Noir: The Complete Boxset
"It pays to specialise", and "Find something you're good at, and stick with it", are both well-worn clichés and overused homilies, but no less true for all that. They're equally true for anime production companies as well, and for all those companies like Madhouse and Studio Bones who appear to excel at all they do, there are those companies that find a format that they are happy with, and set up a production line. When GAINAX isn't being avant-garde and cutting edge with shows like FLCL, they tend to have a handle on the giant mecha shows like Evangelion, and have even mixed both sides of their output in the recent Gurren Lagann. Gonzo are the masters of the futuristic cyberpunk action show, and have been ever since they brought out Kiddy Grade. But with Bee Train, it's assassins. They love their assassins, and pretty young female assassins at that. I reviewed Madlax (2004) last year, a show about two girls from two different worlds, a young schoolgirl and a peerless killer, and what happened when they met. Funimation have this year licensed their next show, El Cazador de la Bruja (2007), a tale about a young girl wanted for murder, who is helped by a female assassin to uncover her past, and this year they have mixed things up completely with Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, currently being simulcast through Funimation's video portal, where for shame, one of the amnesiac killers for hire is actually male. This fascination with dainty dealers of death began in 2001, when Bee Train released Noir, a story about two young female killers for hire, both with mysterious pasts.
"Make a pilgrimage for the past with me" is the enigmatic message that draws professional assassin Mireille Bouquet to meet with an unassuming schoolgirl named Kirika Yumura. It's a fateful meeting, interrupted by a group of hitmen who try to kill them both. Unsurprisingly Mireille can handle herself. Surprisingly however, Kirika is even more effective in dispatching the killers, although it's even a surprise to herself. Kirika Yumura is a cipher, a non-entity, who one day woke up as an average schoolgirl in an average high school. Except she is nothing of the sort. She woke up with amnesia, no parents, a gun, a fake student ID, an antique pocket watch, and the word Noir embedded in what's left of her memory, as well as the skills of a lethal killer. The watch plays a melody, a tune that means something to Mireille, and evokes memories of her own tragic past. Kirika asks for Mireille's help in discovering both their shrouded histories, as well as the reason why a mysterious group known as the Soldats wants them both dead. Together they become an assassination team known collectively as Noir, a name that has struck fear in the hearts of powerful men for over a thousand years.
ADV collect all seven discs of Noir in one convenient collection.
Volume 1: Shades of Darkness
1. Maidens With Black Hands
2. Daily Bread
3. The Assassination Play
4. The Sound of Waves
5. Les Soldats
Volume 2: The Hit List
6. Lost Kitten
7. The Black Thread of Fate
8. Intoccabile Acte I
9. Intoccabile Acte II
Volume 3: The Firing Chamber
10. The True Noir
11. Moonlit Tea Party
12. Assassination Mission
Volume 4: Death Warrant
13. Season of Hell
14. A Bouquet of Flowers for Mireille
15. The Cold Blooded Killer Acte I
16. The Cold Blooded Killer Acte II
Volume 5: Terminal Velocity
17. Return To Corsica
18. The Darkness Within Me
19. The Two Hands of the Soldats
Volume 6: Cloaks and Daggers
20. The Sin Within The Sin
21. Morning Without Dawn
22. Journey's End
23. Sentiments for the Remaining Flower
Volume 7: The End of Matters
24. Dark Return
25. The Depths of Hell's Fire
Noir is getting on a bit now in years, made as it was in 2001. That must make it one of the earlier television anime series to be made in 1.78:1 widescreen. The anamorphic transfer on these discs is unproblematic, with just the slightest NTSC-PAL softness. What makes Noir stand out now is that it's one of those rare anime that is pretty light on CGI. From some of the print artefacts visible, it becomes apparent that this was a good old-fashioned cel animation, with the animation actually accomplished by hand, at least for a good proportion of it. It has that crisp, living feel to it, a slight flicker of imperfection that the modern digital animation techniques have all but eliminated.
That said, it doesn't have the same detail as many of the old hand drawn animations had, probably an indication of a television schedule and budget. In contrast with the subject matter, the colour scheme is very gentle, tending towards the pastels, and the character designs are more realistic than fantastic, no big eyes and exaggerated expressions here. It makes the subtle expression of emotion through animation possible, and it's surprising how involving these performances are, even when accomplished by animated characters. The backgrounds are pretty stylised, evocative of oil paintings, while the character designs are simple but memorable. Noir also saves its effort for the action sequences, which are fluid and effective. Conversation scenes are more static, so it's all par for the course for your average anime.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and Japanese, along with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. I was happy, as is often the case, with the original Japanese track. The surround isn't all that energetic, although the action sequences are well represented. The big draw is a Yuki Kajiura soundtrack, which has great success with orchestral and choral pieces. It's just that, once again I found a degree of repetition cropping up over the 26 episodes. But with music as individual and impressive as hers, you don't mind hearing the same theme over again. The English track is actually a little louder and more vibrant than the Japanese, but while I found the English language performances to be strong for the central cast, the guest cast were less impressive.
