Snow
5. And Then…
6. Dimension Of Tears
7. Important Person
9. Crossing Time
10. A Stormy Night
11. Out Of Sync
12. The Battle
13. The Wish
20. Once More
22. To The Future
23. The End
24. The Beginning
Noein is one gorgeous looking anime, and it’s still one of the prettiest I have seen, but let’s deal with the elephant in the room. It was animated for NTSC broadcast, at 480 lines of resolution. The Blu-ray therefore is an up-scale. Thankfully it’s the kind of scaling up that I can get behind, which does enough to make it agreeable on an HD screen, avoiding macroblocking and stair-stepping, but without artificially filtering and sharpening the image to make it look faux-HD. My first impression was that it looked just like my US DVDs. There are incremental improvements though, not least the smooth 24fps progressive animation, as opposed to 30fps interlaced. You also get a significant reduction of compression artefacts, with all that remains being some light banding and some shimmer on fine detail (usually the straight edges on CGI buildings). The action sequences which might have suffered from pixellation and break-up on the DVD are near perfect on Blu-ray. The colours on the Blu-ray are improved too, and it loses the bright haziness of the DVD. The energy discharges during the action sequences are far more vibrant and intense. These are tiny positives, and are easy to miss, but they are there nonetheless. Naturally this Blu-ray does away with the standards conversion of the UK DVD release, which is a more obvious improvement. The one place that you will notice some HD is during the credit sequences, as Funimation has reworked the English credits text for their release, and it is suitably high definition. They’ve also used the original title cards with subtitle translations for the episode titles instead of the reworked title cards that Manga used.
Made by the same company that created Heat Guy J, Noein took the blending of 3D CG and traditional 2D animation one step further for 2005. The character designs are a stride removed from traditional anime, and in that respect the show establishes a style of its own. It has a bright, hazy feel to it, appropriate to the summertime setting, and the animation is fluid and expansive. It looks like a theatrical animation at times. On rare occasions the characters do revert to a more minimalist feel, but that seems to be a conscious creative decision, rather than a lack of budget. The action and effects are also astounding, as the opening sequence of the first episode so graphically demonstrates.
The images in this review were kindly supplied by All the Anime.
The real reason to double-dip is here, with the audio. You have the choice of Dolby True-HD 5.1 Surround English and Japanese, with the Japanese offered with English and Spanish subtitles (a legacy of the Manga US release). Manga Entertainment went through a phase of offering every audio option possible, cramming them onto their DVDs, or going for dual disc releases, all for Stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio. But the surround tracks were usually hollow sounding up-mixes of the stereo, not really adding anything, and indeed detracting from the viewing experience with occasional phase issues. That is a problem with the Manga US release of Noein, and those are discs that are better watched in stereo. Funimation on the other hand have done a lot better with their surround audio for Noein, the improvement of lossless audio makes an immediate impact with the show’s music (although the LFE is a tad overcooked for the end theme song), but the show’s audio in general is warm, immersive and rich, a far cry from the DVD’s echoey up-mix.
As usual I went for the original language soundtrack. Noein is a show with plenty of action packed moments, which are well represented in the surround track. The music also has a singular style that adds to the quirky individuality of the show. The incidental music has an almost mediaeval feel to it, while the arrival of the Dragon Knights is usually heralded by some ominous choral music. There are no problems with the English dub either, as the voices suit the characters well (although Atori sounds a little stereotypical), and the dialogue flows naturally.
Just when it was all going so great, I came up against a slight player incompatibility issue with my Panasonic SA-BTT 490 player. The audio on episodes 10 and 11 is out of sync, ironic given episode 11’s title. I tracked it down to the audio settings. There is a sync option which you are advised to leave on Auto, so that the player can apparently keep the sound and image in sync itself (though how this works, I have no idea). Setting it to 0ms get the episodes watchable again, although for some wholly illogical reason, setting the delay to a whopping 200ms gets the audio synced up dead on for episode 10 and 11. You can set it back to Auto for the rest of the disc.
