Reviewby Theron Martin, Nov 25th 2006
Noein - to your other self
Summer break means fun and relaxation for many sixth-graders in Hokadate, but for Yu it means intense studying and cram school forced upon him by a mother obsessed with seeing him test into a middle school in Tokyo. Even his friends are ultimately not allowed to visit him lest he be distracted. But strange things are afoot surrounding him and especially his best friend Haruka, with whom he has considered running away. Ghostly images appear and vanish before her and time occasionally stops around her as individuals claiming to be from another dimension seem intent on kidnapping her. They claim she is something called a Dragon Torque, which is critical for stabilizing their own dimension in a future time frame, and indeed Haruka does seem capable of manifesting such an item, one linked to a mysterious entity known only as Noein, and using some incredible powers. What's more, one of the images claims to be an alternate future version of Yu, and not all of them seem to agree on the proper course of action; some want the Dragon Torque dead instead.
Meanwhile two agents from a secretive group repeatedly keep running into Haruka and company as they try to track down the source of strange energy readings around Hokadate, ones which may have everything to do with the dimensional travelers and Dragon Torque.
In one sense Noein is a typical example of a series embedding a “the girl has special powers that make her a target” gimmick into a slice-of-life story focusing on elementary school kids, the kind of thing we've seen done innumerable times before. Sure, it's considerably more serious than such series normally are, and like the recent Fantastic Children it doesn't feel like it was written with kids in mind despite the mostly-youthful cast, but the core elements are there. To evaluate the series on that basis, though, would be to ignore how truly weird its sci-fi elements actually are and how obfuscated its underlying plot is through its first five episodes. The short and simple version is that a lot of messy business about alternate dimensions, dimensional transference, and dimension-hopping is involved.
The essence of the plot concerns efforts by a group of Dragon Cavalry to protect an alternate dimension called La'cryma, which exists 15 years down the timeline and is in danger of collapsing due to “corrosion” from something called Shangri-La. Their forays into the current-time world are difficult and dangerous, but must be done to obtain something they call the Dragon Torque, which is supposed to be able to stabilize their dimension, and this girl Haruka seems to be it. Indeed, an average of once an episode a torque which looks like a dragon biting its tail appears around her neck and in a great ring in the sky. When they appear weird things can happen, like time stopping, dimensional shifts to correct some catastrophe, a mysterious person speaking to her whom others can't see or hear, and so forth. By implication, Haruka and this torque (or, perhaps more precisely, this Noein individual behind the torque) may be responsible for La'cryma ending up in the sorry state that it's in, but the volume ends with a possibly more comprehensive explanation of the situation pending. Not helping matters is that it takes all of the first five episodes to even piece together this much, and that still leaves viewers without any insight as to why these two adults are investigating energy readings on behalf of an organization called the Absolute Critical Prevention Strategic Committee, whose ridiculously long name seems like just an excuse for the much cooler abbreviation “Ab-Com.”
The series isn't all about its action-laden sci-fi elements, however. Much of the content focuses on the very ordinary activities and circumstances of 6th grade kids, whether it's a slapfest between two girls provoked by jealousy over a boy, experimenting with a Ouija board, going out “ghost-hunting” over summer break, or dealing with a friend who's become a virtual prisoner due to his enforced studying and cramming for an upcoming entrance exam. The extreme stress Yu is being put under, and the negative effect it's having on him, lends a darker and edgier side to what is otherwise occasionally light-hearted slice-of-life content. His prominent use of a utility knife only furthers the impression that he is a boy on the edge, and the alternate-dimension man named Karasu, who claims to be a future version of Yu, isn't helping matters by telling Yu that there's nothing he can really do to protect Haruka or keep her from fading away, but hey, he should try anyway. Further making things interesting is the insane Atori, another of the Dragon Cavalry who comes to believe that Haruka, as the Dragon Torque, would be better off dead than captured.
What really distinguishes Noein from other series is its look. Character designs step beyond typical anime stylistic elements, creating designs that are sometimes familiar-looking but more often very distinctly different, especially in the way lips are drawn for women and cloaked figures of the Dragon Cavalry; Atori's appearance in particular is an embodiment of his mental instability. The styling at times gives a distinctly manga-art feel, as if the artists were just directly animating manga panels rather than redrawing them, and this is furthered by regular use of manga-styled shading lines on character's faces. This effect is doubtless intended to give a feeling of how the Dragon Cavalry members are disconnected from normal reality when they move to the current-time dimension, and if that is the goal, the series succeeds at it quite well.
A lot of CG work has gone into this one, whether it's animating vehicles and water waves, depicting a giant Ouroboros-shaped portal, animating a giant alien ship, or playing around with its frequent perspective-shifting shots. The 2D animation is good enough that normal movements look smooth and lend effect energy to its dynamic, high-strung fight scenes. The 2D/CG integration isn't flawless, but it's one of the better efforts to date outside of a Gonzo production. Kudos to Satelight for producing one of the year's more distinctive and memorable looks.
The fully orchestrated musical score certainly doesn't lack for dramatic flair during the more dramatic scenes, even slightly overdoing it at times. The opener and closer are both pleasant enough numbers but neither is especially memorable. More impressive is the English dub, which feels right on the mark. Every performance hits the right tone, effectively conveying scenes with appropriate emotion and flair suitable to English speaking style, and most of the voices are very good matches. The English voice of Haruka's friend Ai sounds a little raspy, but that's a minor complaint, and the accent given to the female Ab-Com agent is handled well. The script stays close enough that it shouldn't generate major complaints, although its choice of words in some places is debatable.
Despite five episodes, Manga Entertainment has also included a significant number of Extras. The most prominent is the 14-minute first installment of a travelogue about the real-life Hakodate featuring the Japanese director and lead seiyuu, who explore various locations used as the artistic inspiration for settings in the series. Watching this makes one appreciate exactly how much attention to real-world detail went into accurately depicting the settings, even for minor scenes. Also included are two alternate openers, clean opener and closer, and Japanese promos. In an unusual move, not only does the disk include both regular and Dolby 5.1 versions of both the English and Japanese language tracks, but it also includes Spanish subtitle options in addition to American ones. It also features some of the more user-friendly and easy-to-navigate menu designs. The case itself also comes inside a foil-embossed slip cover. Somewhat tacky is the quoting from “fan reviews” on the cover, which naturally sounds like overblown hype.
While the fan review comments go overboard, Noein does have enough going on to draw one in and hold one's interest. It is not a series you can watch idly, as it is a bit deeper and a lot more involved than it may appear to be at first. An interesting visual style, edgy action scenes, and distinctive characters all contribute to an opening volume well worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Bold and interesting artistic style, good English dub.
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