Seven discs in an m-lock style case, one on the front, two overlapping at the rear, and four overlapping either side of a central panel. These discs are really attractive, matte black labels, with a silhouette standing out in shiny gloss black. Inside, you'll also find the Noir dogtag. Smart, sticking a metal object in with optical media that doesn't take well to scratches. My discs came through unscathed though.
Easter Eggs are not the sort of thing you expect to see at the head of the features section in a review, but for Noir they really need to be, as a lot of goodness has been hidden on these discs. They're real bastards to find, and not just a matter of exploring with your remote. Apparently, the single volume releases had clues to their whereabouts in the packaging, but none of that made it to the collection. The only clues you have to their existence are the easy one to find on the first disc, the odd chapter numbering in some of the episodes, and the fact that all of the discs, even the three episode ones, are dual layer. So as well as telling you what the obvious extras are, I'll also list directions to the Easter Eggs in this article linked here.
From the disc menu, you'll be able to navigate through trailers for Dai-Guard, Zone of the Enders - Idolo, Spriggan, and Burn-up Excess.
The big extra on this disc is the 14-minute Production Sketch Slideshow. There's artwork from all of the episodes here, and the alternate angle feature offers translations for the kanji annotations. Note that there are spoilers aplenty in this feature, so you may want to watch the whole series first.
You get the clean credits and the original Japanese Promos for the show (2½-minutes).
You will find two extra line art sketches on this disc, one for Mireille, and one for Kirika. There is also a 2-minute interview-ette with Shelley Calene-Black (Mireille), and Monica Rial (Kirika).
This time around you get trailers for Spriggan, Samurai X, Zone of the Enders - Dolores, and Excel Saga. There are 8 minutes of production sketches in a similar format to those on the first disc, the clean credits, and a minute of original Japanese promos.
This is the biggie. You may be able to find a 24-minute interview with Shelley Calene Black (Mireille), and Monica (Rial), in which they talk about their careers, the voiceover business, the show and their characters.
You get your standards once more, 6 minutes of production sketches, the clean credit sequences, 3 minutes of original Japanese promos, and trailers for Spriggan, Samurai X, Zone of the Enders - Dolores, and Dirty Pair Flash.
Also on this disc is a 5-minute interview with the Japanese voice of Kirika, Houko Kuwashima. In it, she soundbites her way through a question and answer session.
This time it's a 15-minute interview with Tiffany Grant (Altena), and Hilary Haag (Chloe). Just as on the last disc, the voice actresses talk about their careers, the show and their characters.
We have here, trailers for Dirty Pair Flash, Rahxephon, Zone of the Enders - Dolores, and Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, 7 minutes of production sketches, the obligatory textless credits, and three minutes of Japanese promos.
This disc has a 6½-minute interview with Kotono Mitsuishi, voice of Mireille, and in it she answers the same questions that Houko Kuwashima did in the previous volume.
Through deft navigation and button pushing, you may just find an audio commentary featuring ADR director and producer Matt Greenfield, Shelley Calene-Black (Mireille), Hilary Haag (Chloe), Tiffany Grant (Altena), and Monica Rial (Kirika). Remember that Monica Rial = giggles. I feel sorry for Matt Greenfield who had to moderate this extended gossip. This commentary starts on episode 15, and carries through to episode 16, as they occasionally comment on The Cold Blooded Killer.
You have here trailers for Martian Successor Nadesico - Prince of Darkness, Full Metal Panic, Final Fantasy Unlimited, King of Bandit Jing, and Najica Blitz Tactics. There are 4 minutes of production sketches and of course the textless credits.
This time it is the turn of TARAKO, voice of Altena to face the interrogation. Once again there are the same questions to answer, although the soundbite answers may differ.
After the generosity of the previous discs, we hit something of a drought in this volume, and all that I could find was a 1-minute music video clip, snippets of Kirika set to Canta Per Me.
The interview this time is a six-minute chat with the Japanese voice of Chloe, Aya Hisakawa. Otherwise it's the usual Noir suspects, a 4-minute production sketch gallery, the textless credits and the trailers for Full Metal Panic, Final Fantasy Unlimited, Sakura Wars, and Pretear.
Sock Puppet Theatre - ADV voice actors get together to create their own Noir mini-episode, in which the assassins are hired to kill a certain ADV voice actor who is getting too many roles. There's a flaw in the plan. This is acted out, as you would expect, with sock puppets. It's daft, it's short at 8 minutes, and it's not as funny as the one for Madlax.
Four minutes of production sketches, the clean credits, and trailers for Angelic Layer, The Your Under Arrest Mini-Specials, Full Metal Panic, and the Neon Genesis Evangelion Platinum Edition. The big addition to this disc is the Interview with the English VAs. Monica Rial, Shelley Calene-Black, Hilary Haag, and Tiffany Grant are sat at a table, where a disembodied Matt Greenfield fires questions at them, and they can happily spoil the series. It's a static 4-shot, and the audio has some microphone wobbles to it, but it's an entertaining, giggly and occasionally pertinent gossip.
You have four 90-second music videos to enjoy, little fan created AMVs to the opening and closing themes that have been secreted on this disc.