The discs present their contents with animated menus, and it looks as if these are the Funimation discs. The three discs autoplay with trailers for A Certain Scientific Railgun S, Full Metal Alchemist, and Buddy-Complex respectively.
All of the show specific extras are on disc 3.
The On Location with Haruka Kudo and Director Akane Kazuki lasts 44:31(1080i 60Hz upscale), and sees the Haruka voice actress and director visit the seaside town of Hakodate in Hokkaido. It’s a graphic demonstration of why the anime looks so splendid, as the major locations are all taken from real life. It’s impressive just how accurate the anime is, while pervading the story with a fantasy feel. This collects all three featurettes from the Manga discs into one featurette here.
Noein Art Edition lasts 17:43 (1080i upscale) and it’s the storyboard to screen featurette from the Manga discs.
The Audio Commentary on episode 24 is actually unique to the Blu-ray release, and features Japanese voice actors, Haruka Kudo (Haruka), Saeko Chiba (Ai), and Kaori Nazuka (Miho), the three girls of the group of friends. It’s a light trivial commentary, and of course it’s presented in subtitled form here.
You get 9:13 of Bloopers, those that were Easter Eggs hidden away on the Manga US discs.
You get 5:04 of Promotional Videos, 2:32 of the Commercial Collection, and the US trailer for the show.
There’s one textless credit sequence, and one textless ending sequence, both rendered less than textless by locked in song subtitles.
Finally there are Funimation trailers for Darker Than Black: Gemini of the Meteor, Eden of the East, Danganronpa, Black Lagoon, Ghost in the Shell Arise, Selector Infected WIXOSS, Terror in Resonance, and The Future Diary.
In comparison to the Manga US DVD, we’re missing out on Image Galleries and Player Cards (character profiles), but more significantly, a couple of Alternate Opening Sequences. But we do get that audio commentary.
I haven't seen the final retail product to comment on the packaging or physical extras.
Awesome! Excellent! Outstanding! Noein is a must own anime. There is a common misperception about anime, that it is little more than variations on a limited number of themes. You can understand where the complaints come from, with the habit of pigeonholing things into neat little genres. Also, it’s a truism that popular isn’t always synonymous with quality, so when the tournament fighting anime and the harem comedies start running into episode counts of 3 figures, it doesn’t mean that these shows are the cream of the crop. You can understand the viewpoint though, when every other anime show appears to have large mecha in it, moe girls, or some sort of RPG element. So when a title with broad appeal that is unique, smart and of high quality comes along, you sit up and pay attention. Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex is one such show. Noein is another that has broad audience appeal, entertains, and stimulates the intellect.
Noein takes a high concept sci-fi staple and melds it to a slice of life drama, and it works brilliantly. The multiverse theory of parallel dimensions is by now a venerable one, and one that has been done to death in entertainment. Films like Sliding Doors, television shows like Star Trek and Sliders all have shown us parallel worlds, worlds that show what would have happened if you had turned left instead of right, if Hitler had won the war, or if pizza had never been invented. Quite frankly, I have never seen the idea explored as well as it is in Noein. It’s a show that relies more than most on quantum mechanics for its rigor, consistency and accuracy. The ideas as presented in this story always feel halfway plausible, and the concepts discussed here seem distilled from a Physics textbook (rather than the Trek method of writing ‘Tech’ in the scripts in the hope that someone down the line will make something up that sounds scientific). The show is like a hard sci-fi novel in that the concepts lie at the heart of the story, but this never detracts from the characters or the entertainment. You won’t be left scratching your head, wondering what they mean.
At the same time we have the slice of life, coming of age story of a group of 12 year olds. They’re at that age where they’re beginning to realise that there’s more to the other sex than the fact that they smell a little odd, they’re about to set the directions of the rest of their lives, and for some the pressure is beginning to tell. Yu for instance is being pressured by his mother to study all summer for the entrance exams to a prestigious middle school. It isn’t good when all of your friends want to spend a summer having fun. Isami wants to be a footballer, Ai wants to impress Isami, and Miho has her own take on the supernatural. As for Haruka, she is the Dragon Torque, which opens a world sized can of worms, when the walls between dimensions break down and the Dragon Soldiers of La’Cryma come through in order to capture her. For them, the Dragon Torque is essential in their battle against Shangri-La, a dimension that is invading and assimilating all other dimensions. It could all be so much sci-fi schlock, but what makes it interesting is that La’Cryma is an analogue of Haruka’s own dimension. It’s a wrecked world, with the surviving population living underground. The Dragon Knights issue forth from a Hakodate which is some 15 years in the future from Haruka’s, and it is the older versions of Haruka’s friends that are coming to capture her. La’Cryma is a world where Haruka didn’t survive, and seeing the younger versions of her, and themselves is enough to place a sliver of doubt in the Dragon Knights, so much so that Karasu, an older and more cynical Yu defects to Haruka’s world in order to protect her.
As the story progresses, the links between La’Cryma and Haruka’s world become clearer, and the nature of the fight between the Dragon Knights and Shangri-La changes. What could also have been a simple anime Maguffin of the Dragon Torque turns out to have a valid narrative basis, when we learn that Haruka’s father is a quantum physicist, and his interpretation of quantum mechanics and work in the field of quantum teleportation, is leading Haruka’s world on a breakneck charge into a brave new scientific reality. The trouble is that the main figure behind the research is intent on progress regardless of the risks. It also becomes clear that Haruka’s world is going down the same path that wrecked La’Cryma, while the resulting incidents due to La’Cryma’s incursions have attracted Shangri-La and Noein’s attention to Haruka.
One thing I initially found odd all those years ago was the blend of levity and seriousness. One minute there would be a dimensional disturbance, unleashing some bizarre otherworldly contraption to wreak havoc, the next minute the friends would be worried about the usual childhood trivia. It seemed odd to me at the time, but taking this series as a whole, it seems perfectly appropriate, given the adaptability of children, the incredulity of adults, the flow of the story, as well as how the emphasis changes as the series approaches its climax. It also becomes clear that beneath the scientific concepts, and the action eye-candy, the heart of the story revolves around themes of friendship, loss, and coping with grief. Given how the story pans out, Noein simply wouldn’t have worked without the little vignettes of childhood and moments of amiable mundanity that interleaved the drama.
I’ve re-watched the DVDs on several occasions now, so revisiting the show on Blu-ray is like meeting an old friend. And even after all this time, it is still a stunning, peerless anime. It’s got likeable characters, a high concept story that remains interesting regardless of the extent of the science, and most important of all, it has broad appeal across all strata of fandom. The animation is something special, eschewing traditional anime clichés to establish its own distinct style and energy, and the soundtrack is excellent, with a suitably resounding and theatrical score. Noein is a show that should be in every anime collection and your first port of call if you want to introduce someone to the medium.
Noein is a must own anime (and I never get tired of saying that); if you haven’t seen it before, now’s your chance. The £49.99 RRP question is, should you double dip? If you have the old UK DVD release, then absolutely. The Blu-ray is an improvement in every respect. You get progressive animation instead of an NTSC PAL standards conversion, you get translated subtitles instead of dubtitles, and you get better audio. If you have the US DVD release on the other hand, it’s a tougher question. The improvement in image quality is incremental at best, and could very well be negated by watching it on a large enough screen. The real improvement will be noticed by audiophiles as Funimation’s 5.1 audio is the real thing; a genuine sympathetic upmix as opposed to Manga’s bodge-job, but the Manga discs do have the original stereo which is fine. It could boil down to the simple fact that All the Anime’s Collector’s Edition will take up less room on your shelf than five Amarays in a card boxset. Either way, don’t miss out on Noein a second time!