I hope you like slow burners. Noir is definitely a show that you have to stick with for the long haul, and it holds onto its secrets like a bulldog holds onto a chew toy, reluctant to divulge, and making you work for every snippet of information. It's certainly worth it in the end, and I did feel like I got my money's worth with the ten hours or so I spent in its company. But I can well imagine someone not so devoted to the art of narrative giving up after a few episodes. It's understandable why, but it would be a shame.
Noir is also one of those shows that demands a suspension of disbelief greater than you would expect in a girls with guns show. It isn't as extreme as Madlax's tendency to take down her targets while wearing evening dress, but you have to accept that the protagonists here have a narrative invulnerability. They will manage one shot, one kill, while their foes may empty entire clips trying to eliminate them, and they have the ability to avoid hails of bullets with ease. Yet even with my acceptance of this, there were one or two scenes that stretched my credulity, and I did wonder more than once why two or three digit body-counts in major world cities weren't making the evening news.
That has to be balanced with a realistic approach to animation and characterisation that has to be applauded. Assassins are a serious subject, and there's no impulse to random humour or mascot like characters here. The character designs may be a tad generic, but there is a very minimalist approach to the performances, both voice actor and animated. Anime is a medium where exaggeration is usually the key to get feelings across, after all, no animation is as nuanced or as versatile as the human face. But character reactions in Noir are low key; this is actually a show where you have to infer emotion and mood from something as delicate as pursed lips, or narrowing eyes. The characters aren't all that verbose either, so a grunt or a sigh has to convey a wealth of meaning. It certainly isn't what you expect from animation, but Noir accomplishes it with skill and confidence.
I was surprised to find the story to be pretty small and personal, especially when compared to Noir's successor Madlax. This isn't a show about global events and epic developments. This is very much centred on the two characters of Mireille and Kirika, and it's their story we follow through to the end of the series. Obviously it helps if you are invested in them. Of course to make things more confusing and compelling, we start in the middle of the story, as the two characters first meet. Mireille may be an assassin, but it isn't clear just what Kirika is beyond an average schoolgirl, and the meeting on a building site is enigmatic and confusing, until they are attacked by suited gunmen, and it becomes clear that Kirika is just as lethal as Mireille, if not more so. Kirika's past is missing, while Mireille has questions about her own past that need answering, and it seems that shared adversity has brought them together.
That mutual adversary is the Soldats organisation, and they continue to act against the two assassins as the series progresses, but remain shrouded in mystery and enigma, despite all the clues that the girls gradually gather. It's an abrasive relationship at first; Mireille would rather be alone, while Kirika's amnesia almost makes her latch onto anyone, even her sworn enemies in the hope of finding a part of herself in the process. The first half of the series is devoted to watching this assassination team called Noir at work, as they take on varied jobs around the world. This isn't just a matter of taking out their assigned targets either, as there is a great variety in the stories and the challenges that they face. While they do find out more about the Soldats, and their mysterious foes do crop up on more than one occasion, it's very fragmentary and confusing as to just what is going on. At the end of the series you understand it's all part of one big picture, but not while you're watching it.
In fact it isn't even until episode 10 that you begin to recognise the pieces, when we meet Chloe, a lethal assassin who claims to be the true Noir, and from then on flits in and out of the story, always unclear as to whether she is an ally or a foe to Kirika and Mireille. It's around this time that the veil over the Soldats begins to lift, and we begin to see some faces in the organisation. It gets even more confusing as we see different people working at cross purposes, some are trying to assist Noir, some are trying to eliminate them, and it's also around this time that some of the answers start being revealed, especially around the time that Mireille is reunited with her uncle, and starts to understand what happened when her parents were killed. Of course, the more answers are revealed, the more new questions arise. That's all I'm going to say about the story, as to go any further would spoil all the good stuff. It also means that I can't go into much detail about the character of Altena, who is integral to the story, but is also a major part of the mystery. I may as well tell you what Rosebud means in Citizen Kane.
When it boils down to it, Noir is about friendship. It's an unlikely friendship to be sure, forged through adversity, and brutally tested by revelations of the past, and the vagaries of fate. If you can empathise with Mireille and Kirika, and admittedly empathising with two cold-blooded assassins who leave a trail of corpses behind them isn't the easiest of things to do, then you will get a lot of pleasure out of this series. I only have one minor gripe. I'm not too fond of the ending; although it's hard to see which other direction they could have gone in. It does get a little James Bond-ian for my liking, and I wasn't impressed in the way that it seemed that some of the characters changed to fit the plot. Also, no story's climax in this day and age should feature a lava pit. What next, a damsel tied to railway tracks?
The conclusion may be a relative misstep, but it isn't a terminal one. Noir is very much a character based show, full of action set pieces and thrilling adventures, but one in which the overall story unfolds at a languid and even torpid pace. Its convoluted and complex mystery is revealed in the end, but you as the viewer will have to nudge it along at times. But if you can emotionally invest in the central characters of Mireille Bouquet and Kirika Yumura, then this series will snag you, hook, line and sinker.